Book Tracking 9
The Perfect Mile
By Neal Bascomb
This was a fascinating read for me being an athlete. Everyone knows that Roger Bannister broke the 4 minute mile barrier in 1954 and that precipitated many others running under 4 minutes for the mile. Most famously John Landy broke the 4 minute barrier just six or seven weeks after Bannister. This book follows the journeys of Bannister, Landy and a third runner who I’d never heard of (Wes Santee) as they all strove to be the first to go under 4 minutes. It details their different training approaches, how they all competed at the 1952 Olympics and all had very disappointing races which spurred them on to do better in their athletic endeavors.
Bascomb does a masterful job of weaving a tale of each runner’s pursuit of the 4 minute mile culminating with Bannister breaking the barrier first, then Landy doing it just six weeks later. He also describes the struggles that Wes Santee had on his route to trying to go under 4 minutes and how he kept bumping up against outside barriers such as the Amateur Athletic Union, and racing for his University.
What struck me most about this book is how different and similar each man’s approach was. Bannister took an extremely scientific approach to his training and used his own medical studies to test theories on himself to figure out the best methods of training. He eventually did seek a coach’s input but not until five or six months before he broke the 4 minute mile.
Landy started out being coached but moved away from being coached after he learned a ton from observing and having conversations with some of the most famous Finnish runners at the 1952 Olympics. Landy moved toward a volume based approach mixed with lots of interval sets. His approach was run for personal accomplishment.
Santee’s running was entirely guided by his high school and then college coach. Santee was definitely the most outspoken, and dare I say arrogant of the three men. On the other hand he ran on behalf of his college team which didn’t permit him to solely focus on breaking the 4 minute mile until the last couple of months of college when he was embroiled in scandals and legal battles with the AAU. I got the impression that Santee was so full of himself that he failed to communicate clearly with certain competitors who actually tried to help him. In one of his last races when he tried to break the 4 minute mile, a competitor came around him and tried to pull him to the 100m to go mark but Santee thought he was starting his kick and so Santee didn’t want to risk losing so he launched a sprint costing him the 4 minute mile by less than 1sec. If he had just stayed on the shoulder of the competitor and kicked 100m later than he did, he very possibly could’ve broken the 4 minute mile. But I get where Santee’s head was at. It’s really hard to see someone move into the lead and not immediately counter the attack because you’re afraid you won’t have the kick you need.
A story related in this book that I’d never heard before was about how Bannister and Landy had an epic show down at the Empire Games (which I assume are now the Commonwealth Games). Bannister had broken the 4 minute barrier, then Landy, and six weeks after Landy ran sub 4, the two met head-to-head and ran an incredible race against each other. The race showed their contrasting styles of running and displayed the importance of even pacing, tactics, and having extreme fitness. Both men planned their race, raced their plan, and ran what equated to a near perfect mile. Both ran sub 4 at that meet, but you’ll have to google or read the book to find out who won the head-to-head 🙂
Most of all I came away with a deep respect for all three men profiled in this book. It’s really incredible what they all did and tried to do using various methods. They were all certainly naturally gifted but put in tons of hard work in order to achieve what they did. I can take a little of each man/athlete and implement what they did into my own understanding of what it means to be a competitor and to reach my highest potential.