30 Of The Most Famous Runners Of All Time

Even if you are a “jogger“ or a recreational runner at best, you can likely name a few of the most famous runners in history.

You might not be plugged into the current elite or competitive running scene and be able to readily rattle off the fastest runners in the world.

However, some of the most famous runners of all time have become household names in the same way that famous athletes of other sports such as Shaquille O’Neal, Tiger Woods, Serena Williams, and Mike Tyson have.

In this guide, we have put together a list of some of the most famous marathon runners, famous track runners, famous female runners, and other notable or notorious runners throughout history and today that true fans of the sport of running should know about.

Get ready to be inspired as you learn about some of the trailblazers in the sport of running, the fastest runners in history, and the most famous runners of all time!

30 Of The Most Famous Runners Of All Time

Eliud Kipchoge

30 Of The Most Famous Runners Of All Time 1

Eliud Kipchoge Is probably the most famous runner in the world right now, at least in terms of distance runners or the most famous marathon runner.

Until very recently at the 2023 Chicago Marathon where Kelvin Kiptum overtook Kipchoge’s marathon world record, Kipchoge was the marathon world record holder for men and had earned that accolade after beating his own world record previously at the same distance.

This Kenyon distance runner has so many accolades and Olympic medals to his name and has won the vast majority of the 19 marathons he has competed in.

Eliud Kipchoge also holds five of the nine fastest marathon times in history and although not official given the logistics of the event, is the only runner to date who has completed the 26.2 mile distance, or full marathon, in under two hours.

#2: Kelvin Kiptum

kelvin kiptum crossing chicago marathon finish line
Chicago Marathon 2023

A just 23 years old, Kenyan marathon runner Kelvin Kiptum is quickly becoming one of the most famous marathon runners in history, as he is now the fastest marathon runner in history.

Kiptom shattered the men’s marathon world record (held by Eliud Kipchoge) at the Chicago Marathon on Sunday, October 8, 2023.

Kiptum ran 2:00:35, in what was only his third full marathon race.

Kelvin Kiptum set the fastest marathon debut time (2:01:53) in his first race at the distance at the 2022 Valencia Marathon, finishing in 2:01:53.

For context, this was faster than Eliud Kipchoge’s winning time at this year’s Berlin Marathon, which was 2:02:42.

Kiptum then won the 2023 London Marathon in April this year, running 2:01:25, which was just 16 seconds off Kipchoge’s marathon world record time at the time and the second fastest marathon time ever.

#3: Sir Mo Farah

British runner Sir Mo Farah recently hung up his competitive running shoes after finishing one of the most successful running careers of all time (and certainly going down in the books as the most famous British runner in history).

Mo Farah built a running resume that boasts 17 major titles on the track and set national records from the 1500m event up to the marathon—and who can forget—not one, not two, not three, but four Olympic gold medals.

Aside from all of the race wins and medals that Mo Farah has accumulated over his career as a competitive distance runner, perhaps nothing is as important and meaningful as the integrity with which Farah competed.

#4: Kathrine Switzer

Kathrine Switzer
Flickr

No list of the most famous women runners of all time—or most famous marathon runners of any sex for that matter—is complete without Kathrine Switzer.

She was the first-ever official female competitor in the Boston Marathon (Roberta Gibb had unofficially run the full Boston Marathon as a bandit the year before).

Registering under her initials rather than her full name allowed Kathrine Switzer to bypass the rule that women could not run the Boston Marathon in 1967.

She did indeed start and finish the race, despite the attempts made by race director, Jock Semple himself, to physically try to remove her from the course once race organizers realized Switzer was indeed female.

Katherine Switzer managed to finish the race in about four hours and 20 minutes, proving that women could run the full marathon distance with no issues.

However, it wasn’t actually until 1973 that the Boston Marathon officially allowed women to register for the event. 

That said, Switzer was instrumental in beginning the discussions and trailblazing the way for future women marathoners to have equal participation opportunities in marathon running.

Katherine Switzer went on to win the New York City Marathon in 1974 and has remained active in the sport in numerous ways both personally and in the advocacy of girls and women participating in running.

#5: Paula Radcliff

Paula Radcliff.
Flickr

Paula Radcliff is one of the most famous female runners of all time and one of the fastest women marathoners of all time.

This British female distance runner held the marathon world record for women (2:15:25) for 16 years and won the London Marathon three times, the New York Marathon three times, and the Chicago Marathon. 

#6: Haile Gebrselassie

Haile Gebrselassie broke 61 Ethiopian national records, a whopping 27 of which became world records.

This Ethiopian superstar runner also won two Olympic gold medals in the 10,000m distance and four world championship titles in the 10,000m.

Once he stepped up to the marathon, Haile Gebrselassie became one of the fastest marathon runners of all time.

He won the Berlin Marathon a record four times (until Kipchoge usurped this title with an astonishing five wins on the course when he won the 2023 Berlin Marathon this year) and the Dubai Marathon three times.

#7: Sir Roger Bannister 

We can’t have a list of the best runners of all time or the most famous runners of all time without Sir Roger Bannister, the British runner who was the first runner to run a sub-4-minute mile. 

Sir Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile barrier in 1954 when he ran 3:59.4, breaking what had been seen as a glass ceiling.

Soon several other runners began to follow suit, with Sir Roger Bannister demonstrating that we shouldn’t put limits on human potential.

#8: Kenenisa Bekele

Kenenisa Bekele, often considered to be Haile Gebrselassie’s biggest rival, is a fellow Ethiopian long-distance runner.

Bekele really dominated on the cross-country circuit, though he also beat Haile Gebrselassie at the 2005 Paris World Championships, the 2004 Athens Olympic Games, and the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.

Kenenisa Bekele has won a career total of 19 medals, such as 11 World Cross Country senior gold medals, one junior gold medal, two team gold medals, and three team silver medals, among others.

#9: Jesse Owens

Jesse Owens
Wikimedia

Jesse Owens is one of the most famous track runners of all time.

This American track and field champion won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, one of the most politically volatile Olympic Games in history.

As an African-American runner, Jesse Owens also played a big role in paving the way for other African-American sprinters to compete in the sport despite racial oppression.

#10: Usain Bolt

Usain Bolt.
Wikimedia

The most famous sprinter of all time is likely Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt.

In 2009, Usain Bolt ran 9.58 seconds for the 100m, setting the world record.

This works out to an average of 23.35 mph (37.58 km/h), so Usain Bolt can be considered the fastest runner in history.

#11: Emil Zatopek

Emil Zatopek
Wikimedia

Emil Zatopek earns a spot on this list of the most famous runners because he revolutionized training for runners by being one of the first to implement interval training.

Emil Zatopek’s training style helped him break 18 world records and win five Olympic medals, and most running plans today still rely on the concepts introduced by this middle-distance runner.

#12: Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson is one of the most famous sprinters of all time.

In 1996, Michael Johnson won both the 200 m and 400 m gold medals at the Olympics, becoming the first and only runner in history so far to successfully land this double.

#13: Lynn Jennings

Runners on a track.

Lynn Jennings is often considered the best American female distance runner in history, showing command in the sport in cross country, track, and road running alike.

She won nine national championships and three world championships in cross country.

Lynn Jennings also held numerous American records in distances ranging from the 3k to 10k and still has some US road records at these distances, despite competing back in the early 90s when running training for women and shoe technology was far inferior to what it is today.

#14: Justin Gatlin

Justin Gatlin.
Flickr

We almost didn’t want to include Justin Gatlin on this list of the most famous track runners of all time because we do not condone his acts, but for that very reason, we decided to choose to highlight this American sprinter.

Justin Gatlin was a 12-time World Championship medalist and a 5-time Olympic medalist and even beat Usain Bolt in 2017 when Gatlin was an astonishing 35 years old (old for a sprinter!).

But, sprinter Justin Gatlin may have amassed a lot of world titles, but he did so while doping, and was consistently caught throughout his career and then temporarily banned only to return again.

Don’t cheat; it simply ruins the integrity of the sport of running and makes a mockery of how pure the sport can be.

In many ways, we hope that this American sprinter remains one of the most famous runners of all time, not because of any titles that he “won“ but because he was the face of doping in the sport of track and field and maybe one day, that will be a thing of the past and Gatlin will be the example of “back when the running was tarnished.”

#15: Florence Griffith-Joyner

Flo Jo.
Flickr

Florence Griffith-Joyner, known as Flo-Jo, Is one of the most famous female sprinters of all time, given the fact that she is the fastest woman ever.

Despite all the advancements in training and shoe technology since 1988 when Florence Griffith-Joyner was at her running prime, Flo-Jo still holds the woman’s 100m world record with a blazing time of 10.49 seconds and the 200 meter world record of 21.34 seconds.

Flo-Jo was an icon on and off the track, and won a silver medal in the 1984 Olympics for the 200m and took home three—yes three—gold medals in the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul.

#16: Fanny Blankers-Koen

Fanny Baker.
Flickr

One of the most influential women in running (and certainly one that should become more of a household name for the most famous women runners in history) is Fanny Blankers-Koen.

Fanny Blankers-Koen, better known by her running nickname, the “Flying Housewife,” played an instrumental role in allowing women to participate in sports during a time when women were largely excluded from sports or even criticized for wanting to participate.

Dutch Track athlete Fanny Blankers-Koen was a beacon for girls and women who wanted to run or take part in sports, winning four gold medals at the 1948 Summer Olympics in London, five other European titles, and 58 Dutch championships.

She also set or matched 12 world records during her hay day.

A runenr passing through the finish line.

Honestly, there were so many amazing runners that we had to pick and choose just a few to highlight.

Here are some of the other most famous runners in history:

  • Steve Prefontaine
  • Courtney Dauwalter
  • Joan Benoit Samuelson
  • Sebastian Coe
  • Allyson Felix
  • Frank Shorter
  • Bill Rodgers
  • Carl Lewis
  • Maurice Greene
  • Ann Trason
  • Marion Jones
  • Mary Decker Slaney
  • Suzy Favor-Hamilton
  • Dean Karnazes

Curious to learn more about some of the fastest runners in the world? Check out our guide to the world’s fastest sprinters ever here.

A sprinter.
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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