Everyone knows who ran the first four minute mile. Right? Maybe.
I’m reading ‘Running: A Global History’ by Thor Gotaas. The book has a chapter on running in Britain in the 18th century. At the time, betting was popular and running was a big money sport.
Peter Radford, Professor of Sports Science at Brunel University has studied running the period and unearthed various reports of miles run in close to, or under, 4 minutes in the late 1700s. There was an Observer article about his research in 2004.
Whilst, as Radford points out, the timing and measurement are unlikely to be as accurate as for Bannister’s run, the amount of money at stake suggests care would have been taken (and the equipment existed to measure distance and time accurately).
There were other amazing feats of endurance around this time: in 1832 the Norwegian Mensen Ernst ran the 1600 miles from Paris to Moscow in 14 days (12:40 miling for a solid fortnight - 122 back to back 2:45 half marathons!)
It’s tempting to dismiss these results as inaccurate, or exaggerated. Just like it’s tempting not to think about the effect doping has on modern records. Neither idea fits with the more appealing thought that modern sport shows humans at their best and that we are stronger and better than our ancestors.
Sadly, we’re probably more puny. Gotaas points out that the 18th century population was still mainly rural, healthy, active and used to walking and heavy work. Running was a way out of poverty - it was possible to earn many years wages in a single race. Sounds like the foundation for more recent running success stories.