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.

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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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Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption

The movie just came out and I haven’t seen it yet. But I will. I don’t doubt that it is fantastic given the source material, but I am certain that the book is even better, which is probably true for most book to movie adaptations.

For those of you unfamiliar with both the book and the movie here is the description from Goodreads (I edited some because it seemed like it gave quite a bit away):

“On a May afternoon in 1943, an Army Air Corps bomber crashed into the Pacific Ocean and disappeared, leaving only a spray of debris and a slick of oil, gasoline, and blood. Then, on the ocean surface, a face appeared. It was that of a young lieutenant, the plane’s bombardier, who was struggling to a life raft and pulling himself aboard. So began one of the most extraordinary odysseys of the Second World War.

The lieutenant’s name was Louis Zamperini. He started out as a cunning delinquent boy but channeled his defiance into running, which took him to the Berlin Olympics. But when war had come, the athlete had become an airman which lead to his crash into the ocean. 

Ahead of Zamperini lay thousands of miles of open ocean, leaping sharks, a foundering raft, thirst and starvation, enemy aircraft, and, beyond, a trial even greater. Driven to the limits of endurance, Zamperini would answer desperation with ingenuity; suffering with hope, resolve, and humor; brutality with rebellion. His fate, whether triumph or tragedy, would be suspended on the fraying wire of his will.

Telling an unforgettable story of a man’s journey into extremity, Unbroken is a testament to the resilience of the human mind, body, and spirit. “

That sums it up pretty well, but if you want to know what I thought here is my review.

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and RedemptionUnbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I am humbled by the lives presented in this book, amazed at their strength, fortitude, and ability to forgive. They have spurred some self-reflection. Louis Zamperini and so many others endured indescribable pains and tortures both physically and mentally. They survived years of cruelty. They did not come out unscathed, but they came out. And over time they made themselves better because of their experience. My personal struggles look like mole-hills when contrasted with the mountains they faced. But they never stopped climbing and so the message I found in the book was not one of darkness despite the horrors that occurred. Instead I was inspired and motivated.

I want to respond to the events and difficulties in my life with the same dignity, courage, and tenacity I read about. These amazing people lived through hell and came out the other side willing to teach and help others, and if they can do that then I can be a force for good in my life that is pretty much heaven compared to the atrocities of war. I am so grateful for the sacrifices of others that make my heaven possible.

The author is a great storyteller, mixing in the biographical with little known facts and statistics. I had no idea how risky being in the air corps was, and while I knew that physical treatment of POW’s was beyond horrific, my eyes were opened to the mental and emotional manipulation that also went on. Hillenbrand brings out the information that makes this story about more than just one man’s experience. And she does it entertainingly. The book reads much more like a thriller than a biography.

As a runner myself I completely connected with Zamperini and the role running played in his development and survival. He is a true olympian and hero.

This is one of those books that you finish reading but then think about for days. It is a life-changer and a person-changer.

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Age Recommendation: 16 or older. This is not one for the faint of heart. Some 16 year olds may not be able to handle the stark realities presented, but it’s all worth it to become acquainted with the greatness in people.

Appropriateness: There is some swearing, soldier talk. It didn’t bother me. The story needs to be told and strong language is necessary to get the point across. There is description of war and cruel treatment which was the reality of the events. With that in mind consider carefully the members of your group before selecting it for book club or for the classroom. Some readers may be bothered by such harshness, but you can probably guess my opinion. This really happened and when you get to know the man that it happened too you will be better for it.