World Records for Men's Fastest Mile Times

Hicham El Guerrouj
Hicham El Guerrouj of Morroco holds the record for the fastest mile, at 3:43.13. Mark Thompson/Allsport/Getty Images

It has never been an Olympic or World Championship event, yet the mile remains the only non-metric race distance for which the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) recognizes a world record. Long after the other non-metric distances have vanished from the world record books, those 5,280 feet, or 1,760 yards (about 1.61 kilometers), continue to capture the imaginations of runners and fans alike as a premier middle distance event.

Morocco’s Hicham El Guerrouj has held the world record for the mile of 3:43.13 since July 7, 1999.

The first IAAF-recognized world record in the mile was run by John Paul Jones of the United States. No, the record doesn’t go back to the American Revolution. This John Paul Jones performed his feat on May 31, 1913, in Allston, Mass., where he completed the mile in 4:14.4. France’s Jules Ladoumegue later brought the mark under 4:10, running 4:09.2 on Oct. 4, 1931, in Paris.

The mark crept down toward the 4-minute mark throughout the 1940s. In a three-year period from July 1942 through July 1945, a pair of Swedes, Gunder Hagg and Arne Andersson, exchanged the record six times. Hagg ended the give-and-take with a time of 4:01.4 on July 17, 1945. His mark stood for almost nine years, during which time the pundits debated on whether a 4-minute mile was humanly possible.

The 4-Minute Mile

On May 6, 1954, Great Britain’s Roger Bannister answered the questions by running the first sub-4-minute mile, finishing in 3:59.4 while assisted by a pair of pacemakers. Bannister, then a medical student, developed his own training methods—featuring relatively short, intense workouts—that carried him through on a windy day. Bannister ran lap times of 57.5, 60.7, 62.3, and 58.9 seconds. He was timed in 3:43.0 through 1,500 meters.

While Bannister is famous for shattering the 4-minute barrier, many forget that he held the title for less than seven weeks before Australia’s John Landy finished in 3:58.0 on June 21, 1954. Bannister retired from racing before the end of the year to devote himself to medicine, but not before racing against Landy in “The Mile of the Century” in Vancouver that August. Landy shot in front by the end of the first lap, hoping to wear out the normally fast-finishing Bannister. But Bannister ran his own race, paced himself, then shot into the lead with less than 90 yards remaining to win in 3:58.8 to Landy’s 3:59.6, the first time two runners topped four minutes in the same race.

In 1958, Australia’s Herb Elliott ran 3:54.5 to break the record set the previous year by Derek Ibbotson by 2.7 seconds, the biggest drop in the world record time during the IAAF era.

The record returned to U.S. soil in 1966 when the precocious Jim Ryun posted a 3:51.3 time, which he lowered to 3:51.1 the following year. Ryun was the first high school runner to break four minutes, with a time of 3:59 in 1964. At age 18, he owned the U.S. mile record of 3:55.3. At 19, he owned the world record. He was the fourth and the last American to reign as the mile’s world record-holder.

Walker Cracks 3:50

New Zealand’s John Walker took the record below 3:50 in August 1975 with a time of 3:49.4, fulfilling his promise to the organizers of the meet held in Goteborg, Sweden. Walker convinced meet officials to change the scheduled 1,500-meter race to the mile, telling them he’d take a shot at the world record. He was paced through the first half-mile, with lap times of 55.8 and 59.3, then sped up on the final two laps, running the third quarter in 57.9 and the fourth in 56.4 seconds. Walker eventually became the first man to run 100 sub-4-minute miles.

Great Britain then enjoyed a stretch of 14 years in which three different British runners owned the mark. Just as Hagg and Andersson played give-and-go with the record in the 1940s, so too did Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett in 1979–1981. In a 25-month stretch, beginning in July 1979 when Coe edged Walker’s mark by four-tenths of a second, Coe owned the record three times and Ovett twice. Coe began the British siege in only the third-mile race of his life, in an Oslo meet in which Walker participated. Coe finally prevailed in his duel with Ovett, as Coe’s time of 3:47.33 set in August 1981 lived for almost four years before Steve Cram lowered it to 3:46.32 in 1985.

El Guerrouj Takes Charge

Only one African runner—Filbert Bayi, who broke Ryun’s record and held the mile mark for just three months—had owned the mile record before Algeria’s Noureddine Morceli topped Cram’s mark by running 3:44.39 on Sept. 5, 1993. The 1.93-second drop in the record was the largest margin since Ryun set his first record in 1966.

Morocco’s El Guerrouj then lowered the mark to 3:43.13 on July 7, 1999—almost identical to Bannister’s 1,500-meter time in 1954—yet he came close to losing the race, held in Rome’s Olympic Stadium. Noah Ngeny ran with El Guerrouj all the way and edged Morceli’s record as well, finishing in 3:43.40. With his mark still intact, El Guerrouj has held the IAAF mile record longer than anyone else, while Ngeny’s time remains No. 2 on the all-time list.