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May 30, 2018

‘The Perfect Mile’ and The Struggle for Personal, Ambitious Progress

In 2016, a friend of mine ran 3:53.9 for the full mile indoors.  When I heard the news I dropped the glass of milk that I was holding and it spilled all over the dining hall floor. In 1954, Roger Bannister ran 3:59.4 for the full mile. The first sub-4:00 mile in history. When his time was verified, the world dropped its understanding of what was achievable in running and new possibilities spilled all over the sport.

Fifty years after the historic run, Neal Bascomb’s The Perfect Mile chronicled Bannister and two other athletes, John Landy, and Wes Santee, as they independently hunted the world’s first sub four minute mile. The three men, located in the UK, Australia, and the US respectively, never met before the barrier was broken, but their pursuits intertwined nonetheless.

During the early 1900s the four-minute mile was an unbreakable mark and was put on the same pedestal as summiting Everest. Eventually, after three decades of stagnation around 4:20, Paavo Nurmi finally broke the world record in 1923 by running 4:10 and reminded the world that 4:00 was in play. Following Nurmi’s run, more mid-distance men lowered the record to 4:01.6 (Gundar Haegg) – a mark that many thought represented the upper bound of possibility. Bascomb cuts no corners as he walks the reader through every step that the world record took through those 25ish years, sprinkling important details about each runner throughout. His standard of narrative detail and the world’s proximity to the barrier established, Bascomb spends the next 200 pages unfurling two and half year’s worth of agony for our three competitors.

With every confidence-driving workout and slight lowering of a PR, Bascomb mixes in personal details about one of the three protagonists. We’re spoon fed the specifics of Wes Santee’s battles with the AAU, his legendary status in Kansas and his frustration with a team-first mentality. John Landy’s persistence is shown through his willingness to take on an overzealous coach, relentless training routine and the occasionally necessary butterfly-centric getaway. Bannister is painted to be a committed academic, putting full-time medical aspirations on hold to show the world that he is not an under-performer.

Perhaps Bascomb’s greatest achievement is using aforementioned details to keep the reader on the hook as our runners pop-out seemingly endless 4:02s. He is keenly aware that to sell any of the time that these three men spent training (and failing short) would be to miss his mark entirely. Bascomb also clearly understands that his small-bites take on the story creates a true sense of disquiet in the reader during Bannister’s coronating run. In the 3:59.4 moment we’re left to parse through feelings of elation, relief, frustration, and emptiness. The emotional experience is eerily similar to having just run your own big PR – what comes after the summit?

Yet, The Perfect Mile doesn’t stop with Bannister’s historic mark, Bascomb carries the story through to his 1954 Commonwealth Games showdown against Landy. Famously Bannister beat Landy in the final straight, as Santee begrudgingly provided commentary from New York. Subtly, Bascomb takes this portion of the book as a chance to show a deft understanding of the fine lines or running. The push and pull of running for times vs. running for competition is a theme in track and he is able bring it forward by tracing Landy and Bannister’s competitive mindsets in the lead-up/during The Mile of the Century.  Bannister can only ever feel truly validated once he has shown that his fast times translate to pure competitions, and intensely relatable inner-turmoil.

In a similar vein, Bascomb expertly straddles the line of making running accessible but also realistic for serious runners.  It’s necessary for Bascomb to cloak some of his story in statements about the miles per hour that a competitor is moving, which, to a common runner is ridiculous. Then, almost always, Bascomb is able to point out what a serious runner might be feeling about what they just read, remarkably self-aware of how stunted much of his running-jargon needs to be. There is one particularly salient example of this in which Bascomb is describing the different forms training has taken over the years, and clarifies that, to a serious runner, the archaic training plans that he is about to list will seem ridiculous, then proceeds to his historic due-diligence. The Perfect Mile presents a sense of balance in many of the stickiest parts of running, a testament to Bascomb’s command of storytelling and sport.

Reaching outside of it’s execution, The Perfect Mile holds particular resonance this year for a couple of reasons, one tragic, the other full of promise. Roger Bannister, passed away this year after 88 years of life. Obvious achievement aside, Bannister was a successful neurologist and was knighted by the queen in 1975.  In his memoir (which I am referencing from a NYT article) Bannister reflects on the decision a runner makes to surge in a race: “The athlete’s style and mood change completely when he accelerates. His mind suddenly starts driving an unwilling body which only obeys under the stimulus of the excitement.”

One would be forgiven if they took Bannister’s quote to address the landscape of running at large. 3:59.4 was the exact stimulus needed to change the style and mood around distance running – Bannister accelerated us into the future. Without him, my friend never runs 3:53 and I never have to pour myself a second glass of milk. He is a cornerstone of distance running.

The second, and deeper buried point of interest for Bascomb’s work in 2018 is the theme of “the gentleman amateur.” This is an archetype that Bascomb comes back to throughout the book. He pays close attention to the fact that all three of his subjects, Bannister in particular, had non-running interests. In the 1950s a well rounded amateur athlete was a hero. In 2018, athletics often feign this expectation but rarely is it an honest desire.

Taken together Wes Santee and Roger Bannister’s careers present an interesting look at the tug-of-war of amateurism. Santee fought the AAU for years trying to accept race rewards, while Bannister is hailed as a bastion of amateur success. At this point it is widely accepted that athletes should be compensated for their hard earned successes, yet on occasion logical extensions of the amateur ideal surface. Some of the top finishers in this year’s Boston Marathon provide perfect examples. Take the male champion Yuki Kawauchi for instance. Kawauchi, at the time of his race in Boston, held a full time job in a school in Japan. With the victory he finally decided to step away from his day job and embrace running as a full-time occupation – the exact opposite path that Bannister took.  

The more obvious analogue to Bannister is Sarah Sellers, who finished second in Boston this year while maintaining a full time nursing position. Sellers’ life is the type that people aspire to when they set their new year’s resolutions each January. Post-Boston she has no plans to quit her nursing job and with Kawauchi committing to running full time, may now be running’s most well rounded athlete.  Like Kawauchi, Sellers breaks the “Gentleman Amateur” mold through  her acceptance of prize money, but more importantly her gender.  She is, on many levels, an embodiment of the positive ways that running has evolved since Bannister’s time. Intentionally or not, Bascomb’s book provides a lens through which the reader can view the progression of running as a profession.

When a friend or loved one runs a big PR, we jump, we cheer and sometimes we spill our milk.  The Perfect Mile makes readers feel the same way about Bannister, Landy, and Santee, three athletes that few readers have ever met.  The 4:00-minute story is a well known one, but Bascomb’s ability to tightrope walk, while providing different angles and intimacies, paint a vibrant picture of the struggle for personal, and large-scale, progress.

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