By Bob Phillips
14th August 2021
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.
Foster was still constrained by the outdated amateurism rules when he was running, and – as is well known – he went on to set up a successful athletic-clothing business and become a TV pundit. Pudney was an unashamed professional who after 12 years of lucrative competition equally prospered as a licensee in his native east end of London – no doubt also offering his opinions on the current state of athletics to any customers who cared to put down their brimming pots of ale and listen.
Pudney’s record was achieved on the 880-yard circuit in the Copenhagen House Grounds, in London, beating in the process James Byrom, from Lancashire, in what was to all intents and purposes an organised record-breaking attempt, even though the idea of records was yet to be recognised. Byrom received a nominal 25 yards’ start which Pudney soon disposed of because he led through the first mile in 4:38, but the margin between the two was only eight yards at the finish. Pudney was by no means the first two-miler of note because Joseph Headley had run 9:45 on Knavesmire Racecourse, York, in 1777 and William Harding had also run 9:38.0 on Malton Racecourse, in North Yorkshire, in 1819, but we have no means of knowing whether Pudney was aware of these earlier achievements. He lived from 1830 to 1897.
Harding’s career was apparently a brief one. Abiding by the commonsense precept of Peter Radford (Olympic sprint medallist and eminent athletics historian) that a time can be verified – or at least seem more credible – if another performance of merit by the same athlete can be found, the only additional time of Harding’s which is obvious in the accessible contemporary press is another two miles in 10:20. This was achieved within a week of his 9:38 – 15 and 22 November – at the same Malton venue and against the same opponent. Harding defeated George Walker, from York, on the oval-shaped Racecourse, which was 1½ miles in diameter and described as “almost entirely flat”. The disparity in times may encourage scepticism about Harding’s ability to run as fast as 9:38 but can perhaps be explained by changes in the weather, the conditions underfoot or the tactics of the runners.
All that we know of the races is a tantalisingly brief description of the latter in the “Lancaster Gazette” newspaper of 27 November: “Walker took the first mile, upon which many bets were depending. The race was well contested, being run in 9 minutes and 38 seconds”. Even as cursory an account as this tells us that a lot of money was changing hands that day, and the phrase “well contested” surely implies that it was a fairly run race, with both men giving of their best. The reporter made no further comment about the time, but his phrasing hints that he may have known of its significance.
Harding came from the village of Snainton, 13 miles (21 kilometres) to the north-east of Malton, where horse-racing had been taking place since at least 1692 and would continue on one course or another until 1904. Malton is still a major centre for training and stabling of race-horses. Curiously, the “Yorkshire Gazette” weekly newspaper reported on Saturday 20 November 1819 that Harding would race against George Harcord, who was from the North Yorkshire moors village of Danby, the following Wednesday at Stokesley, again in North Yorkshire. This was for a prize of 100 guineas (£105), which is worth £116,400 in 2021 income terms! The race would thus be only two days after the second meeting between Harding and Walker, and it to be wondered if it ever took place.
The first man to run two miles in the sort of times which would still be regarded with respect in 2021 was – like Brendan Foster – a “Geordie” from the north-east of England. He was Jack White, a professional known as “The Gateshead Clipper” (his mother was from a local ship-owning family), born in Gateshead in 1837, and though his best two miles was surpassed within two years he set another record which lasted a very long time. His six miles in 29:50.0 at Hackney Wick, in London, in 1863 was not beaten by any Briton, professional or amateur, until Alec Burns ran 29:45.0 in 1936! Burns was yet another “Geordie”, born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1907. White’s record is even more remarkable for having been set during a 10-mile race which he won by 800 yards. It’s not unreasonable to suppose that he could have run 29:20 for six miles, had he ever had the inclination or opportunity to do so, and it was 1951 before a fellow-countryman – Walter Hesketh, also from the North of England, born in Manchester in 1930 – bettered that.
White’s life story was told by a leading UK athletics historian, Warren Roe, in a booklet which he published in 2007, and Brendan Foster wrote a respectful foreword. He enthused of White, “To run his six miles record of 29 minutes 50 seconds in the first part of a 10-mile race around a 260-yard track of uneven cinder and earth, with an uphill slope on one side, in unsuitable footwear was an incredible feat. One which many well-trained club athletes would find difficult to emulate today in designer spikes and on all-weather tracks”. In an intermittent career lasting 13 years White only ever ran seven races at the six-mile distance and only twice at two miles.
His two-mile record of 9:20.0 was set in Manchester on 20 April 1861, and it was achieved in uncannily similar manner to James Pudney’s feat of 42 years before. White gave 20 yards’ start to James Sanderson, who was from Rochdale, less than 15 miles miles away, and White won by no more than 10 yards. His only other race at the distance was in September of the following year, when he was beaten by Sanderson, again in Manchester, and the record was substantially improved by William Lang, from Middlesbrough, in Yorkshire, who was an intense rival of White’s, with 9:11½ in Manchester in August 1863. Lang had been one of White’s vanquished opponents in the record-breaking 10 miles of three months before, and the two of them continued issuing bold challenges to each other via the sporting press in the customary manner of the day, but White was not present for the two miles, presumably because he had won a six miles in York only five days previously. Maybe he lived to regret his choice because after that 10 miles, as Warren Roe wrote, “Jack had stamped himself as possibly the greatest performer ever known, while Lang had proved himself second only to Jack at the longer distances”. The balance of power soon changed, however, as Lang beat White at five miles the following November, and White went into retirement for four years, seemingly returning to his original occupation of millwright. He made a comeback in 1868 but lost again to Lang at 10 miles, yet continuing a highly active involvement in the sport as a starter, promoter, track manager and trainer. He died in 1910.
By then Lang’s two-mile record had been erased by the greatest runner of the early 20th Century, Alfred Shrubb, who had been born in Sussex in 1879 and thus broke into the North of England near monopoly of distance-running records on the track. Shrubb’s profusion of records from 2000 yards to one hour included in his finest year of 1904 times of 14:17 1/5 for three miles and 29:59 3/5 for six miles, neither of which were to be beaten by another Briton until 1936. Yet his two miles of the same year, 9:09 3/5, which was to be recognised as the first official IAAF World record, was only a couple of seconds quicker than Lang 41 years previously. It should be noted, though, that Shrubb won this race in Glasgow with much ease against modest opposition and also won a mile later in the day and broke the four miles record on the same Ibrox Park track two days afterwards. It was again there on a wind-swept day in the unlikely month of November that Shrub ran his six miles. Surely he could have done 29:30 in more favourable circumstances, and no one else would do better than that until the peerless “Flying Finn”, Paavo Nurmi, 20 years later.
Two miles is equivalent to 3218.72 metres, and therefore a direct comparison can be made with times at 3000 metres. Shrubb would have run something inside 8:35 for that distance, had he been timed en route in his Glasgow two miles, and the first IAAF record still did not quite match that – 8:36.8 by Hannes Kolehmainen, of Finland, in 1912. For almost another 40 years, with a couple of exceptions, the 3000 metres record would remain a Scandinavian preserve, and the following list shows the progressive improvement after Shrubb at two miles, with the current 3000 metres record noted alongside (the figures in italics represent the differences between the two times):
2 miles 3000 metres
9:08.4 Edvin Wide (Sweden) 1925. 8:27.0 Wide 1925. 41.4
9:01.4 Wide 1926. 8:20.4 Paavo Nurmi (Finland) 1926. 40.0
8:59.6 Nurmi 1931. As above. 39.2
8:58.4 Don Lash (USA) 1936. 8:14.8 Gunnar Höckert (Finland) 1936. 43.6
8:57.4 Höckert 1936. As above. 42.6
8:56.4 Miklós Szabó (Hungary) 1937. As above. 41.6
8:53.2 Taisto Mäki (Finland) 1939. As above. 38.4
8:47.8 Gunder Hägg (Sweden)1942. 8:09.0 Henry Kälarne (Sweden) 1940. 38.8
8:46.4 Hägg 1944. 8:01.2 Hägg 1942. 45.2
8:42.8 Hägg 1944. As above. 41.6
8:40.4 Gaston Reiff (Belgium) 1952. 7:58.8 Reiff 1949. 41.6
8:33.4 Sándor Iharos (Hungary) 1955. 7:55.6 Iharos 1955. 37.8
8:32.0 Albert Thomas (Australia) 1958. 7:52.8 Gordon Pirie (GB) 1956. 39.2
8:30.0 Murray Halberg (NZ) 1961. As above. 37.2
8:29.8 Jim Beatty (USA) 1962. As above. 37.0
8:29.6 Michel Jazy (France) 1963. 7:49.2 Jazy 1962. 40.4
8:26.4 Bob Schul (USA) 1964. As above. 37.2
8:22.6 Jazy 1965. 7:49.0 Jazy. 33.6. Note: both times in same race.
8:19.8 Ron Clarke (Australia) 1967. 7:39.6 Kipchoge Keino (Kenya) 1965. 40.2
8:19.6 Clarke 1968. As above. 40.0
8:17.8 Emiel Puttemans (Belgium)) 1971. As above. 38.2
8:14.0 Lasse Viren (Finland) 1972. As above. 34.4
8:13.8 Brendan Foster (GB) 1973. 7:37.6 Puttemans 1972. 36.2
I’m not entirely sure whether any conclusions can be drawn from those differentials in times for 3000 metres and for two miles, other than that Jazy’s intermediate time in 1965 rather suggests that he could have run 7:47 in a specific 3000 metres race. Viren’s record of 1972 is the one with the next least differential to the 3000 metres record in existence at the time, and so perhaps this can be considered as the best ever two miles record.
The current World record for 3000 metres is 7:20.67 by Daniel Komen, of Kenya, in 1996 and the fastest two miles is 7:58.61 by Komen in 1997.
Note: Warren Roe also wrote an excellent history of distance-running from the 1850s to the 1870s, entitled “Front Runners: The First Athletic Track Champions”, published by The Book Guild in 2002. Rob Hadgraft wrote a biography of Alfred Shrubb, entitled “The Little Wonder: The Untold Story of Alfred Shrubb World Champion Runner”, published by Desert Island Books in 2004.