Racing Past

The History of Middle and Long Distance Running

Bob Phillips Articles / Profile

Charles Kilpatrick: The fastest half-mile yet, but then suffering “the mortification, natural to the human race, of defeat”  Charles Kilpatrick ran in the two most important half-mile races of the closing years of the 19th Century. He won one and lost one. The first occasion carried particular significance because the setting was the match between New York AC and London AC in 1895 which is recognised as the first significant international athletics meeting. The second occasion was labeled as the “Half-Mile Championship of the World” – as was the presumptuous custom with so many professional match races of that era – but for once the outcome lived up to its pre-publicity hyperbole.

Money! Money! Money! Athletics as it was 60 years agoDan Waern, King of the Kilometre, Then Forced into Exile Sweden’s most famous athlete bought a farm, which was certainly a wise investment for the future. His timing, though, could have been better. The year was 1960, when athletics was supposed to be strictly amateur, and Dan Waern had no obvious means of financial support. The authorities understandably concluded that his earnings must have been ill-gotten from his track activities, and he was duly banned for life. No one – at least in Sweden – was too surprised. The same penalty had been imposed on Waern’s famed fellow-countrymen, Gunder Hȁgg and Arne Andersson, some 15 years before.

Foster’s Forebears. The Origins and Progress  Two-Miles Records When Brendan Foster set the last officially recognised World record for two miles back in 1973 maybe all he received by way of reward was a food parcel. His time of 8:13.8 was achieved at a meeting on his favoured home region track at Gateshead in the north-east of England, and the meeting was sponsored by the dairy-products company, Kraft. It was largely in the North of England that the two-mile distance had first been contested more than 150 years previously, and tracing back through the record times of the 19th Century, James Pudney had done rather better for himself when he ran 9:38.0 in 1852. His £50 prize money is worth over £60,000 in 2021 income value.

Australia’s “Vegetarian Marvel” Who Allegedly Ran a World-record Mile in 1942An investigation into the competitive career of George CampbellJohn Landy’s emergence as a sub-four-minute mile candidate in December of 1952 was a major surprise, and maybe so even to Landy himself. Concerning the rivalry which developed between Landy, Roger Bannister and Wes Santee to become the first man to beat four minutes, Len Johnson wrote in his 2009 book, “The Landy Era”, “If culture and tradition do play a part in sporting performance, Landy represented a stark contrast to the other two. Bannister and Santee each had tradition to draw on. Landy, and his generation of Australian runners, had to develop their own”.

Going Great Guns: the Afro-American Pace-setter at the Olympic Games of 1924 Frank Shorter’s 1972 Olympic marathon win rightly takes much credit for sparking off the distance-running boom in the USA, but maybe some consideration should also be given to  the World record-breaker in that event in 1963, “Buddy” Edelen, The drawback regarding Edelen is that he had to go first to Finland and then to England to find the competition which transformed him from being a worthy but not exceptional college two-miler, and his exploits largely went unnoticed in the country of his birth.

“Going along at a merciless chip”. How George Bonhag Won his Odd Olympic GoldGeorge Bonhag became the leading American distance-runner of the early years of the 20th Century, and it seems that, somewhat surprisingly, he had a British Army officer to thank for that. Bonhag went to the 1906 Olympic Games in Athens and did not do quite as well as might have been hoped for in his favoured events – 4th in the 5 miles and 6th in the 1500 metres. Then, bizarrely, he entered the 1500 metres walk on impulse the next day and won after the first two competitors to finish were disqualified.

Top-notchers. Hot Bunches. Big Problems. How Joe Binks, the Old Champion, Foresawthe Sub-four-minute Mile    The earliest mentions in literature of the feasibility of a four-minute mile have long interested me, and if you so choose you can trace such references back even as far as the late 18th Century, when James Parrot is said to have achieved exactly that time along the streets of central London. There’s good reason to believe he actually may have done so.Moving the clock forward some 150 years, the pre-eminent English coach of the 1920s and 1930s, F.A.M. Webster, certainly had such a performance in mind, and it may be that the first British miler to think in those terms was George Hutson, though it’s not unreasonable to suggest that he could have been over-ambitious because his fastest time was no better than 4:22.0, set in winning the 1914 AAA title. He sadly had no further chance to improve because he was killed in action in World War I little more than two months later.

In Nurmi’s Wake. Lost Track Medalists of the Chariots- of-Fire Games The “Chariots of Fire” Olympic Games of Paris in 1924 are among the most publicised and dramatised since the series began more than 120 years ago. Paavo Nurmi was inevitably the champion of champions, winning five gold medals, including the 1500 and 5000 metres within an hour or so. Harold Abrahams, Eric Liddell and Douglas Lowe are forever remembered as Great Britain’s winners, and yet there are three other British competitors who have never yet received recognition for the silver medals which they rightfully earned – and no less than14 more from Finland, France and the USA who equally deserve recognition.

“The bright little stadium in the country, well sheltered by a belt of high trees”, as it was fondly described some 60 years ago, still stands. The woodland clusters round, as it has for centuries. The pallid sunlight slants through the branches on a brisk early-spring morning. A familiar figure comes padding out of the shadows and across the grass, balding head, arms pumping furiously, “one moment looking like a super-tuned machine, the next like a fugitive from justice”, as one acute observer wrote of him.

Jamaica's 43-year-old 800m RecordDesperately needed after 40 years, a new man to succeed “one of the special ones”There’s a strange anomaly in the list of Jamaican national records. Usain Bolt’s times are, of course, phenomenal, and the 400 metres is understandably a shade less impressive but still of a very fine class, 43.93 by Rusheen McDonald in 2015. So why is the 800 metres so ordinary? And why does it still stand after 43 years?Seymour Newman ran 1:45.2 in 1977. Making comparisons by means of the Hungarian Scoring Tables points system which equates all events, that’s as if Don Quarrie still holds his country’s 100 metres record from that year at 10.19 – he actually ran 10.12 in 1977. Not only that but 59 national records at 800 metres are currently better than Jamaica’s, including those of Djibouti, Iran, Egypt, Kuwait, Latvia, Puerto Rico, Senegal and even three others which haven’t existed for 30 years or so, East Germany, the USSR and Yugoslavia. Yet Newman was among the best exponents of his generation at both 400 and 800 metres, and the Jamaican AAA website rightly says oi him, “Newman’s prowess on the track marked him as the successor to Arthur Wint and George Kerr, the great Jamaican 400 and 800 runners of the past”.