Iconic Running Distances

By Iffley Road. Posted: October 25, 2013

Certain running distances just resonate. With all due respect to the march of metrification these tend to be in older units with a deeper sense of history.

Take the mile, the marathon and the ten miler.

The mile is that classic and cruel blend of sprint and distance, fast-twitch and slow-twitch. The delicate balance between aerobic and anaerobic performance that makes middle distance running so challenging and compelling. There is also the pleasing simplicity of the Holy Grail of four laps in four minutes. Little wonder that the quest for the four minute mile was such a riveting story throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In 1896 the great Victorian rivals Walter George and William Cummins clashed in the “race of the century”. George won in a blistering 4:12. With pauses for the great wars the times closed in on the magic 4 minutes tantalising slowly. The record breakers are a roll call of middle distance greats. Paavo Nurmi, “the Flying Finn”, posting 4:10.4 in 1923; Sydney Wooderson, “the Mighty Atom” and inspiration for Roger Bannister, running 4:06.4 before the outbreak of war. Two more rivals, the Swedes Hägg and Andersson, then chiselled the record from 4:06.04 to 4:01.4 by 1945. So close…

With such an agonisingly slow progression some believed there was a physical barrier, impossible to break. That is until Roger Bannister, paced by Chris Chataway and the late Chris Brasher, breasted the tape in 3:59.4 on an overcast Oxford afternoon at the Iffley Road track. History was made on Thursday 6th May 1954.

Then there’s the Marathon. The original destination run. Another distance with historical and physiological significance a plenty. As runners we like to bask in the reflected glory of the legend of Pheidippides, the Greek messenger running from the Battle of Marathon to Athens in 490BC to announce the defeat of the Persians. His route of some 25 miles was adopted as the marathon distance for the first modern Olympic games in Athens in 1896. It was only meddlesome tweaking by the British Royals that established the modern standard of 26 miles and 385 yards at the 1908 London Olympics. The route was from Windsor Great Park to White city but King Edward VII had the start moved back from Windsor Great Park to just outside the castle nursery, adding about a mile. The finish was also changed at short notice to avoid the royal entrance of the White City Stadium. The physiology of the distance is even more fascinating. Readers of Christopher McDougal’s classic book Born to Run will be familiar with the “persistence hunt” theories of American anthropologists Carrier and Bramble. They argued that our early ancestors were perfectly adapted to long distance running over the hot plains of Africa. As the only largely hairless animal they were unique in being able to sweat, and so could outrun prey over long periods of time.

Evidence for this theory was provided by South African scientist Louis Leidenberg. Thinking along similar lines Leidenberg befriended the Kalahari bushmen and took part in a number of persistence hunts for Kudhu, a type of antelope. He found it took between 2-5 hours for a Kudu to drop from exhaustion. 2-5 hours. Eerily close to the time most of us take to complete the marathon. It seems marathon running hardwired into our DNA.

Ten miles is a fantastic distance to race. Somehow less scary than the mile and much more accessible than the marathon. A great stepping stone for those moving up from 10k to half marathon. A great motivator for decent club runners aiming to go below the hour. Ten milers used to be common fixtures but have declined over recent years, a victim to the dominance of the 5k and 10k.

Whatever your experience or fitness, trying a new distance is a great way to keep your racing fresh. Rise up runners, and shake off those metric shackles!

This article was first published in the Guardian Running Blog earlier this year.


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