April 2004

Running the mile in their shoes

By Neal Bascomb
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There's a small group of people who measure time in tenths and hundredths of seconds; they are the heroes of The Perfect Mile: Three Athletes, One Goal, and Less Than Four Minutes to Achieve It. Author Neal Bascomb takes us into the world of track and field and focuses on three superstars who sought to be the first to run a mile in four minutes or less.

For decades, the prevailing thought in the sports community was that the feat was impossible and, even if it were accomplishable, it would so overtax the body that death would result. These notions rested primarily on physiologists' knowledge of the capacity of legs and lungs, but England's Roger Bannister, a 25-year-old medical student, added two factors: heart and head. He devised painful experiments to learn the complex relation between oxygen and exhaustion. In effect, he converted his body into a scientific project, helping him to modify his running technique.

On May 6, 1954, in Oxford, England, with the assistance of two "rabbits" colleagues who set the pace for him Bannister did what most of the world had considered impossible: he ran a mile in three minutes, 59.4 seconds. Indeed, it will be a callous reader who is not stirred by Bascomb's account of the race, even a half-century later. The author enables us to accompany Bannister throughout that entire historic day, to be privy to his doubts, to listen to the conversations on strategy with his coach and his collaborative runners, and then to virtually join them in the race.

We're there for each strength-sapping lap and for the stretch kick; we see the exhausted Bannister collapse "I was prepared to die," he later said and we share the celebration that crowned this immortal moment in human effort. Sports Illustrated rated Bannister's breakthrough with the scaling of Mount Everest as the most significant athletic feats of the 20th century, and a British newspaper declared it to be England's greatest triumph since the realm's defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588.

The rejoicing was not universal, however. Rival superstars John Landy of Australia and Wes Santee of the United States were disappointed that they had not been first to crack the barrier. Santee never managed to accomplish the feat, but only 47 days after Bannister's achievement, Landy, who had viewed the four-minute barrier as "a brick wall," lowered the record to 3:58, thus setting the stage for a head-to-head showdown with the Englishman at the British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Vancouver seven weeks later. Racing to beat the clock is one thing, but running to beat a competitor is another, requiring a different strategy. Again, Bascomb, previously the author of Higher: A Historic Race to the Sky and the Making of a City, takes us trackside and shares the runners' thoughts and tactics in what was billed as "The Mile of the Century." In that dramatic confrontation in Vancouver, Bannister won by less than a second as both men were clocked in under four minutes clearly supporting the contention that the barrier had been more psychological than physical.

Today, running a sub-four-minute mile is almost routine; about 1,000 people have done it. As its golden anniversary approaches, this excellent book celebrates Bannister's epic triumph and the timeless message that our most difficult struggles are within ourselves.


Alan Prince lectures at the University of Miami School of Communication.

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The Perfect Mile

The Perfect Mile

By Neal Bascomb
Houghton Mifflin
ISBN 9780618391127

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