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DOES THE MILE STILL MATTER?

04 APR 2014
Nick Willis (left) and Will Leer (centre) are two of the world’s top milers. John Walker(right) held the world mile record for four years, and ran a staggering 135 sub-four-minute miles. SPIKES sat down with all three, to find out why they still get a kick out of the classic distance.

Do you have a favourite mile race?

Nick Willis: ”The Fifth Avenue Mile has been really enjoyable and special to me [Willis won in 2008 and 2013]. It is interesting that you don’t ever see a road 1500m. The road miles are set up to create some excitement and there is evidence to suggest that the mile means so much more to the casual observer. I really enjoy running on the roads. There is plenty of room and no danger of being boxed in, so it often means we don’t to sprint for the first 200m. To run a road mile in such a prestigious city is a fantastic way to finish the season” (The event is usually in late September).

Will Leer: ”My favourite is the Bowerman Mile. Even though, to this day, I’ve never run very well in it. It is the premier event at the Pre Classic: the crescendo of the meeting. With 20,000 people going nuts and urging all the milers on, it is a really special event.”

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Asbel Kiprop leads the 2013 Bowerman Mile at the Pre Classic in Oregon.

John Walker: ”I always liked the Emsley Carr Mile. It took me a long time to win it in my career but I finally achieved it in 1987.”

Do you remember your first ever mile?

NW: ”I think it was the Cooks Classic [in Wanganui, New Zealand] when I ran 4:01.32 as a 17-year-old. That season it was a big goal of mine to run a 3:45 1500m. To run a 4:01 mile [which was a New Zealand junior record] was faster than my lofty goal.”

WL: ”I was in elementary school in Minneapolis. It was a mile race around some baseball pitches – basically a cross country mile, although whether the exact distance was a mile, no-one would ever know. It was part of physical fitness testing for the President’s Challenge.

“It was hard to convince kids to run that far. It seemed like an unconquerable distance. But I was a bundle of energy as a six-year-old, and easily won the race. Mind, I could never win the fitness test award because I could never touch my toes. I still can’t.”

What about your first sub-four minute miles?

NW: “My first came in January 2003 at the Meyo Invitational, on a slightly oversized indoor track at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. I think five of us went under four minutes that day. I remember I was the only one willing to go with the pacemaker and after 600 metres my coach was yelling at the rabbit to pick up the pace. The rabbit thought my coach was yelling at him to get off the track, so he did, and I was left at the front. I finished fourth that day. I had to do the hard yards and clocked 3:58.15. It meant a lot to me.”

WL: ”It was an indoor meet at the University of Washington in January 2008. The only goal was to run a sub-four minute mile and it was basically me running with a couple of team-mates. I had run the equivalent of a sub-four minute mile in the 1500m a couple of times and I really wanted my first sub-four to be a 3:56 or 3:57. So what do I run? A 3:59.83 – and just squeezed under it!

“It was still a great hallmark achievement for a middle-distance runner, and after the race I became the fastest miler in the world for 2008. I held that position for about 12 hours!”

JW: ”It was in Vancouver in 1973 [in a five nations meet between Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and the USA]. I was 21 at the time. It was a special race, because it was where I ran my first sub-four minute mile. I led all the way and ran 3:58.8. It was awesome. As a kid I was always encouraged to run sprints and 800m, so I never ran the mile.”

What was it like to set the world record, John?

JW: ”I became the first man to break 3:50 [and therefore set the world mile record with 3:49.4] in Gothenburg in 1975. I could have run even faster had I had some competition, but at the end of the day I was the first person under 3:50 for the mile. I took the whole world by surprise and it changed my life forever, overnight.

“I knew I could do it [break the world record of 3:51.0 held by Tanzanian Filbert Bayi]. I’d run 3:52 in Stockholm in the build up, and I ran 19 races that season and won the whole lot. Everything went well in that race except the pacemaker pulled off the track at 600m [he was supposed to run until 800m] because he couldn’t last the pace.”

Who are your all-time favourite milers?

NW: ”I really look up to Steve Cram and Steve Ovett for their careers. I liked their racing styles and in many ways they trained in a way similar to me. They are people I can compare my career with. Of course, they have had greater successes than me in their careers in terms of world records and gold medals but, like me, they had a relatively simple approach to training. I think of running as a pretty simplistic sport, and that’s why I compare my career to theirs.”

British athletics legends (L-R) Steve Ovett, Sebastian Coe and Steve Cram attend the Samsung Champions Lounge at the 12th IAAF World Championships in Athletics in Berlin (Getty Images)

The Brits: Former mile WR holders Steve Ovett, Seb Coe and Steve Cram

WL: ”The guy I really look up to is Nick Willis [Nick ISN'T blushing]. I know him really well. I know how hard he works. His 3:30 [1500m] in Monaco and 3:50 [mile] at Prefontaine is the embodiment of a living legend. He runs the way I like to see milers run. He starts out at the back, but he’s always a presence at the end of a race.”

JW: ”I have three of them: Seb Coe, Steve Cram and Steve Ovett. They dominated their event and on their night they were awesome. We never saw the best of Steve Cram because he was always injured, but when he was on his game he was a champion. Coe was a winner of all races. Steve Ovett had a great stride and great acceleration.”

What’s the best mile race you’ve ever watched?

NW: ”I love the 3:46.32 world record that Steve Cram ran in Oslo in 1985. I like fact that he ran it in a way I believe you should run a mile. Make your last lap the fastest of all. I think he ran a 53-second lap for the last 400m. For us mere mortals who train at sea level that seems to be the best way to go about the mile, as opposed to taking it out hard and hanging on.”

WL: ”Alan Webb’s US record of 3:46.91. I loved his passion for the mile and the fact he went out of his way to find a mile at a small Belgian meet [in Brasschaat] in an attempt to break the national record. Not only that, he went out and did it. That singular focus was hugely impressive.”

So, the big question… Is the mile still relevant today?

NW: ”It is still relevant, particularly in North America, Australia and New Zealand. It is important for the casual fan because people understand a sub-four minute mile. A 3:38 1500m doesn’t mean anything to most people. I still believe the mile should be used as a means to reach to the masses.

“The biggest challenge [to the mile’s status] is that mile times are not recognised as qualification times for the 1500m at major championships, even though translated times for 1500m to the mile are very accurate.”

WL: ”Absolutely. People in a crowd can connect with a mile more than they can with the 1500m. Everyone in America had the same experience as me. They all ran it in gym class. The mile has an ability to connect with the people who aren’t as intricately woven into our world as we are.”

JW: ”It is still relevant, because there are so few top mile races in the world. There are only about three top mile races, so it is very special and in countries like England and New Zealand, it is still very important.”