More Irish runners experiencing the fast fading wonder of the sub four-minute mile

Seventy years after Roger Bannister ran his 3:59.4 it’s no longer a rare feat

Coming up on 70 years since Roger Bannister made news around the world for running a mile in under four minutes there is increasing evidence his once heroic feat is not what it used to be.

Not when 48 men break that once-thought impossible barrier on the same weekend, including six from Ireland and two for the first time. And with the 2024 season only a few weeks old, the top Irish milers are not yet among them.

Another 15 men ran under four minutes in the same mile at the University of Washington, including Ronan McMahon-Staggs, now representing Ireland, although those times won’t count for record purposes as they were set on an oversized indoor track.

Things have changed since Bannister ran his 3:59.4 on the cinder track at Iffley Road in Oxford in May 1954, namely the advancement in track design and shoe technology.


Boston University purposely designed its indoor track to optimise racing, and 20 men ran sub-four there last Friday night, including Ireland’s Paul Robinson (3:57.11), Thomas Moran (3:58.07, his first), Oisín Gallen (3:58.28) and Shane Bracken (3:58.58).

At the same time in Pennsylvania, Seán Donoghue, a junior at Villanova, ran 3:58.86, his first sub-four, while in New York, Villanova graduate Charlie O’Donovan once again broke the barrier with his 3:58.22.

Since Ronnie Delany made Irish history with his 3:59.0 in June 1956, in all 57 Irishman have run sub-four, including 33 indoors, 13 of which have been run since 2021, coinciding with the introduction of the so-called “super spikes” built on carbon-plating and super-bouncy foam.

“Running sub-four is not what it used to be, we can be clear on that,” says Feidhlim Kelly, coach at the Dublin Track Club, who was in Boston last Friday as Robinson and Bracken are both part of his training group.

“When you have so many college and even high-school runners doing it in the US, I do think for some people the times have lost some meaning. Unless they’re qualifying standards for major championships like the Olympics.

“Even with national records, it’s hard to quantify, or compare what went before. What’s rare is wonderful, and when the thing isn’t rare any more, it does lose some wonder. That’s unfortunate in some ways, because there are still some great performances.”

Andrew Coscoran, another of Kelly’s athletes with a 3:53.64 mile to his name, ran the 5,000m in Boston, improving the Irish record to 13:12.56 when finishing seventh. Luke McCann, who has a run a 3:53.55 mile, hasn’t raced yet this season.

“There is definitely a rise in standards, it just feels a little more mass-produced maybe,” says Kelly. “And the spikes do help a little bit, there’s no denying that they don’t help.

“But it’s an easy cop-out to say ‘it’s the spikes’. I do think the training has improved, people are racing a lot more, and in training before, it was just ‘hammer, hammer’. Now people are running a lot more structured mileage, pushing the limits on what they can do. More and more people are also going to altitude to train.”

Kelly also believes there is a psychological shift: “When more and more athletes are doing it, running sub-four, more and more athletes are thinking they should be doing it too.

“Also a lot more runners are embracing indoors, where it’s easier to run fast, or certainly the environment is more controlled, there’s no wind. The depth right now is incredible, there are way more better runners than ever before. Especially at European level.

“But it’s not that easy either. Some people might think athletes are not training as hard any more, just rock up wearing these Homer Simpson magic shoes and rub sub-four. That’s unfair on the athletes, because it does still take a lot of hard training and dedication, many of them just scraping by.”

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Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan is an Irish Times sports journalist writing on athletics