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.
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
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.
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.
A splendid book... Well-written, suspenseful.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
A vivid human-interest story... Engrossing, excruciating, and exhilarating.
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.
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
Read an Excerpt
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 roundfour laps, four quarter miles, four-point-oh-oh minutesthat it seemed God himself had established it as man’s limit.” Under four minutesthe 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 distanceunlike the 100-yard sprint or the marathonrequired 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 racethe 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 failedand there were many failureshe 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 factorthey 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.