One of the most difficult things for the average writer to accomplish, I would imagine, is to write a book, such as this, about a specific event in the past, one in which a large audience is already aware of the outcome. There is no way to create a suspenseful setting when writing about something that has not only already happened, but was highly publicized, and has been referred to again and again over the years. Neal Bascomb, the author of this book, is not an average writer. Not only does Bascomb fill every page with facts and details about the three-man chase to be the first to break the four-minute mile, but he does so with a style of writing that made me wonder if perhaps I really didn't know the outcome of this tale.
In a nutshell, after the Helsinki Olympics in 1952, an event in which all three runners featured in this novel were participants, and in which none of the three performed very well at all, each of these men decides, for their own personal reasons, to challenge the four-minute mile, a pace that had not yet been broken, though many had come close. The current record, at the time, was just over 4:01, so they weren't attempting to do something completely impossible, just regarded as highly unlikely. And, as it turns out, a record that was much more difficult to break than any of them expected.
Bascomb does an excellent job of not only providing the facts behind the various attempts that each man made at the record, but also giving the reader a wonderful understanding of the character of each man. By sharing some of their history prior to becoming runners, and explaining the varied training programs they each took on for this task, the reader is drawn back over sixty years to a much simpler time, a time when track & field events truly were for the amateur athlete. There were restrictions on how much money an athlete could accept in daily expenses, prizes and awards, and etc. And it was much, much smaller than you might think. Violations of these rules could jeopardize the athlete's ability to participate in any amateur race, including, at the time, the Olympic Games.
This was also a time before technologically advanced training equipment, specialized facilities, and even performance enhancing drugs. It was a time when runners ran for the simple joy of running, not because they were after a multi-million dollar sponsorship package. Bascomb touches on the political environment within the sport during this time, and shares the individual athletes struggles with trying to compete, break the 'unbreakable' barrier of four-minutes, and, as their notoriety grew the closer they got to the record, their struggles with accepting to appear in sponsored races knowing the sponsors would be raking in thousands of dollars in ticket sales, while the athletes themselves made barely enough to cover the cost of travel.
I truly enjoyed this story, the historical photo section that was included in the center of the book, the style of writing the author used, and learning about the way this record was eventually cracked. I will admit, outside of knowing who broke the record, and approximately when it had been completed, there was little else I understood of the story, and what I did learn made me appreciate this feat even that much more. This is a great read and I highly recommend it, especially for those who are athletically inclined.