The Perfect Mile, written by Neal Bascomb
I want to start by saying I REALLY enjoyed this book! So much so that I read it in about 2-3 days.
Neal Bascomb, a former journalist, has put together an engaging and, I believe, accurate picture of the fight to break the Four Minute mile in the early 1950’s.
The book delves into the lives of the three most serious known contenders for breaking the 4 minute mile barrier; an American, Wes Santee, a college student in Kansas, an English Medical Student, Roger Bannister, and an Australian college student, John Landy.
The author perhaps through a stroke of luck was able to interview each of these men personally, as well as many of their friends and colleagues. In addition, he had access to many personal letters. This gave the book a very genuine feel. As I read, I felt as if the true character of each individual was revealed, rather than a string of press releases.
Bascomb sets the stage for the excitement of breaking the 4 minute mile barrier. During this time, it was widely believed that no one could actually run a mile any faster than 4:01. There were people who predicted one’s heart would explode if such a pace were to occur. It was generally agreed upon that 4:00 min to run one mile was somehow “perfection”.
While these three men were accomplished athletes, each faced rather big disappointments and pressures in relation to their achievements, leading these three men in particular to focus on the goal of breaking the 4 minute barrier.
After setting the stage, Bascomb goes on to introduce each runner personally to the reader. We are able to learn about each runner’s home life, childhood, and their other interests. I was fascinated by the fact that Landy and Bannister especially were really and truly amateur athletes, and that their other passions were indeed medicine, and butterfly collecting. Santee, perhaps due to early childhood difficulties seemed to be the bridge from an amateur athlete to what was to become the more professional olympian athlete today. He skillfully brings each athletes lives to the point at which they decide to attempt to run the four minute mile and then he brings their lives all together in the way that they must have come together through out the months when each was vying for the record.
I was most fascinated by the varying training regimens used by the three men, all with essentially similar results. I was also inspired by their dedication to running. Each of these young men had responsibilities outside of running, and each of them found ways to train well despite them. After reading about John Landy doing almost all of his training runs after midnight while still attending University full time, I think I will have less to complain about once I am allowed to train again.
I was also rather inspired by the absolute “honesty” these men seemed to have. There were never any allegations of doping, or attacks on each other in the way that sports personas seem to gain fame these days. While Santee was apparently a bit of a showboater, he never looked down on the accomplishments of others, and was always able to respond in a very civil and congratulatory fashion in public, as were Landy and Bannister. Due to the private interviews, we learn that these men were not usually thinking very civil thoughts, but despite that, they all had an edit button. Modern sports personas could learn much from these three men.
While the book has an obvious appeal to runners, it showcases an interesting time in athletics, especially the change in how amateur athletes are now treated, compared to when these men were competing. It seems that the pressures have remained great, but the rewards for such amateur athletes now are more material in nature than they were in the past. One wonders if this has not created the situations which cause doping, and worse.
I also found this whole thing a bit amusing, that three skinny white dudes were all competing to break this 4 minute mile barrier, when it was probably being broken daily in Kenya, Ethiopia, and Morocco and numerous other places that were just not “in step” with the Europe and America….. 😀
In conclusion, I’ll say that after reading and learning of these three fellows, I’d put my Money on John Landy any day given his training and determination, despite the fact that Roger Bannister broke the record first and also beat Landy again soundly in the Empire games in Vancouver. I just think despite one or two races, that Landy was just the better runner of them all.