The Greatest Races In Running History

Running Inspiration & Motivation

The Greatest Races In Running History

There have been many memorable middle distance races over the years, from Alain Mimoun to Robbie Brightwell to John Walker and Ann Packer. Here are 10 races which have gone down in sporting history.

There have been many memorable middle distance races over the years, from Alain Mimoun to Robbie Brightwell to John Walker and Ann Packer. Here are 10 races which have gone down in sporting history.


Olympic Games, Melbourne, 1956 – Marathon

The French distance runner Alain Mimoun had built up a reputation as a perpetual runner-up; he had finished second to Emil Zatopek five times in major championships. This was to change in 1956 at the Melbourne Olympics where, at the age of 35, he made his debut at the marathon.

From as early as the fifth kilometre, in very hot and dry conditions, Mimoun looked comfortable, and by 15km he was lying in second place in a group of 13 runners. By 20km this group was down to five and then in a long climb up to the turn-around point Mimoun pulled away without perceptively increasing the pace.

Continuing at the same pace he declined to drink any water or run under the sprinklers provided. Far behind him Zatopek was struggling in the heat, as were the Russians Karnoven and Mihalic. One of the favorites, Kelly from America, was now walking. By 30km Mimoun was beginning to feel the pace and admitted later that by this point he was in agony but determined to maintain his lead.

At the finish he entered the stadium to the applause of nearly 100,000 spectators, ran a lap and broke the tape in 2:25:00. Looking very composed he then waited to embrace his rivals, first Mihalic who was second in 2:26:32, then Karnoven who was third in 2:27:47 and finally his great rival Zatopek. It was only these men who knew the price he had to pay in order to run faster than they had.

Source: Running: The Power and Glory Norman Harris.


Olympic Games, Stockholm, 1912 – 5,000m

Hannes Kolehmainen of Finland was the first great distance runner of the track, who with a double victory in the 5,000m and 10,000m at the Stockholm Olympics initiated the tradition of distance running in Finland.

In the 5,000m his main rival was the French world record-holder Jean Bouin. The two had only met once before in a race over 7,500m, which was won by the Finn. Expectations were high in Finland and France where Bouin is still considered to be one of their greatest athletes.

Kolehmainen had already won the gold medal in the 10,000m where he had passed the halfway point in 15:11, which was within seconds of the world record for 5,000m. Within one lap of the start Kolehmainen and Bouin were together and clear of the field. Early in the race Bouin went to the front and tried to breakaway. He used this tactic a few more times as the race progressed but it did not crack the determined Finn. On the penultimate lap Kolehmainen made his move but Bouin held him off and as he entered the last lap had a four-yard lead. Coming into the home straight for the last time Bouin still held a two-yard gap but was tiring. Kolehmainen unleashed a final kick and passed the Frenchman to win by two feet. Prior to this race the 15-minute barrier had never been broken. Kolehmainen and Bouin had run the magnificent times of 14:36.6 and 14:36.7 respectively.

Source: The Sunday Times Book of the Olympics Ron Pickering and Norman Harris.


Olympic Games, Tokyo, 1964 – Women’s 800m

In the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the interest from the British perspective surrounded Robbie Brightwell and Ann Packer, who were soon to be married. They were both among the favorites for victory in their respective 400m events and Packer was also entered for the 800m.

In the womens’ 400m Packer finished a close second to Betty Cuthbert of Australia, but her fiancé Brightwell just missed getting a medal, finishing in 4th position. By this stage Packer had come through the heats and reached the 800m final but was mentally exhausted and on the point of pulling out. It was only seeing Brightwell miss out on a medal in the 400m that made her decide to run.

She was new to the 800m distance, having made her debut earlier in the year; the Olympic final was only the seventh time she had run the event. In the final, Szabo of Hungary led the field at the start, setting a very fast pace. The 400m point was reached in 58.6 seconds with many of the runners already falling of the pace.

On the back straight the pace eased before the final sprint for the line. On the crown of the bend Packer made her move and sprinted past Marise Chamberlain of New Zealand, Szabo and the French runner Maryvonne Dupureur who was in the lead. With every stride she was moving away from the rest and she broke the tape in a new world record of 2:01.1. This was one of the most exciting and popular victories of the Tokyo games.

Source: Running the Power and Glory Norman Harris.


Terre Haute, Indiana, 1966 – 800m

In the spring of 1966 the young American phenomenon Jim Ryun set a new world record for the half-mile. Up to the end of the previous year, Ryun was considered to be a mile specialist. In the half-mile he had run the relatively modest times of 1:50.3 in 1964 and 1:50.5 in 1965.

The historic event took place in Terre Haute, Indiana and Ryun began by qualifying for the final running 1:51.0. Less than two hours later he lined up for the final. John Tillman led for the first lap covered in 52.9 with Ryun closely behind in 53.3. With 300m to go, Ryun started to kick for home and completed his second lap quicker than the first, running 51.6. His 200-metre splits for that last lap were an incredible 26.1 and 25.5 and resulted in a new world record of 1:44.9.

In second place, some way back, was Tom Von Ruden in 1:47.9, Lowell Paul was third in 1:48.0, Charlie Christmas fourth in 1:48.4 and John Tillman coming fifth in 1:49.4.

The background to Ryun’s achievement was that between the ages of 15 and 19 he had put in 4,000 hours of training - an impressive total for a junior. A large part of this was interval training, where he covered between 10 and 15 miles per session.

Just over a month later Ryun lowered the world mile record to 3:51.3 at Berkeley, running 2.3 seconds below the old record. In three years Ryun had improved from 1:53.6 to 1:44.9 in the half mile and from 4:07.8 to 3:51.3 in the mile. In the history of middle distance running nobody had ever achieved so much so quickly.

Source: Wizards of the Middle Distances Robert L. Quercetani-Nejat Kok.


Commonwealth Games, Vancouver, 1954 – The Mile

In 1954 Brit Roger Bannister ran the first sub-four-minute mile in 3:59.4. This record was to last just 46 days before John Landy of Australia lowered it to 3:58.0. Six weeks later in Vancouver at the Commonwealth Games, the two met in a race billed as the ‘Mile of the Century.’ Landy was a traditional front-runner and it was his aim to take the finishing speed out of Bannister.

Lining up at the start there were eight runners and as the gun fired it was Baille of New Zealand who went into the lead. At the 220 yard mark Landy hit the front as expected and started to pull away. He completed the first lap in 58.2 seconds and already he was seven yards up on Bannister in second place. During the second lap his lead increased to 15 yards at one point, with the front-runners running at sub-four-minute mile pace.

On the third lap Bannister began to close the gap and along the back straight he was within five yards of his rival, and by the time they reached the bell to start the last lap was on his shoulder. With the two runners now locked together, Landy began to pick up the pace and the 1500m was reached in a fraction outside Landy’s own world record for that distance.

Coming off the last bend Bannister launched his final sprint. At the same time Landy looked back to see where Bannister was and lost a valuable fraction of a second in his response to challenge Bannister’s sprint. Although slowing, he managed to hang on and win by five yards in the time of 3:58.8. Once again the 4 minute mile had been broken and this time by these two great athletes in the same race.

Source: Running the Power and Glory Norman Harris. 


Commonwealth Games, Brisbane, 1982 – Marathon

This marathon on October 8th 1982 was destined to capture the attention of Australia as no marathon had done before. Among the runners entered for the event was the number one Australian marathon runner and future world champion Rob de Castella, or Deek as he was known to his many fans.

The race started at 6am in cool weather but with the humidity up at 94 per cent. The route was very hilly with fourteen separate climbs and the roads were lined with spectators, many of whom had stayed out all night drinking at the many bars and hotels along the course. They were all there for one reason, to see Deek win the gold medal.

When the gun fired, two Tanzanians; Shahanga and Ikangaa and the Kenyan Sammy Mogare raced to the front, whilst De Castella settled into a group of nine runners just behind them. The three Africans covered the first 5km in 14:45, well inside world record pace, and they had built a lead of 125m over the main group. At 10km Mogare had been swallowed up by the pack and the Tanzanians’ lead was now down to only five seconds. Turning back towards the city at 12.5km, Shahanga and Ikangaa, seeing their lead had reduced, burst away, running the next 5km in 15:13 and building up a 15 second advantage. By this stage the group of nine had reduced to five, including De Castella who knew he had to close the Africans down.

The Tanzanians kept pushing the pace and the half way was reached in 63:40, by which time De Castella was a minute down. There was disappointment among the people lining the route, as he appeared to have lost the race. Sensing that Shahanga and Ikangaa were tiring, Deek moved away from the group and started to eat into their lead. Between 30km and 35km he attacked the hills with the crowd roaring him on, and at 37km he caught and passed Shangaa. Ikangaa was now only 80m in front.

As Deek closed him down the crowd were in uproar, with hundreds surging onto the road threatening to impede the runners. When Deek moved past Ikangaa the Tanzanian rallied and surged to the front once again. For the next kilometre they slugged it out side by side until Rob de Castella managed to open up a small gap.

Over the final part of the race, his lead increased and he crossed the finish line in 2:09:18, 65 seconds slower than the world record. Ikangaa came in 12 seconds later to record a new African record, and the bronze medal went to Mike Gratton of England who ran 2:12:06. Shahanga eventually finished in sixth position. Considering the conditions of near 100 per cent humidity, De Castella’s run was considered one of the greatest marathon performances of all time.

Source: Deek Robert de Castella with Mike Jenkinson.  


European Indoor Games, Gothenburg, 1975 – The Mile

On the 12th August 1975 in Gothenburg Sweden, John Walker from New Zealand took the mile world record into new territory. Walker was 23 years old and at six-foot tall and 164 pounds (74kg), one of the most powerful middle distance runners in history. Earlier in the year, Filbert Bayi from Tanzania had lowered the world mile record to 3:51.0, thus ending Jim Ryun’s nine-year reign as the record holder.

10,000 spectators crammed into the Slottsskogsvallen Stadium to witness Walker’s record attempt. At 7:45pm in 70-degrees temperature the race started. Goran Sawemark (the pacemaker) led Walker through a 56.3 first 400m and 1:56.2 at half distance. At this point Walker moved into the lead and increased the pace reaching the bell for the start of the last lap in 2:53.5.

With 300m to go he started his sprint for the finish, leaving the other competitors behind. Driving the pace he went through 1500m in 3:34.3, he now needed to run the last part of the race in 16.6 seconds for the world record. Running as fast as his body would take him he hit the tape with the clock stopping at 3:49.4, 1.6 seconds faster than Bayi and the first time the mile had been run under 3:50.

This time was exactly 10 seconds faster than when Roger Bannister first broke the 4 minute barrier 21 years earlier.

Source: The Milers Cordner Nelson and Robert Quercetani.


Olympic Games, Tokyo, 1964 – Marathon

The 1964 Olympic marathon in Tokyo proved to be a triumph for the Ethiopian, Abebe Bikila. Four years earlier in Rome, running in bare feet, he pulled away from the Moroccan Rhadi in the last kilometre to win in a new world record of 2:15:16.2. Bikila, a member of Emperor Haile Selassie’s bodyguard was far from confident going into the 1964 final, as he had an appendix removed only two months earlier.

The race’s early pace was set by the Australian Ron Clarke, at sub five minutes per mile, but Bikila joined in with this and started to put in surges. These tactics destroyed Clarke and it was left to Hogan of Ireland to track the Ethiopian, which he did successfully until running himself to a standstill at 23 miles. For the first 20 miles Bikila had maintained five minutes per mile and continued to the end at a barely diminished pace.

Crossing the finish line to a fantastic reception from the crowd, he looked relatively fresh as he raised both arms in salute. There was a dramatic race for second, with the Japanese runner Tsubaraya entering the stadium 10 metres up on Britain’s Basil Heatley, only to be cut down mercilessly over the last 200 metres.

Once again, as in Rome, Bikila had set a new world record of 2:12:11.2 and beaten the field by over four minutes. This was one of the biggest winning margins, by percentage comparison in any event in Olympic history.

Source: The Olympics Ron Pickering and Norman Harris.  


Olympic Games, Melbourne, 1956 – 10,000m

The 10,000m Olympic final in Melbourne in 1956, rates as one of the greatest races over this distance in history. Primarily this was down to two hard, fiercely trained, obstinate men, Vladimir Kuts of the USSR and Gordon Pirie of Great Britain.

Kuts was the world record holder and the favourite. However earlier in the season Pirie had beaten him over 5,000m - taking the world record in the process. Kuts was in his first Olympic games and had only lost an international race on two occasions; each time, along with the winner, he had run inside the world record. On paper, Pirie’s 10,000m form was not impressive, but for the previous year he had been breaking world records at shorter distances and had barely contested the 10,000m. He believed the quantity and intensity of his training indicated great potential at the longer distance.

Kuts led from the start and, after having his heel clipped on the fifth lap put in a burst, which resulted in the next lap being run in 65 seconds. Only Pirie followed this and the rest of the field were out of contention. The race was now between these two men, Kuts short and thick set with a slugging action, Pirie tall, slender and running fluently. From previous encounters, Kuts knew the sound of his rival’s footsteps and the distinctive breathing action of ‘Puff-Puff’ Pirie. Kuts increased the pace and at one point offered Pirie the lead but it was declined.

5,000m was reached in 14:06.8, only a fraction slower than Zatopek’s 5,000m winning time four years before. Pirie was sustaining himself with the thought of hanging on to 20 of the 25 laps; from there he reasoned that his determination would carry him to the finish. By this stage Kuts was becoming frustrated by Pirie’s refusal to lead despite him still putting in sustained surges and at times moving out as far as the third lane in an attempt to encourage Pirie to lead.

Finally Kuts pulled back and looked into Pirie’s face. Pirie’s expression was blank and Kuts knew he had given everything. With this knowledge, he put in a further effort. This time Pirie could not go with him and in the last three laps dropped back by over a minute. Kuts crossed the line to take the gold medal while Pirie running on memory alone eventually ended his brave run in eighth position.

Source: The Olympics Ron Pickering and Norman Harris.


European Championship 1969 – Women’s 800m Final

In 1969 at the European Championships in Athens, the golden girl of British Athletics was 20 year-old Lillian Board. She had already won gold in the 4x400m relay where she ran the anchor leg. In the 800m she was ranked only ninth in the year’s fastest, having run 2:04.8, the fastest time had been 2:02.3.

The favourite for the race was Vera Nikolic and when the gun went for the start Lillian Board sat in on her shoulder. At 400m Ileana Silai made a move for the front and Board faltered slightly, having been spiked. With 200m to go Nikolic and Silai began to pull away slightly and Board put in an effort in an attempt to stay with them. Knowing that if she reached the last 100m still in contention she would be able to out sprint her two rivals, she held on through the final bend.

With 100m to go she made a move out into lane three dropping back slightly and then sprinted for the line. Sweeping past Nikolic and Silai she expected them to respond but it never happened and Board won the gold medal in the fastest time of the year 2:01.4. Second place went to Annelise Damm-Oleson with Vera Nikolic taking the bronze medal. Ileana Silai eventually faded to 5th position.

Having won two gold medals, Board was given a special award in Athens for the most outstanding woman athlete of the championships, an award she richly deserved.

Source: More Than Winning Alastair Aitken.