66 years ago today: 1st woman runs sub 5 mile

Dominic Branigan writes: On 29th May 1954, a mere 23 days after Roger Bannister had immortalized himself by breaking the 4 minute mile, Diane Leather of Birchfield Harriers, struck a similar blow for women’s athletics
and ensured her place in athletics history when she became the first woman to break 5 mins for the mile.

While they both shared the unique distinction of breaking barriers, they did not share the same amount of fame that came with their achievements. While Bannister became a global icon, Leather did not achieve anywhere near the same amount of fame mainly due to the fact that 200 metres was the longest “official” distance raced by women and the 1 mile was not recognized by the IAAF as a world record, only a world best.

Diane ran very erratic splits of 68-79-81-71 seconds when running her world record. She first ran a world record of 5 min 02 sec in Sep 1953 and subsequently lowered it to 4min 45 sec in 1955, a time which was not bettered until Marese Chamberlain of New Zealand ran 4 min 41 in Perth in
Dec 1962. Diane also set a world record of 2.09 for 800 metres in 1955. She won her National CC title 4 times and the womens “International” (now world CC) 3 times.

In a further twist of fate Roger died in March of 2018 at the age of 88 and Diane passed away a mere 6 months later at the age of 85.

Ann O’Brien of Clonliffe Harriers became the first Irish woman to break 5 mins for the mile when she ran 4.59 in Santry in 1966 in the same year that she won the first of her 11 individual T&F titles as well as 4 individual Nat CC Championships. 1966 was also the year that the Clonliffe ladies won their first National Inter Club CC championship.

There are currently 40 Irish female athletes who have run inside Diane’s world best of 4.45 including Clonliffe’s Becky Woods whose club record of 4.44.69 at the 2014 Morton Games places her 35th in a list headed by Sonia O’Sullivan who ran 4.17.25 in 1994.

Diana Leather in action at the White City Stadium, London
Roger Bannister and Diana on the 60th Anniversary of sub 4 & 5’s, 2014

On Monday next, June 1st, we will be starting a regular series of “Monday Memories with..”. So if you have a memory of your times with Clonliffe that you’d like to share during these times please get in touch. It can be about a particular period, a race/event, a fellow Clonliffe Harrier…whatever fond memories you have. Contact clonliffeharriersac@gmail.com.

Also you 60 Seconds fans out there Series 2 will be coming off that top bend very soon, so if you want to take part just get in touch.