Going the distance: the mile, the marathon and the 10-miler

Certain running distances just seem to resonate, and with all due respect to the march of metrification, these do tend to be in older units with a deeper sense of history. Take the mile, the marathon and the 10-miler.

The mile

The mile – as Martin Yelling wrote earlier this week – is that classic and cruel blend of sprint and distance, fast-twitch and slow-twitch. The delicate balance between aerobic and anaerobic performance that makes middle-distance running so challenging and compelling. There is also the pleasing simplicity of the Holy Grail of four laps in four minutes. Little wonder that the quest for the four-minute mile was such a riveting story throughout the 19th and 20h centuries. In 1896 the great Victorian rivals Walter George and William Cummins clashed in the “race of the century”. George won in a blistering 4:12 – a record that stood for 30 years. With pauses for the great wars, times closed in on the magic four minutes tantalising slowly. The record breakers are a roll-call of middle distance greats: Paavo Nurmi, “the Flying Finn”, posting 4:10.4 in 1923; Sydney Wooderson, “the Mighty Atom” and inspiration for Roger Bannister, running 4:06.4 before the outbreak of war. Two more rivals, the Swedes Hägg and Andersson, then chiselled the record from 4:06.04 to 4:01.4 by 1945. So close …

With such an agonisingly slow progression some believed there was a physical barrier, impossible to break. That is until Roger Bannister, paced by Chris Chataway and the late Chris Brasher, breasted the tape in 3:59.4 on an overcast Oxford afternoon at the Iffley Road track. History was made on Thursday 6 May 1954.

The marathon

Then there’s the Marathon. The original destination run. Another distance with historical and physiological significance aplenty. As runners we like to bask in the reflected glory of the legend of Pheidippides, the Greek messenger running from the Battle of Marathon to Athens in 490BC to announce the defeat of the Persians. His route of some 25 miles was adopted as the marathon distance for the first modern Olympic games in Athens in 1896. It was only meddlesome tweaking by the British Royals that established the modern standard of 26 miles and 385 yards at the 1908 London Olympics. The route was from Windsor Great Park to White City, but King Edward VII had the start moved back from Windsor Great Park to just outside the castle nursery, adding about a mile. The finish was also changed at short notice to avoid the royal entrance of the White City Stadium.

The physiology of the distance is even more fascinating. Readers of Christopher McDougal’s classic book Born to Run will be familiar with the “persistence hunt” theories of American anthropologists Carrier and Bramble. They argued that our early ancestors were perfectly adapted to long-distance running over the hot plains of Africa. As the only largely hairless animal, they were unique in being able to sweat, and so could outrun prey over long periods of time. Evidence for this theory was provided by South African scientist Louis Leidenberg. Thinking along similar lines Leidenberg befriended the Kalahari bushmen and took part in a number of persistence hunts for Kudhu, a type of antelope. He found it took between two-five hours for a Kudu to drop from exhaustion. Two-five hours? Eerily close to the time most of us take to complete the marathon. It seems marathon running is hardwired into our DNA.

10 miles

Then there’s the 10-mile race. This a fantastic distance to race. Somehow – oddly – less scary than the mile and much more accessible than the marathon. It’s a great stepping stone for those moving up from 10k to half marathon and a great motivator for decent club runners aiming to go below the hour. And 10-milers used to be common fixtures. In the current Running Fitness magazine there are only four listed for July, but looking back over issues from the late 90s and early 00s there were an average of 11 for July. A snapshot, but it does show over a 50% decrease in just over 10 years. Speaking with some friends in their 60s, they recall 10-milers being far more common in the 70s and 80s, and even 20-milers not a rarity. But the distance is a victim of the new dominance of the 5k and 10k races: the same Running Fitness magazine shows 18 10k races this July.

Naturally I am biased – when putting on a race as part of our new running-wear company, the imperial distances, five and 10 miles, were a no brainer. The Richmond Imperial races are on 15 September along the Thames towpath in Richmond, Surrey. But wherever you are based, trying a new distance is a great way to keep your racing fresh. Rise up runners, and shake off those metric shackles.

Bill Byrne is a lifelong runner and co-founder of the new British running-wear company Iffley Road. You can also find them on Facebook and Twitter

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