A Brief (or Fast) History of Distance Running

Coach Casey · April 8, 2019

A timeline to the greatest sport on Earth and the greatest moments in running history. Not excited or fully engaged yet? Check out this quote below and get psyched to read about the history of running!!!

“I’ll be happy if running and I can grow old together.” – Haruki Murakami

History of Running – Ancient Times!

~490 BC – Pheidippides, a Greek soldier, runs nonstop from the town of Marathon to Athens. He announces the victory of the Grecian army over the invading Persians. He died upon arrival only able to mutter the words “Rejoice, we conquer!” The distance covered during his great run was 25 miles.

1896 – The modern Olympic Games begin in Athens. In a tribute to the legend of Pheidippides a race of 25 miles, titled the marathon, becomes the premiere endurance event.

1908 – The Summer Olympic Games, in London, continue the tradition of the 25 mile marathon. However, at the behest of the Queen, in order to view the race from her palace, the course is lengthened to 26.2 miles.

History of Running – European Domination!

1920s – The “Flying Finns,” lead by Paavo Nurmi dominate the world distance running scene. Finnish distance runners set more than 20 world records and claim numerous Olympic medals in 1920, 1924, and 1928.

1936 – Berlin, Germany hosts the Summer Olympics in what is nicknamed “Hitler’s Olympics.” In a direct counter to the racial theories of the competition’s host, African-American athletes win eight gold, three silver, and two bronze medals. Jesse Owens leads the athletes with four gold medals!

1952 – A Czech soldier named Emil Zatopek, who trains in combat boots during harsh winters, wins Olympic gold in the 5,000m, 10,000m, and marathon races. Zatopek had never run a marathon and that 3-gold feat has not been repeated since.

May 6th, 1954 – Roger Bannister, a British Medical student, runs the mile in 3:59.4 at the Iffley Road Track at Oxford University. He is the first human to break 4 minutes. A feat that until that point was thought to be impossible. Bannister trained between along between medical shifts and classes.

1960 – Women are finally allowed to compete in running events at the Olympic Games. Previously banned due to “health concerns” based on frailty, female athletes race at five different distances…men at 12.

History of Running – History Made, Ceilings Broken!

1964 – Jim Ryun, running for Wichita East High School, is the first high schooler to break 4 minutes in the mile. In 1965, still in high school, he runs 3:55.3, a record that stood for 36 years.

1967 – Karissa Switzer challenges the USA-wide ban on women entering road races via the AAU (Amateur Athletics Union) by entering the Boston Marathon. When marathon race director, Jock Semple, attempts to pull her off the course, Switzer’s boyfriend blocks him and she continues on to finish in 4:20.

1968 – Kip Keino, a Kenyan, breaks onto the Olympic scene by defeating Jim Ryun (world record holder) for Gold in the 1500m race. This marks what would be the beginning of the East African Running Revolution.

History of Running – The USA Arrives!

1970s – The American public begins to popularize jogging. Inspired in part by Frank Shorter’s televised victory in the 1972 Olympic Marathon, road races, public jogging clubs, and running shoe/apparel manufacturers begin to flourish.

1970 – Steve Prefontaine became a cultural phenomenon with his bravado and win-from-the-front race tactics as he dominates at the University of Oregon. “Pre” competed in the 1972 Olympics at 5,000 meters. The race is considered one of the greatest of the modern era. He became particularly noted for his public dissent against the AAU. In 1975 Steve Prefontaine tragically dies in a car crash at the age of 24.

1978 – United States Congress signs in to law the Amateur Sports Act. While creating many important legal standards for athletics, the law effectively ends to reign of the AAU. It notably allows for “amateur” athletes to compete in the Olympic Games upon qualification without sacrificing collegiate eligibility.

1979 – Grete Waltz gets her second, in what would be a streak of 8, consecutive NYC Marathon victories with a time of 2:27. Waltz becomes the first woman ever to run under 2:30. She thoroughly silences any critics of women’s strength in the marathon.

1984 – The Olympic Games, after years of lobbying by various groups, allows women to compete at the marathon distance. Already the greatest female distance runner in the world, Joan Benoit Samuelson, wins Gold and solidifies her place among the all-time great runners.

History of Running – Modern Times and Records!

1990s – The “Running Revolution” hits full swing in the USA. Celebrities, including Oprah and President Bill Clinton, publicly take up running. The decade became that of the “common runner.”

2003 – Paula Radcliffe, U.K., breaks her own marathon world record by almost 2 minutes, running 2:15.25 in London. The mark remains a world record and one of the most impressive performances in history. No one has come within 1:30 minutes of it since.*

2018 – Eliud Kipchoge breaks the world record in the men’s marathon in Berlin. Running 2:01:39, Kipchoge is on his way to becoming the first human to run faster than 2 hours for 26.2 miles. Once again, a feat thought to be impossible!*

*Update 10/13/19 – Brigid Kosgei breaks Radcliffe’s marathon World Record in 2:14:04!

*Update 10/12/19 – Kipchoge runs an unofficial 1:59.40 marathon!

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