Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The magic of the mile

Sitting on a shelf downstairs is an audio book—already read but borrowed from the library for car trips—called, The Perfect Mile. It’s about Roger Bannister, John Landy, Wes Santee, and their quest to be the first to run four minutes. (It’s actually a bit of a stretch to include Santee, because he was busy running multiple events for his college track team. But he was American, and the U.S. is a big market....) I’ve always deeply admired Bannister, and loved Landy for his profound decency. And just try this on:

What a great, great race. At the time, they were the only two men in the world who had run four minutes, and they didn’t fool around: they both broke the barrier. Each ran to his strength and put everything he had into it. Landy actually succeeded in a way. He took the sting out of Bannister’s kick, which resulted in a mere 60-second final lap and a pretty thorough collapse at the finish. But Landy himself couldn’t quite keep up the pace. I’ve always thought the famous “Landy turned the wrong way” moment was interesting but unrelated to the result. Tremendous courage and determination from both men.

Seeing the audio book and watching this YouTube got me thinking once again about the wonderfulness—the perfection—of the mile as a competitive distance. The U.S. went fully metric on the track some years ago, but high schools (at least the high schools around here) run 1,600 meters rather than the world-standard 1,500, and although it’s about 10 yards short, it reasonably approximates the real deal, which I assume is the point. With that impulse in mind, I think it would have been much better to have raised a middle finger to the metric zealots on this particular issue and simply carried on with the classic.
The mile is special partly because its constituent parts are themselves memorable goals. Four laps on a quarter-mile track, with a minute for each being a natural and elegant (if, on laps three and four, seldom-achieved) goal. For reasonably strong runners growing into their sport, it was: 1. “A minute for a lap? Okay.” 2. “Two minutes for two laps? Well, all right.” 3. “Three minutes for three laps? Erk.” 4. Four minutes for four laps? Are you kidding me?”

Then, of course, you get old, and search for entirely different sorts of miling magic. 


Alan Sloman said...

What a storming race, and two lovely gentlemen.

And all nicely rounded off with your Oxford run.

Wonderful - and you're right of course. The mile is the Blue Riband event.

It's still run, you know, over here in Europe.

Mark Alvarez said...

Do they still have that famous one in Turku?