Racing Past

The History of Middle and Long Distance Running

1954 European ChampionshipsBern, Switzerland, August 25-29 Despite the modest location, Berne Neufeld Stadium, this meet produced some stellar performances, including three WRs and 16 meet records. As Track and Field News (7.8) said, “These Games were probably second only to the Helsinki Olympics.” Bannister followed up his Vancouver victory with another major title here. The biggest news was the emergence of a new distance star: Vladimir Kuts.  At the same time it was evident that Zatopek was no longer a threat over 5,000. The best race was undoubtedly the 800.


Welcome to Racing Past, a non-profit website dedicated to the history of competitive running.

You will see that Bob Phillips is now carrying the baton for this site, as I have moved on to another website on the arts (

The main reason I have stopped writing articles for this site is that I have covered everything I wanted to write about. Above all, I wanted to write about the great runners who were competing when I was competing at club level for Brighton AC. These were the runners who inspired me and to whom I feel I owe a great debt. 

I have been surprised and gratified by the response to this website over the past decade. I will keep Racing Past "running" for as long as I can and am very grateful and honored that such a fine writer as Bob Phillips is continuing to improve this site with his historical articles.


John Cobley

January 2024



Latest Articles

Parades across the world are often military, the Russian May Day Parade for example. But there are many other types of parade—processions of people along a road that celebrate historical events (the end of World War 2) or promote groups of society (the Brazilian Rio Carnival Parade). And of course there is always a Parade of Nations to open the Olympic Games. A unique parade was held in Paris, France, on November 11, 1935. It was organized by the newspaper Paris-Soir to pay homage to a runner who had been banned for life some four years previously. Jules Ladoumègue had captured the hearts of his nation when he had broken six world records and won an Oålympic silver medal. A very sensitive and modest man, “Julot” nevertheless appealed to the French, who were still recovering from German occupation in World War 1. He also appealed to the public with his elegant running style.

George Young Profile

American middle-distance runner George Young will be remembered most of all for establishing American steeplechasing on the international map, for solidifying the 1952 gold-medal achievement of Horace Ashenfelter. Young placed fifth and third in the 1964 and 1968 Olympic Steeplechase finals and set an American record of 8:30.4. He will also be remembered for his competitive toughness. This toughness was perfectly exemplified near the end of his career (at  age 36) when he had an memorable battle with 21-year-old Prefontaine in the 1972 USA Olympic Trials 5,000. Young’s ongoing reputation as a tough guy was brilliantly captured in the Prefontaine movie Without Limits. In a memorable scene (, Donald Sutherland, playing Coach Bill Bowerman, visits Prefontaine (Billy Crudup) to announce with great gravity: “George Young is in town.” This echoes a classic line in many western movies when locals learn that a famous gunfighter has arrived in town. George Young was indeed a “famous gunfighter” on the American track scene in the 1960s and early 1970s.

Martin Hyman Profile

“I’m driven, analytical, and a keen observer.” English distance runner Martin Hyman lacked basic speed. He couldn’t beat 2:00 for 800; his best 400 was a pedestrian 57.5. Yet he was able to place 4th in three major track championships, and from 1958 to 1964 he recorded times that even today would put him in the top six of the British rankings for 10,000. On the road he was considered by some as unbeatable. He had notable wins in Spain and Brazil and set many course records. Even in cross-country, which he considered his weakest event, he ran 3rd in the 1961 international championships.

Gerry Lindgren Profile

Few runners have appeared on the distance-running scene as dramatically as American Gerry Lindgren. In 1964 while still a schoolboy, he emerged from a remote area of Washington State near the Canadian border to run a series of world-class races. His successes that year took him to the Tokyo Olympics as one of the favorites in the 10,000. Until the 1960s teenagers rarely competed in distance events. It was universally believed that distance running was a mature man’s sport; teenagers were strongly discouraged from running long distances on the road and track. Only in cross-country races were they allowed to run longer distances up to 5,000.

Jean Wadoux Profile

Jean Wadoux emerged in the 1960s as one of the world’s finest middle-distance runners. He was a worthy successor to Michel Jazy, in whose shadow his early career developed. His greatest achievement was a European 1,500 record of 3:34.0 in 1970. At that time it was the second-fastest 1,500 ever recorded. Wadoux also ran the 5,000 in 13:28.0. His competitive record was excellent, although critics have noted his poor record in major competitions. This is unfair. A closer look at his two Olympics and three Europeans shows that he performed well in two of these meets and was handicapped by altitude (Mexico) and by an injury in two others. Only in the 1966 Europeans did he disappoint. Wadoux won many races for his country in international matches and was French national 1,500 champion for seven consecutive years. When he moved up to the 5,000 later in his career, he posted impressive wins over Keino and Clarke and won a European silver medal in his last year of competition.

Latest Book Reviews

The Landy Era

Johnson, Len

2nd February 2017

The Landy Era by Len Johnson: Book Review   There have been several books on Bannister’s breaking of the four-minute Mile, but until now we haven’t had a book that focuses on John Landy. This is not to say that there hasn’t been some good material on the great Australian miler. Neal Bascomb’s excellent The Perfect Mile provides some excellent material on Landy’s build-up to 1954; Nelson and Quercetani cover Landy’s career with their usual thoroughness in their indispensible The Milers. There is also good material on Landy, although on a smaller scale, in John Bryant’s 3:59.4: The Quest to Break the Four-Minute Mile and in Jim Denison’s Bannister and Beyond. But was not until Len Johnson’s The Landy Era, published in 2009, that have we been given the full story.

Quicksilver: The Mercurial Emil Zatopek

Butcher, Pat

The late Emil Zatopek ranks as one of the most inspirational figures in the history of track. He inspired us not only as a competitor but also as an innovative trainer and as a human being. Such was his stature that a regular number of “pilgrims” used to travel to Czechoslovakia to meet him. So it is surprising that until 2015 only three books on him had been published (See my book review “Three Books on Zatopek”) However, there has been a veritable deluge of Zatopek books in the last year. First to appear was Pavel Kosatik’s Emil-Bezec, which was written in the Czech language. Then early in 2016 two more were published: Today We Die a Little: The Rise and Fall of Emil Zatopek, Olympic Legend by Richard Askwith and Endurance: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Emil Zatopek by Rick Broadbent. Later in 2016 a fourth book appeared: Quicksilver: the Mercurial Emil Zatopek by Pat Butcher.

55 Years Running

Oxlade, Edwin

There must be lots of people in the British running community who know the name Edwin Oxlade. Not that he was a top-level runner. In fact, he was a good club runner with times of 49:52 for 10 Miles, 1:05:57 for a half Marathon and 2:24:24 for a Marathon. For a long time he was deeply involved with the UK club scene, and he has now decided to put all his memories and opinions into print. “ I like to think of the book as a personal view of the history of running,  in particular British distance running, during the course of my lifetime,” he explains in his short preface. “Personal” is a key word here because Edwin Oxlade has a lot of opinions--and I don’t mean this in a negative way.

The Miracle Mile: Stories of the 1954 British Empire and Commonwealth Games

Beck, Jason

The Miracle Mile: Stories of the 1954 British Empire and Commonwealth Games, by Jason Beck. Half Moon Bay, BC, Canada: Caitlin Press, 2016. Softback, $29. 95. 318pp This large-format book is beautifully produced (kudos to Vici Johnstone, who designed the over and text), and it offers a generous amount of black-and-white photography. It is clearly a labour of love for author Jason Beck, who is the Curator and Facility Director of the British Columbia Sports Hall of Fame in Vancouver. Much of the work on his ten-year project for this book was done while commuting. Although he had no spare time during business hours to work on this book, his job did give him one big advantage: “Access to the largest collection of BECG-related material anywhere in the world as well as key contacts, each of whom had some connection to the Games as an athlete, spectator, volunteer official or coach.” (BECG = British Empire and Commonwealth Games)

Conquerors of Time

McConnell, Lynn

It took me a while to get hold of this book, but I’m glad that I persevered. It’s now in my must-have collection. This highly researched book focuses on the 1,500 and covers the 1932 and 1936 Olympics and the years in between. Primarily the book is about Jack Lovelock, Luigi Beccali, Glenn Cunningham, and Bill Bonthron, the first three having run in both Olympics. There is also information about other great 1,500 runners of this 1932-1936 period: Sydney Wooderson, Gene Venzke, Phil Edwards, and Jerry Cornes. Wooderson and Venzke had one disappointing Olympics in 1936; Cornes and Edwards, however, medaled in one Olympics and placed in the top six in the other.

Latest from Bob Phillips

                                Finish of the 1952 Olympic Final in Helsinki Germany returned to the Olympics in Helsinki seven years after the end of World War II, and in athletics three silver medals and three bronze medals, including those for the 800, 1500 and 5000 metres, were won. Writing in the British Olympic Association’s Official Report, Harold Abrahams – happily, as he admitted, “wallowing” in statistics – made the valid point that top six placings, of which the USA had 34, the USSR (competing for the first time at the Games) 20, Great Britain 15 and Germany 11. were as significant as medals in judging a country’s strength. However, such a favourable outcome might still have been a cause of some embarrassment to the then president of the German athletics federation, Max Danz.

Percy and the Finns Legitimize the Steeplechase

                                                        Iso-Hollo leads “The Last of the Flying Finns” – a turn of phrase which has a seductive ring about it, bringing to mind the adventurous tale of early American Anglo-French conflict, “The Last of the Mohicans”. But like the central characters of James Fenimore Cooper’s novel of 1826 it’s not immediately obvious which individual might be most representative of the end of a line. To be precise, even the identity of the first of the “Flying Finns” – attributed invariably to Paavo Nurmi – can be questioned because Hannes Kolehmainen was by eight years an earlier Olympic champion. 

Hyla Stallard: His Olympian Mind-set

   “Quiet, chivalrous, generous to opponents”: the Olympian mind-set of Hyla Stallard Athletics successes in Great Britain in the years between the World Wars, 1918 to 1930, were socially divisive. The Olympic gold medals were usually won by undergraduates or graduates from Oxford and Cambridge Universities – most notably, Harold Abrahams, Lord Burghley, Guy Butler, Douglas Lowe, Tom Hampson, Godfrey Brown. Even the iconic New Zealander, Jack Lovelock, was at Oxford. Titles in the more prosaic 50 kilometres road walks were taken instead by less privileged members of society; one of them a railway-depot labourer, the other a motor-racing mechanic. Of the 586 athletes who represented Great Britain in that era, 118 were from Oxford or Cambridge.

Luigi Beccali: A Long Hard Route from Youthful Indiscretion to an Olympic Title

    Choosing 12 kilometres as the distance for one of your first races at the age of 14 is not the wisest of decisions, but everything turned out alright for Luigi Beccali in the long run – or rather, one could say, in a series of shorter runs. An Olympic gold medal and two World records at 1500 metres are enviable achievements by any measure. In purely statistical terms, he was the first man run under 3min 50sec for the distance twice – and, for that matter, three times – and though this might not seem too impressive now it’s a feat which is justifiably still thought to be of great significance more than 90 years later by anyone with a real sense of athletics history. 

Jack Potts: An Overlooked Olympic Hero

 In the wake of “The Gateshead Clipper”, Jack Potts, an overlooked Olympic hero      Jack Potts, fourth from right, in the winning English cross-country team (Paris, 1935) There was a time, back in the days of amateurism, when some British athletes of real international class missed out on the Olympic Games because they could not afford to lose their income while they were away from work. Now, in this age of rabid professionalism, the selectors choose only to send those competitors who they think could win medals in the belief that the greater the number of medals the more generous will be central funding. Other athletes not so highly thought of are denied their big-time opportunity, even when the necessary finance is available. No thought seems to be given to the idea that young and promising athletes not yet ready to challenge the very best would benefit from the experience of going to a Games, and would do rather better next time round.