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Updated by GOAT Series Staff on Feb 14, 2018
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Greatest Distance Runner of All Time

Who is the greatest distance runner of all time?

1

Haile Gebrselassie

Haile Gebrselassie

The greatest African-born distance runner of all time. Haile Gebrselassie is the epitome of a legendary endurance athlete. His unbelievable 21 year career highlights include: world records in 13 different distance running events, ranging from a near sprint-paced record of 4:52.86 in the 2000m he set in 1998, to a knee-buckling pace of 2:03:59 at the 2008 Berlin Marathon. In a sport dominated by athletes in their mid to late twenties, Haile’s marathon record still stands as the 3rd fastest in human history, and it is by far the fastest time run by anyone over 35 years old. The amazing breadth, depth, and longevity of Haile’s career surely places him among the greatest champions in the world of distance running.

Nationality: Ethiopian | DOB: April 17, 1973 | Height: 5’5” | Weight: 123 lb
25 Major race wins | 13 World Records (2000m, 3000m, 2 miles, 5000m, 10k, 10 miles, 15k, 20k, Half-Marathon, 25k, 30k, Marathon, One hour run) | 2 Olympics Gold (10,000m ’96, ’00) | 21 year career (1991-2012)

2

Paavo Nurmi

Paavo Nurmi

The most decorated competitive distance runner of all time. Paavo Nurmi won an astronomical 453 career races. His undefeated streak in all races over 800m for 121 consecutive races will never be touched. Like the Floyd Mayweather of distance running, throughout his 14 year career Paavo Nurmi never lost a cross country race or the 10,000 meters. He began a mostly self-compelled, and rigorously strict, training program at the age of 15, and further honed his running abilities when he served in the Finnish military as a teenager. In an impossible display of distance versatility, Nurmi is the only person to ever hold the world record in the Mile, the 5000m, and the 10000m at the same time. An eternal legend in the sport of running, Nurmi’s indelible mark will be remembered by runners and fans until the end of time.

Nationality: Finnish | DOB: June 13, 1897 | Height: 5’8.5” | Weight: 143 lb
453 Major race wins | 15 World Records (1500m, Mile, 2000m, 3000m, 2 Mile, 3 Mile, 5000m, 4 Mile, 5 Mile, 6 Mile, 10k, 15k, One hour run, 20k) | 9 Olympics Gold (10k ’20, ’28, 1500m ’24, Individual cross country ’20, ‘24, Team cross country ’20, ‘24, 3000m team ’24, 5000m ’24) | 14 year career (1920-1934)

3

Emil Zátopek

Emil Zátopek

The greatest Olympic distance runner of all time. Emil Zatopek was nicknamed the “Czech Locomotive”. His performance at the 1952 Helsinki Summer Olympics ranks as one of the most incredible individual Olympic performances in history. Zátopek opened his ’52 games with an exciting come from behind win in the last lap of the 5000m, setting an Olympic record at the time. He followed that performance with another Olympic record, and gold medal, this time in the 10,000 meter discipline. After mopping the floors with the competition in the middle distances, Zátopek decided, allegedly on a whim, to try his first ever marathon during these Olympic Games. He won the race handedly, setting a third Olympic record in the process.

Nationality: Czech | DOB: September 19, 1922 | Height: 6’0” | Weight: 159 lb
3 Major race wins | 7 World Records (5000m, 10k, 10 Mile, 20k, 15 Mile, 25k, 30k) | 4 Olympics Gold (5000m ’48, ’52, 10k ’48. ’52, Marathon ’52) | 17 year career (1940-1957)

4

Saïd Aouita

Saïd Aouita

The first globally famous Arab athlete and the greatest distance runner of the 1980’s. Saiid Aouita held concurrent world records in the 1500m, 2000m, 3000m, and 5000m distances. Blessed with a rare mix of high top-end speed and long-run endurance, Aouita was incredibly versatile and consistent. With a dominating 5 year run in the mid-80s, Aouita rose to the highest prominence in the sport of track and field and if not for nagging injuries during the twilight of his career, he might have maintained his run of dominance well into the 90’s or beyond.

Nationality: Moroccan | DOB: November 2, 1959 | Height: 5’7.5” | Weight: 143 lb
13 Major race wins | 5 World Records (1500m, 2000m, 3000m, 5000m, Two miles) | 1 Olympics Gold (5000m ’84), 1 Bronze (800m ‘88) | 11 year career (1980-1991)

5

Kenenisa Bekele

Kenenisa Bekele

Ran the fastest 5,000 meter and 10,000 meter races in human history. With a trophy case that includes 25 major career wins, 5 world record events, and 3 Olympic gold medals, Kenenisa Bekele is Ethiopia’s second greatest distance runner. His records in the 5000 and 10,000 meter have stood unbeaten for nearly a decade. The 5000 and 10,000 races require drastically different skill-sets, and no man has ever shown the same elite balance of speed and endurance that Bekele does. To rise to the top of the heap in a country with so many super-elite distance runners like Ethiopia is a testament to Bekele’s greatness and we hope this study has helped spread the word of just how incredible he truly is.

Nationality: Ethiopian | DOB: June 13, 1982 | Height: 5’5” | Weight: 123 lb
25 Major race wins | 5 World Records (2000m indoors, 2 miles indoors, 5000m, 5000m indoors, 10k) | 3 Olympics Gold (10k ’04, 10k ‘08, 5000m ’08), 1 Silver (5000m ’04) | 13 year career (1999-2012)

6

Hicham El Guerrouji

Hicham El Guerrouji

The greatest middle distance runner of all time. Hicham El Guerrouji is the third representative of the distance running powerhouse nation of Morocco to make our GOAT study. His nickname “King of the Mile” was coined in 1999 after he ran what is still the fastest 1 mile of any human in history. At a blistering pace of 3:43.13, Guerrouji beat Roger Bannister’s famous 1954, sub 4 minute mile by over 15 seconds! With strong performances at the 2000 and 2004 Summer Olympic games, and an impressive World Championship record, Hicham El Guerrouji is easily one of the greatest Moroccan athletes of all time.

Nationality: Moroccan | DOB: September 14, 1974 | Height: 5’9” | Weight: 128 lb
14 Major race wins | 3 World Records (1500m, Mile, 2000m) | 2 Olympics Gold (1500m ’04, 5000m ’04), 1 Silver (1500m ’00) | 9 year career (1995-2004)

7

Paul Tergat

Paul Tergat

The greatest long distance Kenyan runner of all time. In the country most often associated with super elite distance running athletes, Paul Tergat is the most decorated among them. His world record time of 2:04:55 in the marathon survived from 2003-2007 and is still the 5th fastest time in history. Tergat also boasts Silver medals in the 1996 and 2000 Summer Olympic Games. It was the unfortunate career overlap of his friendly rival Haile Gebrselassie that kept him from climbing the top of the podium at the games. He might have been a bit overshadowed by the other legends of endurance at the time, but Tergat’s legacy will always shine bright in the hall of fame of the sport.

Nationality: Kenyan | DOB: June 17, 1969 | Height: 5’11.5”| Weight: 137 lb
8 Major race wins | 3 World Records (10k, Half Marathon, Marathon) | 2 Olympics Silver (10k ’96, ’00) | 9 year career (1995-2004

8

Wilson Kipsang Kiprotich

Wilson Kipsang Kiprotich

Ran the fastest marathon time in human history. His 2:03:23 mark at the 2013 Berlin Marathon was a stunning 20% faster than the mark set by Johnny Hayes in 1908 when official measurements were first recorded. No person has ever run the grueling 26.2 mile distance in under 2 hours; but no one has come as close as Kipsang, and with a still thriving career he’s probably the best bet on the planet today to be the first to break that seemingly impossible barrier.

Nationality: Kenyan | DOB: March 15, 1982 | Height: 5’11.5” | Weight: 137 lb
12 Major race wins | 1 World Record (Current Marathon WR) | 1 Olympic Bronze (Marathon ’12) | 6 year career (2008-Current)

9

Khalid Khannouchi

Khalid Khannouchi

Current holder of the Marathon record for a US citizen. Khalid Khannouchi became naturalized in 2000 in Brooklyn, New York City. Perhaps his most impressive accomplishment was the beating of his own 3 year old Marathon world record at the 2002 London Marathon, a feat only 3 others have ever matched. With a late career that was plagued by foot injuries, we may never know the height of greatness that Khannouchi would have been capable of, but he should be proud to know that his accomplishments have already placed him among the greatest distance runners of all time.

Nationality: Moroccan | DOB: September 12, 1971 | Height: 5’5” | Weight: 125 lb
9 Major race wins | 1 World Record (Marathon) | 0 Olympic medals | 17 year career (1997-2012)

10

Steve Prefontaine

Steve Prefontaine

Widely considered to be the greatest American-born distance runner of all time. Steve Prefontaine is one of the most tragic examples of un-realized potential in the history of sports. Killed at the age of 24 in a car accident, Prefontaine’s early career trajectory places him squarely among the greatest athletes in the sport, and projecting his maximum ceiling is one of the most tantalizingly, if not depressing, conversations in the running world. He set American records in 7 different events in the 2 years following his graduation from the University of Oregon, and his time of 12:51.40 still stands as the fastest 3 miles ever run by an American. While his legend may have been magnified by his untimely death, there is no doubt that the man they lovingly called "Pre" had miraculous talent and mental fortitude and was surely one of the GOATs of his sport.

Nationality: American | DOB: January 25, 1951 (Died: May 30, 1975) | Height: 5’9” | Weight: 139 lb
38 Amateur/Major race wins (Mostly Collegiate Level) | 0 World Records (7 American Records [2000m, 3000m, 2 mile, 3 mile, 5000m, 6 mile, 10k]) | 0 Olympic medals (4th in 5000m in ‘72) | 6 year career (1968-1975)