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The Perfect Mile: Roger Bannister, John Landy, and One of the Greatest Races of All Time

Posted on July 20 2009


Image by I am I.A.M. via Flickr

The final of the one-mile race at the Empire Games in Vancouver, Canada on Aug. 7, 1954 might just be the greatest running race of all time. The race featured two of the titans of middle-distance running, Roger Bannister of England, and John Landy of Australia. Both of these men were world famous runners, both were at the peak of their respective careers, and both had, within the previous six months, broken the 4-minute mile time barrier that many at that time thought was impenetrable (they were the first two runners in history to do it). This latter fact is in part what made this race so compelling.

Without a doubt, Roger Bannister is best known for running the first sub 4-minute mile (he did so on May 6, 1954 in Oxford, England). Few people realize, however, that Bannister’s record stood for less than 2 months – it was broken (by over a full second) by John Landy in June of that same year. Some said Landy’s feat was all the the more impressive since he accomplished the time in a genuine race (in Finland) without the aid of dedicated pacers. Imagine, then, a situation where the two most famous runners of their day, and the first two men to run a sub 4-minute mile, were able to face each other down on the track. This is exactly what happened in August of that same year at the Empire Games in Vancouver.

The Perfect Mile, by Neal BascombOne of my main reasons for writing this post is that on my run this afternoon, I finished listening to the audiobook version of “The Perfect Mile: Three Athletes, One Goal, and Less Than Four Minutes to Achieve It” by Neal Bascomb. If you’re not familiar with “The Perfect Mile,” it recounts the story of Bannister, Landy, and American Wes Santee as they competed to become the first to break the 4-minute mile barrier. Naturally, I assumed that the “Perfect Mile” in the title referred to Bannister’s record breaking race – I was wrong. It turns out that the Empire Games race, now commonly referred to as “The Miracle Mile,” was far more compelling, and I literally got goosebumps as the reader recounted the details of the finish. I highly recommend this book, and the audiobook reader is phenomenal. I listened to a good chunk of the 14 hours of audio while running myself, and enjoyed it thoroughly. Now back to the race.

More than anything else, the one-mile final of the 1954 Empire Games was a race about strategy. Roger Bannister and John Landy were both fast, of that there is no doubt, but they both approached races with different styles. Landy was a front-runner – he blazed through the initial miles with the hope of blowing away his opponents before they knew what hit them. Bannister, on the other hand, was a kicker. He preferred to hold tight to the leader, and then blast past them in the final leg with his deadly-fast kick. Both men knew their opponent’s style, and Neal Bascomb does a great job in “The Perfect Mile” describing the agonizing days leading up to the race as the two runner’s tried to figure out the appropriate strategy to use to beat their opponent. The race itself lived up to the hype (and then some), and both men decided to stick to their favored strategy and hope for the best. So who won??? I’m not going to tell you here in this post for fear of spoiling the climatic race for anyone planning to read “The Perfect Mile.” Sorry!

However, if you just can’t wait, I’ve made use of the miracle of modern technology known as YouTube to provide video footage of the race in its entirety. For your viewing pleasure, here is the race that has come to be known as “The Miracle Mile:”

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