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

A Conversation with Neal Bascomb

Q) What drew you to write about the race to break the mile barrier?

A) In high school, I joined the freshman cross-country team and first acquainted myself with the joy — and buckets of sweat and discipline — required of distance running. For inspiration I turned to Roger Bannister's autobiography, The Four-Minute Mile, and marveled at his story. My passion for hockey got in the way of my running efforts, but I never forgot Bannister's heroic efforts. As the fiftieth anniversary approached and drug doping scandals ran rampant, I found a copy of the old book and thought about how much could be learned from efforts of Bannister and his rivals John Landy and Wes Santee. In many respects, I felt that Bannister, who wrote his story only months after his May 6 run, had only scratched the surface in respect to the drama and rich characters involved in his tale. A lack of modesty convinced me I could do the story the justice it deserved.

Q) What do you think makes the achievement significant? Why is it likened to climbing Everest?

A) Four laps of the track in four minutes. The symmetry alone begs the attempt. Then you add over a century's worth of effort and myth surrounding the perceived impossibility and you have a barrier. People were literally convinced that the human body could not stand the level of sustained speed to run the mile in less than four minutes. That's why I start the book with the question asked of Bannister: "How did he know he would not die?" Much the same was asked of Edmund Hillary.

And finally you have to consider that the battle to be the first to break the barrier captured enormous international attention. It became a matter of national pride, much as staking one's flag on the tallest mountain in the world.

Q) Why should someone who does not run, nor cares a great deal for sports as a whole, care about four-minute miles?

A) That's a valid question, but also one I find easy to answer. I chose to write this book only after being convinced that this story was much greater than a track and field drama. Put simply, The Perfect Mile is about what it takes to do the "impossible." It is about staring down the naysayers and forging ahead with one's plans. The lessons the characters learn — whether in failure or triumph — can be just as easily connected to the challenges faced by scientists, artists, politicians, businesspeople, or engineers.

I dare someone to read this book without coming away inspired by the efforts of these three runners — no matter their pursuit in life. This is not a testament to my writing. Rather, it is proof that in the crucible of sport, much can be learned.

Q) What surprised you the most during the research?

A) How different these three runners were as individuals. They had different backgrounds, different running styles, different training techniques, different personalities, different connections with their coaches, different race tactics, and different reasons for wanting to break the barrier. Here they were attempting the same goal, but each taking his own path.

I remember returning to New York after three months of traveling for my research. While transcribing my interviews and sorting through the secondary sources, I realized how much I wanted each one of them to have broken the barrier first. Although Bannister is the one who ultimately claimed the prize, I gave Landy and Santee equal time in the narrative. Their stories are as compelling — and in some circumstances more so — than that of the first four-minute miler.

Q) Why was Bannister able to do it first?

A) It's a tricky question, one perhaps that each reader will have to answer after finishing my book. My view is best explained this way. At the beginning of this story, Bannister runs from his head, Santee out of sheer heart, and Landy as an expression of determination and will. In the end I believe only Bannister was able to come to the realization that in order to break the barrier, he would have to draw on all three. This made for a great character arc. That said, luck, good pacemaking, and the singular focus Bannister gave to achieving his goal didn't hurt.

Q) What is the perfect mile?

A) Likely not what you think. This is what made this story so fascinating to me and what few people realize. No doubt the four-minute mile was a singular achievement, the sporting event that most people remember from 1954. But it is the race three months later at the Empire Games in Vancouver that provides the truest test for these athletes. So Bannister makes history on May 6. Six weeks later John Landy bests his time by over a second. Then, six weeks after that, the first two sub-four-minute milers face off against one another. Landy is a front runner, Bannister a fast finisher. In what was deemed "the Mile of the Century," an event broadcast throughout the world, one beats the other around the final bend in the last lap. Better yet, they both break four minutes again. This is the perfect mile.

The story had all the elements of an Aristotelian drama. And, personally, I could not have dreamed up a better sequence.

Q) How were Bannister, Santee, and Landy different from athletes today?

A) Let me count the ways. Take Roger Bannister. He participated in sport under the philosophy of "effortless superiority." It was an approach where one never gave the impression that sport was to be taken too seriously. There's the famous anecdote of the British sprinter Bevil Rudd, who showed up for a race with a lit cigar in his mouth. Rudd placed the cigar on the side of the track, ran (and won) his race, and then picked up the still-smoking cigar before receiving his trophy. This was wrapped up into the whole amateur approach, that sport was only part of a larger life, and it most certainly was not a career. What's amazing is that Bannister managed the impossible in sport while also in medical school — where he incidentally finished at the top of his class. He retired from athletics at the top of his game.

Q) Why are the events of 1954 that you chronicle considered a watershed moment in sports history?

A) Consider this. Bannister trained little more than an hour a day and considered running a passionate hobby. He achieved greatness on a cinder track he had helped build in front of a small crowd, a handful of journalists, and a lone camera crew that had to be persuaded to attend. Only three months later, in a modern concrete and steel stadium, Landy and Bannister battled each other in a heavily promoted race covered by an army of journalists and camera teams, broadcast to millions of homes worldwide, and commentated on by their fiercest rival. "The Mile of the Century" had all the hallmarks of a professional sporting event — except that not one of its competitors earned a penny in the process. If the first race sounded the death knell of amateurism, the second race struck the first notes of sport's future.

One of the reasons the story of the American Wes Santee is so interesting is that he was the victim of this changing tide. He was being pulled toward professionalism at a time when amateur officials were not yet ready to let go of their control of sport. It's tragic.

Q) What is your view on the recent scandals of athletes taking performance-enhancing drugs?

A) It's atrocious. But we reap what we sow. Athletes have always wanted to push the boundaries of performance. Then if you add the trappings of wealth, fame, and enormous pressure to win at any cost by fans and owners — factors that all professional athletes now face — what do you expect? Yes, you can blame the athletes; undeniably they are the ones who have to make the choice to cheat. But we are also using them as scapegoats for the environment we have created in sport.

Are we past the point of return when three-, four-, and five-year-olds are being trained to become the superathletes of tomorrow, when genetic modification is now on the table as well? Probably so. But ultimately it's a call the fans will have to make. They vote at the ticket office and from their lounge chairs. Will they turn away from baseball when a home run count is largely a question of who has the best drug cocktail? Or track and field or bicycle races when records are broken by the children of parents who arranged for some prenatal chromosome engineering.

There was something pure and romantic about athletes of the past striving solely for the sake of the attempt. That is why I felt The Perfect Mile was important to write.

Q) Personally, what have you gained from writing this story?

A) Can I twist the Jack Nicholson quote from As Good as It Gets — "It made me want to be a better man." Seriously, though, at the end of my interviews with Landy, Bannister, and Santee, I asked them what they had learned from their endeavors on the track. All three were quite clear that their running had really given them a blueprint on how to approach their future. Landy said it best: "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."

Writing this story reminded me of how much I owed to my youthful pursuit of sport — which in my case was more hockey than track and field. On a less philosophical level, it also got me running again, reminding me of how much I enjoyed the feeling. In fact, this year I am running a marathon for the first time, in Chicago. Such was my fervor that I even convinced my brother and sister to join me.

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