Saturday, August 17, 2013

Review of "The Perfect Mile"

When Roger Bannister broke the four minute barrier in the mile run, it was one of those sports moments that will live forever in history.  Much like when Hank Aaron hit home run #715, or when the US Olymipic hockey team defeated the Soviet Union, Bannister's famous run will be replayed, talked about and read about for a long time.   This is an interesting book about that run and a subsequent meeting with the man who would break Bannister's record in an epic showdown.

“The Perfect Mile: Three Athletes, One Goal, and Less than Four Minutes to Achieve It” by Neal Bascomb

Track and Field, running, mile, records, history

April 6, 2005

336 pages

4 of 5 stars (very good)

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. 

Did I skim?

Did I learn anything new?
Yes.  While I have read about Bannister’s race with pacers to break the four minute barrier before, I learned more about the man and the “Perfect Mile” race against Landy.   I had never heard of Santee before reading this book and very little about Landy, so learning their stories was also interesting.

Pace of the book: 
As mentioned in the review, I felt the beginning was slow and I had trouble keeping track of the stories of the three runners.  But by the time Bannister was in the blocks for his record setting mile, the book took off from there and was a fast read.

Two aspects struck me as outstanding in this book.  One was the recap of Bannister’s record setting race and his interaction with each of the pacers.   The detail in which these were written was excellent.  I felt like I was running alongside them on the track during these passages.  

Some of the prose in this book was also outstanding.  Here is an example – my favorite passage in the book and it came early.  It was a description of Bannister’s running style: “Bannister had terrific grace, a terrific long stride, he seemed to ooze power. It was as if the Greeks had come back and brought to show you what the true Olympic runner was like.”

While the detail in the research will help the reader understand the lives and thoughts of the three athletes, at times I felt those dragged down the book and made it a tougher read.  That was more than made up, however, in the last half of the book, when the competition and description of the famous races are excellent.

There was one odd editing problem with the Nook edition.  Every time the word “often” was used, there was a period in front of the word.  It would .often drive me crazy, especially when the sentence began with “.Often.” 

Do I recommend?
Yes, for people who enjoy reading about sports history. This book covers not only the historical race well, but many running events of the 1950’s well.  A touch of historical context also should attract readers who may not be sports fans.

Book Format Read:
Ebook (Nook)
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  1. I saw the race as a young kid. It was really big news then. It was as if he went to the moon.

  2. That would have been great to see. Guess we have to "settle" for Usain Bolt now.