The Perfect Mile

By Neal Bascomb

Long thought to be impossible, running a mile in less than 4 minutes had been deemed beyond the capacity of human achievement. Carrying all the weight of myth, this barrier drew the zealous efforts of countless middle-distance runners and garnered the attention of the world. Three amateur athletes set their sights on this goal: Roger Bannister of England, John Landy of Australia, and Wes Santee of the United States. After discouraging performances from all three at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, each set out to reclaim national pride, earn a victory for amateur athletics, and prove their mettle. Helsinki previewed the rise of professional athletes and the twilight of amateur efforts. Bannister, Landy, and Santee each firmly believe that they could tackle the 4-minute barrier without dedicating their entire existence to the sport. The world watched with baited breath as the three worked steadily to lower their mile times, hailing every track meet as the one at which the barrier would fall. Global fixation was focused not only on the individual attempts to run a sub-4 minute mile, but also made obsessive predictions as to possible race outcomes for when the renowned milers finally faced each other. Two years later, 1954, witnessed both the fall of the 4-minute barrier and also the long-awaited “Mile of the Century.”

“The Perfect Mile” by Neal Bascomb is a fascinating tribute to human willpower, tenacity, and the unrelenting drive to achieve. Bascomb meticulously contextualizes the training and racing efforts of the three athletes by describing how they came to participate in the Helsinki Olympics and what led each of the three individually to pursue the 4-minute barrier. He details the athletes’ public and private lives as well as the evolution of their training and racing strategies. He then places their personal stories against a broader backdrop of national and international atmospheres and the transition away from amateur athletics into professional sports. The result is a thoroughly researched account of one of the greatest achievements in running history. Moreover, Bascomb buys into the anticipation and builds up the suspense when recounting race performances, agonizes over missed goals, and celebrates soaring achievements. The grit, determination, and rollercoaster of emotions conveyed with each mile attempt bring the story to life, leaving the reader no choice but to feel personally invested.

One of the many things that makes this book such an excellent read is how effectively Bascomb recreates the conditions of attempting to break the 4-minute barrier. The training techniques and race conditions of the 1950s are worlds apart from those that I am familiar with today, yet having the history and context of their mile attempts brings to light the enormity of their efforts. I enjoyed being caught up in the spectacle of the sport. However, I did notice more than a few typos in this book, and some of his narrative felt contrived, but overall I found this book enthralling. Well worth the read for runners and non-runners alike.

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