Running against the clock is one of the oldest tests in athletics. Brutally simple and universally understood, times are set, broken and reset.
One of the lesser celebrated events in athletics is the hour record.
The hour record is a true badge of honour and held in high regard among smaller circles of athletic pursuits. It is seen as one of the most straightforward tests of endurance a person can go through.
It is not exclusive to running. In cycling, it is a real flagship event and attempted regularly with large buy in from sponsors, broadcasters and viewers.
The same cannot be said for the running hour record. Seldom a standalone event, rarely run against, barely advertised or televised. Did you hear about Mo Farah’s successful attempt in 2020? Maybe, but did you watch it? Probably not.
It could be because watching someone run around a track for an hour leaves a lot to be desired for spectators and therefore is a hard sell to sponsors.
Another reason we may not find it interesting is research suggests our minds process distance and time differently with a higher interest in distance. When there is a finish line is in sight, you get visual feedback about how much further you have to go, which spurs you to accelerate near the end.
In contrast, relying on time as a sensory motivator is not as instantly rewarding and is more like treadmill running.
Regardless of your preferred measurement, both have their benefits when it comes to training. Studies found you’re more likely to maintain an even pace throughout a time-based interval, but run faster in a distance-based effort.
This could go some way to explaining why we are more enthralled by distance events than time based events and why running’s time-trails are all largely eclipsed by the distance covered, such as the most recently failed attempt at the 100km record, where Jim Walsmsley missed it by 12 seconds after an heroic 6 hour run, or the infamous two-hour marathon event (where you could argue the hour checkpoint is a pretty significant milestone). But again, it is secondary to the distance. Presumably why it isn’t marketed as the two hour record.
Only 12 men have held the record since its inception but it still has a deep history with some mystique.
1904 Hour Record
The beginning of the record can be traced back to 1904 when Alfred Shrubb, a distance runner from England became the first official world record holder. Alfred would go on to post 28 world records over all sorts of distances during his running career.
Alfred took the first hour record on a raining November day at Ibrox Park in Glasgow. While competing in tough conditions, he set the hour record at 18,742m and also set world records for 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 and 11 miles.
His record would stay put for nine years, until 1912, when Olympic 5000m silver medallist Jean Bouin set a new distance. Running in Stockholm, Bouin covered 19,021m in 60 minutes – the following year his life came to an premature end when he was tragically killed in action during the First World War.
The record would fall another 10 times and twice to one man in 1951, when four-time Olympic champion Emil Zatopek set two world one-hour records within 14 days of each other.
Known as the ‘Czech Locomotive’, he first covered 19,558m in Prague and then just two weeks later increased the record to 20,052m in Stara Boleslav, becoming the first man in history to break into 20,000m territory.
Slow progress would became the defining trend for the hour record, with an average standstill period of 8.2 years over the past 118 years and the longest unbroken stretch lasting 17 years.
One of the more famous record holders’, Ron Hill, held a blistering pace to achieve 20,471m in Leicester in 1968. Most recently Mo Farah set 21,330m, a whole 45m further than the previous record set by Haile Gebrselassie in 2007.
In Ireland, John Tracey ran against the short hand of the clock in 1987, racking up 19,625m in Monaco, which still stands as the Irish Hour Record. This was after he secured a dizzying 2:09:15 in the Boston marathon five months earlier, which is still the fastest Irish marathon time ever recorded.
As amateur runners we stand to gain some real benefits from running for one hour at a time. It trains our hearts to sustain a high output for prolonged periods, trains our muscles to handle that time on our feet, and it widens our aerobic capacity.
Focusing on time is a great way to bench mark your fitness and see obvious and measurable improvements. It is also an easy way to fit running into a busy schedule.
This doesn’t mean you totally disregard training using distance but as a rule of thumb you should focus on time for your easy and long runs and then distance for workouts as ultimately, distance only most important during races.
As running’s amateurs and professionals move toward more niche and elaborate events like ultra trail runs and the elusive Barkley Marathons, the hour record should stand out for its simplicity, history and contribution to running
At its core, running is a simple sport and the hour record captures that almost perfectly.