The Race of the Century: The Battle to Break the Four-Minute Mile

The Race of the Century: The Battle to Break the Four-Minute Mile
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Release Date
March 01, 2022
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Highly acclaimed author Neal Bascomb brings his peerless research and fast-paced narrative style to a young adult adaptation of one of his most successful adult books of all time, The Perfect Mile, an inspiring and moving story of three men racing to achieve the impossible -- the perfect four-minute mile.

There was a time when running the mile in four minutes was believed to be beyond the limits of human foot speed. In 1952, after suffering defeat at the Helsinki Olympics, three world-class runners each set out to break this barrier: Roger Bannister was a young English medical student who epitomized the ideal of the amateur; John Landy the privileged son of a genteel Australian family; and Wes Santee the swaggering American, a Kansas farm boy and natural athlete.

Spanning three continents and defying the odds, these athletes' collective quest captivated the world. Neal Bascomb's bestselling adult account adapted for young readers delivers a breathtaking story of unlikely heroes and leaves us with a lasting portrait of the twilight years of the golden age of sport.

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Remember Santee and Landy
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I'd like to think that all of my students knew who Roger Bannister was, and that he was the first person to break the four minute mile, but since even I did not realize that the latest record for the fastest mile was set by Hicham El Guerrouj of Morocco in 1999, I think that is probably not true. The thing that I liked best about this book detailing the efforts expent to break this record in the 1950s is that it also talked about the two strongest also-rans, U.S. runnerWes Santee and Australian John Landy. They were both so close, and deserve to be remembered as well.

In addition to telling the story of the three men in close competition for this record, this book gave a good overview of the views of running and exercise over time. The thought that the body had only a certain amount of heart beats, and once you used them up, you would die, seems ludicrous today. Considering that marathon runners in the early twentieth century ingested strychnine to help with endurance (see McCarthy's alarming The Wildest Race Ever, 2016), this seems reasonable in comparison. In order to understand the triumph of the four minute mile, it's important to understand the composition of the tracks, the running gear, and the science (or lack thereof) that went into training seventy years ago.

It's also eye opening to read about the individuals who were training. Roger Bannister loved running, but didn't really consult too many others on how he should go about it. He was in school to be a doctor, and ran experiments on oxygen use in the body while he was preparing for his races, but he was also in school full time and covering shifts in the hospital! Santee had a hard upbringing, and was in college as well. He also joined the reserves, and ended up not running in several critical races because of that commitment. Landy was studying at the University of Melbourne, and trying to decide whether to concentrate on farming or teaching. Keeping connected to the running world was not as easy when technology consisted of radio and telephones! The fact that these men had to train in addition to going about their own lives and preparing for adulthood makes their efforts all the more impressive. No teams of trainers or schedule entirely devoted to their pursuits for them!
Good Points
This book was very engaging and fast paced, and I kept turning the pages, closely following the progress that was being made. Perhaps the most impressive thing about the training was how few injuries there were, which made Landy's cut foot before the Empire Games seem all the more tragic. Certainly, middle distance racing in the 1950s involved a certain amount of privilege, and few runners of color are mentioned, but this is still a riveting read about events in the past that we can't change.

There are not as many books about running as there are about baseball, football or basketball, with the noteable exception of Speno's The Great American Foot Race:Ballyhoo for the Bunion Derby!(2017), Swaby's Mighty Moe: The True Story of a Thirteen-Year-Old Women's Running Revolutionary (2019) and Babe, and the Wallace's Babe Conquers the World (2014), and Knight's Shoe Dog (2017), so this is an excellent title for young runners who want to know what the world was like before lycra and spandex, targeted diets, and prescribed training regimens.
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