Was Roger Bannister’s first sub-four in 1954 truly the greatest mile ever? Would you know, if no one told you the final time? Here are five mile races that are less known, but no less memorable and historic. Together they prove that the mile is a perfect drama, to race, to watch, or to re-live in words.
August 6, 1958: Five Under Four
“It’s best not to limit yourself.”
“All Dublin wanted to see the mile. People abandoned their cars and walked to Santry Stadium. Some of the athletes had to run there,” Dan Curbery remembers. In 1958, he was nineteen years old, Dublin’s top miler, so he provided the local interest in the greatest mile field ever assembled.
The raw new stadium and the race were the work of a quirky genius called Billy Morton, an optician, 2:48 marathon runner, and hon sec of Clonliffe Harriers, who had charmed and bullied Ireland into constructing its first cinder track. Now he wanted a race there to make the world take notice. The reigning Olympic 1500m gold medalist, Ireland’s own Ron Delaney, was the star attraction, and Morton went to the British Empire Games at Cardiff and wooed three Aussies and one Kiwi. In that era, the epicenter of world miling was down-under. Legend has it that Morton concocted an Irish story that the trees around the Santry track release extra oxygen just at the time of evening when his “Miracle Mile” was scheduled.
For sure, something miraculous was in the air. Herb Elliott’s 3:54.5 smashed the world record by 2.3 seconds, an incredible margin, matched in history only by Walter George in 1882. The first four finishers ran under the previous world mark, which also has never been done again. (“I ran 3:55.9 and still finished second. I’m going to concentrate on tennis,” complained Merv Lincoln.) The first five broke four minutes. Consider the impact of that, only four years after Bannister.
Yet this was Ireland. Elliott had spent the previous evening getting fully acquainted with Guinness, there was “pandemonium” (Murray Halberg wrote) when Delaney appeared, a wildly excited dog tried to join the race on the second lap, and the post-race celebrations left Dublin’s pubs dry.
Elliott, age 20, with a capacity for intense focus, ran his usual commanding, accelerating race. He was supreme, never beaten at the mile or 1500m, and this was a performance as epic as his world record Olympic victory in 1960. Asked in an interview about the ultimate human limit, he replied quietly: “It’s best not to limit yourself.”
The track where it happened is now renamed Morton Stadium, a rare honor for a club official. Billy Morton died in 1969, and the oxygen level seems never to have been quite the same.
For the record:
- Herb Elliott (Australia) 3:54.5 WR,
- Merv Lincoln (Australia) 3:55.9
- Ron Delaney (Ireland) 3:57.5,
- Murray Halberg (New Zealand) 3:57.5,
- Albie Thomas (Australia) 3:58.6.
May 16, 1971: The Dream Mile
American Idols Rock Philly
For American track fans, this should have been the Olympics. In Mexico’s altitude in 1968, world record holder Jim Ryun (mile 3:51.1, 1500m 3:33.1) had been humbled by Kip Keino, while the brilliant 19-year-old Marty Liquori struggled with a foot injury at the back of the field. Fans were left bereft. Ryun and Liquori had both run sub-4 in high school and were American idols.
Liquori, the master tactician, rose to the top as Ryun backed away from the sport in 1969-70, but Ryun stormed back, his eyes on another shot at the Olympics. In May 1971, the two Americans were the best in the world. But which was the best American?
There was a full house at Franklin Field in Philadelphia, and network television coverage. Interest was massive. Sports Illustrated held that week’s cover, and the TV commentator saw “more photographers than I’ve ever seen outside the Olympics.”
The race started watchfully, a crowded 2:03.2 to the half-mile. But in lap 3, coming off the first turn, 700 yards to go, Liquori moved. Ryun slipped around the pack in pursuit, and it was a new race, the two of them, and fast. The crowd roared. That quarter was under 57sec, and Liquori was still accelerating. The crowd rose to their feet. On the back stretch, Liquori was near sprinting, but Ryun was poised. Around the last bend, Ryun edged up to Liquori’s shoulder, and the outcome seemed inevitable. But it wasn’t. Liquori had a stride lead, and all down the finishing straight, stride after stride, he kept it, looking smooth as Ryun’s head bobbed. The last 880 was 1:51.4, the last 440 54.6, time 3:54.6, a masterpiece of pace judgment.
Greg Vitiello of New York remembers it only too well, an eye-witness who couldn’t see anything.
“From the bell everyone was standing. The tension was palpable. I was rooting for Ryun, and could just see him stretch out on the final turn, ready to make his decisive move. But Franklin Field has such lousy sight lines that with the crowd all on their feet, that was the last I saw, till they crossed the finish with Liquori a stride ahead, and the crowd mobbed the New Jersey hero. I have watched replays for fifty years and I still wait in vain for Ryun’s move.”
August 28, 1981: The Most Golden Mile
Seb Coe Soars
Before the World Championships (1983) and the Grand Prix (1985) came the Golden Series, twelve big-budget glamor events, from 1978 to 1982, designed by IAAF (now World Athletics) to attract global television coverage. The twelve ranged from sprints to marathon, but the most glittering, every year, was the Golden Mile.
The 1981 Golden Mile in Brussels was the post-Olympics Olympics. The 1980 Moscow Games had been diminished by the American-led boycott. Nothing could diminish the quality of Seb Coe’s victory in Moscow, but now, a year later, for the first time a truly global elite field was assembled to challenge him. Among the twelve, only Coe and Ray Flynn (Ireland) had been in the Moscow 1500m. Gathered here were those excluded when their nations joined the boycott: Mike Boit (Kenya), Omer Khalifa (Sudan), John Walker (New Zealand), Thomas Wessinghage (West Germany), and a whole attack force of thwarted Americans, Steve Scott, Craig Masback, Sydney Maree, and Tom Byers. Add Eamonn Coghlan, fourth in the 5000m in Moscow.
Even pace-maker Byers was a threat. In the Bislett Games in Oslo six weeks earlier, the pack, including Steve Ovett, declined to follow Byers, the hired rabbit, so the long-haired American declined to drop out. He won, the rabbit who rebelled.
In Brussels, Byers did his work to perfection: 54.92 for the first lap, 1:52.67 at the half-mile, under world record schedule by just less than one second, precisely as Coe had ordered. Only Coe and Boit went with him. It’s fascinating to watch Coe, the master craftsman, follow Byers, positioned close behind but maybe three inches out, so that he has free space for his light footfall, as well as the benefit of drafting. He made one error, clipping the curb early in the third lap, but allowed only a slight stumble to disrupt that compact poise and honey-smooth stride. Boit, in black, tall and angular, looked a kind of pursuing ghost, haunting Coe.
Byers completed his day as role-model rabbit by stepping off at the bend with just over one lap to go. Coe flashed one of his quick glances to check on Boit, and took a brief respite to reach the bell at 2:51.0, slightly outside world record schedule. Another glance — in some way Coe used them to lift or fuel his desire. He must have great peripheral vision.
Imperceptibly, he moved up a gear, and Boit was five, six yards down. Approaching the final curve, Boit was thrashing himself back into contention. Only one yard. Another glance, and Coe was gliding away — that’s how it looked. How can a runner look so composed when he is breaking the world mile record by more than a second?
Boit ran wonderfully, but Coe won by more than two seconds. It was like stroking silk or hearing a master musician at work, impeccably skilful and seductively beautiful.
For the record:
- Seb Coe (GBR) 3:47.33 WR
- Mike Boit (Kenya) 3:49.45
- Steve Scott (USA) 3:51.48
- Sydney Maree (USA) 3:51.81
- Thomas Wessinghage (W. Germany) 3:52.60
- John Walker (NZL) 3:52.97.
February 20, 1994: Sub-Four at Forty
Ageless Coghlan Joins Bannister in the History Books
Masters competition really got going in the 1970s, with the new incentives of world track and field championships and official records. Some fine older middle distance runners emerged, such as John Gilmour and Alan Bradford (Australia) and Derek Turnbull (New Zealand). As young athletes they had been good but not great, and came into their own with age. In those days, the best runners — the Roger Bannisters and Herb Elliotts — retired by age 25. In the late 1980s, a new phenomenon appeared – world-class runners, Olympic champions, world record breakers, who kept on racing fast after passing age thirty.
And so the race for the first four-minute mile happened all over again – for the over-forties. Like the original race to be first under four, this was global, fascinating to the fans, rich with strong personalities, and accompanied by doubts about whether the feat was humanly possible.
Rod Dixon (born July 1950) threatened first, with a range from Olympic 1500m bronze to winning the New York City Marathon, but the step up to serious mile racing again was too great. Then it was fellow-Kiwi John Walker (born January 1952), 1976 Olympic 1500m champion, the first to break 3:50 for the mile, and with 135 sub-four miles behind him. “Walker seems certain to be the first,” wrote Merrill Noden in Sports Illustrated a month before Walker’s fortieth birthday. A special “Night of Miles” was planned for that summer January night in Auckland, with Roger Bannister, Jim Ryun, and every great living miler invited. But the reality of injuries intervened and Walker missed the window. Life’s stopwatch is always ticking.
Then Eamonn Coghlan (born November 1952) set his Irish heart on being first. He chose to try indoors, where he always best thrived. His world indoor record of 3:49.78 from 1983 still stood. In February 1993, three months after his fortieth birthday, he ran 4:01.39 on the Madison Square Garden boards. A year later, after a course of deep-tissue massage and a program of intense 400 meter repeats in 56 seconds, he was primed to try, again at the Garden. He ran 4:04.55.
“I’m beginning to wonder what it takes,” he told Marc Bloom for the New York Times.
It took one more week, Harvard’s bigger, banked, 200m indoor track, some spot-on pacing by Stanley Redwine, and three thousand exuberant teenagers pounding the fencing and the floor to the rhythm of Coghlan’s stride. The special mile was put on during a Massachusetts high schools’ meet, and school athletes from every event became an instant Irish clamor of support.
“They created more noise than at any other track I’ve run at,” Coghlan told Bloom. Redwine took him though the half-mile in 1:59.76, three-quarters in 2:59.21, and the master pulled out a 58.94 last quarter. It was his seventy-fifth sub-four mile, and his last. Bernard Lagat expunged it in 2015 as the over-40 record with a mind-blowing 3:54.91, but Coghlan’s place in miling history, like Bannister’s, is permanent.
September 7, 2019: Classic Clash
I Am Jenny, Hear Me Roar
It was the classic contest: The old alpha and the young usurper battling for the leadership. Jenny Simpson, 33, top American since 2011, came back yet again to New York’s Fifth Avenue Mile to defend her territory, this time against a challenger who was on the cusp of breaking through to top American status.
Simpson, astute and battle-hardened, had a World Championship gold, two silvers, an Olympic bronze, and a peerless record of seven victories at the Fifth Avenue race, in consecutive years apart from missing 2012 for the London Olympics. Elinor Purrier was riding a youthful crest, improving by the day, and launching a break-through that has since given her the American indoor mile record, 4:16.85, toppling a Mary Decker-Slaney mark that had stood for thirty-seven years, and a two-miles indoors record, 9:10.28, that is six seconds faster than Simpson’s American outdoor record. Since September 7, 2019, Purrier has very much arrived.
She nearly did it that day. Five seconds from the finish of the Fifth Avenue Mile, we thought Purrier had seized the crown. She and Simpson pushed the pace all the way, looking like a team, side by side in identical green and white colors, and looking, too, hungry for the race record. By halfway, the rest of the strong field were a defeated pack. Purrier and Simpson were commanding, and inseparable. The second quarter on the long Fifth Avenue straightaway is an uphill drag, and it was Purrier, the 5000m specialist, a half-stride in front. The faster third quarter, slightly downhill, brought Simpson up by a fraction, flying, it seemed.
Faster than the Fifth Avenue bus in its wildest dreams, they counted down the cross-streets, down through the seventies and sixties, flying past the Model Boat Lake, the Frick Collection, the Zoo, with the Plaza Hotel beyond the finish line rising into view. (The course ends just before intersecting with the New York City Marathon route at Grand Army Plaza.) Now Purrier looked the more composed, less tall than Simpson, a potent combination of sturdy and swift. Simpson seemed to become more rangy. Could she hold it together?
Purrier had maybe half a yard as the clock passed 4:10. In those next six seconds, Simpson found more stride length from somewhere, somehow it was she who hit the big blue tape narrowly, but incontestably, in front. Yes, the old order changes, yielding place to new. It’s Nature’s law. But not today, Simpson’s finish said. Not here.
For her seven previous Fifth Avenue Mile victories, Simpson had to beat a generation or two of fine international athletes – Hannah England, Sally Kipyego, Brenda Martinez, Shannon Rowbury, Laura Weightman, Emma Coburn. Purrier proved the toughest of them all, and went closest. Simpson’s extra reward was a race record 4:16.1. Not many do that at 33 with their eighth victory, a total that will surely survive unchallenged a long time. Purrier was also under the old record, with 4:16.2.
Street miles were a phenomenon of the 1980s, and a few survived. Some are gimmicky downhill romps, but with the famous setting of Fifth Avenue, the one mile distance exerts its unique fascination, poised, as always, somewhere between a tactical drama and a prolonged sprint.
Ten More Momentous Miles
January 10, 1719: The First Mile Race on Record
Four hundred years ago. A cold misty winter day on Newmarket Heath, in the east of England. The race-horses who gallop here in summer are snug in their stalls. A colorful crowd has gathered for a different kind of race, the world’s first recorded one-mile footrace. Two “running footmen,” William Mawbone and Thomas Groves, in their rival liveries, toe the scratched line on the earth. Their daily job is to carry messages, and run as heralds ahead of their employer’s carriage. Those gambling-mad aristocrats have boasted and betted on the running prowess of their best footman. The mile is the first of a series of four monthly head-to-head races, the distance rising from one to four miles, the prize money and betting rising faster. The series ended tied 2 – 2.
Mawbone won the mile. Sorry, that’s all we can deduce, although there are brief reports of the two-mile and four-mile races later. Newspapers were new, hand-produced, and skimpy. This one was called “The Original Weekly Journal,” written by Daniel Defoe, preserved in the British Library. There I found that William Mawbone, running footman to the Duke of Wharton, was the first reported winner of a one-mile race in history.
July 15, 1933, Princeton, USA
Promoted as the “Mile of the Century,” world radio and mass print coverage make it probably the biggest media sports event to that time. The pride of Princeton and America, Bill Bonthron, is matched against laconic Jack Lovelock of New Zealand, Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University, who times his sprint to perfection and runs 4:07.6, world record by 1.6sec. Told he too had broken the old record, Bonthron remarks “Aw nuts, he beat me.”
May 6, 1954, Oxford, England.
Roger Bannister, with pacing help from Chris Brasher and Chris Chataway, becomes the first to run a mile faster than four minutes, 3:59.4.
August 7, 1954, Vancouver, Canada
In the British Empire and Commonwealth Games, Bannister faces John Landy, the Australian whose 3:57.9 broke his world record. After barely hanging on to Landy’s pace, Bannister finds a finish, and wins the “Miracle Mile” in 3:58.8, with Landy on 3:59.6, two under four for the first time in the same race.
January 27, 1962, Whanganui, New Zealand
Peter Snell had unexpectedly won the Olympic 800m in 1960, benefitting from the endurance training of coach Arthur Lydiard. On a 385-yard grass track, he faces his friend, Olympic 5000m champion Murray Halberg, but it is the frail-looking Bruce Tulloh of England who startles everyone with a daring surge with 400 yards to go. Snell responds, with “a glorious feeling of strength and speed,” and breaks Herb Elliott’s Dublin world record. Tulloh, a 5000m specialist, telegrams to his wife Sue in England, “Broke 4.”
June 5, 1964, Los Angeles, USA
In the early 60s, America has a vintage of fast milers, and the best of them all is about to emerge. At the Compton Invitational, eight run under four minutes, the deepest mile race in history to that date. Winner Dyrol Burleson (3:57.4) modestly says, “The entire story was back in eighth place. What Jim Ryun did was more significant than Roger Bannister.” Ryun, a 17-year-old Kansas high school student, had just run 3:59.0.
August 12, 1975, Gōteborg, Sweden
Michel Jazy (France), Jim Ryun, and Filbert Bayi (Tanzania) have brought the world record down to 3:51.0. The next barrier beckons. John Walker (New Zealand), touring the temperate summer tracks of Scandinavia, follows the pacemaker to the half in 1:55.5, and then moves, followed by Australian Ken Hall. After 58 seconds for lap 3, Walker lets loose his extraordinary power, while nine thousand Swedes do their unique syncopated clap: “Clap, clap, clap-clap-clap.” With a 55.9 closing lap, Walker hurtles through the barrier to 3:49.4.
August 21, 1985, Zurich, Switzerland
The first Olympic women’s 3000m in 1984 ended almost as a débacle, with Mary Decker’s crashing fall and unjust condemnation of Zola Budd for causing it, while Maricica Puica (Romania) took the gold.
Just over one year later, those three protagonists meet again, over one mile. Decker-Slaney (as she now is) leads fast from the half mile. Coming into the stretch, they are in perfect arrow formation: Decker-Slaney in lane 2, Budd (still only nineteen) on her left in the inside lane, Puica on her right. It looks like Puica’s race. But from some depth of brilliance, Decker-Slaney draws another level of speed, never losing her elegant composure, and crosses in a world record 4:16.70. Whether or not it counts as revenge, it is very sweet.
July 7, 1999, Rome
Hicham El Guerrouj (Morocco) runs the current men’s world record, 3:43.13.
July 12, 2019, Monaco
Sifan Hassan (Netherlands) runs the current women’s world record, 4:12:33.
Roger Robinson is author of the essential When Running Made History.