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Four minutes, one mile

Fifty years ago, England's Roger Bannister defied the impossible

How fast is a four-minute mile? Set a treadmill to 10 miles per hour and try to keep pace for 10 seconds. Now, imagine running 15 m.p.h. for four minutes. Even most treadmills shudder at the thought.

For decades, the four-minute mile stood as the Mount Everest of athletic endeavor. Four laps, four minutes, one mile. The challenge had a graceful cadence that masked a jarring paradox: At the summit of human achievement, rarefied air can bring the intrepid pioneer to the cusp of heaven - and to the brink of death. Some track and field pundits claimed that human physiology would doom any four-minute-mile attempt to mortal failure.

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In 1954, however, three runners - England's Roger Bannister, Australia's John Landy, and America's Wes Santee - showed they had the spirit to defy the impossible. In "The Perfect Mile" Neal Bascomb skillfully transforms their efforts into a compelling human drama.

His crisp, detailed narrative helps readers step into the milers' spikes. Join one of Bannister's withering lunchtime training sessions. Share Santee's frustrations with ridiculous restrictions from pharisaical track officials. Feel the weight of national pride on Landy's shoulders.

Of course, we know how it ends: On May 6, 1954, Bannister broke the barrier, running 3:59.4. His record, however, was not simply the inevitable result of steady progress in the golden age of track and field. Bascomb excels at unearthing the real suspense of this era. For two years, each runner pushed the others to ever-faster times. But none could crack 4:02. Each faced mounting career obligations. And commercialism threatened to corrupt the noble ideals of the amateur athlete.

The author's rich account reveals how, despite repeated personal failure in the public spotlight, each man clung tenaciously to a common tenet of faith: The four-minute mile could be broken. Landy's 3:58 mile just weeks after Bannister's success proves that the barrier was always psychological, never physiological. Except for some overdrawn historical sketches, Bascomb's prose is perfectly paced. Released in time for the 50th anniversary of Bannister's watershed effort, "The Perfect Mile" is a resplendent story of an epic event in sports history.

Joshua S. Burek, a graduate student at Harvard Divinity School, is on the Monitor staff. He set his middle school's mile record.