Before Bannister and Landy famously battled across oceans to break four minutes for the mile, a series of rivalries sent the mile world record plummeting towards that historic barrier. The first rivalry featured the first famous miler from New Zealand, Jack Lovelock, and the first famous miler from Kansas, Glenn Cunningham. Like Bannister, Lovelock trailed his opponents then kicked craftily past them down the homestretch. Like Landy, Cunningham shattered his opponents by pushing from the front. Both established rich traditions of miling in their hometowns and brought the four minute barrier within the realm of possibility. 

Jack Lovelock studiously excelled at most things. He earned scholastic titles for boxing and running. He shepherded fellow students as a prefect. He won a Rhodes Scholarship to Exeter College at Oxford in 1931, where he meticulously studied medicine and the mile. 

In 1932, he ran 4:20 for the mile early in the season, then set a British empire record with a 4:12 some months later. He ran 3:02 for a 1200m race. He finished second in the mile at the British Championships, so New Zealand sent him to Los Angeles for the Olympics. Exhausted after a long season, he faded to seventh in the last lap of the 1500m final.

Glenn Cunningham , across the Atlantic, could out-muscle anything. In a schoolhouse fire that killed his brother, little Glenn nearly burned his legs off, then stubbornly defied doctors and physics by relearning to run—which he found easier than walking. 

He ran so well that in fourth great he beat high schoolers in his first mile race. His father beat him for showing off instead of choring, but Glenn stubbornly kept running and started setting national records when he got to high school. He earned a scholarship to the University of Kansas, which he refused so that he wouldn’t “owe them.” 

No other collegiate athlete could touch him, and in his sophomore year he, too, went to Los Angeles for the Olympics, but got sick before the 1500m final. With infected tonsils and a throat so inflamed he could barely croak he stomped his way to fourth place. 

Jack Lovelock returned to Oxford and, like a scientist, decided to test what would happen if he focused on one race a season. In 1933, he peaked for the Princeton vs. Oxford mile race against Princeton’s Bill Bonthron, the NCAA champion at 800 and 1500 meters. Lovelock stalked Bonthron the entire race, then unleashed a blistering kick with 150 meters to go. Bonthron ran 4:08, which would have been a world record, had Lovelock not finished ten meters ahead in 4:07. 

The next year, he repeated his experiment, peaking for the Empire Games Mile. Like the year before, he stalked the race favorite, Olympic silver-medalist Jerry Cornes, then ran Cornes down in the final stretch to win in 4:12.

Cunningham, in his junior year of college, continued to out-muscle everything. He travelled to New York for the Wannamaker Mile at Madison Square Garden and beat the indoor mile world record holder, Gene Venzke, by eight yards. He won the NCAA Mile and set a new American record, winning by forty five yards. 

The next year he won the Wannamaker Mile again, then set an indoor world record at the Knights of Columbus mile in 4:08. After graduating from Kansas, he went to Princeton with an injured ankle for a mile against Venzke and Bonthron. The trio went out in 61 seconds for the first 400m, then Cunningham took the lead by 800m, throwing in a surge for the third lap and gaining 20 yards on his opponents. As the tape around his ankle burst, Cunningham sailed away and won in a world record of 4:06.8. 

In 1935, Jack Lovelock spent most of the year focusing on his doctoral work at St. Mary’s Hospital (where Roger Bannister later worked), only beginning to race in early May. Cunningham, conversely, raced a full indoor season, winning the Wannamaker Mile again and setting a world record in the indoor 1500m. The two finally met at the Princeton Invitational in May, where Cunningham, to the vocal frustration of the nervous Lovelock, held up the start of the race with his extensive warm-up routine. 

Cunningham took his customary lead early in the race, running sixty seconds for the second lap then sixty three seconds for the third lap. Lovelock took his customary position stalking the leader and, on the final turn, swept past Cunningham, beating him 4:11 to 4:13. 

The Berlin Olympic 1500m featured a stacked cast of past-medalists and world record holders. Cunningham the Dogged had raced himself into shape through the indoor and outdoor season while Lovelock the Studious had saved himself and raced strategically and sparingly. In the final, Cunningham charged to the front to keep the pace honest, as usual. At the bell, though, a Swede named Ny desperately took the lead, which gave Lovelock the chance for a surprise move. He jumped early, two hundred meters earlier than usual, and snagged a four yard lead to which Cunningham, trapped behind the Swede, couldn’t respond. 

Both runners stormed down the back straight, around the curve, all the way up the final stretch, four yards apart the entire way. Lovelock finished in 3:47.8, earning both a gold medal and a world record. Cunningham finished four yards back in 3:48.4, earning a silver medal and an American record. 

Lovelock, elated, retired. Cunningham told the press “I ran a fast race and broke the Olympic record and only one person in the world ran it faster that day,” then went to Sweden and set a world record in the 800m. He kept running until 1940— even setting an unofficial indoor world record of 4:04 for the mile (unofficial because he ran on a 6-lap-to-the-mile-track)— when World War II cancelled the Olympics.

Lovelock approached training and racing seeking results— he ran workouts, time trials, and races geared towards a singular goal each season. During the races themselves, he employed strategy, notoriously utilizing a kick down the finishing straight to pass opponents. In the most important race of his life, however, he used his notoriety to his advantage and surprised everyone by breaking away early.

Cunningham approached training and racing like a warrior— no complaints, no consequences,  and damn the discomfort. Race at all costs; win at all costs. He was tougher than anyone and he knew it. He poured it on in the second and third lap, just when he knew his enemies would feel it most. He may have fallen to Lovelock in an all-important homestretch, but he broke 4:10 over twenty times in his career to Lovelock’s one. 

Lovelock set two world records and won a gold medal. Cunningham set several world records and won a silver medal. Despite opposite approaches to the sport, they both retired with similar accolades, compelling cases for superiority over the other, and— most importantly—  zero regrets. 

Training changes, practices improve, science evolves, but never will one approach work for everyone. Like Lovelock and Cunningham, you must craft your path to your personality.