Doing the Impossible – Neal Bascomb’s The Race of the Century

Lynn:race of the century Did you know that 70 years ago most people believed that running a mile in 4 minutes was impossible and beyond the limits of the human body? “It was something that God himself had established as man’s limit,” said one writer. But suddenly in 1952, three runners were poised to do just that. It did happen, of course. Two of the three broke the 4 minute mile in 1954. Today’s record is 3.143.13 seconds. How did mankind achieve this “unbreakable” speed? I am not a runner. My idea of exercise is a daily walk with my camera. But it is amazing the unfamiliar paths that a wonderful nonfiction writer will coax a reader to trod and thanks to Neal Bascomb’s latest book, The Race of the Century: the Battle to Break the 4 Minute Mile (Scholastic, March 2022), I have become fascinated with the amazing story of this ongoing battle of man running against the clock.

Bascomb chronicles the stories of 3 individual racers, Roger Bannister of England, Wes Santee, a Kansan and Australian John Santee. Each one found himself poised on the threshold of a ground-breaking achievement. All were amateurs in the strictest sense of the word. Bannister was finishing his medical training to become a physician, Landy was studying science at university and Santee was working his way through Kansas University while running on both the track and cross country teams. All three expected their athletic efforts to end on graduation. Suddenly all three were facing intense attention from the press and huge national expectations.Who would break the record first and how would he do it?

Bascomb follows each runner through their unique racing careers and experiences, detailing each man’s training regimes. Even to a non-runner, this was fascinating as each runner was remarkably different from the others. Imagine trying to do elite intense training in the little free time left available to a medical student in his last year of training and working as an intern! The moment by moment accounts of the pivotal races, each runner’s race strategies, physical struggles and mental preparations are presented in clear prose and for young runners, this part of the book will be especially absorbing.

For me as a non-runner, it was the individual personalities and their approaches to the challenge that were the most compelling. The stark contrast between the elite amateur runner in the ’50’s and the world class runners of today also stood out for me.

I read this book in galley and the included black and white photographs added so much. Bascomb, as always, does an excellent job of citing his sources in detailed chapter notes and the back matter also includes an Author’s Note and an intriguing bibliography.

Hand this book to young runners and to those teens who love historical nonfiction.

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