Ian O’Riordan: Magic of the mile never fails to thrill

Something and everything about this imperial distance still brings a smile to Irish sport

Nicholas Griggs (centre) at the age 17 years, two months and 23 days becomes the youngest runner in history to run the mile in under four minutes indoors. File photograph: Inpho

Depending on the length of drive up or down the mountain the low-fuel warning light on the four-litre engine Jeep Wrangler can suddenly flicker on or off to indicate there was or is approximately two US gallons left in the tank and good for another 80km or less, and the first thing that enters my head is what’s that in miles again?

These are confusing times for motorists everywhere, and who doesn’t crave for something more straightforward right now, like when the chief concern isn’t the cost of the journey but simply the allotted hours or minutes, or indeed pace for that matter.

There is still something to cheer about. According to the popular American website Bring back The Mile, no running distance – and certainly no field event – has the history, the enduring appeal and special magic of the mile, especially when it comes to running it in under four minutes. Like the 100m or perhaps the marathon, The mile is also a running distance most people can still relate to, somehow even feel.

It's only 170 years since the first registered world record for the mile was clocked, when, in July 1852, England's Charles Westhall ran two laps of the Copenhagen House grounds in London in four minutes, 28.0 seconds. Long before that, the Roman mile came from the Latin mille passus, meaning one thousand paces, a mile then being 1,000 Roman strides, a stride being two paces, which is about as confusing as things got.

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It's coming up on 70 years, next year, since Roger Bannister became the first man in history to run the mile in under four minutes – 3:59.4 – considered then as scaling a sort of horizontal Mount Everest, the vertical one scaled for the first time just the year before, in 1953, by Edmund Hillary. Both also still come in with the same fuel and energy cost, naturally.

Despite the 1,500m long being the standard championship running distance – just don’t call it the metric mile, that hideous contradiction – there’s still something seminal about the mile also. To quote Pat Butcher’s The Perfect Distance: “The Mile! Four laps of the track. Like a four-act play. Prologue, Exposition, Action, Dénouement. All inside four minutes. Aristotle could not have conceived a better dramatic formula. It is the ultimate in audience involvement in track and field athletics – neither too short, not too long.”

Something and everything about the mile still brings a smile to Irish sport too, in part given our long history of success at the distance, both indoors and outdoors. Ronnie Delany and Eamonn Coghlan both set indoor mile world records multiple times (three times each), and four Irish runners – Coghlan, Marcus O'Sullivan, Frank O'Mara and Ray Flynn – still hold the world record for running four-by-four miles in immediate succession, in 15:49.99 to be exact.

Still the records come home. When word came through on Thursday evening that Nicholas Griggs had broken the European under-20 indoor record for the mile, clocking a magnificent 3:56.40, less than three months after turning 17, even the purest of mile aficionados were scrambling around the statistics and record books trying to put it in perspective.

In finishing a close second to Andrew Coscoran, who almost 10 years his senior took the win the 3:56:27, Griggs also helped complete the first and second sub-four minute miles run at the Sport Ireland Arena in Abbotstown, although there's a long history before that, 373 sub-four minute miles now run in Ireland going back to 1958, when deftly persuaded by Billy Morton, Delany agreed to line up against some of the best milers of the time, including Murray Halberg from New Zealand, and a 20 year-old Australian named Herb Elliott.

On the evening of August 6th, having reportedly spent the previous night consuming his fair share of a black Irish beverage at a hotel on the Botanic Road, Elliott knocked more than 2½ seconds off the mile world record with his 3:54.5, another Australian Merv Lincoln second in 3:55,9, Delany third in 3:57.5, the crowd assembled in Santry, estimated at 25,000, still a record attendance for an athletics meeting in this country.

It's a pity there weren't more assembled in Abbotstown on Thursday evening, The mile part of the final NIA Live event of 2022, deftly orchestrated David Matthews. Griggs only turned 17 on December 18th, which means at the age 17 years, two months and 23 days becomes the youngest runner in history to run the mile in under four minutes indoors, and the youngest Irish man indoors or out. The oldest runner to ever clock sub-four indoors is Coghlan, who ran 3:58.15 at the Harvard University track in February 1994, at the age of 41 years, two months 27 days.

As well as eclipsing the previous European Under-20 indoor mile best of 4:02.33 set by Britain's Robbie-Farnham Rose in the US back in 2013, Griggs is now the second fastest Under-20 indoor miler in history, only the American German Fernandez running faster with his 3:55.02 set back in March 2009; he's also now the 13th fastest Irish miler in history.

“The plan went pretty much perfect. Managed to come home with a new PB, a new European Under-20 record, which I am absolutely buzzing with,” Griggs said afterwards, with a special nod to Coscoran, who took up the pace from halfway. “The race just went perfectly.”

Indeed no Irish Under-20 runner had gone sub-four before, the previous fastest indoors or out being Paul Robinson's 4:00.93 in 2010; in only his fourth indoor race this season, only his fifth ever, Griggs also added to his Irish Under-20 3,000m record of 7:57:38 set last month. To put that in perspective, my dad broke four Irish senior 3,000m records outdoors, taking it to 8:02.2. That stood for 11 years until Jerry Kiernan ran 7:56.9 in London in 1977.

Three days later, also at Abbotstown, Griggs then clocked another Under-20 record of 3:43:71, breaking 3:50 for the first time, improving the previous indoor record of 3:44.85 set by Cian McPhillips in 2020.

Such is the lasting impact and enduring history, the mile is the only imperial distance which World Athletics retains on its standard world record lists, a sort of unique recognition that the mile is perhaps the perfect distance.

Grigg was back in class at Cookstown High School in Tyrone on Friday morning, and if anyone had asked he might have said his time the night before is roughly the equivalent to 3:38.50 for 1,500m, only that doesn't have the same ring as 3:56.40 for the mile, does it?