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'The Perfect Mile'

<I>The Perfect Mile</I>
The Perfect Mile

Fifty years ago, Briton Roger Bannister ran the world's first mile under four minutes. Just six weeks later, Australian John Landy broke Bannister's record, setting up a face-off between the world's first two men to achieve that long-elusive goal.

NPR's Juan Williams looks back on the Bannister-Landy matchup in an interview with Neal Bascomb, author of The Perfect Mile.

In the Aug. 7, 1954, Empire Games race in Vancouver, "you have these two great runners, both of whom had broken four-minute miles, battling at last. Head to head," Bascomb says.

As was his reputation, Landy decided to take the lead from the start. By mid-race he had extended his lead over Bannister to about 15 yards. Landy's friends in the stands thought that with that kind of lead the race was over. But Bannister fought back to win. It was the first time two men had run a mile in less than four minutes in the same race.

The four-minute mile is no longer such a mythic barrier. It has since been broken hundreds of times. Hicham El Guerrouj of Morocco holds the current world record in the mile, at just over 3 minutes and 43 seconds.

Below is an excerpt from The Perfect Mile.

Book Excerpt

Bannister dashed into the final turn, shocked that Landy was still driving so hard. This man was a machine. Because Bannister had abandoned his even pace in the third lap, he was more tired at this point than he had expected to be. They had run so fast, for so long. Bannister had to win, though. He had too much to prove to himself and to others. His finishing kick had to be there in the end. It had not been in Helsinki. Every hour of training, every race, every sacrifice, every bit of his love for running, had come down to this final moment, this final half-lap around the track. When they came out of this bend into the final straight, he had to be close enough to strike. Once again he drew a bead on Landy's back. His legs had to be deadening, Bannister told himself. Stride by stride, Bannister closed the gap between them. If Landy had only known how much he had exhausted his competitor, he might have found the strength to go faster, but he didn't know. The front-runner never did.

As they neared the home straight, Bannister marshaled his remaining kick. This was his final chance. This was the point in the race he and Stampfl had decided Landy would never anticipate, this was the strike he had practiced with Chataway. Bannister needed to win. He had to win. The Australian could run as an expression of the best that was within him, but Bannister ran to be better than anyone else. This was the moment to reveal that he was. Ninety yards from the tape, Bannister swung his arms high and lengthened his stride. He urged his tired muscles into action. The effort took every shred of will and heart he had left. When he passed Landy, he wanted to do so fast.

Coming out of the bend, Landy thought he had finally shaken Bannister. He could no longer see Bannister's shadow. Good thing, since Landy knew he had no more strength in his legs. He looked over his left shoulder to make sure he had succeeded.

Exactly at that moment Bannister hurled himself around Landy on the right in two long strides, seeing the Australian glance the other way and knowing that the hesitation would cost him, if only the smallest fraction of a second. At seventy yards to the tape, Bannister seized the lead. It was exhilaration. It was triumph. Although excruciatingly painful to keep his speed, this was the moment he loved most in running, the moment when his spirit fused with the physical act of running. The roar of the crowd pushed him onward. Everything was a blur but the finish line. He sped down the track, momentum carrying him now. Landy tried to kick again down the homestretch but knew that his legs were finished.

From The Perfect Mile by Neal Bascomb, Houghton Mifflin Co. (2004)

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