Still unbroken after 40 years, what’s holding back a new Irish mile record?

While some stubborn old Irish records fell this summer, Ray Flynn’s 1,500m/mile marks went untouched again after 40 years

In the old school playground where Ireland’s mile record holder first learned to run, a class of pupils come racing by oblivious it seems to time or pace.

Ray Flynn doesn’t say it out loud, only may well be wondering if one of these youngsters will ever run faster than he did.

It’s been a long time since Flynn ran around here, and even if the scene within St Michael’s Boys National School in Longford town hasn’t changed lots of things on the outside have. It’s one of the reasons he’s come back to school with what might be the easiest lesson of the day.

The Daily Mile has been going for 10 years now, beginning in the UK and now running in 89 countries, a simple idea to get primary school classes walking or running for 15 minutes a day – with potentially big impacts on long-term health and wellbeing.


“We would have been doing daily miles ourselves, when we were younger, all naturally,” Flynn tells me. “We do need to push it more now, make it more structured, even walking the mile, because exercise is more necessary now, especially around childhood obesity, all you have to do is look at the body types.”

The oldest of nine children, running become a lot more than a playground act after Flynn started in St Mel’s College next door, then became a serious business in 1974 after he left for college in East Tennessee State at age 17. Three years later he ran his first sub-four minute mile at the Penn Relays in Philadelphia, a sign of the greater things to come.

Fast forward another five years to the 1982 Dream Mile, Oslo, and at the bell lap Flynn is right on the heels of John Walker and Steve Scott, all three running somewhere around world record pace.

Down the backstretch, the Bislett Stadium heaving, Scott moves in front, Flynn giving chase in second, all three still flying. The time they’re after is Seb Coe’s 3:47.33, set the year before, and it’s going to be close.

Into the home stretch and Scott now has a five-metre lead, which the American extends to the line in 3:47.69, just missing the world record. Walker comes back to take second in 3:49.08, Flynn two strides behind in 3:49.77 – all three setting national mile records.

Just as good for Flynn, he’s clocked at 3:33.5 for 1,500 metres, so walks away that night as both Irish mile and 1,500m record holder. The fact both his records set as a 25-year-old still stand 40 years later is surprising, he tells me, before quickly upgrading that to shocking.

I jest we’re certainly getting good mileage out of his records, reminding Flynn of an article we wrote in 2002, when the records turned 20, wondering then how much longer they could possibly survive. Truth is they may not be going anywhere fast.

Despite all the advancements around distance running – altitude training, heart rate and lactate measuring, super-fast carbon spikes etc – the fact two of those records still stand 40 years later is a measure and reminder of their greatness. Still, natural progression should by now be having some say.

Scott eventually lost his American record to Alan Webb (who ran 3:46.91 in 2007) Flynn’s 3:49.77, the first sub-3:50 by an Irish athlete, just about holding off the 3:49.78 Eamonn Coghlan ran indoors a year later. Walker’s 3:49.08 is also still unbeaten in New Zealand.

In the 40 years since, several generations of Irish athletes have presented themselves as record contenders, Ciarán Ó Lionáird’s 3:52.10, run indoors in 2013, still the closest of the last decade. The mile may be less prevalent on the running circuit than it was in 1982; still, on the Irish 1,500m all-time list, five of the top-10 were clocked before 2001.

Plenty of stubborn old Irish records have fallen in the meantime, Israel Olatunde taking over the mantle of Ireland’s fastest man this summer, eclipsing Paul Hession’s mark after 15 years, Rhasidat Adeleke twice breaking the 400m mark after a similarly long wait.

Some people questioned if Sonia O’Sullivan’s Irish 1,500m record of 3:58.85 set in 1995 would ever be broken, until Ciara Mageean ran 3:56.63 last month, and now it seems there is scope for further improvement there too.

Record progression has never been linear or straightforward. This summer Andrew Coscoran moved further up that Irish 1,500m all-time list, running 3:35.43 last month and now sits eighth overall, one place ahead of Coghlan.

Indoors earlier this year, Coscoran ran a 3:53.61 mile, with Luke McCann, still only 24, improving his best to 3:53.71, before breaking the Irish 1,000m record this summer, a record which had stood to David Matthews since 1996. Clearly there is some hope.

Flynn has a few different theories as to why his records have lasted so long, still there’s no denying the event has moved on. Jakob Ingebrigtsen ran 3:28.32 to win the Olympic 1,500m title in Tokyo summer, and unless you’re running sub 3:30 these days you’re not really at the championship races.

“That first time I broke four, my next race was in Belfield, against Walker and Coghlan, and I ran 3:55. Definitely in that period it felt magical, world records were being broken left, right and centre. Coe versus Ovett too. We didn’t realise it may never be the same again.

“You starting running at the level of the people you’re racing against, Marcus [O’Sullivan] and Frank [O’Mara] too, we were all competitive with each other, and drove each other. Like when setting the world 4xmile record in 1985 [which also still stands]. I also think I got the absolute best out of myself. Helen Walker, John’s wife, was talking about that night in Oslo recently, and remembers me being completely green, throwing up on the track after.”

Tennessee is home for him now, where since 1989 he’s run Flynn Sports Management, also taking over as director of the Millrose Games for the last 10 years. He’s certainly not naive enough to dismiss doping as playing some part in the record progression of some events over the years.

“For sure, if something looks too good to be true, it probably is. But we have been producing great juniors, it’s about getting them to the next level. I’d still be very hopeful for Cian McPhillips (the fellow Longford runner who last year ran an Irish Under-20 1,500m record of 3:40.56.) There’s no easy way to run 3:30, 3:31, it takes really hard work. Not that our guys aren’t working hard, we can do it, we have the talent.

“I just think we need more of them, to push each other. And maybe the young juniors coming through now are the ones to break it.”

All records being there for the breaking after all.