10 Monumental Performances in American Distance Running History

PREAs you can see on our event page, the Pirate Mileage Challenge was inspired by Steve Prefontaine, an American running idol in the 1970s. We wanted to take the time to reflect on what other historic performances have inspired our sport.  In no particular order, here are our top 10 most influential performances in American distance running history. In a time when there are no live sports events, we hope this affords you the opportunity to check a few of these moments out. We have provided a few video links on several of these performances.

Frank Shorter, 1972 Olympic Marathon Gold

Frank Shorter is given much of the credit when it came to the running boom in the 1970s. He was a double Olympic medalist in the marathon (Gold in 1972/ silver in 1976).

Jim Ryun, 1965 AAU Mile Win

 In 1965, as a high school senior, Jim Ryun beat the reigning Olympic Champion Peter Snell in a head to head mile. He beat a current Olympic Champion and reset his high school national record in the same race. This high school national record lasted for almost 46 years!

Shalane Flanagan, 2017 New York City Marathon Win

Shalane ended a 40 year drought for American women at the New York City Marathon when she won in 2017. She also beat Mary Keitany, the multiple time NYC marathon champ and Women’s only Marathon world record holder in the process.

Meb Keflezighi, 2014 Boston Marathon Win

Meb is a familiar household running name for various reasons like being 2004 Olympic silver medalist and former US record holder in the 10,000m. However, winning the year after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing at the age of 39 is perhaps his most historic moment.  He also was the first American male to win Boston since 1983.

Joan Benoit, 1984 Olympic Marathon Gold

In 1984, the marathon debuted as a women’s Olympic Sport. Joan Benoit took the gold in Los Angeles and was credited for much of the women’s running movement in the 80’s.

Deena Kastor, 2004 Olympic Marathon Bronze

After Joan won gold in 1984, American women saw a 20 year drought in the marathon. Deena Kastor regained a medal by winning the bronze in Athens in 2004.

 Billy Mills, 1964 Olympic 10k Gold

In the 1964 Olympics Billy Mills made history as a “nobody.” He was the first non-European to win the 10k at the time. To this day, he is the only American to win the event. Check out his spectacular last 400m.

 Emma Coburn/ Courtney Frerichs, 2017 World Championships Steeplechase

The American duo went 1-2 in the World Championship Steeplechase Final. Coburn and Frerichs the first female Americans to win the gold and silver medal in any individual World Championships or Olympics race longer than 400 meters since 1912.

Dave Wottle, 1972 Olympics 800m Gold  

This performance is not just monumental for Wottle’s Placement but for how he ran the race. Wottle stayed in the far back of the race for nearly 500m before passing the Soviet favorite in the final stretch.

Matthew Centrowitz, 2016 Olympic 1500m Gold

The mile (or 1500) has been regarded as the glamor event for much of running history. Centrowitz won the 2016 Olympic Gold in the 1500m and became the first US man to do it in the event since 1908. Take a look at this fast last lap and very tactical race. It is actually one of the slowest winning times recorded in this event in an Olympic Final.


 What are some of your favorite moments in distance running? We’d love to know!


  1. Brandon's avatar
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    If this were ranked, Joan Benoit Samuelson would be #1. At a time when women were considered too weak to compete at distances longer than 3k, she won that Gold by setting American Records in the 10k, 10M, Half, 30k, and 20M along the way.

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Will Christian

I was a 2:27 marathoner that seemed to have hit the ceiling. It seemed that I couldn't break that time. I ran a 2:20 marathon this past fall and a big reason for that success was due to coaching and guidance. Coaching is like having a second set of eyes on a problem.

As an active duty service member we are taught "Attention to Detail." I was focusing on my stronger attributes while neglecting my weaker ones. My personal coach pointed a few things out and changed a few of my workouts and like magic; I smashed my PR in the marathon.