With the 2023 IAU 24-Hour World Championships just days away, starting this Friday, December 1, in Taipei, we’re looking back at the 140-plus-year history of the 24-hour world record and its progression to this weekend’s starting line. The current 24-hour world record holders, Alexander Sorokin and Camille Herron, are planning to race, and we’ll be looking for challenges from them and others to the current record marks.
Ultrarunning has its roots in what’s called pedestrianism, the sport of covering very long distances over long periods of time by walking and running, which emerged the late 17th century in England. Among their many events, the pedestrians took part in staged indoor six-day races, mixing walking and running to cover vast distances.
Although some of these pedestrians are credited with having covered distances of more than 100 miles in 24 hours, the first credible recorded 24-hour running record was by one of the great pedestrians of the late 19th century, Charles Rowell, at one such event. Rowell is credited with covering over 530 miles in one such six-day race. In a six-day race in 1882, he is credited with covering 150 miles in the first 24 hours of the event — the first time 150 miles (241 kilometers) was broken.
It would be almost 100 more years before we would have a ratifiable women’s record. Although there have been reports of a female runner completing 106 miles in a 24-hour event in the past, the first recorded distance on the DUV Ultra Marathon Statistics website is by the American Marcy Schwam. She ran in the 1979 David Copperfield 48-Hour Track Ultramarathon in Woodside, California, and recorded 113.671 miles (182.937 kilometers).
In the years that followed, both records have been steadily improved upon as new generations of athletes push the boundaries of what’s possible. In the balance of this article, we’ll dive deep into the progression of the 24-hour world record from these starting points.
The History and Evolution of the Men’s 24-Hour World Record
Fifty Years Later
We have to go forward to 1931, when the legendary Arthur Newton of England achieved a distance of 152.306 miles (245.113k). The five-time Comrades Marathon winner ran that on an indoor track in Ontario, Canada.
Wally Haywood, 1953
Fast forward another 20 years to 1953, and Newton was instrumental with the U.K. Roadrunners Club in staging a 24-hour race at the Motspur Park cinder track in Surrey, England. South African Wally Hayward, another multiple-time Comrades Marathon winner, became the first runner to break the 250k barrier, running 159.319 miles (256.4k).
Ron Bentley, 1973
The U.K. Roadrunners Club organized several 100-mile and 24-hour track races throughout this time. In 1973, Ron Bentley from the famous Tipton Harriers club ran 161.309 miles (259.603k), just missing 260k, but going through the imperial 160-mile mark for the first time. Like Hayward’s record, this was run on a cinder track at Walton-on-Thames, England.
Park Barner, 1979
Through the late 1970s and early 1980s, a resurgence of 100-mile and 24-hour races took place. The U.K. still had annual events, but now these were being replicated in Europe and the U.S. Previously, the record had been broken with long gaps of often 20 years between them. Over the next three years, the record would fall on five occasions.
The United States was the venue for the next improvement in 1979. American Park Barner was one of the most prominent American ultrarunners of the time and, like most of the previous record-breakers, just loved running. Their refreshing attitude is best summed up in Barner’s comment in one interview: “I still don’t feel like I’m number one. I feel the same way I did when I started running seriously in 1968. I try not to let anything affect me. I don’t need trophies or wine or anything. It’s something I enjoy doing. It makes me feel good. I feel like a kid.”
Barner ran 162.304 miles (261.204k), increasing the record by a mile.
The French Connection and A Record-Breaking Brit
It was back to Europe, and an emerging French ultrarunner, Jean-Gilles Boussiquet, improved the record twice in the space of eight months. Blackburn in the north of England was the venue for an event in October 1980, where the Frenchman pushed the record out to 164.109 miles (264.108k).
Obviously getting to grips with the rigors of the event, the following May, in 1981, he took up the challenge again. In an event in Lausanne, Switzerland, he added a further 8k (5 miles) to become the first runner break the 270k barrier. He finished with 169.400 miles (272.624k).
Now, these 24-hour races were spreading. In the west of England, the local Gloucester Athletic Club had a group of very competent ultrarunners. Riding the wave, they organized an event at their local track in 1982. Several of them took part. Englishman Martin Daykin, one of the top European 100k runners of the time, was the favorite. But it was his compatriot Dave Dowdle who prevailed and broke 170 miles for the first time, recording 170.553 miles (274.480k), a distance which until recently was the British record.
Dowdle’s world record glory was only to last until the autumn that year, when the record returned to France. In November 1982, Bernard Gaudin broke it by a whisker, adding a further 143 meters to finish with 170.699 miles (274.715k).
The Yiannis Kouros Era
In 1983, an unknown Greek runner, Yiannis Kouros, astounded the ultra world by emphatically winning the famous Spartathlon race. A feat he repeated the following year, 1984, when covering the 245k course in a record 20 hours and 25 minutes. The course in Greece includes mountainous sections, and temperatures can be warm. Speculation started amongst ultramarines on what Kouros could achieve in a flat 24-hour race.
They did not have to wait long. Just eight weeks later, in November 1984, he was on the start line in New York, U.S., for the Sri Chinmoy 24-Hour Race. The rest is ultra history. He improved the existing record by over 10k, taking it to 176.999 miles (284.583k).
Over the next few years, he would go on to record 14 of the best men’s 24-hour times ever and break the world record on a further four occasions, pushing it up to the first 300k effort with 188.589 miles (303.506k) in 1997.
Kouros had made the 24-hour distance his own, and many felt the 303k would last for many years. Over the next 20 years, only a couple of runners would record over 280k, but no one neared 300k.
Along Comes Alexander Sorokin
From 2015, when he ran his first 24-hour event in Turin, Italy, and recorded 150.489 miles (242.189k), Alexander Sorokin increased his personal record incrementally until recording 173.345 miles (278.972k) in winning the 2019 IAU 24-Hour World Championships in Albi, France.
Two years later, in August 2021, he took part in the UltraPark Weekend 24 Hour race in Pabianice, Poland. He improved his own personal best by a huge 30k (18 miles), to take Kouros’s men’s 24-hour world record. He improved it by 6k to record 192.251 miles (309.399k). It was a big jump, not only on his own progression, but also comfortably surpassing Kouros’s mark.
Not content to sit on his laurels, another year later at the 2022 IAU 24-Hour European Championships, he increased this by a further 10k to 198.598 miles (319.614k), narrowly missing the 200-mile barrier.
As mentioned, Sorokin will race this weekend’s 2023 IAU 24-Hour World Championships, so we’ll see if that elusive 200-mile barrier is approached.
The History and Evolution of the Women’s 24-Hour World Record
The Battle of the Brits
Fast forward three years from Marcy Schwam’s 1979 24-hour world record run. Americans Sue Ellen Trapp and Sue Medagalia had since raised the record to 126.42 miles (203.45k), and then the British took over for a while. In 1982 — at the same race at Gloucester, England, where Dave Dowdle set the then men’s 24-hour world record — Britain’s Lynn Fitzgerald set a women’s 24-hour world record and pushed it up to 133.533 miles (214.902k).
Three years later, in 1985, the legend that is the ultra pioneer and multiple world record breaker Eleanor Adams-Robinson made another breakthrough. After showing promise in two previous 24-hour races, she beat Fitzgerald’s distance with 138.441 miles (222.800k). That race was held at Nottingham, England, and was the start of a four-year relationship where she and Hilary Walker, the other great English ultra pioneer, traded the 24-hour world record on five occasions. At the end of this battle, at a race in Australia in 1989, Adams-Robinson pushed the record up her third and final time to 149.234 miles (240.169k).
Adams-Robinson and Walker had both spoken of wishing to be the first lady to run over 150 miles in 24 hours. Adams-Robinson got close on this occasion, but was around three laps of a 400-meter track short. In the end, neither of them made that breakthrough.
The 150-Mile Breakthrough
The German runner Sigrid Lomsky, at 50 years young, broke that 150-mile mark by recording 151.401 miles (243.657k).
This mark stood for three years before it was broken by the young Russian Elena Sidorenkova, who ran 154.659 miles (248.901k). That distance wouldn’t be surpassed for over 13 years.
The Japanese had for a long time been very competent 100k runners. They were now turning their attention to 24 hours.
In 2009, Mami Kudo cracked the 250k barrier, recording 158.092 miles (254.425k) at a race in Taipei. Two years later, at the same race, she was to push it out even more, adding about a kilometer to record 158.637 miles (255.303k). She was now 47 years old.
A Polish Double in 2017
Kudo’s record stood for almost six years, until 2017, which should be regarded as the year of the Polish double. This was the year that Patrycja Bereznowska, of Poland, broke the 24-hour world record twice in 12 weeks.
Firstly, in April 2017, she ran 159.223 miles (256.246k), surpassing Kudo’s mark by about a kilometer. The 160-mile barrier approached, but few, except perhaps Bereznowska herself, thought that it would happen so soon. Just 12 weeks later, in July 2017, she competed at the IAU 24-Hour World Championships event in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
The event is best remembered for the power failing and plunging the whole race into darkness, as support crews hurried to find head torches in the pitch darkness while hoping the chip timing system was still recording, with its built-in backup batteries, as most runners weren’t going to stop. Power was duly restored, and so was the live timing, to the relief of everyone.
After holding off the early pace of other runners, Berezknowska maintained her own steady progress to finish strongly in the final hours, running just over 4k further with 161.550 miles (259.991k). She set a new landmark for women, running over 160 miles in 24 hours.
Here Comes Camille Herron
It didn’t take long before the U.S.’s Camille Herron decided to have a real crack at the 24-hour event. The multiple record holder at most distances from 50 miles to 100 miles ran 162.918 miles (262.192k) on the track, in Phoenix Arizona, in December 2018.
She certainly wasn’t put off by the experience, as just under a year later — on October 27, 2019 — she went even further at the IAU 24-Hour World Championships at Albi, France. This time on a road loop, she increased the distance by almost five miles to 167.842 miles (270.116k).
This mark has held firm for four years. Herron, like Aleksandr Sorokin, is entered for this weekend’s 2023 IAU 24-hour Championships in Taipei. Time will tell if either record will be threatened in the heat and humidity of that region.
The 24-Hour World Record Progression Chart
Call for Comments
- What are your predictions for this coming weekend’s 2023 IAU 24-Hour World Championships?
- Do you think either of the world records will fall?