Racing Past

The History of Middle and Long Distance Running

Bob Phillips Articles / Profile

“A bit of a novelty in those days”. Who was the first Afro-American to break  four minutes for the mile?There are now more than 1,500 sub-four-minute milers, and so the names of Reggie McAfee and Tommy Fulton are just a couple among many which don’t immediately strike a chord. Yet within a lapse of time of only a few weeks 45 years ago they made a significant contribution to miling history. McAfee and Fulton were both Afro-Americans, and McAfee is the first US-born Afro-American to have broken four minutes for the mile, with 3:59.3 on 21 April 1973, which he improved to 3:57.8 three weeks later, and this latter time was equaled by Fulton in the most unlikely circumstances on 25 May.

“You Can’t Out-run a Bullet”. A Century Ago in War-time: How Athletics  Survived and a Swedish Runner Prospered “Don’t you know, there’s a war on ?” It would be natural to assume that athletics was on hold a century ago. The battle-fronts had been set remorselessly in Flanders fields since 1914, and in April of 1917 President Woodrow Wilson won a 74-to-nil vote of confidence from Congress to bring the USA into the conflict. Mere sport was bound to suffer when hundreds of thousands of able-bodied men in uniform were being slaughtered, but the story is rather more complicated than that.

A Re-evaluation of the Career of Sin Kim DanSuddenly there is a sound. “Ooosh ! Ooosh !” The “superwoman” can be beaten  Mysterious. The same description has been used by both the pre-eminent writers, Robert Parienté and Roberto Quercetani, in their comprehensive histories of athletics regarding the exploits of an athlete known to them as Sin Kim Dan but now referred to, presumably in the light of heightened linguistic awareness, as Shin Gheum Dan. She ran 51.2 for 400 metres and 1:58.0 for 800 metres during September and October of 1964 in her home town of Pyongyang, in North Korea (more correctly, the People’s Republic of Korea), and neither performance was ever ratified. The official World records then stood at 51.9 and 2:01.2.

A Record-breaking Track Career Begins Under the Eyes of the Nazi InvadersEuropean middle-distance running during the World War II yearsSwedish runners, benefiting hugely from their country’s neutrality, dominated the middle-distance track events during the years of World War II, as is well known, and the great duo of Hägg and Andersson set 21 World records between them from 1500 to 5000 metres. Neither of them, though, was fast enough to add the 800 metres to their accomplishments. The World record for that event of 1:46.6 would, in any case, remain out of reach to all and sundry for another decade after peace was declared, and the fastest man in the event in the latter war years came, surprisingly, from another country with a much less well-established athletics tradition than its Scandinavian neighbour across the straits that led into the Baltic Sea..

A vision that Paved the Way to VaporflyHigh-grade running-shoe technology is no new phenomenon The current controversy over Nike’s Vaporfly road-running shoe is merely a reminder that footwear fussing and feuding have been going on in track & field athletics for much more than a century. The Finnish manufacturers, Karhu, had been founded in 1916, and enterprisingly produced a distinctive all-white pair of running-spikes which Paavo Nurmi effectively displayed in his gold-medal triumphs at the 1924 Olympic Games, but it was during the Melbourne Games of 1956 that the contest between rival companies to persuade the champions in their choice of brands really began to be waged in earnest. The term “marketing” wasn’t in common use in those days, but the concept had nevertheless by then invaded the cinder-tracks of the World.

A.G.K’s selfless North American adventure a year after Olympic gold A “Track Stats” inquiryRivalled only by Sydney Wooderson, Godfrey Brown was the most famous of British athletes in 1937. He had lost the 400 metres at the Berlin Olympics the previous year by the narrowest of margins and then anchored the 4 x 400 relay team to a famous victory over the Americans. Frequently the headline to any press report about him read no more than “A.G.K. Brown”. Readers knew to expect that another record had been broken or at least seriously challenged. Whether or not Brown himself endorsed the “record attempts” so frequently predicted on his behalf in excited media coverage is another matter.

In isolation and autonomy: the marathon ambition of a computer genius, Alan Turing Which British athlete has made the greatest contribution to society in the course of his life’s work ? It’s an interesting subject for debate, and there are some notable candidates who spring to mind: Lord Noel-Baker, Olympic 1500 metres silver-medallist in 1920, later awarded the Nobel Peace Prize; Eric Liddell, the 1924 400 metres champion, and a missionary who died for his beliefs; Lord Burghley, the 400 metres hurdles champion in 1928, who became a leading figure in the Olympic movement. Others have been surgeons, soldiers, politicians of great repute. Who of them, though, has left a legacy of Worldwide significance to match that of Alan Turing ?

Before Lovelock and Snell, theFirst Great New Zealand Miler When Randolph Arthur John Scott Rose entered the world at Wellington on Christmas Day 1901 as the son of Henry and Grace Rose, he also joined a family which had already established a tradition in long-distance running. He was a second cousin to Hector Burk, who was the conqueror in 1905 of the World’s greatest runner, Alfred Shrubb, when he toured New Zealand. Hector Burk’s father was W.J. (Billy) Burk, who had been the national champion at one mile and three miles in his late 30s.

Mad dogs and an Englishman out in the Hong Kong Midday Sun The Missing British Track Records of 1957  The career of the seafaring distance-runner, Bob Pape   It would seem highly unlikely that both “Athletics Weekly”, the British magazine now in its 75thyear of publication,  and the statistical experts, the National Union of Track Statisticians, founded in London in 1958, should fail to notice a couple of British records, but it has certainly happened. The year was 1957, and in those days “AW” preferred accuracy to alacrity in reporting and so did not print an account of the race concerned until a month later. Yet, even with that delay for reflection, the achievements went unreported. They had come about in an unusual setting and circumstances, as the unrecognised perpetrator had not even ranked in the top dozen in the country in his favoured event the previous year.

Buddy Edelen, the Amiable American Who Relished British Road-racing   “Buddy” Edelen was a very capable but not outstanding college runner in the USA who had the good fortune to meet up with Fred Wilt, a competitor in the Olympic 10,000 metres in 1948 and 1952 and now in the late 1950s established as a highly respected coach. Wilt saw some potential in Edelen, even though his style of running was by no means graceful, and gave him two main pieces of advice – go to Europe, where the competition is much stronger, and make sure that speed-work remains a significant part of your training programme, whatever distances you run. Wilt, who was an FBI agent by profession, later wrote an immensely successful training manual, “Run Run Run”, published by “Track & Field News” which ran and ran and ran to six editions. Also the author of eight other books, Wilt died in 1992.