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Exclusive interview: One-mile European-record holder Steve Cram talks distance running and more

The 2015 Bupa Westminster Mile celebrates the 30th year anniversary of Steve Cram breaking the world mile record. His time of 3:46:32, set in Oslo in July 1985 remains the European record to this day, a testament to his athletic brilliance during a 19-day period which also saw him break world records in the 1500m and 2000m events. Speaking at the recent Bupa Westminster Mile launch event at Paddington Rec, he addressed an audience of local school children and athletes, before they attempted to better his mile time by running relay races. They tried their best but Cram’s phenomenal time proved out of reach. Afterwards, he sat down to tell us about his recollections of Oslo, the future of British running and why everyone should run a mile this May…

What are your memories of your world-record mile run in 1985?

I always loved running in Oslo, it was a real favourite of mine. I’d broken the world record in the 1500m a few days before, so it was a big race in the sense everybody had more expectation than I did but I was just keen on winning the race. It was against Seb Coe and a bunch of other athletes who were at the top at the time. I would have felt bad had I not won the race. It panned out in a bit of an odd fashion, starting with pacemakers going fast, but it slowed right down in the third lap because nobody looked like taking it on. I didn’t think we’d break the record but then I did a very, very fast last lap and just managed to take the record. It was a great place to do it because I loved Oslo, and I’m going back to celebrate the anniversary later this year.

Your world record stood for eight years and remains the British, and European, record. Why do you think it has stood the test of time?

I guess it was pretty good! I remember at the time thinking I could have run faster, and I thought about what more we could have done on the day. If you’d said to me then it would have lasted this long I would not have believed you because records were changing hands with regularity in those days. It has stood the test of time as a British record because we simply don’t have enough good people around to run that fast anymore, which is sad, but that’s how it is. It’s only been taken down twice as a world record so it’s hard. Seb Coe and I talk about it and say if we were still racing today we’d give ourselves a pretty good chance of beating who’s around.

What are your thoughts on the mile distance as an event and what can the Bupa Westminster Mile do for it?

So many people run around the world now, taking on marathons, half-marathons and 10Ks. When runners start chatting they always talk to each other about how fast they’re running and ask how many minutes per mile do you do. The mile is the currency that people use for that. You’ll hear “are you a seven-minute miler, an eight-minute miler, a twelve-minute miler?” So the event brings running back to this unit. A lot of people will talk in mile terms but they never run just one mile. Racing a mile is great because it gives people a chance to see how fast they can go just for one mile instead of always relating it to what they do for longer distances. On the other hand, for those who haven’t yet got to long-distance running, it’s a good starting point. Anyone should be able to do a mile even if they just walk it. It means we can bring people of all age groups and abilities together to have a go.

What are your training tips for running the mile?

The nice thing is you don’t have to train that hard. The mile event mixes proper endurance training with a bit of faster running. If you want to train to run a mile quicker than you’ve done before, or just to do one to begin with, you want to get a nice mix of doing longer runs to ensure you can run over distance and giving yourself a chance to do some shorter work, such as track runs, repetitions in the park and hill work. With those you break the distance down and you’re running faster than you will in the race. Running 400m 10 times with an interval will help you when you come to running the mile. You’ll find a miler trains a little bit like a marathon runner at times and a little bit like a 400m runner at other times. Try to get that real mix of different types of running.

There will be a women-only This Girl Can race at this year’s Bupa Westminster Mile, supporting Sport England’s campaign to get more women into being active. Do you think the mile is a good way to get women into running?

This Girl Can is a great campaign. I know from experience that women respond well to campaigns. This is a good way to shine the spotlight on This Girl Can. A mile is for anyone, it doesn’t matter sex or age. It doesn’t matter what you like doing for exercise – swimming, cycling or going to the gym – running is a good thing to start with and the mile is a nice easy distance, even if you haven’t done any running before. You can walk the whole thing if you want to, it’s very manageable. I’m sure the campaign will be very successful.

What was your diet like when you broke those world records in 1985?

Not as good as it should have been, we didn’t know much about nutrition in those days! All I remember is I was always hungry. You’re training really hard and burning up lots of calories. Even though we didn’t know enough about nutrition then, I had a pretty good diet to be fair. I probably could have done a lot more if we had some of the knowledge that’s around now, certainly around recovery. When you’ve done a hard training session, what you eat in the hour or so afterwards is really important and we didn’t understand a lot about that back then.

Looking back, what would you say were your career highlights?

Breaking the world record for the mile was one of them. As I grew up my coach taught me about the history of the mile, the people who broke it, even before Roger Bannister, and we had a really strong British tradition in that event. Had I not done that I would have been really disappointed in my career, so it’s definitely in the highlights. Winning the world championships 1500m in 1983 was very different as it was a slow tactical race. That was the great thing about the distances I raced over, I had to try and break the world record but sometimes it was all about tactics. Having both of those elements in your locker was important. My world championship win was a more intriguing and tactical race and that was what I enjoyed most.

What advice would you give to novice runners who are looking to get into racing?

Take your time. The great thing about running is it gives you back what you put in. If you take your time, your fitness will gradually grow. The first thing to do is decide when you run, and how much within your weekly schedule. Is it once, twice, three times a week? Can you commit some time to it? Then just go for it gradually. Don’t go mad from the beginning. Your body will adapt quickly to training. But it’s like if you race a mile and go off really hard on your first lap you’re just going to stop. You’ve got to pace yourself and it’s the same with training. Build up gradually, take a long term view about it and you’ll end up like most people – you’ll get hooked on it and five years down the line you’ll be doing the lot.

You’re still heavily involved in athletics, both with commentary and coaching. How do you see the future of British running?

We have to make a better connection with the millions of people out there who run and we’ve got to get more young people running earlier. Then we need to connect them into athletics clubs and track and field athletics. It’s not just about 5K, 10K, marathon and half-marathon runners. We’ve got a big pool of people doing all of that, but we should be able to find more people with ability and talent who want to train for specific events, particularly young people. We’re in a really good place in terms of mass participation, but we’ve got to try and turn that around a little bit and get young people into athletics clubs and try to find 800m runners, 1500m runners and sprinters. If you take the population as a whole, we aren’t all cut out to run a half-marathon. Some people can run fast and our fast sprinters are never going to run a great marathon in their lives. Some people are born to run faster and we’ve got to recognise that as well. We need to be better at engaging more with the casual runner and getting them into clubs.