6 Great British Milers

By Iffley Road. Posted: May 04, 2017

We launched Iffley Road on 6 May 2013, the anniversary of first sub 4- minute mile at the Iffley Road track in Oxford.  To celebrate our anniversary, this week’s blog features some of Britain’s greatest milers…

Sydney Wooderson

Dates: 30th August 1914 - 21st December 2006

Achievements: Set world record for the mile that stood for five years as well as winning two golds at the European Championships.

At 5ft 6 with his immaculately groomed hair, Wooderson defied the physical conventions of an athlete. Nonetheless he was a source of great inspiration to Roger Bannister, becoming the first British schoolboy to break 4min 30 seconds for the mile at the age of 18.

For the five years leading up to the outbreak of WW2 in 1939 Wooderson won the British mile as well as winning silver in the one mile event in 1934 at the British Empire Games. The 28th August 1937 saw him set a world record for the mile running it in 4min 6.4 seconds and a year later he set world records for 800m and 880yds.

Taking home gold in 1500m at the European World Championships in 1938, 6 years later he brought home another gold this time in the 5000m. Wooderson embodied all attributes that are valued in sport and life - fair play, honesty and dedication alongside an immense sense of modesty that hid his steely reserve of strength and talent.

Iffley Road track

Iffley Road, Oxford

Roger Bannister

Dates: 23rd March 1929

Achievements: First person to run a sub four minute mile, gold medal for the 1,500m in the European Championships and gold in the British Empire Games for 1 mile.

“The man who can drive himself further once the effort gets painful is the man who will win.”

Bannister began running in earnest whilst studying medicine at Exeter College, Oxford. Prior to running at Oxford Bannister had never worn spikes or even run on a track. Inspired by Wooderson and watching the 1948 Olympics Bannister set his sights on the Helsinki ’52 Olympics.

Although he considered giving up running entirely after a disappointing performance at the Olympics Bannister instead decided to set his sights on a new goal - to be the first man to run a mile under 4 minutes. He became just that on the 6th May 1954 on a wet and windy day at Oxford’s Iffley Road Track. With Chris Brasher and Chataway acting as pacemakers Bannister stormed over the finish line in 3 minutes 59.4 with the announcer's voice being drowned out by the roar of the crowds as soon as he had uttered the number 3.

Criticised for his innovative and unusual interval training with a highly focused weekly mileage (especially after he failed to bring home any medals from Helsinki) Bannister showed incredible foresight and determination to stick with his regime. Although making history and becoming a true running legend immortalised by his sub four minute mile Bannister himself, who went on to become an influential contributor to academic medicine, saw his subsequent forty years practising as a neurologist as more significant than breaking the 4 minute mile.

Iffley Road track numbers

Iffley Road, Oxford

Diane Leather  

Dates: 7th January 1933

Achievements: First woman to run a sub five-minute mile

One of the greatest female runners of her time, Leather started off as a hockey player before joining the Birchfield Harriers to improve her fitness. It was with the Birchfield Harriers that she became the first woman to run a mile in less than five minutes just 23 days after Roger Bannister had become the first man to break four minutes.

The fact that this time was never ratified highlights the difficulties encountered by Leather (and all other female runners) as 800m was the only middle distance for women recognised for world record purposes. Leather improved on her time later that year bringing it down to 4:45.0 a time that would remain a record for 7 years.

Leather set 3 official world records at White City (twice in the 3 times 880yds relay and once in the 880yds) as well as winning 5 WAAA titles in the space of three years (between ’54-’57). In the European Championships she took home two silver medals in the 800m once in ’54 and and once in ’58.

Known as the Audrey Hepburn of the running world Leather was as elegant off the track as determined on it.

Steve Ovett 

Dates: 9th October 1955

Achievements: Olympic gold medal winner for the 800m plus two mile records.

Born in Sussex, Ovett was a keen and talented footballer but gave this up to pursue running. In 1973 he won his first title in the European junior 800m taking home a gold medal. In 1977 at the IAAF World Cup in the 1500m race he left behind Olympic Gold medalist John Walker as he took off with 200m to go sprinting to the finish in a British Record of 3:34.45.

In 1978 at the European Championships 800m race, Ovett and Coe raced for the first time in their senior careers. It looked as though Ovett was on his way to gold before East German Olaf Beyer surprisingly took the lead and won. Ovett came second with a time of 1:44:09 running what would prove to be his fastest 800m race. In the 1980 Olympic 800m finals in Moscow Ovett was lagging in sixth place at 400m, with 70m left to go he had managed to fight his way to second place putting on a last burst of speed beating Coe by three meters and taking home gold.

In the late 70s and early part of the 80s Ovett and Coe dominated male middle distance running in Britain exchanging world records ferociously. Throughout his career Ovett took home 3 gold medals in 1500m racing (one in the European Championships and two at the IAAF World Cup) as well as an Olympic gold medal for the 800m.

Iffley Road track bench

Iffley Road, Oxford

Sebastian Coe  

Dates: 29th September 1956

Achievements: Two Olympic gold medals in 1500m, two Olympic silver medals in 800m plus 3 mile records.

“Sports is a universal language, building more bridges between people than anything else I can think of.”

Coe joined the athletic team the Hallamshire Harriers at the age of 12 and was coached by his father before attending Loughborough University. In 1977 he won his first major race, the 800m, in the European indoor championships in San Sebastian running it in 1.46.54 and just missing out on the indoor world record. Later that year, on the 9th September he won the 800m at the Coca Cola Games at Crystal Palace in a time of 1:44.95 setting his first UK record.

A year later Coe ran against Steve Ovett for the first time in Prague which saw the beginning of a life-long rivalry between the two athletes. In 1981 in less than ten days (between 19th August and 28th August) Coe and Ovett tussled over the World Record for the mile with Coe claiming it off Ovett, swiftly losing it again a week later before claiming it again on the 28th August in Brussels with the time of 3:47.33.

In 1980 having broken Rick Wohlhuter’s world record for the 1,000m he held all four middle-distance (800m, 1000m, 1500m and the mile) world records simultaneously for all of one hour before Ovett broke his mile record. In both the 1980 and 1984 Olympics Coe brought home a gold for the 1,500m and silver for the 800m thus boasting four Olympic gold medals and 8 World Records throughout his career.

Iffley Road track markers

Iffley Road, Oxford

Steve Cram

Dates: 14th October 1960

Achievements: One mile record and the first person to go sub 3:30 for the 1500m; one Silver Olympic medal in 1500m.

Along with Ovett and Coe, Cram dominated middle-distance running throughout the 80s. In the space of 19 days in 1985 Cram set World Records in 2000m, 1500m and 1 mile. Cram was also the first person to run 1500m in under 3:30.  

In 1982 Cram won gold in 1500m at both the Commonwealth Games in Brisbane and the European Championships in Athens. A year later he won 1500m at the World Championships in Helsinki making Great Britain home to the Olympic Champion, World Champion and World Record holder in 1500m.

1984 saw Cram bring home a silver medal in 1500m from the Los Angeles Olympics. Two years later Cram won the 1500m at both the European Championships and the Commonwealth Games, his mile record set in Oslo stood for 8 years and he is still the UK record holder. 1985 was Crams wonder year which saw him breaking three world records, on 16th July in Nice Cram became the first man to run 1500m in under 3:30 clocking in at 3:29.67. Eleven days later Cram took the Mile record in Oslo (3:46.32) finally running 2000m in 4:51.39 on the 4th August.

The mile is a brutal distance requiring both aerobic and anaerobic effort and great pace judgment. That’s what makes it such a classic challenge – if you’ve not already tried the mile we’d urge you to give it a go!

If you're UK based here are some Mile races you could consider:-

The Manchester mile - 21 June race
The Westminster mile - 28 May race
The Ealing Mile, London - monthly race            
And if you get really stuck in, you may want to consider joining the British Milers Club.
Good luck!


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