May 29 Is One Of The Most Important Days in Running History...And You Probably Don't Know Why

New York Times, May 30, 1954

Earlier this month, I saw the headline that routinely appears at this time of the year.

               Today marks the 66th anniversary of Roger Bannister’s sub 4-minute mile

The specific day is May 6, and in recalling Bannister we do much more than remember a particular runner and a particular mile time. Instead, we admire that iconic image of  Bannister collapsing through the finish line, with onlookers excitedly recording his time of 3:59.4. We also celebrate this moment as a symbol of human potential, as an emblem of determination and of breaking through heretofore unbreakable barrier.

Commemorations such as these are opportunities to reflect upon, and to reassert, our most cherished values and beliefs that transcend the specific moment under consideration. But its important to remember that the act of commemoration is also a choice. In choosing who to remember and who to forget, we are also make a statement about what is, and isn't, special and important in our history.

So with that in mind, I want to suggest that we begin celebrating May 29 in the same way that we celebrate May 6, because on this day 66 years ago, another set of barriers related to time and gender came tumbling down.

Indeed, on May 29, 1954--a mere 23 days since Bannister’s run--another English athlete, Diane Leather, a chemist at Birmingham University, ran a time of 4:59.6 in the mile. It was a race that had all of the trappings of a dramatic event. Other runners had been creeping closer to this mark before Leather finally ran her time. There's also a symmetry to the 5-minute mile--four laps at 75 seconds per lap. Leather even referred to the sub-5 mile as being her own "holy grail," echoing the common assertion that the 4-minute barrier was "trackdom's holy grail."

And yet, at the same time that Bannister had become a national hero, Leather had become a national afterthought. The Associated Press ran a short article on her mile, with an image of Leather taken from an earlier relay race. The article also patronizingly referring to her as "a good-looking laboratory analyst," before qualifying that the record itself was not recognized by the sport’s governing body, the International Amateur Athletic Federation.

At this point, the longest championship race for women was 800 meters, and even this distance was controversial. It was 1928 when women raced this distance in the Amsterdam Olympics for the first time. On this extraordinarily hot and humid day, some of the finishers strained at the finish and even collapsed. Coverage of the race, though, exaggerated the scene, with the New York Times exclaiming, "the gals dropped in swooning heaps as if riddled by machine-gun fire." The ensuing stir led the Olympics to discontinue the race until the Rome Olympics in 1960.

Coincidentally, Leather actually competed at these games in the 800, before she retired that year at 27. By this point in her career, she had lowered her mile time to 4:45.0 and won several cross country championships. Then married and having taking the last name of Charles, she would go on to raise a family and build a career as a teacher, social worker, and community volunteer.

While overlooked in her own time, though, Diane Leather Charles’s accomplishments would slowly gain recognition. In 2014, the England Athletics Hall of Fame inducted her into their ranks, and shortly after Runner’s World named her a "hero of running." Such honors are more than merited, because the barriers that she broke were not just times. Rather, her performances opened doors for women to compete in distance events at all levels, chipping away at such myths as the ubiquitous "falling uterus."

This is why, I think, when you scan a timeline of the history of women's running, it's Diane Leather's mile that is the first entry. From here, we get the story of Kathrine Switzer finishing Boston in 1967, of Joan Benoit Samuelson winning marathon gold in 1984, and so on. In 2018, Diane Leather Charles passed away at the age of 85. The tributes and obituaries repeated the claim that she was a barrier-breaker in so many ways.

Still, how many people reading this know the name Diane Leather? Precious few, I suspect. Far fewer than those who know the name Roger Bannister.

So let's change that. Let's add May 29 to the commemorative calendar of distance running and of sports more generally. In lifting this moment from relative obscurity, we would finally be doing justice to an achievement that helped to make this sport what it is today.