The Perfect Mile

The Perfect Mile 
Neil Bascomb, Houghton Mifflin, 2004

This is a 50th Anniversary book and commemoration: The First Four-Minute Mile was of course run by Roger Bannister on May 6, 1954, and then of course there was the climatic Bannister/Landy race at the Empire Games in Vancouver on August 7 – Two historic races, with Landy’s own almost-solo WR 3:58.0 in Turku, Finland in between.

This book actually follows in detail the separate careers of Bannister and Landy towards their epic achievements, and also the career of the Great American Hope of the time, Wes Santee of Kansas, who came oooh so close several times in his quest to run the First Four Minutes, but never did, and of course didn’t get into the Bannister/Landy races, or even run against either of them, more’s the pity.

Bannister’s story, beginning in the post-war gloom of England in 1949, carries his career through Oxford, his “failure” in the Helsinki Olympic 1500 in 1952, his decision to continue running through medical school seeking a proper and fitting end to his running career, and his triumphs at Oxford and Vancouver is well-told; the author had the advantage of excellent archives and the published recollections of Bannister himself and several of his associates, as well as interviews with those still surviving, and of course the story is the material of great fiction, a true-blue English gentleman-amateur (there were still some back then) combining all the elements of a dramatic life and interesting personalities and contests. Great stuff here.

John Landy, the Australian loner and largely self-coached front-runner, provides a little less material and a little less thrill, although his story too is gripping and his struggle as significant. Running on terrible tracks in Australia, training on the roads and in public parks at night, looking for worthy competition, he comes off as a thoroughly nice bloke with steely resolve and great independence

Santee is the tail-end of the story; an enormously talented runner at the University of Kansas, trashed by a college track/cross-country schedule that had him sometimes running four races in a single meet (880, mile, two-mile and a leg on the 4 X 440 relay and campaigning through cross-country, indoor and outdoor collegiate track seasons and the international Summer circuit in Europe, messed over by the AAU in his prime, who never attained a four-minute mile or the international recognition for which he yearned.

We all know what happened; Bannister, superbly paced, got there first, with 3:59.4 at Oxford on May 6; Landy, running pretty much alone although pushed by Chris Chataway, Bannister’s team-mate and pacer, got his own world record six weeks later in Finland with 3:58.0, and then at the Empire Games (remember that there was still some remnant of Empire in those days [Ed note.: Tthe Commonwealth Games are the successor]) the two immortals met, Landy running flat-out from the gun, Bannister as much as fifteen yards in arrears in the third lap, pulling himself back up to Landy’s pace and sprinting the last 70 yards to win in 3:58.8 to Landy’s 3:59.6 – I saw it all on TV, and it was the biggest thing on TV in all of 1954, and quite unforgettable as a supreme contest. The book brings all of that back, very well, and for anyone interested in the lore and legend of running, this is a must-read. Don’t wait for the movie, althoug there may be one in the works; Hollywood and the Silver Screen don’t have a good record with track and field or running in general, and will almost certainly mess this one up terribly if it ever gets made.

Purists will quibble about a few details which are wrong, a few minor misspellings and misstatements, but this is exciting and interesting reading, the high drama of sports, a record of human achievement and a remarkable Summer of running. Go get yourself a copy.

— Des O’Neill, May 2004

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