On the sixth of May 1954, a young medical student toed the line at Iffley Road track in Oxford. Feeling, in his own words, “as if the moment of a lifetime had come,” the Englishman gazed down the long lane of cinder ash and tensed his body like a spring. When the starting gun fired, he uncoiled mightily; three minutes and 59.4 seconds later, Roger Bannister had made history, running the world’s first sub-four-minute mile before a thunderous crowd of spectators.
He wasn’t alone on the track that day. Two teammates guided Bannister, preventing him from starting out too quickly and tiring too early—until, by design, they dropped out in the final laps. One man’s victory is rarely his alone.
I never met Bannister—he died earlier this year—but as a student in Oxford, I often visit the track that now bears his name, retracing the record-breaker’s footsteps and somehow whittling down my mile time to just over five minutes—still laughably slow by comparison. I remain inspired, not just to go faster but to endure the long hard slog that is the Oxford MBA experience. It has been, without a doubt, the most intensive year of my life. And I’m certain I have made it this far thanks in large part to the so-called pacers at my side.
A recent athletic competition proves my point.
Like many of my classmates, I chose to participate in this year’s MBAT, a three-day mini-Olympics drawing 1,700 students from Europe’s top business schools, hosted annually by HEC Paris. Among the 25 sports and activities on offer, there is running, rowing, rock climbing, and rugby—even a battle of the bands.
I wanted to win the men’s cross country race.
So I trained. I did time trials. I converted miles to kilometers and predicted splits and finish times for the seven-kilometer course we would run in Paris. As the MBAT neared, I ran sprints. I ran trails. I joined Pablo, our men’s cross country team captain, for a breathtaking run to the Column of Victory at Blenheim Palace and back.
When our bus left for France, we were ready. On race day, our men’s team formed a tight pack at the starting line. Pablo, a marathoner from Mexico, had recruited three other Americans, a Norwegian, a Swiss, and a Brit to join us. As runners from Cambridge and other schools crowded around us, I thought of the 1924 Paris Olympics scenes from the classic movie Chariots of Fire. It was old-school rivalry at its best.
When the starting gun fired, we leaped out onto the course.
It was steep in places, a mixture of muddy trails, grassy fields, pavement, and a Bannister-era dirt track half-covered in weeds. By the time we’d emerged from the forests though, we’d outrun nearly everyone else. Spectators at the finish line wondered aloud whether any school but Oxford had even entered the race.
A group text from our classmates perfectly captured the real-time results and reactions:
“First and second and third and fourth in cross country”
“Omg on fire”
Our women’s team would do just as well, outfoxing Cambridge, whose ladies placed first and second, to bring home the team trophy for women’s cross country. And that was just the beginning. In three days, Oxford teams won nearly half of the tournament’s gold medals—from track and swimming to dance, basketball, and table tennis. The list goes on. At the closing gala, where Oxford was named the overall winner for the second year running, we rushed the stage. Queen’s “We Are the Champions”—a song older than most of us—blared from the loudspeakers. But the moment felt timeless. Outside the Parisian venue, the Arc de Triomphe glimmered in the moonlight.
It was a sweet bus ride home.
Unlike Bannister, I didn’t break any records that weekend. I finished sixth, in fact. But every runner who beat me—Sandor, Iain, Anders, Philippe, and Edouard—was a teammate, making that seven-kilometer race one of the most memorable and humbling races of my life.
As a team, we had won. As a school, we had won. And where my own abilities were lacking, the talent and determination of my peers made up the difference.Back to top of article