Randolph Arthur John Scott Rose was born at Wellington on Christmas Day 1901, the son of Henry Rose, a civil servant, and his wife, Grace Gillespie. His family had a strong tradition in athletics: in 1905 his second cousin Hector Burk defeated the Englishman Alfred Shrubb, then the world's greatest runner; and Hector's father, Billy Burk, had been the New Zealand one-mile and three-mile champion. Randolph was educated in Masterton and worked on his brother's Wairarapa farm from an early age.
Rose's introduction to competitive running was memorable. During his first season in 1921, at Wellington's Basin Reserve, he won a three-mile race so easily that he leapt the finishing tape. When officials disqualified him there was an uproar and Rose became an instant celebrity. By 1922 he was a Wellington champion, by 1923 a New Zealand champion, and by 1924 an Australasian one. Illness prevented him from appearing at the 1924 Olympic Games and he had neither ambition nor incentive to improve further – until the visit in 1926 of the American Lloyd Hahn, an Olympic 1,500-metre finalist.
Their five one-mile races were classic confrontations, attracting crowds of up to 16,000. Hahn won the first race easily but Rose, who now began training deliberately for the first time in his life, won the next two in adverse conditions. In the fourth, at Masterton on 4 March, Hahn led most of the way but Rose swept past him to win by at least 17 yards. According to some witnesses Hahn did not even finish, because the crowd swarmed onto the track and mobbed Rose. The time, 4 minutes 13.6 seconds, was an Empire record; only three men had run the mile faster.
Hahn succumbed easily in their last meeting. A film of the race toured the country to widespread acclaim. The New Zealand Amateur Athletic Association proposed sending Rose to compete against the best runners in Europe. National 'Rose Days' were held to raise funds, and within a month double the required amount had been donated. In England Rose won a two-mile race but struggled in other events. In July 1926 he broke the French 3,000-metre record but then caught influenza and never met the leading European runners.
While Hahn went on to his second Olympics in 1928, Rose declared himself unavailable and virtually retired to the farm. Brief comebacks to run for New Zealand ended in 1931 when the varicose veins in his legs became too painful. By then he and his brother were farming at Aotuhia, near Whangamomona, Taranaki. On 8 August 1931, at Masterton, Randolph married his cousin Doreen Burkitt Rose; they were to have a daughter and two sons, one of whom died in childhood. In later years he worked for Inglewood Motors and managed the Farmers' Co-operative Organisation Society's store in Inglewood.
During his 10-year running career Rose won five Australasian championships, eight New Zealand titles, and held New Zealand records for the mile, two miles (twice), and three miles (twice). His mile record defied all comers for nearly 25 years. Rose's feats created an unprecedented public following for athletics in New Zealand and inspired future generations of runners, including his cousin James Barnes, national mile champion in 1933, and his nephew Bryan Rose, who was third in the world cross-country championship in 1967.
Randolph Rose was a private, shy man, who had a deceptively cheerless expression. Six feet two inches tall, with large feet, thick legs – marked with varicose veins like bunches of grapes – and a long, lumbering stride, he was called 'clumsy' by some writers; one, more perceptive, described him as 'built of kauri'. Rivals, especially Hahn, were bewildered by his comparative lack of speed. His secret, like Jack Lovelock's a decade later, was his great stamina. Rose seldom trained, but seldom needed to – years of farm work developed his legs and lungs, and before racing in Wellington he would often sharpen up by cycling over the Remutaka Range. Such was his power that, had it not been for his chronic lack of ambition, he could have starred on the world stage. Predeceased by his wife in 1977, Randolph Rose died at Bell Block on 4 March 1989, survived by a son and a daughter. It was the 63rd anniversary of his most famous race.