Celebrating the record-breaking super milers club

Over a dozen of history’s greatest milers, including two Irish legends — Ronnie Delany and Eamonn Coghlan — gathered in Monaco last month for a night of nostalgia at the World Athletics Heritage Mile Night. Cathal Dennehy reports.

Celebrating the record-breaking super milers club

Over a dozen of history’s greatest milers, including two Irish legends — Ronnie Delany and Eamonn Coghlan — gathered in Monaco last month for a night of nostalgia at the World Athletics Heritage Mile Night. Cathal Dennehy reports.

Together they stood, side by side, the natural hierarchy that defined them long forgotten.

Smiles, handshakes and great-to-see-yous flew around the room like confetti, everyone preparing to take a step into the past: The moments they’d almost forgotten, the memories they’d never forget.

On the surface, there was little to separate this tiny strand of humanity from the collective.

A wandering intruder could have mistaken them for a nattering horde of politicians, except the greetings seemed more genuine, with the warmth of a school reunion, a kinship that couldn’t be faked.

Some looked as lean as they did in their prime. Others carried paunches beneath their suits that spoke to an excess enjoyed in athletic retirement which, for this lot, would be fully justified.

For so much of their existence, theirs was an ascetic life, lived out under the burden of time: they needed to be quicker than the rest of the world and they had finite chances to prove it.

At one point, their self-worth hinged on fractions of seconds, an eye’s blink sometimes segregating with ruthless ambivalence the sweet arrival or wretched departure of all they had wanted: To be the fastest.

There were 14 of them in total, athletes who, at one point in their lives, made a seismic impact on an event that captivated athletics fans like no other: the mile.

Ronnie Delany was the eldest, the 1956 Olympic champion looking in enviable, impossibly sprightly health for a man of 84. At his peak, his was a finishing kick that everyone in that room would fear.

The youngest was Hicham El Guerrouj, who, at 45, still carried himself with the suave confidence of an elite assassin.

During his peak in the late 90s, the Moroccan eclipsed the mile and 1500m times of every man on stage, but he still looked to his predecessors with reverence, giddy to be among those he grew up idolising.

“I feel honoured and proud to be part of this beautiful, exceptional, extraordinary family,” he said.

Each had once been the best in the world at what they did. Some, like El Guerrouj, Sebastian Coe or John Walker had multiple Olympic gold medals.

Others, like Steve Cram, Eamonn Coghlan or Jim Ryun had to make do with world records or world titles … imagine.

“I feel like an impostor because I only finished fourth in the Olympics,” said Coghlan. “But I know Sir Roger Bannister finished fourth in the Olympics so we’ve got something in common,” he added with a laugh.

“If we’re honest,” said Ryun, “we all had the opportunity to live our dream.”

Over the decades, the cloak of invincibility had passed between them: Never owned, only borrowed, at least until someone younger, someone faster, came along to disown them of it.

The great lottery of life was clear to see, how it dispatches pristine health to some and, for no good reason, robs others of their vitality.

John Walker, the New Zealand great who for so long seemed the very definition of unbreakable, walked up on stage with careful trepidation, the result of the Parkinson’s disease the 67-year-old has been battling since the ’90s.

Walker was Olympic 1500m champion in 1976 and, for years, he was the benchmark of brilliance in the mile, becoming the first to run sub-3:50.

Gatherings of this kind are exceptionally rare, the feat of drawing together ageing stars from across the globe in one place an astonishing triumph of forward planning.

But in Monaco in late November, it was made possible by Chris Turner, the director of heritage at World Athletics.

Turner had long felt the sport needed to make a bigger deal of its history, to herald past stars and ensure their stories are passed to the next generation.

Gathering the greats took several months of work and just weeks after it happened, everyone got a reminder how precious such interactions can be.

The week before the event, three-time Olympic champion Peter Snell suffered a heart attack, but the 80-year-old remained adamant he’d make it to Monaco for the mile celebration.

Just days after being released from hospital he showed up to the airport in Dallas and tried to board his flight, and only after much negotiation was he talked out of it.

“I’m deeply disappointed to not be able to join you,” the New Zealander said in a message that was read out to the group.

“I even tried to go against my doctor’s advice but I felt it was too risky to board an eight-hour flight given how poorly I was feeling.

"I wish my mile record colleagues all the best and hope you have a wonderful evening.”

Snell passed away in his sleep in mid-December.

Also unable to make it was Herb Elliott, but the 81-year-old Australian, who in 1958 lowered the mile world record to 3:54.5 in Dublin, sent a video message that summed up the special bond between the athletes of different generations.

“I wish I could be there,” he said to the fellow mile greats. “You are my brothers.” …

Of all the running events, the mile may be the ultimate test, necessitating the aerobic engine of a top-class marathoner and the powerful range of gears of a 400m sprinter.

But it requires more than physical prowess: the best have a knack for distributing their energies with surgical precision.

In the mile, it’s often not the fittest athlete who wins, but the most astute.

“I’ve always seen the race as a four-act play,” said Sebastian Coe, who won back-to-back Olympic 1500m titles in the ’80s and lowered the mile world record three times.

“In the first act the curtain rises, the scene set, the cast is introduced and they find their rhythm. In the second act the plot becomes clearer: is this going to be a cat-and-mouse thriller or is somebody going to grab the race, the audience and the spectators by the throat and steal the show?

"This is the lap where you are figuring out if you’re able to stick to your race plan or adapt to the prevailing tactics.

“The third lap beckons the business end. Whether it’s fast or slow, this is the critical lap as it’s all about positioning and covering, in your head and on the ground, every eventuality.

"You don’t always win from a winning position, but you sure as hell don’t win from a losing position.

“To win you must be in the best possible position and deal with anything that is thrown at you as the bell chimes for the last lap. With every passing metre, the aim is to be focused and uncompromising. The race needs to be brought home.”

Pain is, and always has been, a constant companion for milers.

While the 400m and 800m create higher levels of acidity in an athlete’s system, and 10Ks or marathons draw out in slow-roasted torture, the mile condenses both aspects into a four-minute, four-lap festival of suffering.

“Pain is good for you,” Herb Elliott once told the BBC in the documentary Faster, Higher, Stronger.

“Pain is a cleanser. Pain is something that helps you grow.”

Elliott would know. In 1957 he met Percy Cerutty, an eccentric and intensely energetic coach who swore by unorthodox methods, including a raw-food diet for his athletes and vicious hill workouts up the sand dunes at Portsea.

“Percy believed you could absorb the beauty and strength of nature into your system to help with your running,” said Elliott.

“He was a little bit crazy, but he stirred me, challenged me, inspired me. We trained exceptionally intensely and it meant you were pretty formidable in the race.”

Other greats favoured a minimalistic approach. Britain’s Roger Bannister was a medical student during his peak years, squeezing his training into 30-minute windows during his lunch break.

At the World Athletics Heritage Mile Night in Monaco were, from left to right, Ronnie Delany; Michel Jazy; Erin Bannister-Townsend (daughter of Roger Bannister); Jim Ryun; Lindsey Armstrong (daughter of Diane Leather Charles); Filbert Bayi; Gabriella Dorio; Paola Pigni; John Walker; Charlotte Bannister-Parker (daughter of Roger Bannister); Steve Cram; Noureddine Morceli; Abdi Bile; Hicham El Guerrou; , Kipchoge Keino; Eamonn Coghlan, and Sebastian Coe. Picture: ‘Philippe Fitte for World Athletics
At the World Athletics Heritage Mile Night in Monaco were, from left to right, Ronnie Delany; Michel Jazy; Erin Bannister-Townsend (daughter of Roger Bannister); Jim Ryun; Lindsey Armstrong (daughter of Diane Leather Charles); Filbert Bayi; Gabriella Dorio; Paola Pigni; John Walker; Charlotte Bannister-Parker (daughter of Roger Bannister); Steve Cram; Noureddine Morceli; Abdi Bile; Hicham El Guerrou; , Kipchoge Keino; Eamonn Coghlan, and Sebastian Coe. Picture: ‘Philippe Fitte for World Athletics

Short on time and mileage, the four-minute mile barrier eventually fell through a combination of Bannister’s physical gifts, his race-day grit, and the interval training method favoured by his coach, Franz Stampfl.

Bannister entered the history books in May 1954 when clocking 3:59.4 in Oxford and he retired from athletics later that year at just 25, to focus on a degree in neurology.

Talk to any of the greats these days and Bannister will likely be credited for sparking their love affair with the mile.

“It’s Roger, isn’t it?” said Steve Cram, the Briton who in 1985 lowered the mile world record to 3:46.32.

“The impact of what Roger did has resonance with fans around the world. It’s that iconic moment that’s allowed it to live and breathe and still be relevant today. It’s the best event in athletics.”

Abdi Bile, the 1987 world 1500m champion from Somalia, put it like this: “Roger wanted to prove the impossible.

"It was after two world wars and the whole world, and Great Britain, needed inspiration. For Eamonn Coghlan, there was an obvious role model in the shape of a fellow Dubliner.

“When I grew up all I heard about was Ronnie Delany,” he said. “My Dad used to take me to Santry and in 1958 I was there when Herb Elliott broke the world record. Roger Bannister was something we saw in the local cinema.

"I used to read as much as I possibly could about all the great champions. I devoured Arthur Lydiard’s book. It became my bible. I was always visualising in my mind that I wanted to be like those greats.”

Though Ronnie Delany has spent a fair chunk of the last 63 years reliving that Melbourne victory, he’s still happy to cover old ground.

He laughs as he tells the story of the man who walked up to him in Dublin years back and told him he’d never seen “anyone get so much fucking mileage out of winning a medal.”

But Delany has long felt a responsibility to talk about that race, to carry his achievement with dignity, openness and great generosity.

“I remember the intensity of concentration,” he says of that day in Melbourne. “During the race, you’re focused. You don’t hear the crowd. You’re watching, focusing, monitoring.”

Delany played a patient game in the 1500m final, unleashing a devastating change of gears in the home straight to leave the world’s best milers trailing in his wake.

“I threw my arms wide in celebration as I went through the victory tape and kneeled down to say a prayer as a mark of my faith.

"You’re almost saying: ‘I don’t believe it, I’ve won the Olympics.’ At 21 years of age, I was going to climb up the rostrum as Olympic champion.”

At 19, Delany had left Ireland to attend college at Villanova University in Pennsylvania — the same path Coghlan would travel years later — where he moulded himself into the world’s best middle distance runner.

“I never felt a sense of loneliness. My life was extraordinarily full. I took the academic side seriously and the running seriously, and I also had to work.”

At a time when he was one of the world’s best athletes — but also an amateur who was unable to take any earnings from the sport — Delany worked a number of jobs to get by: a “grease monkey” at a friend’s garage, a caddy at a local golf course and a parking attendant at a church.

“I’d be out parking cars for midday mass and there would be papers hot off the press about the guy who ran a world record at Madison Square Garden the night before. The people probably didn’t know the guy who set the record was the guy parking their cars.”

Delany retired from athletics at the relatively youthful age of 26, though for the past six decades he’s brought back to Melbourne every day.

“When you have the honour and distinction, when your fate says you’ll be an Olympic gold medallist, there’s never a day you’re not reminded of it.

"You don’t look at yourself in the mirror every day and say it to yourself, but you have a deeper sense of being part of history of the Olympic Games, part of the inspiration.”

For others, that promised land proved elusive. While athletics may seem a fundamentally fair, objective sport, it has the capacity to dole out success with a vicious lack of sympathy for those most deserving.

Jim Ryun knows this. The Kansas native spent much of his teens listening to others declare him Olympic champion in waiting, especially after becoming the first high schooler in history to run a sub-four mile.

At 19 he lowered the mile world record to 3:51.3 and two years later, many figured he was a shoo-in for Olympic 1500m gold at the 1968 Olympics.

But the high altitude in Mexico City played into the hands of Kip Keino, the Kenyan blasting clear over the final two laps and coming home a distant winner in 3:34.9, three seconds ahead of Ryun, whose performance was considered a failure in the US.

Four year later, Ryun tried again in Munich but after being fouled and tripped in the 1500m heats he was eliminated.

Shortly after we met in Monaco the American – who looks in stellar health for a man of 72 years – handed me a small pamphlet with an image of him in his prime on the cover, the story inside detailing the religious awakening he experienced at the height of his athletics career.

“For years I struggled with hurt and bitterness over that (Olympics),” it read.

“Then one day I became aware of an amazing thing: I was no longer bitter. God allowed me to be disqualified from the world’s most prestigious athletic competition to show me how to be a real winner.”

The passage ends with a question and an answer.

“Have you found that success has failed to fill the emptiness in your heart? Running with Jesus will fill that void and give you the peace and joy you long for.” …

If all was right in the world, Eamonn Coghlan would have an Olympic medal. Maybe even two or three.

The fact the Dubliner has two fourth-place finishes may have long been a source of frustration, but it hasn’t left him with regrets.

Not when his career soared so high for so long.

“I meet people and they ask how you did in the Olympics. If you say you won (a medal) they say ‘wow’ and that’s the difference of going down as one of the all-time greats,” he said.

“That’s what separates it, a couple of tenths of a second, not just for me but for anybody who finishes fourth.”

Coghlan, of course, got his just reward in 1983 when winning 5,000m gold at the World Championships in Helsinki, but in truth the depth of his athletic greatness was never full exhibited outdoors.

It was on tight, tricky indoor tracks - the kind Steve Ovett described as like running around a bathtub — where Coghlan proved peerless, the so-called chairman of the boards breaking the indoor mile world record on three occasions and running the first ever sub-four-minute mile by an over-40 athlete.

“There was something special about the indoor track, the crowds, the tight turns, 10 or 11 laps to the mile,” he said.

“The proximity of the crowd was a hell of a lot better than outdoors. It was like you were on Broadway. You were there, on stage. I almost felt like a Ferrari going around those turns, getting the catapult effect.”

In Monaco that night Coghlan got chatting to his old rival John Walker, the two sharing many a story from back in the day.

“After track meets we’d go back to the hotel, have food, have a couple of beers, lie about one another’s training,” he laughed. “We looked out for one another, whether it was trying to get on a flight, how much money you were getting paid.”

It took 14 years for Coghlan’s indoor mile world record of 3:49.78 to fall, Hicham El Guerrouj of Morocco clocking 3:48.45 in 1997.

By then the mile had come to be dominated by Africans, with El Guerrouj taking over from Algeria’s Nourredine Morceli as the world’s best.

But El Guerrouj still didn’t have what he craved most: Olympic gold. Morceli had gone into the 1996 Olympics as the mile world record holder at 3:44.39, but El Guerrouj was the young pretender who seemed destined to depose him.

With just over a lap remaining in the 1500m final he coasted up to Morceli’s shoulder, at which point a clash of legs saw El Guerrouj hit the deck - hard.

“I got up and carried on but it was too late,” said El Guerrouj. “That was very hard, quite traumatic, but it taught me a lesson – in every sense.”

Four years later, El Guerrouj went to Sydney as the world record holder over the mile and 1500m, running respective times of 3:43.13 and 3:26.00.

In that 2000 Olympic 1500m final he tried to burn his rivals off with a long run for home but he was flatter than usual due to overtraining.

Sitting in his slipstream all the way was Noah Ngeny of Kenya, who powered past in the home straight to take gold.

El Guerrouj had to wait four years for atonement, but after being diagnosed with asthma and struggling with illness in 2004, he began to look a beaten docket when finishing eighth in a race early that summer.

“It was a disaster for me psychologically,” he said.

Chief rival

His chief rival at the Athens Olympics was Bernard Lagat, who outkicked him in Zurich just two weeks before the Games.

To win, El Guerrouj would need a plan that neutralised the Kenyan’s speed but also didn’t bankrupt his own energy reserve before the home straight. “I had only one thought in my head, to be brave,” he said.

“To commit fully and never hold back.”

What unfolded was one of the greatest tactical plays in middle-distance history.

After a crawling pace through the first two laps, El Guerrouj swept to the front and slowly, almost imperceptibly, began to shift through the gears, running each 100m segment from 800m out incrementally faster than the one before.

Just as it had been in Sydney, he turned for home in front, but just as it was in Sydney, he was passed halfway down the home straight, this time by Lagat.

“When he overtook me I pictured those losses in Atlanta and Sydney all over again. I was telling myself: ‘Hicham, don’t lose. Hicham, don’t lose.’”

He fought back, repelling Lagat’s challenge and finally getting the gold medal he needed to feel complete.

“It was a race that went beyond the sporting side, it was also a race of fraternity and friendship because the others were also really happy that I could win,” he said.

And I won, I think, because I deserved it.

Of the mile greats who attended – Steve Ovett was a notable absentee, in keeping with his previous attitude to such events – this was a theme that emerged again and again: the desire to light a spark for the next generation.

Just as Bannister did for Coe and Cram, just as Delany did for Coghlan. Just as Morceli did for El Guerrouj.

“When I started it was a dream for me to be one of the greatest athletes in the world and before me was one of the greats from my neighbourhood: Nourredine,” said El Guerrouj.

“It’s an honour to be a part of this great family.”

When the formalities were finished, the group stood in small circles in a nearby lobby, drinking wine and telling stories, introducing themselves to those they hadn’t yet met.

The hardier ones later retired to the hotel bar where they reminisced into the early hours, each of them appreciating this rare chance to socialise with their rivals, their friends, their equals.

“Tonight was like a dream come true,” said Coghlan. “You hear and see all these heroes, you dream about becoming a champion and all of a sudden you’re alongside them.

"We cared for one another in a real way and that was evident. Fantastic, fantastic people.”

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