Sunday, June 14, 2009

#85 - "The Perfect Mile" by Neal Bascomb

Back in May, I was invited by some of the middle-aged guys I've befriended at the gym to join them for their annual "Bannister Mile" race at a local high school's track. These men, part of a local running group, all ran in high school and college and are still--by any standards--very fast. I, on the other hand, was never very fast; and now that I've worked myself into better shape, I'm dealing with so many structural and overuse injuries that I rarely run. Yet I pushed back the intimidation and joined them for the race, which turned out to be a lot of fun; I wasn't last (but it was close), and I got a personal record on my mile time, so I was happy.

The guys called their race the "Bannister Mile" after Roger Bannister who was the first person to run a mile in less than four minutes. This record was achieved back in 1954 and was the stated but quixotic goal of all of us gathered at that high school track. After realizing that I knew absolutely nothing about Roger Bannister, one of the guys recommended that I read The Perfect Mile (2004) by Neal Bascomb. It was a good recommendation for me; I even cried a little when Bannister finally broke the record (I cry very easily, though, so that doesn't mean much). But this might be another one of those books that is best if you're already interested in the subject matter. I like history and I like running, so I couldn't put it down. I couldn't tell if people, who don't understand the masochism and euphoria involved in strenuous exercise and pushing your body past its limits, would appreciate it as much.

Bascomb begins the story of the four-minute mile with the 1952 Olympics set in Helsinki, Finland. Roger Bannister is from England; he had attended Oxford and was going to medical school to become a doctor. Wes Santee was a young American from the University of Kansas who had survived a poor and abusive childhood to excel at running, and John Landy was the privileged son of a genteel Australian family. All three suffered disappointment at the 1952 Olympics, and all three set their sites on being the first man to break the four-minute mile barrier soon thereafter. Although some statisticians and coaches had declared that a sub-four-minute mile was possible, there were plenty others who disagreed: some doctors even declared that running that fast could put your body under so much stress that it would kill you.

Yet these three young men, often without even coaches, worked themselves to the bone for an elusive goal that might never be fulfilled. They dealt with politics, bad weather, bad coaches, and bad press, but they kept pushing for it. They were far from professional athletes, all three were still in school and fighting to train effectively in a very limited time. Bascomb does an admirable job in describing the many races each runner ran while going for the record. You'd think that running four laps around the track, over and over again, would get a little old, but even though I knew how it would end, I was on the edge of my seat for each and every race. Even though these three runners rarely even saw eachother, their goal kept them closely intertwined. With each incremental improvement by one runner, it spurred the others to work even harder.

Bascomb also made me appreciate the person behind each of the runners. I was desperately pulling for each of them during their races. It was obvious that a combination of luck and strategy played a large part in Bannister being the first; by the end of the book I didn't feel that any one of them deserved it more than any other. I was also often royally pissed off at the press: they would trumpet "Miserable Failure" when one of the runners had posted a measely 4:02 mile. It reminded me of the hype and pressure we still put on our olympic athletes, and how we turn on them when they don't perform to our expectations. They're working hard. They can't guarantee gold medals. Leave them the hell alone. The American Amateur Athletic Association (I forget exactly what they called themselves) also royally pissed me off. Playing power politics, they forced Wes Santee out of the 1,500 meter race in the Olympics in 1952, even though he was the fastest at that distance in the United States at the time. They also made it very difficult for him to run in any internationally competitive races and forbid him to be paced in his effort at the four-minute mile, single-handedly assuring that Santee would not have enough competition to push him to break the barrier.

I tried the other day to use the experiences, work ethic, and determination of these three men as motivation for my own workout. But I still felt tired and slow. So maybe it's better reading than inspiration, but I'm glad I read it.

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