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The Perfect Mile by Neal Bascomb


Rating: (Recommended)


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Neal Bascomb’s story of three runners from the 1950s who competed to break the barrier of the four minute mile, titled, The Perfect Mile, gives readers great pleasure, including those who start the book knowing who won. What Bascomb does deftly in this book is present the context and stories of the three contenders: Roger Bannister of England, John Landy of Australia, and Wes Santee of the United States. Readers come to know the three men, their backgrounds, their training as mile runners, their relationships and the intense competitiveness that drove each of them. Here’s an excerpt from the beginning of Chapter 6, pp. 71-75:


A man who sets out to become an artist at the mile is something like a man who sets out to discover the most graceful method of being hanged. No matter how logi­cal his plans, he can not carry them out without physical suffering.

—PAUL 0’NEIL, A Man Conquers Himself,


Sports Illustrated, May 31, 1956


In Melbourne’s Central Park, opposite his East Malvern house, John Landy watched his shadow. As he ran around a bluestone gravel path in flat-soled sand shoes, he studied the rhythm of his legs and the movement of his arms. He might never catch his shadow, but he could learn from it. Over the course of his run he balanced the action of his arms and legs. The higher he carried his arms, the more distance he won from his stride. However, the technique he was devel­oping was more complicated than simply swinging his arms out and up as far as possible. If he overextended, he lost equilibrium in his stride and wasted energy. Rather, he was looking for symmetry of form—the place where his arm action was completely in sync with his knee lift and consequently the drive from his hips. His head needed to remain level, his center of gravity still, his shoulder muscles relaxed, and his feet landing from heel to toe, nearly flat-footed. And all of this needed to occur effortlessly. Slowly he was shaping his running style into one worthy of an “Inca courier’ as a sportswriter later commented, one in which he would seem to almost float over the track.

By mid-September 1952, one month after returning from Helsinki, Landy was fast moving beyond Cerutty’s teachings. Cerutty had pro­moted a low arm carriage, believing that man should run like a rooster, clawing at the air, or like African warriors, who carried spears by their sides over great distances. Landy preferred to mimic the European run­ners, who had proven themselves superior in style and performance at Helsinki. “They don’t run on their toes like sprinters and paw the track with their spikes as I used to:’ Landy said. “With a higher arm carriage your knees automatically lift and you get a slightly longer stride. But, most important, there is no tension in the leg muscles. When it comes to the final spurt you have so much extra strength to get on your toes and sprint home. Try standing on your toes and feel the tension in your calf and thigh muscles, and see what I mean?’ With each passing day, his body grew more accustomed to this new style, and he was getting more return for his effort.

And there was a great deal of effort involved, particularly in the in­tensity of his training. Landy never wanted to step to the starting line again unless he was the fittest person on the track. His training sessions required intense dedication, and they were run smarter and harder than any guided by Cerutty. Before Helsinki his improvements resulted from a grab-bag collection of endurance work. Because Cerutty de­spised schedules, he had his gang run until they hurt and then he pushed them further. This was the crux of his training method. How­ever, running a fast mile required more than simply putting up with pain. This conditioning worked only to a certain point. Middle-dis­tance running was about more than stamina. According to Zatopek, one had to train for speed. Improvement there was won by subjecting the body to periods of high stress at a fast pace while reducing the re­covery time between these periods. Zatopek sold this theory of repeti­tion running by dint of his Helsinki success. His theory was now Landy’s practice.

The training ideas that Landy had scribbled into his notebook had translated into hard regimen. Through the early Australian spring (while it was fall in the Northern Hemisphere), with Cerutty and his running mates still away on tour, Landy ran alone. His agricultural sci­ence studies demanded that he train at night, after he had finished with his papers and reading. At eleven o’clock or past midnight he slipped quietly out of his house, making sure not to wake his parents or four siblings, who had little idea of the extreme effort he was making. Many nights it was difficult to force himself to put on his shoes and get out there. As he put it, “The mind is always selling the body?’ He often ra­tionalized that he was too tired and might better put off the run until the next day, or that he deserved a day off. But then he would convince himself to run at least a few laps. “It’s like a car starting. There’s an im­mense amount of energy you need to start the car, but once you’re rolling, it’s easy.” Since he had returned from the Olympics, Landy hadn’t missed a single training session: this was a pure exercise of will.

On a typical night Landy walked across the street to Central Park and began a series of alternating fast and slow laps around the 600-yard oval path made of gravel. A few streetlights illuminated the make-do track, but even blindfolded, he would have known every inch of the way. Alone, the only sound his footsteps hitting gravel, he concentrated solely on how much faster he could push himself. He didn’t carry a watch; his effort was measured by the interplay of exhaustion and re­covery. For most of the lap he would maintain a fast even pace, but not all-out effort. Then he would burst ahead at the end and sprint until his legs felt uneasy below him. Next he reduced his pace to a jog, feeling his breath return and the pain ebb, but he slowed his pace only enough so that on the next lap he could repeat the fast even pace and surge. By stressing his legs and lungs to such an extreme point, he was immuniz­ing himself to the pain.

An hour and a half into the session Landy had usually run eight to twelve 600-yard laps at a pace of roughly ninety seconds each (or a sixty-five-second 440-yard lap). Between each, he jogged a lap of the oval path in four minutes. He repeated these sessions—pushing him­self to the limit of his physical abilities— five nights a week. On the re­maining two nights in the week he ran seven miles, sometimes more, at a five-and-a-half- to six-minute pace, along the roads leading out of Melbourne. This was to build endurance. Regardless of weather, sore tendons, blistered feet, or fatigued muscles, Landy trained like this reli­giously.

It was the stringing together of session after session, without com­promise of effort, that most tested his discipline. On a typical day he left his house by 8:00 A.M., walking a mile to the Caulfield railway sta­tion, where he took a train into the city. Occasionally some people re­marked on how slowly he walked, but they had no idea of the limits to which he had pushed his body the previous night. At the University of Melbourne he attended classes on subjects like soil science, bacteriol­gy, and farm economics, broke for lunch with his classmates, and then attended more lectures until he returned to East Malvern to have din­ner with his family. Except for drinking a great deal of milk, his diet was utterly normal. He might relax briefly after dinner, but soon withdrew to his room to study for several hours before he sneaked out of the house to train again. Returning to the house long after midnight, he took a shower and then collapsed into bed.

In this schedule there were no spare moments for girlfriends or a so­cial life, much to the dismay of his sisters. There was little time for a generous night of sleep either—he got six or seven hours at the most. Still Landy persisted, convinced that he was on the right path. Of the rigors of training he told Track and Field News: “The harder, the better.” Of his motivation he told the Sydney Morning Herald, “I just go out there and work. I’ve got to punish myself to get anywhere?’ Of pain and injury he told Sports Illustrated, “There is no gray—just black and white.. . . If you’re hurt enough to limp, you can’t run at all. If you aren’t, it makes no difference?’

Landy’s resolve was extraordinary. It was sustained by a still-devel­oping attraction to running. Unlike the experience of playing football with a team, he was the sole master of how well he ran the mile. And the harder he trained, the more control he had over his body to dictate this performance. He may not have noticed the dramatic change in his fit­ness, because he had experienced it slowly, but others certainly did. One weekend afternoon he invited eighteen-year-old up-and-comer Robbie Morgan-Morris out to train with him. The young runner, who had re­cently won a cross-country championship, was agog at the opportunity to run with an Olympian. He had seen Landy race against Macmillan before Helsinki but was astonished at what he saw in Central Park. Morgan-Morris followed behind Landy for a few laps but was soon run off his feet. Landy kept going and going, faster and faster. Nobody in all of Australia ran this way. Morgan-Morris thought to himself, How fast is this bloke doing this?

In October Les Perry returned from his Scandinavian tour. Perry had probably seen Landy run more than any other person. He knew how much his friend had improved under Cerutty, but when he visited Landy at Central Park, he was shocked to see Landy run so well. His legs and arms were more defined. His running style had been transformed. And the speed. . . Perry tried to keep up with Landy on several laps, but couldn’t.

“This is terrific sort of training:’ Perry said. He knew Landy had been disappointed about Helsinki, that it was in his nature to try to right the wrong of not performing at the level some might have ex­pected, but this kind of speed and repetition work was beyond his imagination. “Is this the sort of thing you’ve been doing?”

“I’ve had a bit of a routine.”

Later Landy told Perry that he had been following Zatopek’s advice. Perry suspected that the Australian track and field community, Cerutty included, was in for a surprise when Landy next took to the track. When their coach tried to lasso Landy back into his fold, the runner was polite but clear: “I’m taking no more advice from anyone. I simply want to put together the best of what I’ve seen?’

The Perfect Mile is a terrific sports book: great on motivation, dedication, and training. Bascomb describes each race in a way that brings the excitement to a reader. There’s also a story about living a life outside sports, and that’s a good story about all three runners. Don’t miss the pleasure of reading The Perfect Mile.

Steve Hopkins, October 25, 2004


ã 2004 Hopkins and Company, LLC


The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the November 2004 issue of Executive Times

URL for this review: Perfect Mile.htm


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