The Golden Age Of Distance Running 

World Record Progression

 




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Here you will find the history of the world records for each distance event. The lists go back as far as I can find verifiable information, though the IAAF didn't begin to recognize records until 1912. 
Watches and tracks in the 19th century were of questionable accuracy, thus all times from that era should be considered suspect. Underlined records are linked to a photo or video.

800m - 1,000m - 1,500m - Mile - 2,000m - 3,000m - Steeplechase - 2 Miles - 5,000m - 10,000m - Half Marathon - Marathon

800m

The first seven records in the list get an * because they are unconverted Half Mile (880 yards) times. Prior to Elborough it is almost impossible to decipher the true progression.

1:57.5*    10/7/1876    Fred Elborough (UK)
1:54.6*    3/09/1888    Frank Cross (UK)
1:53.4*    9/21/1895    Charles Kilpatrick (USA)
1:50.6     7/14/1928     Séra Martin (France)  

1,000m

Marks with an * are explained thusly: The first 5 marks in the list were run prior to the IAAF officially recognizing records. The IAAF apparently did not update records during World War I thus the marks set in Finland and Sweden from 1916 through 1918 did not get official record status. I can find no explanation for ignoring Georges Baraton's mark from 1926. Lloyd Hahn's time from 1927 was run indoors so the IAAF did not recognize it as the record even though it surpassed Sera Martin's time.

2:36.8*   6/10/1900    Henri Deloge (France)
2:36.4*   6/30/1901    Henri Deloge (France)
2:35.8*   6/29/1902    Henri Deloge (France)
2:33.0*   9/22/1912    Henri Arnaud (France)
2:32.8*   2/18/1913    Erich Lehman (Germany)
2:31.2*   7/16/1916    Einari Anttila (Finland)
2:31.0*   9/03/1918    Sven Lundgren (Sweden)
2:28.5    9/27/1922    Sven Lundgren (Sweden)
2:26.8    9/30/1926    Séra Martin (France)
2:21.4    9/04/1946    Rune Gustafsson (Sweden)
2:16.2    9/21/1966    Franz-Joseph Kemper (West Germany)

1,500m

The 6 marks with an * at the beginning of the list are from the pre-IAAF era. There are a bevy of times faster than Lermusiaux's prior to 1896, including one by Lermusiaux, but the details are sketchy and thus unverifiable.

4:10.4*    6/28/1896    Albin Lermusiaux (France)
3:40.8     9/06/1955    Gunnar Nielsen (Denmark)

Mile

The * next to the times for Walter George and John Paul Jones denote an oddity in the progression. Walter George was a professional runner when he set his world record. The IAAF did not recognize times run by professionals as valid and thus pretended George's time did not exist. When the IAAF began ratifying records in 1912 the fastest time ever run by an amateur was 4:15.4 (Jones from 1911). Therefore, when Jones ran his 4:14.4 in 1913 he beat the old amateur mark and the IAAF declared it as the official world record despite being slower than George's 48 year-old time.

4:28.0    7/26/1852    Charles Westhall (UK)
4:28.0    9/28/1857    Tommy Horspool (UK)
4:23.0    7/12/1858    Tommy Horspool (UK)
4:22.25  10/27/1860  Siah Albison (UK)
4:21.75  7/11/1863    William Lang (UK)
4:20.5    4/23/1864    Edward Mills (UK)
4:20.0    6/25/1864    Edward Mills (UK)
4:17.25  8/19/1865    William Lang (UK)
4:17.25  8/19/1865    William Richards (UK)
4:14.4*   5/31/1913    John Paul Jones (USA)

2,000m 

* Albison's time from 1862 was actually for 1-1/4 miles which is 11.68 meters longer than 2,000m.
# Nurmi's time from 1925 was run indoors, thus creating a rare situation where the indoor WR was faster than the outdoor WR. This was not corrected until 1931.

5:31.6*   5/05/1862   Siah Albison (UK)
5:20.4    10/4/1936    Miklós Szabó (Hungary)

3,000m

# denotes indoor times which the IAAF did not recognize as absolute world records until recently. Bonhag, Ray, and Nurmi all ran indoor times superior to the existing outdoor record so they have been included in the world record progression. Bonhag's indoor time from 1911 was not surpassed outdoors for seven years.
* Zander had two races during World War I that were faster than the official world record but were never ratified, as did Nurmi in 1923. All three times have been included in the progression.

8:56.8    9/22/1907    Edvard Dahl (Sweden)
8:55.0    10/27/1907  Edvard Dahl (Sweden)
8:54.0    8/21/1908    Johan Svanberg (Sweden)
8:18.3    7/24/1934    Henry Nielsen (Denmark)

3,000m Steeplechase

* next to the first time on the list indicates that the time is converted. Arthur Russel won the 1908 Olympic Steeplechase in 10:47.8 but the race was actually 2 miles (3,218m) in length, 10:08 would have been his time at 3,000m running an even pace.
# next to Sándor Rozsnyói's time in 1954 is the first Steeplechase world record recognized by the IAAF, despite being slower than records run by Kazantsev, Ashenfelter, and Rinteenpää in previous years.

9:49.8    7/04/1914    Jonas Ternström (Sweden)
9:08.2    7/12/1936    Harold Manning (USA)
9:03.4    8/22/1943    Erik Elmsäter (Sweden)
8:59.6    8/04/1944    Erik Elmsäter (Sweden)
8:47.8    7/01/1955    Pentti Karvonen (Finland)
8:45.4    7/15/1955    Pentti Karvonen (Finland)
8:45.4    8/18/1955    Vasiliy Vlasenko (USSR)
8:31.2    5/28/1961    Grigoriy Taran (USSR)

2 Miles

The IAAF does not keep official records for the 2 Mile, so the records don't necessarily meet the stringent criteria required to be "official". Times followed by # were run indoors and often exceed the accepted outdoor mark in quality. As you can see Nurmi's 8:58.2 indoor mark was not beaten outdoors for 11 years and Putteman's indoor 8:13.2 was the fastest time for 20 years.

9:38.0    4/06/1852    James Pudney (UK)
9:38.0    8/27/1860    Jack White (UK)
9:20.0    4/20/1861    Jack White (UK)
9:11.5    8/01/1863    William Lang (UK)
8:56.0    9/30/1937    Miklos Szabó (Hungary)

5,000m

The preeminent distance runners in the 19th century were British and American and consequently raced 3 Miles instead of 5,000m. In 1884 Walter George (UK) ran a 3 Mile world record of 14:39. Had he continued on for another 173 meters he likely would have run 15:09 for 5,000m. Thus the 5,000m world record was disproportionately slow until the event was incorporated into the Olympic Games in 1912.

15:01.0    8/18/1907    Johan Svanberg (Sweden)

10,000m

Like the 5,000m, the early years of this event suffers from the English speaking world only running imperial distances. It wasn't until the 10,000m was incorporated into the Olympics (1912) that the world record fell in line with the standard set by other distances.

31:56.8    10/10/1906  Johan Svanberg (Sweden)
31:30.9    8/03/1907    Johan Svanberg (Sweden)
31:30.0    6/05/1910    Georg Peterson (Sweden)

Half Marathon

The Half Marathon vividly illustrates the problem with road records. The IAAF didn't officially recognize world records in the event until 2003. Prior to that they listed "road bests" using looser criteria as to what constituted a valid course. Meanwhile the Association of Road Racing Statisticians (ARRS) kept track of records, but its criteria for determining a valid course differs from the IAAF's. Thus the two organizations don't always agree as to what the official world record is. Also, in the early years the event was so weak that halfway splits in full Marathons were sometimes superior to the Half Marathon "world record". It wasn't until Nick Rose's run on 10/14/1979 that the IAAF and ARRS agreed on a record that was actually faster than Derek Clayton's halfway split of 1:03:22 from the 1967 Fukuoka Marathon - thus Rose's mark is the first "clean" record.
* means the time is slower than Marathon halfway splits run by Abebe Bikila or Derek Clayton.
! means the time is recognized by ARRS but not the IAAF.
# means the time is recognized by the IAAF but not ARRS.
$ Johnston's time from Mexico's Celaya Half Marathon makes neither the ARRS or IAAF list but makes far more sense relative to Marathon performances at the time. As the former WR holder for 30,000m, Johnston surely was capable of this performance.

1:07:01*!  4/09/1960    Brian Hill-Cottingham (UK)
1:03:53*   5/02/1970    Derek Graham (UK)
1:02:37!   2/06/1977    Toshihiro Matsumoto (Japan)
59:56!      10/4/1997    Shem Kororia (Kenya)

Marathon

As bad as the Half Marathon is this event is even worse. Between the running of the first full length Marathon in 1908 and 1981, the IAAF and ARRS agreed on the world "record" only seven times. In fact ARRS does not recognize Johnny Hayes's winning time in the first 26 mile 385 yard (42.195 Km) as the world record. Instead it lists Dorando Pietri's 2:42:00 from a 40 Km race in 1906 as the first record. That's nuts.

An explanation of the myriad symbols in this list:
* means recognized by the IAAF as the record but not ARRS.
# means recognized by ARRS as the record but not the IAAF.
! The IAAF lists the wrong date for Henry Barret's record run as 5/26/1909. He actually ran the race on 5/8/1909, the same day that Albert Raines ran 2:46:04 in the USA. The IAAF lists Raines as the record holder for 18 days but in reality Barret completed his run in England before Raines even started, thus Raines never held the record.
@ means the Marathon was actually run on a track.
$ ARRS recognizes Blasi's run as the record but it was run on a 42.4 Km course. Once you adjust the time for the correct distance you get 2:37:15 which is slower than Ahlgren's mark.
% The IAAF and several other sources claim Sohn Kee-chung's time from 3/21/1935 was on a short course thus invalidating it. ARRS recognizes this as the record and further claims that Suzuki's time was not run in a separate race on 3/31/1935 but was the 2nd place time in Sohn's race on 3/21/1935. Several sources claim Suzuki did finish 2nd to Sohn in the earlier race, but then ran again 10 days later to set the record of 2:27:49 recognized by the IAAF. (Yes, Marathoners did race that often back then.)
& Alberto Salazar's 2:08:13 was run on a certified course, unlike nearly every prior record. In late 1984 the New York City course was remeasured by David Katz to a stricter standard than the one used to certify the race and was found to be 148 meters short. Video of the race shows Salazar running a much longer course than the one remeasured because of crowds lining the roads and David Katz stated on Letsrun.com that he believes Salazar ran a world record. The IAAF recognized Salazar's mark for three years and then removed it, but they still lists times run by Grete Waitz on the same course as world records.

2:42:31*!   5/08/1909    Henry Barret (UK)
2:40:34*@ 8/31/1909    Thure Johansson (Sweden)
2:36:06*    5/31/1913    Alexis Ahlgren (Sweden)
2:38:00#$  11/29/1914 Umberto Blasi (Italy)
2:30:57#    7/05/1929    Harry Payne (UK)
2:27:49*%  3/31/1935    Fusashige Suzuki (Japan)
2:26:44*    4/03/1935    Yasuo Ikenaka (japan)
2:26:07#    3/16/1952    Choi Yoon-chil (South Korea)