Run for the Journey

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12 Inspirational Mile Runners

July sees the anniversary of the current world mile record for both men and women. That got us thinking about this iconic middle distance event and some of the inspirational athletes who brought times down over the years.

Paavo Nurmi, the “Flying Finn”, dominated middle distance running and beyond at the start of the 20th century. During the twenties he won Olympic Golds from 1500m to 10,000m and was dominant at cross-country. His 1923 mile time of 4:10.04 stood for almost a decade.

Paavo Nurmi: 12 Inspirational Mile Runners1923: Paavo Nurmi's mile time of 4:10.04 stood for almost a decade.

Swedes Gunder Hägg and Arne Andersson tussled for the position as mile world record holder breaking each other’s records numerous times. They eventually lowered the record to 4:01.4 in a race won by Hägg in Malmo in 1945. This record was not broken until Roger Bannister ran the first sub four-minute mile almost ten years later.

Born in Sorbygden in 1918, Hägg was the son of a lumberjack. A serial record breaker, he set 15 world records from 1500m to 3 miles earning him the nickname ‘Gunder the Wonder’. Andersson was his constant rival throughout the mid 1940s

Bannister, Santee and Landy

Roger Bannister was the first to break the 4 minute mile on the Iffley Road track on 6 May 1954, breasting the tape in 3:59.4 – a psychological barrier as much as a physical one. One of the last great amateurs, we have always admired how he excelled at the mile, alongside the demanding workload of a junior doctor. The story of the four-minute mile would be incomplete without mention of America’s Wes Santee and Australia’s John Landy, both of whom were closing in on the 4-minute mark and pushed Bannister into choosing the date for his successful attempt. Indeed Landy went on to set a new mile record just a month later.

Roger Bannister: 12 Inspirational Mile RunnersBannister 41 in the centre flanked by Brasher 44 and Chataway 42.

Diane Leather

Diane Leather was the first woman to break the 5-minute mile, just 23 days after Bannister’s record, although sadly her achievement received far less acclaim. Indeed, Leather’s mile record was never ratified as the 800m and 880 yards were the only Women’s middle distances recognised for world record purposes. In fact, no women’s Olympic event was longer than 200m during the 1950s. It was not until 1967 that the IAAF started recognising women’s world records at the mile distance. As a footnote, it was not until 1984 that the Women’s marathon was included in the Olympics!

Diane Leather: 12 Inspirational Mile RunnersDiane Leather was the first woman to break the 5-minute mile, just 23 days after Bannister’s record.

Coe, Ovett and Cram

During the 80s Ovett and Coe, and later Cram dominated male middle distance running in Britain exchanging world records ferociously. This truly was a golden era for British middle-distance running. Of all their many inspiring battles the 1980 Moscow Olympics stand out when, reversing predictions, Ovett won gold for 800m whereas Coe was victorious over 1500m.

With his supremely graceful style, Seb Coe was arguably the greatest middle-distance runner of the 1980s. He joined the athletic team the Hallamshire Harriers at the age of 12 and was coached by his father before attending Loughborough University.

Steve Ovett was a talented footballer but gave this up to pursue running. In 1977 he shocked spectators at the IAAF World Cup 1500m race, beating Olympic Gold medalist John Walker and setting a new British Record.

Some 5 years younger than Coe and Ovett, Steve Cram was the first person to run 1500m in under 3:30 and is still the UK mile record holder with a time of 3:46.32. Between the three of them they broke the mile record 6 times and Cram’s record stood for 8 years.

Hicham El Guerrouj is the current world record holder for the mile (3:43:13) set on July 7th 1999 in Rome. The Moroccan was only 17 when he came 3rd in the 5000m at the 1992 Junior World Championships (behind Haile Gebrselassie). At the 2004 Athens Olympics he became the first man to win the 1500m and 5000m in the same Games.

Sifan Hassan of the Netherlands is the current women’s record holder. She clocked 4:12.33 in July of last year at the Diamond League fixture in Monaco, breaking the previous record set by Rusia’s Svetlana Masterkova way back in 1996.

We love the story of the mile progression. At times dominated by intense rivalries and at other periods more of a solo effort. Do you have a runner who inspires you? We’d love to know – drop us an email at bill@iffleyroad.com!