We look back at the creation of an enduring middle-distance institution which was created following the fateful publication of a letter in Athletics Weekly

The British Milers’ Club was created in 1963 and its origins can be traced back to the pages of AW. Exasperated with the poor performances of middle-distance runners at the time, the endurance coach Frank Horwill wrote to this magazine and his mission statement appeared in the June 29 issue that year.

“A number of Senior AAA Honorary Coaches,” he said, “wish to start a specialist club for milers (male and female), to be known as the British Milers’ Club. The emblem for this Club will be a Union Jack mounted above a runner.”

The letter ignited debate and led to the creation of the ‘BMC’, a specialist organisation which has given training and racing opportunities to generations of leading domestic runners for the past 60 years. Horwill passed away in 2012, but the legacy of that letter is still very much alive and well.

Seb Coe, president of World Athletics, says: “In 1963, when Frank Horwill decided he should do something about the slight decline in British distance running, little did he know then just what an impact his actions would have. Thirteen years later, it was at a BMC meeting in 1976 that I made one of my first big breakthroughs over 800m. I went to Stretford as a teenager with a PB of 1:51.8, but came away from there with a lifetime best of 1:47.7, breaking the BMC record in the process. But I am just one of literally thousands of athletes to have benefitted from the BMC.”

Seb Coe (Mark Shearman)

Coe, who won Olympic 1500m titles in 1980 and 1984 and broke world records at 800m, 1000m, 1500m and one mile, added: “The opportunities to set PBs, to achieve qualification marks, or simply gaining quality racing experience at BMC meetings have been invaluable to generations of athletes. Indeed, the British Milers’ Club has transformed the face of middle-distance running in the UK over the past 60 years. No doubt Frank’s legacy will live on for many more decades through the good work of the BMC.”

Jack Buckner, chief executive of UK Athletics and 1986 European 5000m gold medallist, said: “The BMC’s impact on the development of endurance athletes over the decades cannot be over-estimated. Their races have given so many opportunities for athletes to compete against great competition exactly when they have needed it over the years.

“On a personal level they played a massive part in my career as my 800m PB (1:49.8) was in a BMC race (Crystal Palace, 1981) and I regularly competed in their races from 1977-84, with my coach George Gandy also a big supporter of their events.

“I’ve no doubt of its importance to endurance athletes, particularly middle-distance athletes and I am sure we will be celebrating further milestones in future decades of this fantastic format.”

Tim Hutchings leads Jack Buckner in Stuttgart (Mark Shearman)

As an example of the BMC’s impact, look no further than the reigning world men’s 1500m champion Jake Wightman. “Jake went from second place [and PB] in his debut BMC Grand Prix ‘F’ race in 2012 to first place [and PB] at the World Championships over the same distance 10 years later,” says his father and coach, Geoff. “The BMC founder Frank Horwill would be proud of the widespread impact that his invention continues to have.”

Aged 17, Jake finished runner-up to Will Paulsen and just ahead of Neil Gourley in 3:51.74 in Manchester that day before racing to global glory a decade later to beat Jakob Ingebrigtsen in Eugene in 3:29.23.

Geoff Wightman adds: “The BMC is the envy of other nations around the world in the way that it conditions whole generations of athletes to the demands of fast middle and long-distance track racing. Other event disciplines in the UK have modelled themselves on the format but only longer running events can have that crucial element of pace-making.”

Jake Wightman leads Jakob Ingebrigtsen (Getty)

Spurred on by Horwill’s battle cry and ethos, the BMC went from strength to strength through the 1960s and 1970s. To join the club, Horwill listed 10 membership benefits, which included: “To encourage the attitude of mind that the stopwatch is the ‘enemy’ and not necessarily other Club milers.”

A key moment came in June 1969 when Dutch runner Maria Gommers ran 4:36.8 for the women’s mile at Saffron Lane in Leicester – the first world record at a BMC event. The following month, five men broke the four-minute barrier for the mile on the same day at BMC meetings in Motspur Park and Stretford. It was merely a taste of what was to come, as a golden era of middle-distance running saw Coe, Steve Cram, Steve Ovett, Peter Elliott, Dave Moorcroft and many others making their mark.

1984 AAA 1500m (Mark Shearman)

The BMC’s growth was not entirely smooth, however. Horwill’s creation of a BMC South Committee in the early 1980s and the critical tone of his articles in BMC News led to unrest and the resignation of chair Harry Wilson and other committee members in 1981.

Tim Hutchings, one of Britain’s strongest runners during that era, recalls: “I became emergency treasurer of the BMC in the early 80s when there was an attempt to fold the club, with only my old coach Frank banging the drum for its survival and so it could keep offering race opportunities to good athletes who wanted to make that jump upwards from club athletics.”

The BMC survived, though. “I owe an immeasurable debt to the BMC,” Hutchings continues, “having run in dozens of its races from the age of 15 and on through the 1970s and 1980s, run umpteen PBs, and learning how to push hard and be stretched in paced races, how to be positioned and race well, and so much more.

“I ran a 3:56 mile in a low-key BMC race at Aldershot of all places, in 1982, again with great pacing. It’s very satisfying to quietly see the club go from strength to strength, helping hundreds of athletes each year and knowing you’ve played a very small part.”

Craig Mottram, John Mayock and Mo Farah with Roger Bannister in 2004

The BMC got back on track in the 1990s with the creation of its nationwide grand prix series. New stars like Kelly Holmes emerged and the BMC was involved in a memorable meeting in Oxford in 2004 where Craig Mottram (above) beat Mo Farah in a mile race on the 50th anniversary of Roger Bannister’s famous sub-four feat.

Much has changed since 1963. Led by Wightman, Keely Hodgkinson and Laura Muir, plus emerging talents like Max Burgin and longer distance stars like Eilish McColgan, standards have never been higher.

Max Burgin (David Lowes)

This article first appeared in the June issue of AW magazine, which you can buy here