Sonia O’Sullivan: Why running the mile is still the perfect distance

The mile has always stood the test of time and is still embraced worldwide

The  mile is an achievable distance for a beginner too. Photograph: Getty Images

The mile is an achievable distance for a beginner too. Photograph: Getty Images


There’s really only one good way to get warm in this weather, and that’s to go for a run.

Last Monday I woke up early, still buzzing from the Coronas concert I had attended in the Olympia the night before, and knowing there were still sub-zero temperatures outside.

So I found myself nursing an espresso, answering emails, as I waited for daylight and my chance to run through the laneways leading to Seán Moore Park in Sandymount for a sunrise run along the seafront towards the Great South Wall.

It was a glorious morning, and one of those days that you feel like you are gliding along the footpaths, and racing through the park, until you catch a glimpse of reality as the Garmin beeps and announces your pace as each kilometre ticks by.

It was certainly cold, minus 4 degrees, and I had on just one thin layer of Lycra, a winter headband to keep my ears warm and gloves with my fingers pulled up into a fist to keep warm. It just about did the trick.

It’s also that time of the year, with the sun rising after 8am and setting before 5pm, the days are short and the window for exercise is straight and narrow.

On days like this I enjoy listening to a podcast while I’m running, another way of warming up, and a long interview will often get me through an hour’s run.

It’s generally an Irishman Abroad that goes the distance for me, but this time I had scanned through a recent podcast I had come across from America with Rich Roll, who converted himself from obese to ultra runner through healthy eating and change of lifestyle, and now also boasts a podcast where he interviews a variety of people.

It’s always interesting when you listen to podcasts. It’s a bit like a one-way conversation; sometimes things crop up and you want to talk back, and sometimes you do even though you can’t be heard.

There was an interview with Lance Armstrong which was intriguing and kept me entertained for the long run. I did have to question why I was listening to Lance, one more version of his side of the story but spoken in a more calm and controlled and less aggressive way than he has come across before.

Happy memories

The follow-up was an interview with Bryan Fogel the director of the recent doping documentary Icarus.

I listened to this one as I set off from the running track in Cork, along Mardyke Walk to Fitzgerald’s Park. I have many happy memories competing at this track down through the years at the Cork City Sports.

However, I was taken aback when Fogel was referencing his conversation with Grigory Rodchenkov, one of the key players in the Icarus documentary exposing the state-sponsored doping programme in Russia.

He straight out stated that he didn’t believe “any” Olympic medal could not be won without doping. I wanted to shout back “Yes it can, and I have the proof...”

It really can get me riled up when someone makes such a widespread statement, and worse still that people get sucked in and believe this. If this were true then what faith can we have in sport?

More clean and honest athletes need to stand up and tell their story and show what is possible through hard work and clean living. Too often the negative stories make for greater headlines.

You only have to observe the latest revelations surrounding Chris Froome and his adverse test result from the 2017 Vuelta a Espana, to see the media scrum that is so quickly formed.

I ran out and back alongside the river Lee, knowing I was always going to make it back to run a few laps of my old running track.

Once I hit the track, there is always some negotiation on how many laps to run. Without any purpose or speed to a run around the track these days, I just have to play with some numbers in my head.

I settled on a mile, still just four laps of the track. Even though my watch is set to beep every kilometre, my mind and body still understand the feeling of the pace of a mile.

Actually, I’m due to line up for an indoor mile at the Sport Ireland Arena at Abbotstown this evening, as part of the new NIA Live series. This is a series of events being run throughout the winter, an innovative concept that is bringing athletics and entertainment to life.

I had just got off the phone with Irish 800m record holder David Matthews, who organises these events to check the timing, and when I needed to get to the track.

It’s a late evening at the track, but as it’s essentially entertainment – social, active and fun – with the first mile kicking off at 8pm, and the more leisurely one that I will canter around at 9:30pm.


With lights and loud music it’ll be like returning to the Olympia. And I’ll probably be humming a Coronas song or two that will get me through a mile.

It’s interesting how the mile has always stood the test of time, still embraced worldwide, an anomaly alongside the standard Olympic distances.

It is synonymous with indoor racing dating back to the famous Wanamaker Mile at the Millrose Games where Eamonn Coghlan earned the title chairman of the boards, and even further back to the 1950s when Roger Bannister became the first ever man to break four minutes for the mile.

It’s been called the perfect distance, just under one minute per lap, over four laps of the outdoor track, even though that will be eight laps of the Indoor Arena tonight.

It’s an achievable distance for the beginner too: to run a mile, then to add a few more, and return to test how fast you can cover that one single mile. We all know when we are a mile from home, and if we had to we could walk.

I once ran a mile in four minutes and 17 seconds; 23 years ago to be exact, and still ranked eighth in the all-time list. A similar time by the way that Paul Robinson ran recently on the snow in the Antarctic.

It seems such a long time ago, and in a different life, that I ran so fast. Still I know I will enjoy the mile at the Indoor Track tonight. Bright lights, loud music, and maybe if I throw away my watch I may even get the real feel like I’m gliding along.

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