reviewed by Thomas O'Grady
On May 6th, 1954 Roger Bannister toed the line at the Iffley Road Track at Oxford University to run a mile. Bannister completed that mile in a time of 3:59.4, making him the first person to run under four minutes in the mile. Until that moment, many people had thought the feat was impossible and that anyone achieving that mark would drop dead if they succeeded. Bannister did not drop dead after crossing the finish line and his feat is one of the crowning athletic achievements of the 20th Century. In the ensuing 66 years since the first sub-four minute mile the mark has been hit by over 1,500 individuals, of which over 500 of them were American. The USA is more heavily represented because we have a love affair with the mile and do not use the metric system. The current world record for the mile, 3:43.13, has been held by Hicham El Guerrouj since 1999 and the closest anyone has come to that mark since the turn of the century is when Alan Webb set the American record of 3:46.91 in 2007.
The 3:59.4 mile on May 6th, 1954 sets the stage for The Perfect Mile or “Miracle Mile” but there is a lot more to the entire story. There was the prologue, the events surrounding breaking the four-minute mile, as well as the history behind the mile race itself and all the bizarre and successful training regimens used throughout the ages. There is the 3:59.4 mile itself and then there is the final chapter in the thrilling tale where two of the titans in the tale face off. When most people see an elite athletic feat, they only witness the actual event, which in the case of a world class mile takes less than four minutes. People do not witness the events leading up to the accomplishment. This usually means years of hard work and near misses in actual competition. It is grueling from a physical and emotional standpoint to aim for such feats. In the case of track and field, particularly in the 1950s, training at an elite level almost certainly meant without any financial assistance for the athlete’s efforts. The Perfect Mile does justice to the story behind the feat of running a sub-four minute mile and everything else related to the feat. After the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki, three individuals emerged as the main contenders to be the first sub-four minute milers and took the athletics world captive for the following two years. Those individuals were Roger Banister from the United Kingdom, John Landy from Australia, and Wes Santee from the United States. During a time period where the west was pitted against the east in a fight for democracy, all three people came from what comprised “the free world” and there was a lot of nationalism attached to which person would break the barrier first. The book tells each of their stories in relation to their athletic performances and the four minute mile.
In addition to profiling the athletes, Bascomb recounts a great deal of historical information about the mile event itself. This is woven in throughout the first two sections of the book “A Reason to Run” and “The Barrier.” In the midst of the assault on a four minute mile, the United Kingdom achieved another athletic victory in the world of mountaineering when Edmund Hillary of New Zealand, a member of the the Ninth British Expedition to Everest and his Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, summited Mount Everest for the first time in May 1953. For historians this was a premonition of Bannister’s, and the United Kingdom’s, eventual feat a year later. We all know Bannister as the first to break four minutes. But the book also covers the controversy – it is human nature that there always has to be controversy – that also surrounded around Bannister’s feat. The British Athletic Association rushed ratification of the record so that Bannister’s use of pacemakers could not be challenged. Others noted that Bannister “had only” come in fourth in the 1500 meters at Helsinki (Bannister trained for two heats and a last minute semifinal was added between the prelim and finals). Bannister’s record was ratified and his true accomplishment (much like Kipchoge has done for the 2 hour barrier in the marathon) was in proving that running a sub four minute mile was possible.
The Perfect Mile finishes with a section devoted to the buildup to the race between Bannister and Landy. Less than six weeks after Bannister’s accomplishment, Landy ran his own sub-four minute mile and lowered the world record in the process to 3:58.0. After Landy’s record, the stage was set for the “Miracle Mile” at the Empire Games in August 1954. During this race Landy set out at a blistering pace in an attempt to burn the kick out of Bannister. Mid-race, this tactic appeared to being working, as Landy crossed the half-way mark in 1:58.00, and about 10-15 feet in front of Bannister. The taxing effort started to get to Landy, and Bannister slowly started to reel him in over the penultimate lap. Then over the final 400m, Bannister unleashed the fierce kick he was known for and won in 3:58.8. This “Miracle Mile” would be the first time two individuals had broken the four minute barrier in the same race. It also sealed the historical athletic significance of each individual, as both would go on to compete briefly before having successful careers.
The book was released in April 2004 to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Bannister’s trip around Iffley Road track. It is a perfect time to pick up the book and relive the history behind the historical events, learn about each of the key players, and relive “The Miracle Mile”, which has been billed as one of the greatest races of the 20th Century.
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