Derek Ibbotson

From “I Was Or Am A Runner”


‘Surely Ibbotson’s run is the greatest mile of all time.’ 1957 commentary.

It was around 1960 that Ibbo gave me my first athletics memory. His career was in limbo with injuries. He visited Northumberland Park in North Shields. I was probably 6 years old and I remember him wearing a white shirt. My father recalls that he ran away from the autograph hunters and drove off in his black car!

Whether I inspired him, I’ll never know – but he came back on the track with a vengeance!

So Sebastian Coe wasn’t the first Yorkshireman to set a World Mile record. 22 years before him, Derek Ibbotson set the track alight.

Yorkshire grit? Yes, that’s Derek Ibbotson. Wry sense of humour? Yes, that’s Derek Ibbotson. Born in Huddersfield in 1932, his most famous race was his world record of 3:57.2 in what was billed as the ‘Mile of the Century’ in 1957.

In true Alf Tupper style, Ibbo would ‘eat a big fillet steak with all the trimmings before a race. Pasta wasn’t on the menu back then and we didn’t have any coaches ‘up north’. We just ran for the love of it. We’d run in two inches of water on a cinder track with fixed spikes and end up covered in black residue. It was fabulous!’

Ibbotson trained hard and raced hard. Years of cross country running helped give him his super-powers. Track training with Alan Simpson in Yorkshire and at Tooting Bec track with Gordon Pirie. His philosophy was that racing helped fitness and he ran 70 races in 1957 before setting his world record.

• Early Days and Early Championship Wins

A member of the famous Longwood Harriers and with not much training, he won a Youths mile race in 4:30.5. Showing further early promise, he won the Yorkshire Junior mile championship in 1949, 1950 and 1951. He went one stride further, winning the AAA Junior title in 1951.

The following year, Ibbo won the Yorkshire Three Miles title, gaining selection for the Inter-Counties, where a personal best of 14:06.8 gave him 5th place. That was a significant race as Gordon Pirie made sure that the Sydney Wooderson days were over, beating the great Man in Black’s British record by 9 seconds.

Injury curtailed his 1953 season, however the coaching, a winter’s cross country and interval training during national service in the RAF helped him to 3rd in the Yorkshire, 4th in the RAF and 8th in the Northern cross country championships.

Derek suddenly exploded back onto the scene with a win in the 1955 Inter-counties 3 miles in 13:34.6 followed by 2nd place to Chris Chataway in the AAA race. He beat Chataway the next year to earn him selection for the Olympic 5000m.

• Olympic Bronze

On Melbourne’s big stage, USSR’s Vladimir Kuts was out to defend his title… which he did in an Olympic record of 13:39.6. With Kuts in the lead at half way, Ibbotson, Pirie and Chataway were well ahead of the other runners. The silver medal was fought out between two Brits, Gordon Pirie and Derek Ibbotson. They finished in that order in 13:50.6 and 13:54.4.

• The Big Build Up

An Inter-Counties 3 Miles win in 13:34.6 and a 28:52 six-miler were followed by third place in the National.

Fitter, faster and stronger, Ibbo faced Chris Chataway in the AAA 3 miles on the White City’s rain-sodden cinders. With a fierce battle over the last half lap, Ibbo edged his way to breast the tape in 13:32.6 (4:32.8, 4:32 and 4:27.8). He ran faster in an international against Czechoslovakia for a personal best of 13:28.2. He followed this to show his speed training had paid off when beating Herne Hill Harrier Ian Boyd in the Emsley Carr Mile in 3:59.4 – an improvement by over 7 seconds.

He had a 5000m race in Budapest, finishing second to Chataway (13:59.6) but ahead of Sandor Iharos, world record holder earlier that year before Pirie

Returning to the UK, Ibbo took a job in London and joined South London Harriers. With Gordon Pirie as its figurehead, the club was one of the most outstanding in the country at cross country and road. He was 6th in the 1957 National (and first team with SLH). He retained his AAA 3 miles title in a British record of 13:20.8. He also ran some fast early season 1500m/mile times. These included a mile race in 80F at Ibrox in Glasgow, the cheers of thousands of Scots pushing him to a European record of 3:58.4, just 0.4 outside Landy’s World Record!

• ‘The Race of the Century’

On the evening of Friday 19 July, Ibbotson lined up with a top class field for an Invitation Mile at the London v New York fixture at the White City, including Olympic 1500m champion Ron Delaney of Ireland. His first wife Madeline was in the crowds with their 5 week old daughter, born while he was competing in Glasgow. ‘I knew I could do it. The pacemaker was Mike Blagrove, who was just back from his honeymoon, but that did not stop him going through the half in a very quick 1:56. I knew then I could take the sting out of Ronnie Delany’s sprint finish.’ With laps of 55.3, 60.5 and 64.2, Ibbo was third at the bell, reached in exactly 3 minutes. He made his move on the back straight and kept on going to set a World Record of 3:57.2. He set a British record of 3:41.9 for 1500m en route.

Just 2 weeks before, he had run an easy 4:10 to win the Yorkshire title at Bingley!

• ‘A mistake. A major mistake’

Ibbo ran 48 track races in 1957, winning 37 and finishing in the first three in 47. These included a British 3 miles record of 13:20.8. However, his training and cross country races did not go well over winter. His track performances in 1958 weren’t encouraging either – 4:05.4/8:47.6/13:46 for 1, 2 and 3 miles and a disappointing mile in the Commonwealth Games in Cardiff… but he did manage to set a world record for 4x mile relay in an England team against Finland at the White City on 27 September 27. Mike Blagrove, Peter Clark, Derek Ibbotson (4:08.6) and Brian Hewson combined to win in 16:30.6.

He won the Emsley Carr Mile in 4:03.6 and manage 2 miles in 8:43.2 but such wins were rarities in 1959. In 1959 he was 7th in the AAA 3 miles, ran for Britain against Poland and Finland, and had bests of 3:42.9 for 1500 metres, 4:03.1 for the mile, 8:00.0 for 3000 metres and 13:32.8 for 3 miles. His times were slower in 1960 due to injury but he still managed 4th in the AAA 3 miles in 1961.

He moved indoors where he won British titles and set World Indoor bests for 2 miles with 8:47.8 and 3 miles (13:44.8).

‘Geoff Dyson, the leading coach, and other people told me to have a rest, take two or three months off, to recover from the hectic season I had. They said it would recharge my batteries. And for the first time ever I listened to other people and did what they said. It was a mistake, a major mistake, and a very costly one because when I started training I got a carbuncle on my neck because my system reneged, and so I missed three months’ more training. By taking the time off and living the high rich life with parties and dinners and do’s, I let myself down. I did not train, and I should have done because I loved running and racing. If you don’t do the training through the winter you don’t have the basis for the summer. By the time I made it back again about a year and a half had gone and I got down to quite good times.’

• A Comeback in his Thirties

He won the 1962 European Indoor 2 miles championship in 8:47.8 followed in the summer by third places in the 3 miles races at the British Games and the AAA Championships. He also finished 8th in the Commonwealth 3 miles in Perth. He kept going courageously, running 3:44.4 for 1500m and 4:01.6 for the mile. Aged 30, he finished 3rd in the AAA 3 miles championships and had a season best of 13:21.6, plus 8:41.4 for 2 miles and 4:03.6 for the mile. ‘Not bad for a “has been”.’

‘When people write me off and say I am finished I have tremendous determination ‘I’ll show the beggars!’ This is why I succeed to get back when people think I am more or less finished.’

He also won the UK indoor two miles in 1965, representing his country and had bests of 8:42.6 and 13:51. He finished 8th in the Commonwealth Games 3 miles in 1966. In 1967, aged 35, he ran 2 miles in 9:01.8.

He started to play squash, becoming Yorkshire veterans’ champion – twice. After retirement from his role as promotions executive for Puma Sports, he continued to enjoy golf… and jogging!

• Inspiration and Advice

Top athletics journalist Alistair Aitken asked Ibbo who inspired him. ‘Nobody really, I have inspiration from thoughts of breaking World records. I always wanted to become a World record holder, a lot of drive inside me. I have never had a coach. I have admired lots of runners but have never been inspired by them. I have always wanted to become the best in the World.’

Alistair also asked what advice he would give to an aspiring, young runner. ‘The main thing when you are young is not to be worried by reputations and size because World Champions come in all shapes and sizes. When you are young you think a big lad is bound to beat you. This may be true when you are 16,17 or 18 but when you get older there are lots of things that come into it. It’s what you have in the heart and in the mind that counts because mind can plan a race well, to make up for the little lack of physique.’

‘I wouldn’t have missed a day of it’

• Career History

International Cross Country (46th)
AAA 3 Miles (1st)
Olympic 5000m (3rd)

AAA 3 Miles (1st)

Commonwealth Games 3 Miles (10th)

UK Indoor 2 Miles (1st)
Commonwealth Games 3 Miles (8th)

UK Indoor 2 Miles (1st)

UK Internationals
18 (1955-65)

• Personal bests

880 yards 1:52.2 (1958)
1500m 3:41.9 (1957)
1 mile 3:57.2 (1957)
2000m 5:12.8 (1955)
3000m 8:00.0 (1959)
2 miles 8:41.2 (1957)
2 miles indoors 8:42.6 (1965)
3 miles 13:20.8 (1957)
5000m 13:54.4 (1956)
6 miles 28:52.0 (1955)

• George Derek Ibbotson: Factfile

Born in Huddersfield, Yorkshire on 17 June 1932. Height 5’9½” (1.76m ) and weight 10st6lb (66kg).

His Olympic 5000m bronze is only 1 of 6 won by Brits at the event. In fact, no British athlete had bettered bronze until Mo Farah’s first gold medal in 2012.

Derek’s Longwood Club Record, a World Record at the time has been broken subsequently by an even grittier Yorkshireman, Walter Wilkinson, with 3:56.60.

Ibbo finished 4th in a mile race won by Australian Herb Elliott in 3:55.4 at the White City on 3 September 1958. Nothing remarkable in that – except that he became the first man to run a mile in a time of exactly 4 minutes. There’s one for any quiz compilers!

He was awarded an MBE for services to athletics in 2008.

In 2011, he was inducted into the England Athletics Hall of Fame.

The YouTube video of his World Record Mile is linked in the first comment.

C Paul Fitton