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The Perfect Mile: Three Athletes, One Goal, and Less Than Four Minutes to Achieve It

The Perfect Mile: Three Athletes, One Goal, and Less Than Four Minutes to Achieve It

4.6 26
by Neal Bascomb

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There was a time when running the mile in four minutes was believed to be beyond the limits of human foot speed, and in all of sport it was the elusive holy grail. In 1952, after suffering defeat at the Helsinki Olympics, three world-class runners each set out to break this barrier. Roger Bannister was a young English medical student who epitomized the ideal of the


There was a time when running the mile in four minutes was believed to be beyond the limits of human foot speed, and in all of sport it was the elusive holy grail. In 1952, after suffering defeat at the Helsinki Olympics, three world-class runners each set out to break this barrier. Roger Bannister was a young English medical student who epitomized the ideal of the amateur — still driven not just by winning but by the nobility of the pursuit. John Landy was the privileged son of a genteel Australian family, who as a boy preferred butterfly collecting to running but who trained relentlessly in an almost spiritual attempt to shape his body to this singular task. Then there was Wes Santee, the swaggering American, a Kansas farm boy and natural athlete who believed he was just plain better than everybody else.

Spanning three continents and defying the odds, their collective quest captivated the world and stole headlines from the Korean War, the atomic race, and such legendary figures as Edmund Hillary, Willie Mays, Native Dancer, and Ben Hogan. In the tradition of Seabiscuit and Chariots of Fire, Neal Bascomb delivers a breathtaking story of unlikely heroes and leaves us with a lasting portrait of the twilight years of the golden age of sport.

Editorial Reviews

David Horspool
In this enthralling book, Neal Bascomb not only burnishes the legends of two men whose rivalry captured the world's attention, but restores a third, Santee, who was never given a real chance to compete against them, to his rightful place alongside Landy and Bannister.
The New York Times
The New Yorker
On May 6, 1954, Roger Bannister, a British medical student who squeezed in track workouts between hospital rounds, became the first man to run a mile in less than four minutes. It was a feat that had widely been thought impossible, but within seven weeks an even faster time was posted by the Australian John Landy, setting up a showdown later that year in a race that was billed as the “Mile of the Century.” In masterly fashion, Bascomb re-creates the battle of the milers, embellishing his account with fascinating forays into runner’s lore. (In the seventeenth century, athletes had their spleens excised to boost speed; in the nineteenth, they were advised to rest in bed at noon naked.) It’s a mark of Bascomb’s skill that, although the outcome of the race is well known, he keeps us in suspense, rendering in graphic detail the runners’ agony down the final stretch.
Jonathan Yardley
It was Bannister, though, who won the race to crack the four-minute wall. How he did so is a dramatic story, and Bascomb tells it well. The reader knows how it turns out, of course, but Bascomb moves things along at a swift pace and builds suspense not so much over the outcome as over all the steps in getting there. He writes sympathetically and admiringly about all three men, describes their different approaches to training and race strategies, and fills in a lot of interesting background about the history of the mile.
The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
The attempt by three men in the 1950s to become the first to run the mile in less than four minutes is a classic 20th-century sports story. Bascomb's excellent account captures all of the human drama and competitive excitement of this legendary racing event. It helps that the story and its characters are so engaging to begin with. The three rivals span the globe: England's Roger Bannister, who combines the rigors of athletic training with the "grueling life of a medical student"; Australia's John Landy, "driven by a demand to push himself to the limit"; and Wes Santee from the U.S., a brilliant strategic runner who became the "victim" of the "[h]ypocrisy and unchecked power" of the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU). Although Bannister broke the record before Landy, Landy soon broke Bannister's record, and the climax of the book is a long and superb account of the race between the two men at the Empire Games in Vancouver on August 7, 1954. Bascomb provides the essential details of this "Dream Race" which was heard over the radio by 100 million people while Santee, who may have been able to beat both of them, was forced by AAU restrictions to participate only as a broadcast announcer. Bascomb definitively shows how this perfect race not only was a "defining moment in the history of the mile and of sport as well," but also how it reveals "a sporting world in transition" from amateurism to professionalism. (Apr.) Forecast: With Bascomb's narrative skills, it's no surprise that movie rights have already been optioned and by the team behind the Seabiscuit film. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
May 6, 2004, marks the 50th anniversary of a breakthrough achievement that had once seemed impossible the first running of a sub-four-minute mile. Bascomb describes the buildup to the event, including how three main competitors came together to race on that memorable day. It was an American, Wes Santee, who boldly claimed that he would be the first person to run the sub-four-minute mile. The other two protagonists, Englishman Roger Bannister and Australian John Landry, were as determined as Santee. The race captured the imaginations of people around the globe, sharing headlines with the Korean War, Elizabeth's coronation, and another considerable human accomplishment, Edmund Hillary's conquest of Everest. This is an engaging tale that features detailed notes for each chapter, plus eight black-and-white photos. Bascomb (Higher: A Historic Race to the Sky and the Making of a City) is a former editor and journalist who has appeared in documentaries on A&E and the History Channel. Recommended for all sports collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 12/03.] Larry R. Little, Penticton P.L., B.C. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
From the Publisher
The Perfect Mile returns the reader to a time when a sporting ideal was not an oxymoron . . . Enthralling.
The New York Times Book Review

A rare literary win... Bascomb has penned a sports tribute book that transcends the genre.
The Oregonian

A splendid book... Well-written, suspenseful.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

A vivid human-interest story... Engrossing, excruciating, and exhilarating.
Boston Herald

A fine, gripping book.
The Chicago Sun-Times

A marvelous book.
Kansas City Star

A thriller.... This being an Olympic year, The Perfect Mile comes just in time to remind us what being an athlete can, and should, be about.

The Perfect Mile captures the awe-inspiring quality of ordinary men who achieve what had been thought impossible.
TimeOut New York

Captivating.... Much joy and inspiration to be found here.
Entertainment Weekly

Compelling human drama. [Bascomb's] crisp, detailed narrative helps readers step into the milers' spikes. A resplendent story of an epic event in sports history.
Christian Science Monitor

Bascomb delivers, with stylish and swift prose well matched to the subject... This is an agile and informative read, and we should compare Hillebrand's "Seabiscuit" to it, not the other way around.

In masterly fashion, Bascomb re-creates the battle of the milers, embellishing his account with fascinating forays into runner's lore... It's a mark of Bascomb's skill that, although the outcome of the race is well known, he keeps us in suspense, rendering in graphic detail the runners' agony down the final stretch.
The New Yorker

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How did he know he would not die?” a Frenchman asked of the first runner to break the four-minute mile. Half a century ago the ambition to achieve that goal equaled scaling Everest or sailing alone around the world. Most people considered running four laps of the track in four minutes to be beyond the limits of human speed. It was foolhardy and possibly dangerous to attempt. Some thought that rather than a lifetime of glory, honor, and fortune, a hearse would be waiting for the first person to accomplish the feat.
The four-minute mile: this was the barrier, both physical and psychological, that begged to be broken. The number had a certain mathematical elegance. As one writer explained, the figure “seemed so perfectly round—four laps, four quarter miles, four-point-oh-oh minutes—that it seemed God himself had established it as man’s limit.” Under four minutes—the place had the mysterious and heroic resonance of reaching sport’s Valhalla. For decades the best middle-distance runners had tried and failed. They had come to within two seconds, but that was as close as they were able to get. Attempt after spirited attempt had proved futile. Each effort was like a stone added to a wall that looked increasingly impossible to breach.
But the four-minute mile had a fascination beyond its mathematical roundness and assumed impossibility. Running the mile was an art form in itself. The distance—unlike the 100-yard sprint or the marathon—required a balance of speed and stamina. The person to break that barrier would have to be fast, diligently trained, and supremely aware of his body so that he would cross the finish line just at the point of complete exhaustion. Further, the four-minute mile had to be won alone. There could be no teammates to blame, no coach during halftime to inspire a comeback. One might hide behind the excuses of cold weather, an unkind wind, a slow track, or jostling competition, but ultimately these obstacles had to be defied. Winning a footrace, particularly one waged against the clock, was ultimately a battle with oneself, over oneself.
In August 1952 the battle commenced. Three young men in their early twenties set out to be the first to break the barrier. Born to run fast, Wes Santee, the “Dizzy Dean of the Cinders,” was a natural athlete and the son of a Kansas ranch hand. He amazed crowds with his running feats, basked in the publicity, and was the first to announce his intention of running the mile in four minutes. “He just flat believed he was better than anybody else,” said one sportswriter. Few knew that running was his escape from a brutal childhood.
Then there was John Landy, the Australian who trained harder than anyone else and had the weight of a nation’s expectations on his shoulders. The mile for Landy was more aesthetic achievement than footrace. He said, “I’d rather lose a 3:58 mile than win one in 4:10.” Landy ran night and day, across fields, through woods, up sand dunes, along the beach in knee-deep surf. Running revealed to him a discipline he never knew he had.
And finally there was Roger Bannister, the English medical student who epitomized the ideal of the amateur athlete in a world being overrun by professionals and the commercialization of sport. For Bannister the four-minute mile was “a challenge of the human spirit,” but one to be realized with a calculated plan. It required scientific experiments, the wisdom of a man who knew great suffering, and a magnificent finishing kick.
All three runners endured thousands of hours of training to shape their bodies and minds. They ran more miles in a year than many of us walk in a lifetime. They spent a large part of their youth struggling for breath. They trained week after week to the point of collapse, all to shave off a second, maybe two, during a mile race—the time it takes to snap one’s fingers and register the sound. There were sleepless nights and training sessions in rain, sleet, snow, and scorching heat. There were times when they wanted to go out for a beer or a date yet knew they couldn’t. They understood that life was somehow different for them, that idle happiness eluded them. If they weren’t training or racing or gathering the will required for these efforts, they were trying not to think about training and racing at all.
In 1953 and 1954, as Santee, Landy, and Bannister attacked the four-minute barrier, getting closer with every passing month, their stories were splashed across the front pages of newspapers around the world, alongside headlines about the Korean War, Queen Elizabeth’s coronation, and Edmund Hillary’s climb toward the world’s rooftop. Their performances outdrew baseball pennant races, cricket test matches, horse derbies,, rugby matches, football games, and golf majors. Ben Hogan, Rocky Marciano, Willie Mays, Bill Tilden, and Native Dancer were often iiiiin the shadows of the three runners, whose achievements attracted media attention to track and field that has never been equaled since. For weeks in advance of every race the headlines heralded an impending break in the barrier: “Landy Likely to Achieve Impossible!”; “Bannister Gets Chance of 4-Minute Mile!”; “Santee Admits Getting Closer to Phantom Mile.” Articles dissected track conditions and the latest weather forecasts. Millions around the world followed every attempt. When each runner failed—and there were many failures—he was criticized for coming up short, for not having what it took. Each such episode only motivated the others to try harder.
They fought on, reluctant heroes whose ambition was fueled by a desire to achieve the goal and to be the best. They had fame, undeniably, but of the three men only Santee enjoyed the publicity, and that proved to be more of a burden than an advantage. As for riches, financial reward was hardly a factor—they were all amateurs. They had to scrape around for pocket change, relying on their hosts at races for decent room and board. The prize for winning a meet was usually a watch or a small trophy. At that time, the dawn of television, amateur sport was beginning to lose its innocence to the new spirit of “win at any cost,” but these three strove only for the sake of the attempt. The reward was in the effort.
After four soul-crushing laps around the track, one of the three finally breasted the tape in 3:59.4, but the race did not end there. The barrier was broken, and a media maelstrom descended on the victor, yet the ultimate question remained: who would be the best when they toed the starting line together?
The answer came in the perfect mile, a race fought not against the clock but against one another. It was won with a terrific burst around the final bend in front of an audience spanning the globe.

If sport, as a chronicler of this battle once said, is a “tapestry of alternating triumph and tragedy,” then the first thread of this story begins with tragedy. It occurred in a race 120 yards short of a mile at the 1,500- meter Olympic final in Helsinki, Finland, almost two years to the day before the greatest of triumphs.

Copyright © 2004 by Neal Bascomb. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.

Meet the Author

NEAL BASCOMB is the New York Times best-selling author of Hunting Eichmann, The Perfect Mile, Higher, and Red Mutiny, among others. His books have won several national awards and been published in over twenty countries. A former international journalist, he is a widely recognized speaker on the subject of World War II. He lives in Seattle, Washington.

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Perfect Mile 4.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 26 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Author Neal Bascomb has written the perfect book about the first sub-4 minutes mile race in 1954 and the dramatic follow up between the two fastest milers head to head the same year. He has not only gathered up the facts, by interviewing the three principal runners in person in their homes in the United States, England, and Australia, but woven them together in a gripping narrative. The result is not only good history of races that put you in the stands watching, but lively details. With his descriptions of the environment, you feel the pre-race excitement and hear the cheers. And he doesn¿t resort to conjuring up conversations only based on fact; he uses the actual words of the people he interviewed or takes quotes from newspaper accounts, documenting it inconspicuously at the end of the book. As I runner, I got an added thrill out of the book. I read the race sections (and there are many) slowly, feeling each lap of the mile, imagining how the runners felt (though Bascomb also tells us in their own words). I read it on a trip to New York, in the airport waiting rooms, on board, and later on the subways. It¿s one of the first books I¿ve read in a while outside the field I teach in; and I read every word. The week after I finished the book, as I was jogging around a curve on an old cinder track, the kind Bannister, Landy and Santee used to run on in 1954, I was Bannister, striding toward the finish line, ignoring tiredness, gliding, speeding on - to a very slow, but enjoyable mile time.
ColdBrew13 More than 1 year ago
The Perfect Mile is a gloriously well crafted story entailing the attempts of three runners to break the four minute mile barrier in the early 1950's. It details the many runs made at said barrier by Roger Bannister, Wes Santee and John Landy. Also, it discusses the race of the century that would decide who was the best miler in the world at the time. Neal Bascomb does an excellent job of describing how the races occurred, and not just how the runners themselves felt but the public in general. He keeps the reader entertained the entire book through by perfectly describing how the race felt to the runners and how it affected their psyche with each failed attempt. However, somehow Bascomb was able to explain the races in such detail yet still let the reader use their imagination to think of how the runners felt for themselves. His ability to not molest the readers view of what happened shows Bascomb's supreme skill at writing stories of sport. Bascomb also delves into the history of not just the four minute mile barrier but the history of running the mile itself. He then illustrates the races that occurred after the barrier was finally broken in which milers had great races. There were not many down sides of this book except for the fact that Bascomb does not deal with each runner equally. Wes Santee, the lone American, seems to be forgotten at points in the book, especially towards the end of the book when Landy and Bannister race at the Empire Games in Vancouver. Santee was supposed to be in this race but was not allowed to race because the Amateur Athletic Union would not let him. There is a reason for some absence from the book however it does not talk about how terrible it must have felt in enough detail. Another book that one might consider reading if they enjoyed The Perfect Mile would be Pre which entails the life and death of Steve Prefontaine. It is also superb in its explanation of races and feelings that Pre and the rest of the public went through during his life.
Guest More than 1 year ago
As a highschool runner, I am by no means the best out there. With a mile pr of 5:04 it is beginning to seem impossible to break 5 minutes. And here are these three men, 50 years ago, who were running more than a minute faster than me. This detailed summary of the different journeys of these men (even recording their mile splits and exactly what occured during the races) is not only a great book about the sport of running but also an amazing inspirational novel. If these men can keep themselves together and gather up enough courage to run 1,760 yards in 3:59.6 then I can most definitely run it in 4:59.6. Or at least I have to keep telling myself that. But overall it is a wonderful novel and I would recommend it to anybody who is looking for a good book to read. I could not put this down in the time that I was reading, and finished it faster and with more ease than it takes for me to run that 5:04 (ok maybe a little exaggeration there but you get my point). Just go out and read the book. I guarantee that you'll enjoy it.
kyohin More than 1 year ago
A one word review of this book would be "wow." As a walker, I'd never considered the fact that running very fast had been considered dangerous enough to kill a runner. I loved the way the book was structured and found myself cheering for all three of the main runners. I would have been happy regardless who came out on top and was sorry I read the captions under the pictures because I didn't mean to find out the ending before I finished the book. A great read even for couch potatoes.
cscottrun21 More than 1 year ago
Neal Bascomb's national bestseller "The Perfect Mile" is a captivating story representing the world's first ever four minute mile. Bascomb, who only started writing books full-time in 2000, delivers the imagery and suspense needed to create the feeling that you are actually in the stands watching history unfold. With three athletes from different backgrounds and countries all going for the same "impossible" barrier, the intensity that is created between each athlete builds up throughout the story. Even knowing who the legendary icon will be, there were times in this story when I actually believed that someone else may get to it first. "Bascomb excels at unearthing the real suspense of this era"- Christian Science Monitor. This book was one the best books I have read, and it is truly thrilling to read of the numerous attempts and failures that went through to achieve it. This book creates motivation for my own races, and as a runner, this book is extremelly relateable. "The Perfect Mile" is a must-read book for any interested sports historian. "There's nothing you can't do."
Guest More than 1 year ago
I myself am a mile runner in my high-school, and i think this book is just so great. I really enjoyed the great detail that was put in to the book. At time it felt like I was Roger Bannister, Wes Santee, or John Landy at times finding myself pumped up and just caught up with the races, training sessions, and all within the story. I would tell anyone who is really interseted in these types of books, or even history to read this book. It is jsut simple mind-boggling, it's purely amazing that somehting that was so great and hard to break, would end up driving three men into another form of greatness. From a person who hates to read books, I would find myself just staying up well into the night reading this book, before I raced I would really a little peices of the book. To anyone who is a mile runner weither it's in highschool, college, or pro, I really think you should read this book!!!!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Though i am only in sixth grade with a 6:54 mile this book inspires me to go Fortius, Altius, Citius. This is an awesome book
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book makes me want to go for a run...only much slower.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Excellent writing.
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This is a well-written and thoroughly researched book for any [serious] runner. Very impressive!!
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saucerman94 More than 1 year ago
There was a time in the mid-1900's when it was believed that running a mile in under 4 minutes was beyond the human bodies capability. It was known in track and field at the time as the goal that no one could quite touch. Many had come close but none had every broken the barrier. In 1952, 3 athletes set out to break the elusive barrier. Wes Santee, A Kansan who spent his life working on the farm. Rodger Bannister, a English medical student who could only do his workouts in between his work at the hospital. John Landy, a well privileged Australian who spent all of his time working on shaping his body to be in the best shape it could possibly be in. The Perfect Mile walks you through the journey of these three athletes and show the dramatic steps they must take to make their attempt at the perfect mile. On May 6th 1954 Roger Bannister was the first ever athlete to break the 4 minute barrier with a time of 3:59.4. The post race announcement was read: "Ladies and gentlemen, here is the result of event 9, the one mile: 1st, No. 41, R.G. Bannister, Amateur Athletic Association and formerly of Exeter and Merton Colleges, Oxford, with a time which is a new meeting and track record, and which - subject to ratification - will be a new English Native, British National, All-Comers, European, British Empire and World Record. The time was 3..." The final numbers were drowned out by the roar of the crowd. Just weeks later John Landy also broke 4 minutes. You might think the book ends here however the book is called the perfect mile for a reason. It is called this because of the race after Bannister, and Landy broke the barrier. A race that pits the two runners against each other in a race that was known as the "Miracle Mile". The final chapters of this book walks you nearly minute by minute through everything leading up to the race itself. I would recommend this book to not only runners but anyone who enjoys sports books, because this is probably the best sports book I have ever read in my life.
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One of the best sports books I have read.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
Not only has Bascomb captured the essence of a sporting event that once seemed unthinkable, he enlightens by capturing another era.
MinTwinsNY More than 1 year ago
Rating: 4 of 5 stars (very good) Review Sports records can generate a lot of buzz – whether it is a seemingly unattainable mark, a star athlete is threatening a record, or if it is set at a famous venue, these events not only leave their mark in history, but may also have a very interesting story. Such is the case for May 6, 1954 when Englishman Roger Bannister became the first man to run one mile in less than four minutes. The barrier was seemingly never going to be broken until Bannister did so with the help of other runners who helped set his pace. This book covers that race and Bannister’s background and training leading up to that race in a very detailed and well researched manner. However, Bannister was only one of three elite mile runners of that time who were attempting to break the record. American Wes Santee and Australian John Landy were also training hard and racing in events attempting to shatter that barrier. It happened that Bannister did it first. Landy then broke Bannister’s record by more than a full second (a large margin in the track and field world) and the stage was set for the two of them to meet head on in the Empire Games held later in 1954 in Vancouver. Santee, however, could not compete in this race because of his commitment to the US Marines. His story was the most heartbreaking of the three, especially in Bascomb’s account of how Santee felt he could beat both of them by running a certain style of race. This was illustrated by Santee thinking of this strategy while watching the race in the studio and providing commentary. Santee’s rise to elite miler status and his subsequent events did make me think of a promising career derailed by circumstances that were mostly out of his control. Landy’s story is also interesting, especially those with his coach involved and his single-minded determination to break this record. Bannister’s story is the most well known of the three, especially that of the training leading up to the race as it was limited due to his medical studies. He did complete them as well, becoming a doctor soon after the “Perfect Mile” race. This book reads much like a mile run – slower at first, getting the reader accustomed to the three athletes and setting the pace. Then when Bannister takes his starting position in what would be the run that makes history, the book is a blur, just like the last lap for each of these runners – a fast paced story that the reader will have a hard time putting down.