Spoiler Alert! At some point in this book, Roger Bannister becomes the first man to break the four minute mile! I know, I know. Some of you will have thrown away this review in disgust with me already. As for the rest of you, I hope you’re not too annoyed that I’ve given away this vital plot point. The genius of this book is that, despite knowing how events will play out, it is still a riveting page-turner. As it happens, the events on 6 May 1954 are only a part of the full story.
Indeed, the book isn’t really about Bannister. This is a book about global rivalry, human eccentricity, and superhuman feats of time management.
Bascomb looks at the three pre-eminent milers of their day: Bannister, Australian John Landy, and American Wes Santee. Each of these men was licking his wounds after disappointment at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, and set out to break the seemingly impossible target of a sub-4 mile, the record for which had been stuck at 4:01.4 since 1945.
Quite frankly, you wonder how on earth Bannister did it, while simultaneously practicing as a junior doctor AND conducting pioneering sports science research in the lab. The book records how Bannister would jump on the Tube during his lunch break, head to the Paddington track, complete an interval session with chain-smoking Chris Chataway (who would beat Bannister to BBC Sports Personality of the Year in 1954) and Chris “founder of Sweatshop and London marathon” Brasher, then head back to the hospital, shower and eat – all within his lunch hour. You can only assume that (a) he ran those intervals with his eyeballs on stalks, and (b) the sandwich queue at Pret-a-Manger wasn’t as bad in those days.
The sections about Bannister are interesting enough in their own right, but how many of us know who was the second person to break the four minute mile? I won’t spoil the story by saying whether it was Landy or Santee, but both are fascinating characters, worthy of wider recognition. Landy was a seemingly middle-of-the-road runner in 1952, but was utterly transformed by training during the Olympics with the legendary Czech runner Emil Zatopek, who won golds in the 5000m, 10,000m and the marathon, all while grimacing like he’d been forced to eat a rotten brussel sprout. Santee was an outstanding college runner, who would face the challenge of having to do military service while preparing to take on the mile, as well as dealing with the bureaucrats from the American Amateur Athletics Association, who kept on finding inventive ways to undermine a runner who seemed to be getting too big for his plimsolls.
Bannister’s record is not the ending of the book, and comes just two-thirds of the way through. The real drama came in the weeks and months that followed, leading to a ‘mile of the century’ between the men who had now done the seemingly impossible. The ‘perfect mile’ of the title is not the one that happened at Iffley Road on 6 May 1954, but the showdown the following August in Vancouver. For those of us that don’t know how that race unfolded, the race report here is genuinely thrilling, and keeps you guessing the winner until the very last yards.
Overall, this is one of the best running books I have ever read. It even inspired me to (literally) run a mile afterwards, a distance few of us race these days, to see how it felt. I would have been more than a lap behind Bannister. And he probably didn’t throw up afterwards.