The remarkable—and frustrating—thing about watching Roger Federer hit a forehand is that it is impossible to know, as a spectator, what hitting a Roger Federer forehand feels like. No one else in the world can hit a ball like that. Former tennis greats, like John McEnroe, are employed by broadcasters to help us understand, conceptually, what that shot means. But, as McEnroe would be the first to admit, he could never hit a forehand the way Federer does. The best a tennis fan can do is read David Foster Wallace’s brilliant 2006 essay “Roger Federer as Religious Experience.” But keep in mind that Wallace was (a) one of the great nonfiction writers of his generation, and (b) a very good high-school tennis player—and even he takes sixty-five hundred words to (sort of) make sense of Federer. Federer, like most élite athletes, belongs to the category of the extraordinary.
Roger Bannister, who died on Saturday, at the age of eighty-eight, did not belong to the category of the extraordinary. His great feat—being the first to run a mile in under four minutes—was of a different order than, say, Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak or Wilt Chamberlain’s hundred-point night. Bannister was the most ordinary of athletes. He was a medical student at the time of his record run, in 1954. He trained during his lunch hour. A few weeks before, when things weren’t going well, he took off with his friend for some hiking in Scotland.
Running was his hobby: he barely pursued it past his graduation because, presumably, he had better things to do with his time. The claim that typically accompanies a feat of athletic genius—that it may never be equalled—was never said of Bannister’s four-minute mile. The point of his race was exactly the opposite. The four-minute barrier had daunted runners for generations, but Bannister intended to break through it so that others might follow. And they did.
There have been thousands of four-minute miles recorded since Bannister’s run. Today, high-school kids routinely run them. Over the weekend, on the popular runners’ Web site Let’s Run, someone posed this question: Would you rather run a four-minute mile or a twenty-seven minute ten thousand metres? (The latter is roughly how fast Olympic medallists in that distance run.) Almost instantly, others pointed out the foolishness of the question. Running has advanced so far that anyone who can run a twenty-seven-minute ten thousand metres can almost certainly run a four-minute mile as well. In fact, a decent élite long-distance runner can probably run a four-minute mile within a world-class ten-thousand-metre race: do a brisk five miles, and then bring it home in four minutes.
A four-minute-mile pace is just not that fast. It’s fifteen miles per hour. Anyone young and reasonably athletic ought to be able to run that quickly, for at least fifty yards or so. You can’t hit a Roger Federer forehand once; you can’t even approximate it. It is forever out of reach. But most of us, at some point in our lives, can for a few fleeting moments propel ourselves forward at Roger Bannister’s pace. In the gray days of nineteen-fifties Britain, the act of making the unattainable attainable was considered a greater accomplishment than achieving the impossible. It still should be.