From the late 1930s to the mid 1940s, most of the world cared little for athletics— there were other, more gruesome, more important matters to attend. In Sweden, however, the quest for the four minute mile flourished thanks to Sweden’s wartime neutrality and two runners who used their rivalry to push each other and rewrite the record books. 

Arne Andersson, like most Swedish kids, had an active childhood filled with sports and games. He began running at sixteen years old, training with a local champion, and won Swedish school championships by the end of high school. Upon graduating, he studied to become a teacher and used free time from his studies to train as hard as he could. 

By 1939 he had brought his 1500m time down to 3:53 and earned an alternate spot at a Finland v. Sweden track meet and was charged with pacing the better runners to a fast 1500 meter time. The Finns took the race out in 2:01 for two laps with Anderson tucked behind. He took the lead with a lap to go and shot forward to bring along his teammates. When he turned around, though, he was clear of the field, so he powered on to win in 3:48, a second shy of the world record. 

He began the 1940 season optimistic, relishing his newfound crown as the king of Swedish Milers, then lost every race he ran to a farm boy named Gunder Haag.  

Gunder Haag grew up in rural Sweden, following his lumberjack father into the woods each day to chop and haul wood. He emerged from the woods a few times to run races, caught the attention of a coach who then gave Gunder a job, a room, and training advice. 

He worked on the farm and ran 15:00 for 5000m and 4:07 for 1500m off of mostly long walks or hikes. He then joined the military, stationed in northern Sweden, where he switched to shorter, faster runs through the snow— mostly just to stay warm. On a steady regimen of snow romps, cross country skiing, and military marching, he bettered his 1500m time to 3:59. 

At the invitation of a resort owner, Haag moved to Valadalen to work as the resort’s handyman and train through the winter wilderness. He marked out a five kilometer course— three kilometers through the wooded hills and two kilometer on the road— which he ran most days in a “fartlek,” or “speed-play” manner, meaning: as hard as conditions and surfaces allowed. He emerged from the woods again in 1941, got a job as a fireman, won seventeen races, and set a world record, all over the course of the summer. He beat Arne Andersson in four races, never by more than a full second, but by going out so hard that Andersson just died behind him. 

Haag took it easy through the fall to plan his winter of training, which consisted of short, sharp fartleks on his lunch breaks. He returned to Valadalen for a few weeks of forest training again, then emerged once more from the woods and set a world record in the mile. He then raced thirty three more times that season, never losing, and setting ten world records from the 1500m to the 5000m. 

Arne Andersson lost to Gunder Haag every time he faced him that year but managed, twice, to beat old world records as he clung to Haag. He even equalled Haag’s mile world record in one meet when Haag had opted to run the half mile instead. Still, he knew he had work to do— “Haag just flows; I labor.” He returned home and started touching up his form, getting advice from a local decathlete. 

In 1943 Gunder Haag sailed across the Atlantic for an American track tour, running unspectacular times (most American athletes were at war) but never losing. Back home, Arne Andersson spent the summer flaunting a new finishing kick, wielding it to win the Swedish Mile Championship in a world record time of 4:02 and to set a 1500m world record of 3:45.0.

In 1944, Anderson emulated Haag and took to the woods, usually covering seven kilometers a day. Haag moved to Malmo, hammering his forest fartleks in a warmer climate, then went north for two weeks in the Valadalen woods before emerging for the summer season. On June 28th they met for a 1500. Haag went out hard but Andersson hung on, out kicking Hagg with 120 meters to go. On July 7th they met in Gothenburg for another 1500. Haag went out even harder and Andersson couldn’t hang on, and Haag set a world record of 3:43. 

Andersson won the third encounter a week later when Haag failed to go out hard enough, so in their final encounter of 1944 at Malmo, Hagg planned to run the kick out of Andersson. 

He went out in 56 seconds for the first four hundred meters, 1:56 for eight hundred meters, then kept pressing to run 2:59 through twelve hundred meters. Andersson knew he had to hang on so he did, and kept hanging on until finally passing Hagg in the final straight and setting a new world record of 4:01.6. 

Rather than rest, Haag continued training to ready himself for another disappointing Spring tour of the United States, returning to Sweden in May and cramming daily doubles to prep for his duels against Andersson. Andersson also filled his year with competition, racing 34 times in four and a half months, winning unremarkably. 

The two met in July for another Malmo Mile showdown. Andersson knew what to expect; Haag knew what to expect; the crowd knew what to expect; neither athlete disappointed. Haag rocketed through four hundred meters in 56 seconds, Andersson hung on. Haag sailed through eight hundred meters in 1:58. Andersson hung on. The two passed twelve hundred meters in 2:59. Andersson pressed. The race played out almost exactly the same as the year prior, but this time Haag held Andersson off and reclaimed his world record by two tenths of a second. 

Before they could make further assaults on each other or the four-minute barrier, the Swedish amateur athletics governing body declared them professional and ineligible for further competition. 

When asked whether they could have run under four minutes given another season or two, both athletes seem doubtful, agreeing that even four oh one hit them like a brick wall. 

Some speculate that they could have run faster with even pacing, but Anderson responds “We wanted to win, only to win.” Haag knew that to win, he had to run Andersson into the ground before the finishing straight— letting the pace lag early wouldn’t do. Andersson knew that to win, he had to hang onto Haag’s shoulder until the finishing straight— holding back while his opponent escaped wouldn’t do. Both athletes forced the other’s hand; both athletes forced the other to their limits. 

Andersson and Haag remained best of friends until their deaths— it’s hard not to love someone who brings out the absolute best in you. Together, they brought the mile world record down from 4:06 to 4:01. Together, they brought the four minute barrier within reach.