X ProtoLab Rainmac

Read now

SOAR: Essentials for the Active Lifestyle

Read Now

SOAR: Fleet and Free

Celebrating The 70th Anniversary of Diane Leather’s Ground Breaking Sub 5 Minute Mile.

On 29th May 1954, only 23 days after Roger Bannister’s legendary sub 4 minute mile, Diane Leather was the first woman to break the 5 minute mile barrier. Taking place in an age where running was thought detrimental to women’s health (women were not allowed to race further than 200 m in the Olympic Games), Diane Leather never received the fame and recognition of her male counterpart, Roger Bannister.

Running history has often favoured the fastest times over women’s times, and SOAR has decided it’s high time to shine a light on the achievements of this pioneering woman. ‘SOAR: Fleet and Free’ celebrates an important moment in women’s running history, telling the story of unsung running hero Diane Leather and bringing attention to women’s times and record progression in their own right. Between 23rd and 29th May, we’ll be inviting runners around the world to dedicate a mile to Diane Leather, with the chance to win a wide range of prizes. On 22nd May we’re also hosting a lively panel talk with historians, athletes and commentators, to discuss women’s running history and achievements, the barriers women face to race participation and what can be done to overcome them.

Register your interest below: 

By signing up I consent to receiving emails and offers from SOAR Running.

The Five Minute Mile

It started with an innocent comment and an article shared in one of my WhatsApp groups.

DS - ‘I didn't know a woman broke 5 minutes around the same time the 4-minute mile was broken.’ 

LL - ‘Wow it’s actually mad how celebrated the men’s was. And personally, how I’ve never even thought about the women’s record development.’ Let alone ever heard of Diane Leather!

LT - ‘Yeah, it’s a good point I want more fuss about this. When we are women who are probably more engaged in the sport than most and we still haven’t heard of her.’ 

I agreed with LT, that more fuss should be made about women’s running breakthroughs. Physiological, historical, and social factors all contribute to differences in running performance between the sexes, so let’s take some time to talk about the mile. 4 or 5 minutes is a smart, round number whilst a mile is a neat, historical measurement of a distance that most of us ‘get’. A mile race is over in minutes, but it can feel screamingly long, an eternity even if you’re the one who’s running it hard. 

Though it took place in 1954, the impact of Roger Bannister’s sub-4-minute mile on the public’s imagination cannot be understated. The time is a mark of a seriously good male athlete to this day. Iffley Road track, where the barrier was broken, is still subject to runner pilgrimages. Blue plaques, films, halls of fame and statues celebrate the achievement. But while the men were locked in a 4-minute arms race, what were the women up to?

Born in 1933 in Streetly, Staffordshire, Diane Leather was an active child playing lacrosse, netball, and hockey at school. Inspired by the women in the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, she was moved to join a local athletics club, Birchfield Harriers. Her talent and potential were immediately spotted by coach Dorette Nelson Neal who set about training and encouraging her to race the mile. Diane’s running progressed beautifully and in 1953 she was part of a British relay team which set a world record for the 880 yards (half a mile) relay.

To give some context, in those days long-distance running was considered dangerous to a woman’s health and even fertility, 70 years ago, women’s races were officially capped at just 200m in the Olympic Games. This remained the case until 1960 when the 800m was added, the 1500m appearing later in 1972. But despite the lack of official recognition, the battle for a woman to break 5 minutes was fierce and it became Diane’s holy grail. Many attempts had been made, and the time was being chipped away by Anne Oliver of Britain, Edith Treybal, from Romania and Diane Leather.

Finally, on May 26th, 1954, Diane ran 5:00.2. So close now that she could smell it, she tried again 3 days later. At Alexander Stadium in Birmingham, alone at the front and without a pacemaker, she broke the tape at 4:59.6 on 29th May 1954, just 23 days after Roger Bannister’s historic sub-4. Recognised as the world’s best rather than the world record, Diane went on to reduce her mile time to 4:45.0 at the White City Stadium on 21 September 1955, the world’s best time for over seven years.

 Athletics was popular in the 50’s and Diane’s achievement was celebrated in the newspapers at the time. No film exists of her sub-5, but there is a Pathe News film of her tantalising 5:00.2 you can watch here.

Sadly, Diane Leather is not a well-known name now, but she was finally inducted into the England Athletics Hall of Fame in 2013. She died in 2018 in Truro aged 85 after a long career as a social worker and as a mother to a family of 4. Nowadays the fastest women’s mile time stands at 4:07.64 by Faith Kipyegon of Kenya during a Diamond League meeting at Stade Louis II, Monaco, on 21 July 2023. 7 seconds feels like a lot to shave off from a mile time to me and could take some time for us to see.  

A quick hunt through the internet makes me consider Gudaf Tsegay’s current 5000m world record of 14:00.21. That dangles a tantalising sub-14-minute carrot that will surely be bested soon. I hope that when it happens, we all make a huge fuss about it. Women’s achievements deserve to be recognised on their terms and as inspirations to others who may be motivated to try.

Rebecca Taylor