The World Road Running Championships in Riga will see the first-ever global champions crowned in the mile but the event has a long and illustrious history
Just after midday on Sunday (Oct 1), Faith Kipyegon and some of the world’s best middle-distance runners will gather near the Latvian Museum of Art in Riga to battle for inaugural world road mile titles. Around four minutes later they will finish at the city’s picturesque City Canal and a new chapter in the history of athletics will be underway.
Whereas Riga will witness the first global championship for the event, the road mile has a long history. For many years athletes have raced over the classic distance of 1609 metres on streets all over the planet although variations in terrain have largely made the compilation of national and world records pointless.
In the run-up to Riga, World Athletics has moved quickly this year to ratify recent marks set by Sam Prakl (4:01.21) and Nikki Hiltz (4:27.97) as official world records, which means athletes in Riga have something to shoot at. With the 70th anniversary of Sir Roger Bannister’s first sub-four-minute mile on the track looming in 2024, too, it is ideal timing to introduce a mile to a World Road Running Championships that also includes 5km and half-marathon.
The 1980s saw an explosion of road miles. Most famously of all, the 5th Avenue Mile in New York City attracted many of the world’s greatest middle-distance runners.
Sydney Maree ran 3:47.6 to win the first 5th Ave Mile in 1981 and amazingly it is still the course record 42 years later despite Josh Kerr almost taking it down this year when he clocked 3:47.9.
Laura Muir holds the women’s course record, meanwhile, with 4:14.8 with winners over the years including Nick Willis, Jenny Simpson, Jake Wightman, Paula Radcliffe, Wendy Sly and Craig Mottram.
Jemma Reekie won the 2023 women’s title to make it a Scottish double with Kerr, whereas the race’s sponsors over the years have ranged from Pepsi, Mercedes-Benz and even Donald Trump to the current sponsor New Balance.
A downhill road mile on Queen Street in Auckland in 1983 was set up to see if athletes could break the 3:30 barrier for the mile. They did, too, with Mike Boit of Kenya clocking 3:27.8 from Steve Scott of the United States.
There have also been elite miles over the years in places like Boston in the United States and Waikiki in Hawaii, with Neil Gourley winning the latter in 2022.
London has staged road miles with a Peugeot Talbot-sponsored Westminster Mile in 1985 won by Steve Ovett in 3:56.1 from what AW modestly described at the time as “a good international field” that included runner-up Steve Cram.
Further winners at the Westminster Mile in the 1980s included John Gladwin in 1986 and Peter Elliott in 1987 although the event fizzled out, only to be resurrected in the aftermath of the London Olympics in 2013 where Hannah England and Charlie Grice were crowned winners outside Buckingham Palace and David Weir narrowly failed to break the three-minute barrier in a wheelchair.
Weir managed the feat in 2014 with 2:57 and the event saw the introduction of an Olympians’ Mile in 2015 which was won by Cram on the 30th anniversary of his long-standing track UK mile record of 3:46.32.
There have also been road miles at the Great North Run weekend on the Newcastle-Gateshead Quayside and at Stockton-on-Tees with Muir and Australia’s Jordan Williamsz, for example, winning at the latter in 2018.
After a pandemic-enforced hiatus, the Westminster Mile returned this month, too, although sadly without any elite entries. There was however a UK trial for Riga on the eve of the Great North Run with the men’s race won by Callum Elson. The women’s mile trial didn’t happen due to lack of entries but Sarah McDonald has been selected anyway to represent Britain in Riga.
At club and recreational level, the mile remains a popular event as it’s a great test of speed and stamina. Or, for some, simply a short jog for people who want to stride around for fun and fitness. Compared to track races, entirely different tactics are needed too for athletes who want to challenge for the win.
In 2004 the Sport Relief Mile was launched in the UK to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Bannister’s barrier-breaking exploits and in subsequent years it saw hundreds of thousands of people taking part.
Elsewhere the Mow Cop Killer Mile – a gruelling uphill race near Stoke-on-Trent – has been going since the 1980s. No doubt there are plenty of other road miles – either current or deceased – which I have not included in this article.
As a club runner in the 1990s, I enjoyed taking part in a small race called the Newquay Carnival Mile in Cornwall. I even managed to win it three times with a best of 4:19, although the entries were far from elite.
Despite its low-key nature, the streets were packed with an estimated audience of around 50,000 as the event took place just before the main procession of the town’s annual summer carnival floats which, of course, was what most people were there to watch.
READ MORE: Riga 2023 coverage
Still, it meant that we ran through the sort of crowds you would expect in a Tour de France mountain stage (in comparison to the handful you see at local athletics league or open meetings).
Given this, hopefully Riga will put on a show this weekend and the streets will be packed to see real athletes like Kipyegon racing for glory in the event’s first bona fide world championship.
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