- It's July 7th, 1999.
(suspenseful throbbing music) We're in Rome, Italy,
for the Golden Gala Track and Field Championships.
This is the final stretch of the final lap
of the one mile race.
And it has the potential to make history.
If he finishes strong, Hicham El Guerrouj of Morocco
could break the world record for fastest mile ever run,
solidifying his place
as one of the greatest middle-distance runners ever.
But before El Guerrouj crosses the finish line,
we need to know how he got to this point.
What this guy is doing here,
and the history of not only this record,
but this whole race.
We need to rewind.
If you, like me, mostly watched track and field
when it's in the Olympics, you might be surprised
to see pro athletes running exactly one mile.
Basically all major competitions use the metric system,
and offer the 1500 meter event
as a near equivalent to the mile.
But the International Association of Athletics Federations
maintains the mile in competition and record-keeping
for reasons at least partially nostalgic.
The English mile, 5,280 feet,
has been used officially since the 16th century.
In the centuries following, it became a go-to distance
for the increasingly popular amateur sport of foot racing.
Enough so, that pros joined amateurs in racing a mile,
and enough that after the IAAF formed in 1912,
they recognized exactly one non-metric world record.
A mile time of just over four minutes and 14 seconds,
set by American track star John Paul Jones
at the 1913 IC4A Championships.
(soft electronic music)
Jones, I should mention,
was an Olympian in the 1500 meter event,
as are many of the best mile runners.
It makes sense.
Anyway, the world record crept lower and lower
through the 1940s, as two Swedes took turns breaking it.
But these guys never crossed the round-numbered barrier
of four minutes.
Gunder Hagg's record of 4:01.4 held for nearly a decade,
despite numerous attempts at a sub-four-minute mile.
Finally, on May 6th, 1954,
Englishman Rodger Bannister did the impossible.
Three minutes, 59 and four tenths of a second.
And that breakthrough kind of reopened the floodgates,
with several new world records each ensuing decade.
Two Australians, a Brit, and a New Zealander,
followed Bannister in pushing the record.
A Frenchman got it below 3:54 for the first time.
A future US Congressman set,
then broke, his own record in the '60s.
And it stood for quite a while until a Tanzanian edged it,
then a New Zealander destroyed it.
The early 1980s gave us another back and forth battle
between two Brits, Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett,
only for Steve Cram to carry the record out of the '80s
with a legendary 1985 run against Coe in Oslo.
And the current record,
the record we're gunning for right now, is 3:44.39.
That was set in 1993, by Algerian Noureddine Morceli,
the undisputed king of middle-distance to start this decade.
This record hasn't been touched in six years,
but it looks like El Guerrouj is on pace to break it now,
which would be far from the first time his story
has intertwined with Morceli's.
El Guerrouj hails from Berkane, Morocco.
He reached prominence in the lead-up
to the Atlanta Olympics, nipping at Morceli's heels
with a silver medal finish in the 1500
at the 1995 World Championships.
But in the '96 Olympic event,
he literally nipped Morceli's heel,
falling as he tried to take the lead with 400 meters to go.
That disastrous 12th place finish in Atlanta
was a low point.
But El Guerrouj received a phone call of consolation
from the King of Morocco, and he rallied.
Over the next couple years, El Guerrouj grabbed three
of the middle-distance world records of note,
the indoor 1500, indoor mile.
Oh, hey, just wanna pause for one second.
It's me, Seth again.
I just wanted to point out
that exactly three minutes and 44 seconds
have elapsed in this video, so that just gives you
a sense of the record we're trying to beat.
All right, back to the video.
And finally, the outdoor 1500 record,
held previously by Morceli.
So here in 1999, El Guerrouj is gunning
to complete his set of middle-distance records
by running mankind's best outdoor mile.
But the circumstances of this final lap
are somewhat unusual.
I wanna rewind real quick to that 1500 meter event,
here in Rome last year.
As El Guerrouj blazes to the finish line
in a record-setting three minutes
and 26 seconds, he's alone.
Well, except for our old friend Steve Cram,
popping in at a very weird time to give a track-side report.
El Guerrouj being alone at the end is typical.
If you're trying to set a record,
you'll usually go for it in a race
where no one has a chance of catching you,
so you won't be distracted from beating the clock.
But rewind a bit further to the end of the third lap
of that 1500, and you'll see El Guerrouj trailing.
This is also normal.
This guy right here is the rabbit, or a pacesetter.
Ever since Roger Bannister employed them
to break four minutes in 1954, rabbits have become
a key feature of any record-setting attempt.
Rabbits enter the race with no intention of winning
or even finishing, they're just there to help.
They run a few laps at exactly the split times
that the record-chaser needs to hit,
serving as a sort of human benchmark.
Then, they drop out because they're so tired
from running part of a world record time.
The reason I draw your attention to this particular rabbit
is because this guy, who is helping El Guerrouj in 1998,
here, in 1999,
he's right here.
This is Noah Ngeny of Kenya, and this time, he's no rabbit.
Ngeny is 20, four years younger than El Guerrouj,
and he's just coming onto the track scene.
This race did have pacesetters,
two of Ngeny's fellow Kenyans, running laps
of around 55 seconds for El Guerrouj's benefit.
When pacesetter William Tanui dropped out,
entering the last lap,
El Guerrouj expected to be alone,
not distracted by a fellow competitor chasing him,
but here we are.
And while Ngeny doesn't look like
he'll overtake El Guerrouj,
the current pace suggests he too has the chance
to beat Noureddine Morceli's time of 3:44.39.
And what an incredible finish that would be.
This race is kind of superfluous in modern track,
but it persists because of its historic significance.
Its world record has progressed in fits and starts
over the last century, thanks to head-to-head rivalries
and individual breakthroughs
in both performance and tactics.
The leader of this run quite literally stumbled
in his first attempt to become the star of his sport.
But now he's trying to own
all of its major world records at once.
And a young runner who helped him set
one of those world records is surprisingly hot on his heels.
Okay, let's see if Hisham El Guerrouj
breaks the mile world record of 3:44.39,
and if Noah Ngeny can bring in the second-fastest mile ever,
right behind him.
Welcome to a moment in history.
- [Announcer] Hisram El Guerrouj is going to hang on.
He's got a world record.
3:43.12, as a matter of fact, both El Guerrouj
and Ngeny went under the former world record time.