The Perfect Mile

The Perfect Mile: Three Athletes, One Goal, and Less Than Four Minutes to Achieve ItThe Perfect Mile: Three Athletes, One Goal, and Less Than Four Minutes to Achieve It by Neal Bascomb

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

 

Summary (adapted from Goodreads)

There was a time when running the mile in four minutes was believed to be beyond the limits of human foot speed, and in all of sport it was the elusive holy grail. In 1952, after suffering defeat at the Helsinki Olympics, three world-class runners each set out to break this barrier.

Roger Bannister was a young English medical student who epitomized the ideal of the amateur — still driven not just by winning but by the nobility of the pursuit. John Landy an Australian who trained relentlessly in an almost spiritual attempt to shape his body to this singular task. Then there was Wes Santee, the swaggering American, a Kansas farm boy and natural athlete.

Spanning three continents and defying the odds, their collective quest captivated the world and competed with headlines from the Korean War, the atomic race, and such legendary figures as Edmund Hillary, Willie Mays, Native Dancer, and Ben Hogan. Neal Bascomb delivers a breathtaking story of unlikely heroes and leaves us with a lasting portrait of the twilight years of the golden age of sport.

My Review

I am a runner and I love it. (Though that hasn’t always been the case. You can read more about my conversion to running here.) So I was naturally interested in this book since it’s all about runners. But there is also historical significance in learning more about this event along with what was going on in the world at the time it took place. I was fascinated by the view of amateur and professional athletics in the 1950’s, and how much athletics have changed since then.

This book also introduced me to true heroes and role models of our day, and the writing is superb. The author paints pictures with words of people and events so that they come alive and are so relatable. I was just as nervous and engaged reading about the races in this book as I was while reading the Hunger Games.

And when it comes down to it, this book is less about running and more about working hard with what life has given us to make something of ourselves and to contribute to the world in which we live. The 3 main running figures in the book sum it up best:

John Landy: “Running gave me discipline and self-expression…It has all the disappointments, frustrations, lack of success, and unexpected success, which all reproduce themselves in the bigger play of life. It teaches you the ability to present under pressure. It teaches you the importance of being enthusiastic, dedicated, focused. All of these are trite statements, but if you actually have to go through these things as a young man, it’s very, very important.”

Wes Santee: “Hard work pays off. You have to be just as disciplined to run a business as you do to train for an athletic event. You have to eat right, still have to get up early and work more than others.”

Roger Bannister: “Sport is about not being wrapped up in cotton wool. Sport is about adapting to the unexpected and being able to modify plans at the last minute. Sport, like all life, is about taking your chances.”

All of these factors make this a book that everyone, runner or non-runner, athlete or completely lacking in coordination, should read.

View all my reviews

Age Recommendation: All ages will be interested in this story, particularly those with experience truly sacrificing and working hard toward a goal. The writing is probably best for 16 and older though younger readers with a high reading level would do just fine.

Appropriateness: Clean as a whistle on this one.  Clean language, no violence, no immorality.

This would provide great book club discussion material.  Comparing the  different approaches to running from each of the main runners as well as from their coaches would be interesting.  The different approaches to running could also be discussed in how they relate to the characters view of life.  This book provides great material for discussion on themes such as

1) the merits of athletics

2) the pros and cons to amateur vs. professional athletics

3) what does it take (physically and mentally) to push past barriers? Which is more important – physical or mental?

4) How do circumstances affect our performance in sport and in life? How do we keep our confidence and determination when circumstances all seem to be against us?

5) Why do sporting events and athletes bring out such pride in a country or school?

For more discussion material and for some of my favorite quotes and inspirations from the book see my previous post titled Full of Running.

Other Book Recommendations: If you like the sound of this book you might also enjoy Born to Run by Christopher McDougall, Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand, Eat and Run by Scott Jurek, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli, Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World by Jennifer Armstrong, and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer.

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Full of Running

Revel

“If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew

To serve your turn long after they are gone,

And so hold on when there is nothing in you

Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold On!’ “

-Rudyard Kipling (as quoted in the Prologue of The Perfect Mile)

I have been reading The Perfect Mile by Neal Bascomb which is about 3 runners in 1952 who set out to be the first to run a mile in under 4 minutes.  FANTASTIC book!  You can find my review of the book from a “literary” standpoint here, but I also wanted to share some of the inspiration I have received through this book.

“The essential thing in life is not so much conquering as fighting well.” 

-Baron de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympic Games (as quoted in chapter 2 of The Perfect Mile)

The drive and hard work of the athletes and coaches in this book to achieve a seemingly unachievable goal is unbelievable and motivating. Their personal histories and the historical events of the time really drive home how dedicated and disciplined these people were. Full-time med student and training as an olympian with no financial backing so you can keep your amateur athlete status sounds beyond impossible. But they did it.

“To be great, one does not have to be mad, but definitely it helps.”

-Percy Cerutty (as quoted in chapter 3)

Some of my favorite parts of the book are the headings at the beginning of each chapter. I am a runner and they capture so well my feelings about that part of my life, but they apply to more than just running.  The quotes are insights into the joys and sacrifices that come from complete dedication to a goal or idea.

“Whatever you can do,

Or think you can, begin it.

Boldness has power, and genius,

And magic in it.

-Goethe (as quoted in chapter 9)

When I finished reading about the race in which the 4 minute barrier was broken for the first time, I had to get on YouTube and see if I could find video footage of the actual race.  Sure enough, I could watch the whole thing. The video has commentary from the runner (I won’t tell you who it is so as to not spoil the outcome) and he says he “felt so full of running” through the first 3 laps. I immediately loved and related to that phrase – “full of running.”

Running (and life) can be hard work. Some days it can feel like pulling your feet through thick sludge. But then there are those days when the timing, weather, diet, and rest align perfectly and breathe new life and energy into your legs and soul. I love that feeling of beginning a run and just feeling strong, fast, connected, and alive – full of running.

When that feeling transfers to life in general, it makes for a pretty great day.

Relay 224

John Landy was one of the runners trying to break the 4 minute mile barrier.  He is quoted in the book as saying, “In any running event, you are absolutely alone. Nobody can help you. But short races are run without thought. In very long races you must go a great distance simply to be present in the laps that really count. But almost every part of the mile is important – you can never let down, never stop thinking, and you can be beaten at almost any point. I suppose you could say it is like life. I had wanted to master it.”

I love running because of the ways it teaches me about life and myself, and how much stronger I have become because of it – physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. So Landy’s comparison of the mile to life resounds with me. Though, I have never felt alone in a running event as he describes.  In a race or even just in training runs I have always felt the support and faith of my family.  They cheer me on and make sure that they make it a priority for me to get out on those runs so I can keep my soul healthy. I love the feeling of camaraderie in a race between runners as well. And most of all, I feel my Heavenly Father and my Savior as I connect with the earth and my inner self in a unique and powerful way as I run. It is these same influences that reassure me that I am never alone in life either.

“If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster

And treat those two impostors just the same…

If you can fill the unforgiving minute

With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run –

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,

And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!

-Rudyard Kipling (as quoted in chapter 4)