The barrier breaker looks back on her historic sub-five mile of 60 years ago

May 6, 1954, might be a date forever etched in history, but just 23 days after Roger Bannister’s barrier-breaking sub-four-minute mile, a woman made a similar breakthrough.

However, whereas Bannister’s achievement is one of the most celebrated in athletics history, the name of the first woman under five minutes is barely known to any who are not avid fans of the sport.

Diane Leather clocked 4:59.6 on May 29 at the Midland Championships in Birmingham, but given the status of women’s athletics at the time it is perhaps little surprise she is not a bigger name. It was not until 1967 that the IAAF first recognised women’s world records for the mile and it was only after that that women ran the distance at international level.

Now Mrs Charles, she is arguably receiving more attention for her achievements today then she ever did while an athlete. But the 81-year-old appears not the sort of person who would have appreciated the attention anyway and says she didn’t think it odd that it didn’t come.

“I wasn’t surprised,” she told AW when when helping launch this year’s Bupa Westminster Miles along with Bannister and wheelchair racer David Weir. “It’s just the way it was. I think I got attention but not as much as [the four-minute mile].”

She did all her talking on the track during a remarkable career that saw her break numerous records and claim a silver apiece in the 800m at the 1954 and 1958 Europeans. Her sub-five performance was historic, but she was clearly capable of going much faster given her slightly erratic splits of 68.8, 2:27.00 and 3:48.6.

The following year in London she revised it to 4:50.8, while at the end of the season her fifth world mile best was 4:45.0.

She has seen times tumble in the mile to the 4:12.56 set by Svetlana Masterkova in 1996, so how about a sub-four-minute mile by a woman one day? “I shouldn’t think so,” she said. “I think that’s a long way off!”

» This is an extract from a feature in the May 1 sub-four special issue of AW which is available here or digitally here