“Care I for the limb, the thews, the stature, bulk and big assemblence of
a man? Give me his spirit.”
Shakespeare, Henry IV
Drama aplenty. That’s what I found when I picked up my son Alex’s copy of The Perfect Mile by Neal Bascomb. It’s the story of three athletes who competed to break the human speed barrier by running just under a 4-minute mile: Roger Bannister from Britain; Wes Santee, from America; and John Landy, from Australia. What a thrilling tale of dedication and derring-do!
For years, Roger, Wes, and John competed against each other and the clock without success. Says Bascomb: “When each runner failed — and there were many failures — he was criticized for coming up short, for not having what it took. Each such episode only motivated the others to try harder.”
One of the most fascinating things about the book is the different training regimens these incredible athletes adopted. Roger Bannister, who was studying at medical school during his running career, worked with coaches for a while, but ultimately dreamed up with his own training plan.
Bannister’s “true gift for running” running emerged one day when he raced for Oxford against its rival, Cambridge. When the bell rang for the final lap, Bannister was exhausted, but fairly close to the leaders. Suddenly, he was overcome by a “crazy desire to take over the whole field.” He increased his tempo and surged past his competitors on the outside, powering past his own threshold of limitation by sheer instinct and will.
Roger pushed through the tape 20 yards ahead of the others with a time of 4:30.8. The time wasn’t important, it was the feeling of ecstasy, the rush of racing past the rest of the field, devouring the track. Later, he would bring his time below 4 minutes — the first man to run that fast. But it all began with a decision to push past his exhaustion and tap into the sheer joy of his own power. What an inspiration to us as writers!