The story of how women fought their way into the marathon is often told, but less is known about the track and cross-country trailblazers who came before them. One such runner was Diane Leather, the first woman to run a sub-five minute mile.
Charles grew up playing lacrosse until, at the age of 19, the 1952 Helsinki Olympics caught her imagination. She joined Birchfield Harriers in Birmingham, where coach Dorette Nelson-Neal recognised her talent and steered her to longer events (for women, ‘long’ then meant cross-country, the 880 yards, and occasionally, the mile). A year later, she ran a WR 5:02.6 mile.
The lead-up to her first sub-five mile was dramatic: in 1953, Romanian Edith Treybal ran 5:00.3. On May 26, 1954, Charles also fell a gasp short, running 5:00.2. Three days later, at the women's track and field championships in Birmingham, she lined up for the mile. Almost from the start, she ran alone. Her splits were wildly uneven, yet with a final surge she dipped under five minutes.
There was no great fanfare, however. Not until 1960 would women be allowed to race further than 200m in the Olympics, and it wasn't until 1967 that the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) recognised women's WRs in the mile and 1500m. (Charles's time, run in a championship with qualified timekeepers, is considered valid). By contrast, when Roger Bannister broke four minutes just 23 days earlier, he became an instant legend. ‘It's just the way it was,’ says Charles. ‘I did get a lot of attention from people who knew what it meant.’
Charles broke the mile record four more times, culminating in a 4:45 in 1955, a mark which remained unbroken for seven years. She also set three WRs in the 880 yards, won 800m silver twice in the European Championships, and won the English cross-country championship four times.
After retiring at 27, Charles went on to teach, do social work and raise four children, living in a remote corner of Cornwall with her husand. She always remained modest about her role in women's running, ‘I had no idea I would ever be called a pioneer,’ said the trailblazer with the silky-smooth stride who, 60 years ago, stuck to the simple advice she always offered other athletes: ‘Train hard, and give it all you've got.’