In the 1940s, the Swedish runners Gundar Haegg and Arne Andersson passed back and forth the world record for the mile. By 1945, Haegg had gotten it down to 4:01.4 minutes. Some journalists and statisticians figured it was just a matter of time before the four-minute barrier would be broken. Others, such as the renowned American coach Brutus Hamilton, contended that it never would.

In the early ’50s, three track titans—the Englishman Roger Bannister, the Australian John Landy, and the American Wes Santee—made it their goal to prove Hamilton and other skeptics wrong. And 50 years ago this May, one of them did. You can find out with a four-second Google search, if you don’t already know, which of them it was. But don’t do that. Give yourself the full suspenseful if formulaic treatment in Neal Bascomb’s The Perfect Mile: Three Athletes, One Goal, and Less Than Four Minutes to Achieve It. The richness of detail will make you feel as if you were there alongside Bannister, the gentleman amateur; Landy, the self-punishing running machine; and Santee, the ranch-raised Kansas college star.

Bascomb, a former journalist, appears to thrive on testosterone-stoked contests. His 2003 book Higher detailed the 1920s race to build the tallest skyscraper in New York. Should we resent him for coming up with what must have been the Perfect Book Proposal, a surefire, anniversary-pegged, movie-ready best seller? Or should we just acknowledge that he’s very good at what he does, and enjoy sharing this heart-pounding quest of the quick?

With the assistance of sportswriter Dave Kuehls, whom he gives a bow in the acknowledgments, Bascomb lined up a wonderfully productive string of interviews and a diverse array of clips and archival material. It helped, too, that all three milers, especially Bannister, have been quite eloquent not only on the subject of running, but also about the deeper autobiographical delights and demons that drove them to their fabulous achievements. (It gives nothing away to reveal that all three racked up an astounding array of records.)

For the three runners, a common spur was a disappointing performance at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics. And all had developed a youthful preoccupation with running that, in that way of serious childhood pleasures, carried an eerie and slightly illicit force. Bannister found his vocation while running barefoot on a beach. “I was startled and frightened,” he wrote later. “I glanced round uneasily to see if anyone was watching. A few more steps—self-consciously…the earth seemed almost to move with me….A fresh rhythm entered my body.” Landy, as a child, was interested less in sport than in butterfly collecting; fast legs helped him net his winged treasures. It was as a teen at boarding school that he discovered his facility for track and Australian-rules football.

For Santee, a boy who was worked like a man on a cattle and wheat ranch outside Ashland, Kan., running was play. “If I was told to get the hoe, I’d run to get it. If I had to go to the barn, I’d run,” he recalled later. He ran the five miles to school, plus “from his house into the fields to help with the plowing or to corral one of the four hundred head of cattle. At dusk, when his father called it a day, an exhausted Santee didn’t walk home for supper. He ran—fast—wearing his cowboy boots.” But there was another dimension to his speed: “David Santee dispensed his cruelty with forearm, fist, rawhide buggy whip, or whatever else was at hand—once it was a hammer….Some sons of abusive fathers want to become big enough to fight back; Santee wanted to become fast enough to get away.”

As a man, Bannister—cue the Chariots of Fire theme, please—consciously represented the British tradition of the well-rounded scholar-athlete, albeit in a twisted way. Convinced “that running the mile was an ‘art of taking more out of yourself than you’ve got,’” he methodically went about extracting that extra. While going to medical school, he served as his own lab rat in a series of grueling physiological tests during sessions on a customized treadmill (complete with blankets and duvets to fly into when he or his other subjects were invariably flung from it). He found that his pulse, 50, was about 22 beats lower, and his oxygen absorption per minute, 5.25 quarts, about two times higher than those of the average Joe. He limited, by necessity, the hours he spent training, but during those hours he pushed himself to fearsome ends.

Landy, inspired by Czech phenom Emil Zatopek, abandoned his coach and devised an incredible regime for himself, which included long night runs in the park that continued well past midnight:

An hour and a half into the session Landy had usually run eight to twelve 600-yard laps at a pace of roughly ninety seconds each (or a sixty-five-second 440-yard lap). Between each, he jogged a lap of the oval path in four minutes. He repeated these sessions—which left him nearly crippled with exhaustion—five nights a week. On the remaining two nights in the week he ran seven miles, sometimes more, at a five-and-a-half- to six-minute pace….This was to build endurance. Regardless of weather, sore tendons, blistered feet, or fatigued muscles, Landy trained like this religiously.

Most mornings after, he’d leave his house by 8 and catch the train to his agricultural-sciences classes at Melbourne University.

Such toughening served Landy well, particularly in circumstances that would have done in most of his peers—for example, running in the 1954 Vancouver Empire Games with a gashed and sutured foot. Still, Landy’s killer instinct was tempered. He stopped to help a fellow runner who’d fallen on the track during a key race (then, naturally, went on to win anyway). To escape the pressure of his celebrated athletic pursuits, he turned to his childhood passion for butterflies. During one particularly strenuous period, he headed to the woods and “managed to find a stenciled hair-streak, with its dark brown wings that had a patch of metallic blue in the middle. It was a triumph that gave him, as he later said, ‘equal pleasure as running 4:02 for the mile.’”

Santee was a star, pure and simple. He was the all-American pre-Prefontaine in charisma, with his cowboy getup and flirtations with the press. A first-rate strategist and a cutthroat competitor, he anchored the Kansas Jayhawks meet after meet. But that responsibility, Bascomb suggests, may have undermined his peak performance even as it bolstered his overall conditioning. A plainspoken, somewhat defiant streak and clashes with a petty posse of amateur athletic officials undermined him further, as did simple bad luck on timing, weather, and track conditions at key contests.

For those looking for life lessons—and what book on running would be complete without one?—a place to start might be in the crucial support Santee, Landy, and Bannister all received, even in their most solitary and lonely of pursuits. For Landy, early on, it was his crazed, self-centered, but catalyzing coach, Percy Cerutty. Landy outgrew Cerutty’s anarchic tutelage, but he might not have discovered his own steely endurance without it. After resisting coaching for years, Bannister turned to the urbane, tactful Austrian refugee Franz Stampfl, whose guidance became crucial to the miler’s morale. And for Santee, it was his college coach and surrogate father, the by-the-book Bill Easton. (Easton and his wife were at Santee’s wedding; Santee’s parents were not.) The runners all benefited, too, from the literal or psychological pacing of their friends and teammates.

Bascomb offers evocative descriptions of races—the nationalistic wolf-pack press, the colors, the heat, the mood, the tempos. If he occasionally goes a bit overboard in the scene-setting—repeated descriptions of spectators’ clothes seem unnecessary—the author, like a prime miler himself, has that last-lap kick when the time is right. In writing about the fateful Empire Games, Bascomb writes that Bannister “watched the Australian’s stride, almost mesmerized by the steady, rhythmic strike of Landy’s spikes on the cinder track. In his mind, Bannister had drawn a ‘cord’ around Landy…Landy turned into the first bend, shooting a glance over his shoulder. He saw Bannister’s shadow and heard his breathing. His hunter had pulled close…”

For every labored description, every transparent calculation (such as the sometimes precious epigraphs), The Perfect Mile offers a little thrill, often in one of those semi-mystical childhood stories or in some pedestrian but amazing detail. Santee’s first-grade teacher remembered, for instance, when “the fire alarm rang by accident: by the time the classroom cleared she found Wes halfway down the street and up a windmill ladder.” Ask yourself which is more amazing—that Landy, in late 1952, accomplished the third fastest mile ever run, 4:03 minutes, or that he did so soon after eating an ice-cream sundae and a pair of meat pies, in that order. (Lost in thought as he was warming up, he also missed the track official’s announcement and almost didn’t get to the starting line on time.)

If there are few surprises in Bascomb’s approach, he wisely takes his cue from his subject, keeping his focus and momentum, then gradually snowballing the pace. And like a race superbly run, his taut and sometimes lyrical book gets us where we want to go—exhausted, exhilarated, and breathless. CP