The CHill Zone of T&F: Conway's View From the Finish Line

My Favorite All Time Middle Distance Runners

Oct 2nd, 2012
12:00 pm PDT

Sprinter ShadowI’m still working on this years top 10 lists, so going to take another trip down memory lane and look at my favorite middle distance runners. As stated previously,you must be retired to make the list so that precludes the addition of current athletes like David Rudisha. It doesn’t diminish the list however, as some of the best ever have already graced the track.

That said, I also want to remind that it’s not a Greatest of All Time list. It’s a list of my personal favorites. With that, lets give it a go.

1. Wilson Kipketer – Before David Rudisha there was Wilson Kipketer. Not as fast as Rudisha, Kipketer was a very fluid flowing runner who also made running under 1:42 look pretty easy. He left the record at 1:41.11 before bouts of malaria took they’re toll on his career. If not for the sickness I have no doubt that Kipketer was headed where we saw Rudisha go in London.

2. Alberto Juantorena – One of the most unique athletes ever, Juantorena won double gold in Montreal in the 400 AND 800. It takes a rare skill set to be successful in both a sprint and middle distance event, but the moniker El Caballo says it all as this man powered his way around the track with long powerful strides. Beautiful to watch., he was my 800 equivalent of Quincy Watts.

3. Steve Ovett – The 80s was a special period in the 1500 meters. There was a lot of record breaking going on just prior to the African ascendance in the sport. At the head of the pack was Steve Ovett and Sebastian Coe who fire a couple sessions were trading records back and forth in the mile & 1500 meters. Coe was the favorite of most but i preferred the moxie of Ovett. Ironically when he and Coe finally met at the Olympics Ovett became champion in the 800 where Coe was WR holder – a testament to his competitive nature.

4. Joaquim Cruz – If you haven’t noticed by now, I’m a big fan of long striding, fluid athletes – and Jaoquin Cruz fits that mold. One of the best ever to grace the halls of the University of ORegon, Cuz was both an NCAA champion and Olympic champion. One of the most anticipated battles of the 1984 Olympics was that between Cruz and WR holder Sebastian Coe – a race that teh long striding Cruz won handily. Eighty four was Cruz’ year as he came within .04 of Coe’s WR that summer becoming only the second man in history under 1:42 running 1:41.77 that summer.

5. Johnny Gray – One of the  most exciting elements to a middle distance race is when an athlete takes the race by the scruff of the neck and dares the rest of the field to stay with him – and THAT was Johnny Gray. Gray had no problem going out in 49/50 seconds and holding on at the end. He was easily America’s best ever when it came to both times and being competitive against the world’s best. Gray took bronze in the ‘92 Olympics – his best ever finish – but he shaped every race he was ever a part of. A five time setter of the American Record, his final AR of 1:42.60 has stood since 1985!

6. James Robinson – If Johnny Gray was the epitome of going out fast, James Robinson was Mr Wait til the very last minute! Robinson would sit in the back of the pack until the final turn and sprint like crazy down the stretch. And when I say sprint, I mean sprint, because Robinson regularly split 44’s in the 4×4! Robinson literally had a “withering” kick, and if you were within reach you were toast. His best was “only” 1:43.96 but he always did it with style! If you like kickers, this was your guy. Some athletes wait and kick knowing that they really don’t have one, James really had one!

7. Mark Everett – Another great kicker was Mark Everett – and he too had real speed. As a matter of fact this 1:43.20 half miler also ran 44.59 out of the blocks in the flat 400 meters! Only Juantorena was better at 400 as a half miler. Everett was also unique for his running style. He broke his right arm as a kid and had to have it put in a cast. He developed the habit of swinging that arm wide when he ran – a habit that he retained throughout his career. As a result he often looked like he was “doing the twist” as he used his speed to kick down the stretch! Everett was another very entertaining runner to watch. He was a competitor as well taking bronze at Worlds in ‘91.

8. Jim Spivey – We’ve had lots of “milers” here in the US, but perhaps the most competitive male we’ve had internationally was Jim Spivey. With a PR of 3:31.01 Spivey isn’t the fastest American ever, but he knew how to make a final, and he knew how to make his presence felt. Spivey was a gutsy runner who make the podium at the World Championships in Rome with his bronze medal run. He was also a finalist in Barcelona and Stuttgart. While faster milers had difficultites in Majors, Spivey always seemed able to find his best race. Which is why he’s one of my all time faves.

9. Kip Keino – Way back in the day, when I was just becoming aware of the sport, there was Kip Keino who made the mile/1500 exciting. Keino brought the heart of a sprinter to the track. There never seemed to be any “quit” in Keino who won more than he lost and when he lost you knew the other guy had to hurt!

10. Said Aouita – Aouita is simply one of my favorite all time track and field athletes – Period. I put him here because he ran both the 800 and 1500. Though eventually he moved up to the 5000 and found much success winning two global gold medals. So range was a big deal with Aouita. But he was also a competitor. Whenever he stepped on the track, whatever distance he was getting ready to cover, you knew that Aouita was going to give a supreme effort.

So there are my favorite middle distance runners. I should probably go back and fill in some holes on the women’s side of things, but I do want to get to the hurdles too. Hmmm.

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7 Responses to “My Favorite All Time Middle Distance Runners”

  1. Jonathan Howland says:

    It’s pretty clear that you and I are at least close to the same vintage–I’m with you on both the middle distance and sprint lists–I’d bump Juantorena up one myself, perhaps because as a high school runner, I was a 440/880 guy too. Of course, my 440 PR would have barely brought me to halfway with Juantorena’s 800…

    I think I’d move Aouita up some, just because I will always be a fan of any 5K Olympic champion who runs–and medals–in the 800 4 years later.

    And John Walker belongs on the list. I never saw him run, but Peter Snell was always a favorite too.

    Are you going to do the distances? Brendan Foster, Lasse Viren, John Ngugi, Ian Stewart, Ron Clarke–there’s some great ones

    • CHill says:

      Yes I’m going to do the distances … Probably in a day or so .. If I were doing distances in total I would move Aouita up .. But since it’s just middle distance that’s where he fell … Juantorena could be just about number one I guess .. Walker I just never “bonded” with … But he was a great one obviously …

    • CHill says:

      I just posted on the female sprinters .. I’ll be doing distance runners shortly .. Thought I needed to catch up with the women since they haven’t had a mention yet ..

  2. Ron says:

    I’m curious why Jim Ryan didn’t make your “favorite” list. He arguably the best miler ever. I saw him run 3:51:1 on a dirt track, serving as his own rabbit. This was some 45 years ago! Can you imagine what he would have done with today’s rabbits and track surfaces? He was in a world of his own.

    • CHill says:

      Jim was close, but a lot like Steve Scott for me – not as God under pressure as I would have liked personally ..

  3. Jonathan Howland says:

    another one for the distances…Ben Jipcho. If the Olympics had happened in a different year–1973 or ’74, for example–he’d be remembered forever.

    The same is probably true of Ryun. If the Olympics had been anywhere (at sea level, or close) in 1966-67, Ryun would probably be a Gold medalist. He’d have handled the pressure with a 52 second last quarter.

    • CHill says:

      Interestingly enough I had Jipcho on the list then took him off at the last minute .. My #11 .. Jipcho dominated the post Olympic ITA circuit that evolved for a short time … Definitely a stud … But because he competed against limited competition I finally took him off the list …

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