The World's Fastest Mile: El Guerrouj Breaks the Record

Hicham El Guerrouj on his way to a world record in the mile, in 1999. Stu Forster/Getty Images

In a way, Hicham El Guerrouj’s run for the mile world record began with his most disappointing race, the 1996 Olympic 1500-meter final. With just more than one lap remaining, El Guerrouj was running on the heels of race favorite Noureddine Morceli of Algeria. Unfortunately for El Guerrouj, he literally ran on Morceli’s heel, tripping and falling out of the race, which Morceli won.

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After the race, the distraught Moroccan received a call from his country’s monarch, King Hassan, who offered encouragement and told El Guerrouj that better times were ahead. A revitalized El Guerrouj defeated Morceli in another 1500-meter race later that year and became the world’s dominant distance runner for the rest of his career. Three years after his Olympic disappointment, El Guerrouj took aim at Morceli’s world mile mark of 3:44.39, set in 1993.

Record Run

El Guerrouj chose Rome’s Olympic Stadium as the site of his assault on the mile record, on July 7, 1999. The Moroccan had set the world 1500-meter record in Rome the previous year, with the help of pacemakers, including a 19-year-old Kenyan named Noah Ngeny. El Guerrouj made no secret of his intention to attack the mile mark, and a $50,000 prize was offered if he – or anyone else – succeeded in breaking the record. The ‘or anyone else’ scenario likely didn’t enter anyone else’s mind, except perhaps Ngeny, who ran in the race as a fellow competitor, rather than a pacemaker.

Two other rabbits – including 1992 Olympic 800-meter champ William Tanui of Kenya – set the race’s early pace. El Guerrouj quickly settled into third behind the pacemakers, with Ngeny close behind in fourth. The pacemakers led the field through the first lap in 55.07 seconds. One pacemaker dropped out midway through the event after crossing the line in 1:51.58.

El Guerrouj and Ngeny remained behind Tanui, with the rest of the field out of the picture. Tanui then dropped out at the bell after setting a three-lap pace of 2:47.91.

Race to the Finish

El Guerrouj now led and ran all-out to earn his ultimate victory over Morceli. But Ngeny remained close, and even gained ground around the final turn. The Kenyan was about two strides behind El Guerrouj as they came out of the turn, at which point Ngeny slid to the edge of the lane to try to pass El Guerrouj. The Moroccan, meanwhile, could see Ngeny closing on the stadium’s video screen, as his world record attempt turned into a battle to the finish line just to win the race.

Ngeny pulled within about one stride halfway down the home straight, but El Guerrouj had a bit more in the tank and his final burst gave him the victory by about two strides.

El Guerrouj crossed the finish line in a world record 3:43.13. Ngeny’s time of 3:43.40 was also inside of Morceli’s former mark, the first time that two men broke the mile record in the same race since 1958, when Herb Elliott won the race in 3:54.5, with Merv Lincoln in second at 3:55.9, beating Derek Ibbotson’s old mark of 3:57.2.

Ngeny and El Guerrouj faced off in several more memorable races during their careers, with El Guerrouj winning more often than not, although Ngeny edged him by a quarter-second in the 2000 Olympic final.

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