As seen (with so much more) in the July/Aug 2018 issue of New England Runner
Diane Leather – The First Woman to Break the 5:00 Mile (Story Below)
Photo: Diane Leather, in the uniform of the Birchfield Harriers with its running stag and the words “Fleet and Free,” runs a world best 4:45.0 mile in 1955 that would stand for 7-years.
After our Feature last issue on the passing of Roger Bannister and the impact that his breaking the four-minute mile had on the history of athletics, we shook our heads wondering who might have been the first woman to have broken five minutes for the mile.
Ironically, this took place just 23 days after Bannister’s groundbreaking race and just 70-miles away by a fellow Brit. Running without pacemakers on a crushed cinder track at the Midland Championships in Birmingham, Diane Leather ran 4:59.6. When reporters told her of the achievement, Leather commented, “Oh good, at last.”
Wearing the black uniform of the Birchfield Harriers, the 21 year-old analytical chemist at the University of Birmingham had run 5:02 just three days earlier, which bettered the previous world best of 5:02.6 she’d run eight months prior. On the same day as her sub-5 mile, Leather had run a British All-Comers record at 880-yards in 2:14.1.
Unlike Bannister’s resounding acclaim that led to knighthood, Leather’s accomplishment was treated, well, less legendary, bearing mention in neither the Observer or London Times. A surgeon’s daughter who stood 5’10” tall, Leather’s striking looks and her resemblance to Audrey Hepburn did make the rounds.
Track & Field in particular and women’s athletics in general were a far cry from gender equity at the time. While Bannister had set a world record in the mile the IAAF didn’t recognize women’s records beyond 200m and so Leather’s accomplishment was termed a ‘world best.’ Much of this stems from the 1926 Olympics when women first ran the 800. When several athletes collapsed following the event (as they might do today) an alarmist attitude was taken despite the fact that all the women recovered without much delay.
At the 1952 Helsinki Olympic Games, only the 100m and 200m events existed for women (it was while viewing these Games that Leather was first inspired to run, an activity she’d pursued for only two years when she went sub-5). Distances for women beyond 200m wouldn’t be introduced until the 1960 Olympics and beyond 1500m until 1984 (and we all know who won the first women’s marathon that year).
Diane Leather was a prodigious athlete and she would eventually get her due, especially by 1955 when she lowered her mile world best to 4:45.0. She also twice set ratified world records at 880 yards and was a double silver medalist at 800m in the European Championships.
In 1960, now married and competing as Diane Charles, she would compete in the Rome Olympics but, past her prime, failed to advance from her heat of the 800m, running 2:14.24. She would retire from running at age 27 to teach, do social work and raise four children. She and her husband would retire to a remote corner of Cornwall. In Oct. 2013, Diane Charles was inducted into the England Athletics hall of Fame. The first woman to break five minutes for the mile is now 84.