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

by Neal Bascomb


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780618562091
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 04/06/2005
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 122,980
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

NEAL BASCOMB is the national award-winning and New York Times best-selling author of The Winter Fortress, Hunting Eichmann, The Perfect Mile, HigherThe Nazi Hunters, Red Mutiny, among others. A former international journalist, he is a widely recognized speaker on the subject of war and has appeared in a number of documentaries. He lives in Seattle, Washington. For more information visit, or on Twitter @nealbascomb.

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 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.

Table of Contents

Part IA Reason to Run1
Part IIThe Barrier69
Part IIIThe Perfect Mile195
Author's Note273

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Perfect Mile 4.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 28 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!!!!
Smiley on LibraryThing 3 months ago
Maybe it's just me but this book started strong and finished well but I think it was too many pages for the subject and Bascomb never really lets the reader understand Bannister. Bannister comes off as a cold fish and Santee a little on the dumb side. John Landy is the only one of the three that I felt was treated as a complex individual. I also got tired of the sports teaches life thread. On the whole only a good book and certainly overpraised.
KevinJoseph on LibraryThing 3 months ago
Based on ample first-hand details gleaned from interviewing Roger Bannister, John Landy and Wes Santee, "The Perfect Mile" provides a nuanced character study of what drives these three great men toward breaking the most elusive of athletic goals: the four-minute-mile. While serious students of the sport will know the outcome of this tale before reading it, Neal Bascomb is able to create and maintain a fair amount of suspense by allowing the reader to experience events leading up to the 1954 Empire Games showdown from three very different perspectives. Roger Bannister is the thinking man's runner, with the classic middle distance athlete's long stride and finishing kick as well as insights into the scientific principles that underlie cardiovascular exertion. These strengths, however, are offset by the demanding medical studies that severely limit his training time and by his tendency to become overwrought before big races. John Landy is the workhorse of the trio, logging more miles than the others and able to bring a single-minded focus to the task. But he lacks the closing speed and power of the classic milers, forcing him to run the legs out of his competitors from the front. Wes Santee, the least famous and accomplished of the three, may well be the most talented. Yet the demands of his University of Kansas track schedule, military commitments, and confrontations with track and field's governing body are impediments that prove too difficult to overcome. For me, the best part of this book was the fact that these three men pursued this historic goal in a noble and dignified fashion that made you really pull for each of them somehow to be the first. None of the spoils of today's professional athletes was available, so each of them was motivated by the simple ideal of achieving the impossible. I also admired the way in which the author tied this athletic quest to the world events of the 1950s, creating a strong resonance between the historic events taking place on the track and the happenings in the politics and culture of the times. -Kevin Joseph, author of "The Champion Maker"
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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