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The race to a flawless finish

The Perfect Mile Three Athletes, One Goal, and Less Than Four Minutes to Achieve It Neal Bascomb Houghton Mifflin: 322 pp., $24

August 15, 2004|Clancy Sigal | Clancy Sigal, a screenwriter, is the author of "Going Away," "The Secret Defector" and "Weekend in Dinlock."

So there I am, lying in a London hospital bed in 1960 after hurting my head in a car accident. In strides a doctor in white coat and stethoscope. It's Roger Bannister! My idol, the man who first broke the "impossible" four-minute-mile barrier, an inspiration to weekend runners like me the world over, just as Lance Armstrong is to amateur bike riders today.

My jaw drops, eyes glaze, heart thumps. It is six years after his glory moment, but Bannister's lantern jaw and "chest like an engine block" make him instantly recognizable, even in a doctor's uniform. He briefly studies my chart, turns to the nurse matron and says crisply, "Discharge this patient -- it's psychosomatic. Obviously the man's neurotic."

Reading "The Perfect Mile" -- Neal Bascomb's stylish and absorbing account of how the Brit broke the record ahead of his two closest rivals, Australian "running machine" John Landy and "Kansas Meteor" Wes Santee -- helps to explain why my doctor's bedside manner left something to be desired. Bannister's superhuman commitment, scientific detachment and cool impersonality about his own body (and perhaps other people's) gave him the winning edge on an Oxford University track 50 years ago. In the postwar 1940s and '50s, especially in the English-speaking world, there was a cultural excitement about lone individuals going beyond their limits, scaling unimaginable heights. Chuck Yeager pierced the sound barrier, Sir Edmund Hillary and sherpa Tenzing Norgay conquered Mt. Everest, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on an Alabama bus. In athletics, tens of thousands of spectators routinely turned out for foot races like California's Compton Invitational and Iowa's Drake University Relays, holding their breath to see who would be the first to run a mile in less than four minutes, a threshold most experts insisted was beyond human reach.

In those prehistoric days, when running shoes were crude slabs of leather and all-weather tracks unknown, sports columnists covered middle-distance races like world title heavyweight fights. Something about the mile -- ancient Rome's equivalent of 1,000 paces -- grabbed the popular imagination to make it the glamour event. The three front-runners in the quest to break the barrier were Landy, a part-time butterfly collector; Santee, the volatile, emotionally scarred farm boy; and Bannister, the emotionally distant medical student. In those days, you ran for love, glory and a tin-plated trophy.

It wasn't always so. The first mile-racers were 16th century servants who trotted alongside their masters' coaches and were urged to compete like racehorses. By the 19th century, Bascomb writes, " 'pedestrians,' as the English runners were known, were running on the roads for cash" for themselves or for promoters. Some milers had their spleens surgically removed because they thought it improved their time. The image of a clean-living, modest, unpaid gentleman amateur was a late-Victorian invention, and whether by design or accident, it was a perfect formula for exploiting all but the richest athletes.

Bannister ran his perfect mile in 3 minutes 59.4 seconds on a blustery May 6, 1954, on a rough cinder track at Iffley, Oxford. A mere 46 days later, John Landy beat his record by 1.4 seconds -- a fantastic achievement at the time. But Bannister lingered in the mind as the first, hence the best. Today a four-minute mile is seen as quaintly outdated, since so many others have done it. In 1999, the Moroccan flash Hichem El Guerrouj ran the fastest mile in the world at 3:43.13. Shoe company endorsements, Strangelovian medicine and ever more hysterical fans probably will help bring the mile down to 3 1/2 minutes, perhaps at this summer's Olympics in Athens, though probably not by an American. It has been 32 years since an American man has won an Olympic gold medal in a middle distance. What do world records matter to nonrunners? A tenth of a second here or there won't bring world peace or global cooling. Yet those microseconds seem more important than life or death to athletes -- and to connoisseurs of the "impossible" like me who yearn for the lost innocence of running for the love of it.

The amateur athletics of Bannister's day seem like a dream, another world. The only drug mentioned in Bascomb's book is the liniment Santee rubbed on his heel before a race to prevent chafing. In 1956, when 20,000 people watched a new crop of milers compete in the Australian Championships in Melbourne, Landy stopped mid-lap to help fallen runner Ron Clarke, lost seven precious seconds yet somehow recovered his stride and won in 4 minutes 4.2 seconds. Today, with multimillion-dollar endorsements and cash for medal winners on the line, it seems naive to expect such sportsmanlike behavior. Although Bascomb spends a lot of pages on training methods -- Bannister prepared for seven grinding years -- his book is most interesting as a character study. The darkest, most intriguing figure is the "unstable, flighty and cocky" Santee.

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