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May 27, 2004

LetsRun.com Reviews Two Books on Great Milers 50 Years Apart - Sub 4:00 and The Perfect Mile
By: Weldon Johnson

Sub 4:00: Alan Webb and the Quest or the Fastest Mile
author: Chris Lear 2003

I really enjoyed this book.  And after having read it, I'm a bit surprised I didn't read it when it first came out.

In case you don't know, the book chronicles the tumultuous freshman track season at the University of Michigan of Alan Webb, the high school phenom miler, who turned the track world upside down by running a 3:53 mile in high school.

I guess one reason I was reluctant to read it was that I already knew a great deal about many of the participants of the book.  My brother and site co--founder (Rojo) was the author's, Chris Lear, college roommate. Chris is a good friend of mine as well. As I'm writing this review from the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, the city where Chris currently lives, and have seen Chris and his wife every day for the last week (They're using me as their test case as to whether they want to have children).  

So when Chris was in Ann Arbor following Alan Webb and the Michigan guys around in the Spring of 2002 preparing to write the book, I heard from him or Rojo pretty regularly about what was going on as it was happening. My brother covered the 2002 NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships in Louisiana for The Washington Post, and after the meet, he went out with Alan, Chris, and the Michigan guys in New Orleans and ended up sleeping on the floor of Nate Brannen's (Alan Webb's roommate at Michigan now a 2-time NCAA 800m champion) room with Chris. So although I've never met Alan Webb personally, I felt I already knew a great deal about him, and his 2002 season. However, I was surprised by how much I learned from the book.

The book does an excellent job of going behind the scenes and chronicling Alan, and to a lesser extent his stellar freshman teammate Nate Brannen, as they deal with adversity for the first time in their running careers during their freshman years at the University of Michigan. Webb (and Brannen) were two of the greatest runners in the history of high school running and had known nothing but success. When Lear starts following Webb, he is full of doubt, dealing with a new coach, coming off an injury that prevented him from competing indoors, and running in races for the first time with runners who can actually challenge him. Plus, he is confronted with enormous pressure in the running world, and faced with the decision of whether he should turn professional and return to his high school coach with whom he had so much success.

The book shows Webb, despite his ungodly running talents, to be a typical insecure college freshman. As Lear writes, "Just like any other 19-year old, Webb has his insecurities - except that his doubts are compounded by the fact that a nation's hungry eyes will be watching tomorrow night." And ultimately, it is Webb's insecurities, lack of experience, and lack of confidence, not his fitness that leads to his struggles on the track.  No matter how good a runner you are, there is a point in the race when it's going to hurt pretty bad, and if you are lacking confidence or are unsure of what your plan is, it is pretty easy to crater or give in to the pain.

Lear does an excellent job of showing that one of Webb's biggest strengths, his high expectations for himself, are also ultimately one of his biggest weaknesses.  Webb wants to be not good in track, be the best, as in the Best in the World. But this burning desire leads the teenager to the unreasonable expectations of making every workout better than the one before it, winning every race, even if it is against world class 800m runners, and these things can have negative consequences. When Webb does not meet his unreasonable goals, doubt naturally enters his mind as he has never had to experience failure before. Webb had rarely lost a race in 4 years, and never had to deal with even finishing 2nd on a regular basis. Thus, when Webb finished 9th in a race, he was faced with the fact and consequences that that was "the lowest I've ever finished in a race since my first race."

The book does a good job of chronicling the relationship and tension between Webb and his coach, Ron Warhurst of Michigan. Warhurst is a man in the old school meaning of the word, and one of the most interesting and colorful people in the book, and in all of track and field. Warhurst is full of one liners and interesting ways to motivate his athletes (I nearly fell off the exercise bike when Warhurst described the birth of his son).  Warhurst can see Webb's insecurities and the reasons for his lack of success on the track, but is fighting and uphill battle against time to get into Webb's head. The analytical Webb is always questioning things, unsure of himself, and thinking of returning home, turning professional, and running under his high school coach - Scott Razcko - a man under whom Webb never had to deal with any insecurities and very little adversity.

The book shows the track world can quickly turn on its stars which even Webb recognizes.  After 2000 Olympian Gabe Jennings failed to qualify for the 1500m finals at the 2002 NCAA Championships and was banging on his congo drums the next day at the meet, the announcer tells him to stop as it was annoying the runners.  Meanwhile, back in 2000, when Jennings was on top of the running world, NBC profiled Jennings beating his drums at meets showing what a free spirit Jennings was. As Webb says in the book, "It's funny, everyone was accepting of that type of thing when he was running well. Now it's like, Shut up."

But just as easily as the running world can turn on its stars, it loves to jump back on their bandwagon when they run well. And although the book chronicles what Webb calls by his own incredibly high standards "an incredibly terrible year", it is easy to see how Webb might have great success in the future. Lear shows Webb to be a tremendous talent, with an even greater drive, who is lacking in only experience and confidence. I started reading this book at the end of last week, before Webb broke through at the Home Depot Meet destroying the other US milers in the field, and I felt like I understood Webb much better. I though to myself, "If Webb ever gets his confidence back...". And the Alan Webb I saw on Saturday was a very confident runner. Confidence can be a fleeting thing in the running world, but after reading sub 4, I'm not the least bit surprised by his recent success or anything he does in the future.

And to show we're not totally biased, I'll have to come up with something to criticize in the book. First, Chris commits the #1 sin in writing, in that he never mentions LetsRun.com in the book. He even writes about how international mile standout and former Michigan assistant coach Kevin Sullivan went online to look for an article on Webb and the internet discussion on Webb, but fails to mention that no doubt Sullivan went to Letsrun.com as Sullivan regularly posts on our message boards (maybe Chris' editors at Rodale removed that from the book as Runnersworld is owned by Rodale which had a much publicized spat with LetsRun  in the past). A serious criticism may be that a couple of times, Chris hints at things to come in the book. Now I must admit a few times, it actually helped to build suspense, but a few times I felt it dampened it. Maybe that's because I'm the type of guy who doesn't like watching movie trailers before watching a movie as I don't like anything to be given away.  

All in all, I really enjoyed this book and read through it in maybe 3 sittings.

Click here to purchase Sub 4:00 from Amazon.com or for more info

Perfect Mile: Three Athletes, One Goal, and Less Than Four Minutes to Achieve It
Neal Bascomb, 2003

The Perfect Mile is a book that chronicles 3 men's chase to run the first sub 4 minute mile: Wes Santee of America, John Landy of Australia, and Roger Bannister of Great Britain.  But the book is not just the account of the sub-4 minute chase, as the "Perfect Mile" references the mile race between Landy and Bannister at the Empire Games in Vancouver at end of the summer after they had both run under 4 minutes in the mile.

With the 4 minute mile's 50th anniversary having occurred earlier this year, there has been quite a bunch of press coverage about the event, and a few other new book titles about the event as well.  I was a bit reluctant to start reading them, as I figured I already knew the outcome (much the same reason I (and Rojo) had put off reading Sub-4), Bannister runs under sub 4 minutes. How much drama could their be in rewriting what most runners already knew?

So I was pleasantly surprised that the Perfect Mile is full of drama, and full of information I knew nothing about. I must confess of somehow even getting goose bumps when reading about Bannister's record run.  

Bannister has received a lot of press, he even has his own autobiography on the sub 4 minute mile, but I knew virtually nothing about Santee and Landy. So the book's format from the beginning makes it interesting even to someone who knows a lot about running. One learns a great deal about Bannister from the book as well.

The three main protagonists (Landy, Santee, and Bannister) are presented as being three vastly different people with their own driving forces and motivations for wanting to break the sub 4 minute mile.  Santee is the cocky runner who had a tough upbringing on a Kansas farm and was mistreated by his dad, so he is naturally tough, and runs to escape his past.

Bannister is the ultimate amateur athlete who has other things in his life besides athletics, but wants to run sub 4 to make up for his showing at the 1952 Olympics.  As Bascomb writes, "Together they had achieved the ultimate in sport, but it was just that: sport.  As amateurs, this was not supposed to be their defining achievement. There was much more to the world than running". Being a scientist, Bannister is very methodical in his approach to running, but like all of us believes running teaches us about other aspects of life.  

And finally, Landy is more motivated by the personal satisfaction of running, and wants to show what his body can accomplish on its own.

If there is a drawback to the book, it is that a few times the book seems a bit forced or overly dramatic. Landy, Bannister, and Santee are always fitting the motivations outlined for them at the beginning. And although the first sub 4 minute mile was very dramatic, life in itself is very complex.  Are we really supposed to believe that the American Santee had a shot of getting into the Empire Games which are only for athletes in the Commonwealth? (But this is a very minor criticism, 9 reviewers out of 10 at amazon.com gave the book 5 stars out of 5)

And although I'm not sure about Bascomb's own running background, he by and large gets the running parts of the book right.  Before reading the book, I was thinking that the book would over dramatize say every lap of a mile race, but it really does not do that. There was a workout or two that clearly was impossible to do, but the runner and non-runner can enjoy this book as it sticks true to what running is about.

This book is a good read if you haven't read it. You'll learn a good deal about the runners and training of an era in the past. (There are some good quotes from Emil Zatopek at the 1952 Olympics where Bannister and Santee failed to medal).  If you read this book, there is a good chance it will inspire you to dare to achieve something great - which is one of the main reasons many of us run.  

In that light, I want to end this review with my favorite quote in the book. It is from Bannister's training partner Chris Brasher who says, "We honestly believed that, if you have a dream and you work to make it come true, then you really can change the world. There's just nothing you can't do."

Sort of matches the motto of this website perfectly, "Where your dreams become reality." 

Click here to purchase The Perfect Mile from Amazon.com or for more info

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