"We run, not because we think it is doing us good, but because we enjoy it and cannot help ourselves. The more restricted our society and work become, the more necessary it will be to find some outlet for this craving for freedom. No one can say, 'You must not run faster than this, or jump higher than that.' The human spirit is indomitable."
My rating: B-
Set during the glory days of amateur athletics, this is the story of three men on three different continents on their individual quests to do what many believed to be impossible; to break the 4 minute mile.
The book is divided into three parts. The first part introduces each of the three runners, Roger Bannister a young English medical student, John Landy the butterfly collecting Australian and Wes Santee the American farm boy. We learn of their early years as runners, and follow each of them to their own individual disappointments at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki Germany. The experience impacts each of the runners differently and motivates each of them to work to achieve something even greater.
The second part follows each of the runners on their journey to be the first to run a 4 minute mile. This part of the book is exciting even if you know who was the first to accomplish it (I won’t spoil it if you don’t). I listened to this on audio book and the narrator made it especially exciting. Each race was told as you might have heard it from a live commentator at the time. The narrator had a way of leaving you on edge to hear the times of each race that was described ‘…completing the race in 4’… long pause…. ’06.2’ "Damn! That's a little slower than he ran his last attempt at the record!" <--- me yelling in the car on the way to work, yes out loud, it was that good! This is the most famous part of the story and holds the most emphasis but it is the last part where everything comes together.
The third part covers the race that gives this book its name between Bannister and Landy but the exclusion of Santee. The perfect mile with almost the perfect participants. The climax of the race and book is intense and poetic, but the true story here is in who didn't run the race (and more importantly why) rather than who won. (more on that in a second)
All three parts of this book are entertaining and interesting to read with exciting climatic moments and nail biting suspense. I enjoyed reading (hearing I guess technically) about all three very different runners with three different training styles, lifestyles and motivations on their journey to beat the 4 minute mile and eventually prove themselves in a race against each other.
But like I said, the true story here is not in the individual journeys of these three runners, or in the breaking of the 4 minute mile and the perceived limitations of the human body, or even in the race that this book gets it's name from. The true underlying story being told in this book is the passing of the age of amateur athletics and the onset of the money grabbing world of professionalism. This book is a tribute of sorts not only to the last great milers of that age, but to the world of amateur athletics as a whole. In a way the real main character of this book is Wes Santee. It is through his story that the change in the world of track and field (and all of sport really) is clearly illustrated.
After reading this book I was left inspired by all three runners and their dedication to their sport while carrying on full and demanding lives outside of running. In the true spirit of amateur athletics, the author ends the book by filling out the ‘after story’ and letting us know of the many other accomplishments and success each of these men found after their running careers, letting us know that running alone does not define them.
I was also left with a bit of sadness that this kind of healthy competitive spirit and love of sport is truly a thing of the past. In a world of steroids, multimillion dollar contract negotiations, and big name sponsors, it’s hard to even imagine an athlete as dedicated to their sport, simply for the sake of sport, as any of these three men.