Monday, September 6, 2010

How I ached to be there: The Perfect Mile (a review)

Today was a day about not running, at least me not running. Off day, rest day, taper day, labor day - so many reasons to not run day.
But I could read about it, right?
In August, I had started The Perfect Mile: Three Athletes, One Goal, and Less Than Four Minutes to Achieve It by Neal Bascomb, but had to put it away. Today was the day to finish it - schoolwork hasn't piled up, and I needed some motivation.
I could not put it down. While I knew who would break through the 4 mile barrier first, it was the journey that captivated my interest. These three runners represented what it meant to be an amateur runner - no appearance fees, no sponsorship, and (most of important), running was not their livelihood. So Roger Bannister was working on his medical degree while trying to crack through this seemingly-impossible barrier. He didn't have the time to devote multiple hours per day to training, he did what he could, then went back to his schoolwork and rotations. It was easy to identify with his experiences in that way. Yes, the elites today are utterly fascinating and admirable, but the amateurs from the old days need to be acknowledged too for their ability to balance running and their "regular lives."
Neal Bascomb did such a phenomenal job with his research. His attention to detail, paired with his eloquent narrative, made a wonderful combination. I was completely captivated. To me (as a historian), the sign of good historical writing is if the author can "take you back" to that time. How I ached to be there! I could only imagine the buzz around the world in the 195
0s, the whispers at every track meet, wondering if today was the day that a runner would break 4 minutes.
One of the beautiful things that Basacomb documented was the sense of camaraderie and dedication each miler's friends had. Each had their own entourage - friends and family - who were working to help the miler achieve the goal. No one did it alone. This was beautiful to read about - Bannister had a few friends who served as pacers and worked relentlessly alongside of him to help him achieve the dream. The friends were not in it for their own glory or fame, but to help a beloved fellow runner. One of Bannister's pacers, Chris Brasher, remarked "We honestly believed that if you have a dream and you work to make it come true, then you really can change the world. There's just nothing you can't do." What an attitude. And that support, that belief, in oneself, I am sure is what ultimately led to victory in the mile.
To read of that epic moment on May 6, 1954, caused my eyes to well up. And my eyes watered again when I read the description of the "Mile of the Century" between Bannister and John Landy. The thing that got to me was that breaking through that barrier had previously seemed insurmountable to the world - it couldn't be done, they said. But when that barrier was smashed, a shot of optimism was felt around the world. It could be done, and not just once, but again and again.
If you've forgotten about what makes this sport beautiful, read The Perfect Mile. It swept me away, it may have taken more than 4 minutes, but it is definitely a reminder of why runners are relentless human beings.

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