Feature03 Jun 2022

140 years on, celebrating the world’s first sub-4:20 mile


Walter George

You could say Walter George did not exactly have the ideal preparation for accomplishing the first sub-4:20 mile by an amateur runner.

He spent the night before and the early morning of the British Civil Service Athletics Club Sports at the Lillie Bridge Stadium in London on 3 June 1882 – 140 years ago today – enjoying what he liked to call “a spree”.

The distinctively tall, upright, willowy Englishman might have been an innovative, dedicated trainer and a trailblazing runner who racked up 32 world records over six years, but he was partial to a beer, a cigar, a bet on the horses and some high jinks. Indeed, only the previous New Year’s Eve, after spending the evening drinking in London, he had broken into Lillie Bridge with three friends and taken part in a one-lap race in pitch darkness on the stroke of midnight.

Thus, in the early hours of his barrier-breaking mile run, George found himself strolling the streets of England’s capital city seeking amusement after a night on the town with friends from the London Athletic Club. The occasion was vividly depicted by the man himself and faithfully detailed in Rob Hadgraft’s meticulously researched 2006 biography, Beer and Brine: The Making of Walter George, Athletics’ First Superstar:

“At about three in the morning on the day of the race, Junker and I made a move for home, Crossley volunteering to go a little of the way with us. When we had reached Regent Street, the latter insisted on running off a sprint handicap between the three of us. This we speedily arranged and accomplished without interference, although one bluecoat [policeman] was an interested spectator.

“I quite forget the result but after this impromptu spin I made a bee line for Tavistock Crescent, where I was staying, and I ran the whole way. On arriving there at 4am, I found a telegram from a lady friend at Brighton, asking me to meet her at 8am that morning at Victoria Station. Thinking that if I went to bed I should oversleep myself, I decided not to risk it, so going to the bathroom I had a good warm tub and rub-down and then, putting on fresh clothes, started to walk to Victoria Station, where I arrived in good time to meet the lady.

“We had breakfast together and chartered a hansom cab, driving all over the West End, transacting business and shopping until it was time to make tracks for Lillie Bridge. Driving quickly there, I found I was barely in time for the race and moreover I was without running shoes or clothes. However, I managed to borrow these and, getting into them, I rushed to my scratch mark just in time to be fired off.

“It was a terribly hot and depressing day – such an atmosphere makes one feel too tired and lazy for walking about, let alone running – yet strange to say I ran right through my field, an excellent one, and took the lead at about 1000 yards, ultimately winning rather easily in a new record time of 4:19.4. This time I might have considerably improved had I anyone to push me for the last 700 yards of the race.”

Like most races of the era, it was a handicap affair. George started on ‘scratch’ and had to overtake 13 rivals, one of whom enjoyed a 120-yard advantage. Athletes ran on uneven cinder tracks with hard, leather shoes, weighed down by Guernsey jerseys and long, flapping shorts.

George improved his record to 4:18.4 at the 1884 AAA Championships at the Aston Lower Grounds in Birmingham, the home of his club, Moseley Harriers, and one of the most popular leisure complexes of the day. Buffalo Bill Cody performed his Wild West Show there and the tightrope walker Madame Genieve fell to her death during a blindfold performance on the site that is now home to Aston Villa Football Club.

Cummings no match

It was at Lillie Bridge in 1886, however, that Walter Goodall George ran the race of his life. By that time, the former chemist had turned professional to face William Cummings, the diminutive Scottish who had been credited with a sensational 4:16.2 mile in the murky, betting-driven world of ‘pedestrianism’ – as 18th Century professional running was known – at Preston in the north-west of England in 1881.

On Monday 23 August 1886, George stunned a packed crowd at Lillie Bridge by running 4:12.8 (given at the time as 4:12¾). An exhausted Cummings collapsed 60 yards from the line.

George’s time remained unbeaten for 29 years – until 1915, when Norman Taber of the US clocked 4:12.6 with the aid of three pacemakers who had been given handicaps to assist (10 yards, 120 yards and 355 yards). It was not bettered in standard racing conditions until 1923, when the peerless Finn Paavo Nurmi clocked 4:10.4 in Stockholm.

“This was a phenomenal time,” the great, much-missed Mel Watman wrote of George’s 4:12.8 in his Encyclopaedia of World Athletics. “In a time-trial in 1885 he had gone even faster. He was reliably timed at 4:10.2 for six yards over the mile – and that wasn’t beaten officially until 1931.”

Inspiration for fartlek

As a 19-year-old novice runner, back in 1858 George sat down in the club house of the Worcester Rugby Football, Cycling and Athletics Club that he helped to form and announced he had prepared a schedule of lap times for a mile to be run in 4:12. His clubmates guffawed. Walter Slade’s world record at the time was 4:24.5.

George had only taken up athletics three months previously but the splits he wrote down, and the finishing time, were virtually identical to the ones he recorded at Lillie Bridge six years later: 58.5, 2:02, 3:07.75 and 4:12.8.

Accustomed to rambling through the Wiltshire Downs in his youth in rural southern England, George craved recreation when he was apprenticed to a chemist in Worcester in the English Midlands and found himself working from 7am to 9pm. He devised a system of indoor exercise which he undertook by gaslight in his room above the chemist shop. The ‘100 Up’, as he called it, involved running or springing on the spot with an exaggerated knee lift.

Combining this with an innovative form of varied-paced running proved to be a potent formula. By 1882 George was running twice a day, alternating runs of one and two miles with faster runs of 400 to 1200 yards and some flat-out sprinting.

“Certainly, he was a man who was years ahead of his time,” wrote Watman. “It was his form of training that inspired the celebrated Swedish coach Gosta Holmer to devise the popular fartlek system.”

During periods based back in Worcester, George also took to easing his tired limbs by taking brine baths at the nearby Droitwich Spa – hence the title of Hadgraft’s excellent tome.

In 1880 George had the distinction of becoming the first ever AAA champion, winning the opening event of the championships that England’s Amateur Athletics Association regarded as de facto world championships. It was a forgone conclusion. George was the only runner in the mile in the rain at Lillie Bridge; his rivals had heard tale of him running a time trial in 4:19.5. His time was 4:28.4.

In 1822 George established a unique record by gaining the English cross-country title and AAA Championships at 880yards, one mile, four miles and 10 miles. He would have also won the two-mile steeplechase, had he not lost a shoe when leading by 60 yards.

Two years later George ran 10 miles in 51:20, shattering his own amateur world record and the vastly superior professional world record of 51:26.0, set in 1863 by the Native American runner Deerfoot. In a time-trial, George clocked a remarkable 49:29.

Throughout his life George liked to gamble on horse racing and ran up huge debt, which he managed to clear with two series of challenge races against the celebrated US runner Lon Myers in New York and another in Australia.

‘The champion of champions’

After hanging up his racing shoes, George worked as a pub landlord, wrote books on training, opened a sports shop and manufactured his own brand of clothes. While his younger brother Alfred thrived – winning national titles as a middle-distance runner and steeplechaser in England, the US and Canada, and becoming Great Britain team manager at the 1924 Olympics – Walter struggled to find a successful career and experienced financial hardship.

London Fleet Street sportswriters learned of his plight and helped him through his old age. They also helped to steer him into coaching.

George assisted the renowned professional coach Sam Mussabini in preparing Albert Hill for the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp. Hill, a 31-year-old World War One veteran and ticket collector at London Bridge station, completed the 800m-1500m double. Mussabini had already guided South African Reggie Walker to Olympic 100m gold in London in 1908 and famously did the same with Harold Abrahams in the ‘Chariots of Fire’ Games in Paris in 1924.

George went on to coach the 400m runner Godfrey Rampling, who anchored the British 4x400m team to Olympic silver in Los Angeles in 1932 and won gold in the same event in Berlin in 1936. Rampling became a high-ranking NATO commander and was the father of actor Charlotte Rampling.

Family tragedy struck George and his wife Ada in 1932 when their son, Walter Gordon George, was murdered in San Francisco, shot by an ex-employee he had dismissed during the great depression.

George worked as a coach and groundsman at Mitcham Athletics Club in South London until the age of 77. On his Golden Wedding in 1937, he received a telegram from the British King George VI, headed ‘The Champion of Champions.’ The great trailblazing champion died six years later, aged 84.

Simon Turnbull for World Athletics Heritage