“The Little Wonder: The Untold Story of Alfred Shrubb – World Champion Runner” by Rob Hadgraft

In 2014 I was ranked 24th in the UK at 15 miles. Twenty-fourth! This sounds especially impressive…until you realise that there was only one 15-mile event held in 2014 (the Banbury 15), and I came 24th in it. Still, I’ll take glory where I can get it.

I bring this up because, reading Rob Hadgraft’s biography of early 20th century runner Alfred Shrubb, I was struck by what our our PB-obsessed running culture has lost. By promoting ‘standard’ distances of 5k, 10k, half-marathon and marathon, we have consigned to history a far more interesting and diverse array of race lengths and terrains. Back in Shrubb’s day, runners would run an assortment of distances, including 2-mile, 7-mile, 11-mile and one-hour time trials.

During Shrubb’s glory years of 1902-4, he set world records for every distance from two to ten miles, and also held the record for furthest distance run in one hour. Most of these were not beaten until the Flying Finns of the 1920s came along, and some were not bettered until after the Second World War. What is doubly staggering is that it took 50 years – 50! – for another Brit to set a world record, when Gordon Pirie ran 28:19 for six miles in 1953.

In 1952, The Times ran an article entitled “A Veteran Runner Returns”, describing the visit of the now elderly Shrubb to his old club, South London Harriers, for a celebratory dinner. In the words of their correspondent:

“Shrubb’s distinctive style of running, and the astonishing bursts of speed with which he seldom, if ever, failed to shake off the opposition, as well as his numerous record-breaking times, made him one of the outstanding sporting personalities of his day.”

Yet this athlete – the indisputable greatest runner of his generation – is virtually forgotten today. In his own time, he was world-famous in the English-speaking world, participating in running tours in Australia, the US and Canada, as well as dominating the British scene. Both Arthur Conan Doyle and P G Wodehouse referenced him in popular novels, with “Shrubb” used as shorthand for “speed”.

Rob Hadgraft aims to restore Alfred Shrubb back to his rightful place in sporting folklore. Shrubb’s talent was spotted by chance as an 18-year old, when he ran to the scene of a fire with the captain of the local athletics club. Very quickly he established himself as a local, then national, champion of the highest order, breaking records along the way. His approach to racing was unorthodox, and heavily criticised by the elder statesmen of the sport. Instead of even pacing, or holding something in reserve for the end, Shrubb was a passionate front-runner, and would throw seemingly suicidal bursts of speed into random laps. It clearly worked for him, and devastated his opponents.

Another element of Shrubb’s era we have lost is the concept of handicap races. Many of Shrubb’s races involved him giving a headstart to weaker opponents, which would have injected much more spectator excitement into an event that might otherwise have been a forgone conclusion. My own club does a monthly time trial along these lines, and the Hawaii Half-Marathon has a ‘locals vs Africans’ handicap contest, but in general most runners have little exposure to such races. What a great shame – it would be the perfect way to get spectators interested in the sport again, rather than losing interest because “their” runners don’t stand a chance against the Kenyans.

As seems to be the case with every elite runner I read about from this period, Shrubb eventually fell foul of the amateur code. Shrubb was a working-class man of small means, so it was inevitable that he would need to accept expenses in order to travel to races. However, by 1906 the Amateur Athletics Association perceived that these had crossed a line, and Shrubb was branded a professional. All of a sudden, as with “Ghost Runner” John Tarrant half a century later, most regular races were closed to Shrubb. No cross-country championships. No Crystal Palace meets. No Olympics. UK Athletics’ recent trend of shooting itself in the foot with team selection has long roots.

The book struggles at times with its mission of comprehensiveness. In the first half of the book I could have done without the reports and times of every single event that Shrubb raced, however much I admire Hadgraft’s diligence at finding these in primary sources. The pace of the book flags as a result. It’s the years where Shrubb competed as a professional where the narrative picks up. Shrubb “broke” America by fostering a rivalry with a Native American runner called Tom Longboat, who smashed the course record for the Boston Marathon in 1907. Over the course of at least 10 events the two men would hammer each other at different distances, and by all accounts, the races were genuinely exciting affairs. In their inaugural marathon contest, one man hit the wall at 22 miles and surrendered a colossal lead. The Times described it as “the most stirring and sensational distance race in a long time, and the 12,000 that filled every seat and all available standing room will look back in years to come at one of the great historic contests”.

12,000 spectators! What a time it must have been to be an elite athlete, either amateur or professional. Crowds of thousands attended long-distance track events, with indoor marathons proving especially popular. It is amazing to think that, once upon a time, people were prepared to spend 3+ hours watching men do endless laps of a 200m track. I can’t even get my family to watch the London Marathon on TV.

The flip side of this is that the conditions sound atrocious. Just about everyone in the audience smoked, at a time when the word “ventilation” was just something that would score reasonably in Scrabble. Shrubb himself remarked in interviews that tobacco fumes left him dazed and half-suffocated.

For the athletics fan, it’s an interesting slice of our sporting history. I have to admit though, that I found the character of Shrubb as depicted in the book curiously soul-less. In Hadgraft’s account you get very little sense of the man behind the legend, probably because the author was almost solely reliant on newspaper sources, rather than personal correspondence. Nevertheless, we catch glimpses that there was more to him than running. Despite his humble background, he was evidently very sharp, and what he lacked in education he compensated for with a strong entrepreneurial streak, using his success to set up a tobacconists in his hometown of Horsham, and later buy a stake in a mill in Canada. There is a poignant contrast here with his rival Longboat, who would blow all his riches on drink, fast cars and women (the rest he squandered) and end up as a street cleaner.

In his later years, Shrubb remained involved in athletics, acting as coach for both Harvard and subsequently Oxford University athletics teams. He retired to a quiet life in Canada, but remained in remarkable fitness until his death in 1964. Since 2003, his adopted Canadian hometown of Bowmanville has staged an annual Alfie Shrubb 8k, a pleasingly non-standard distance, where I can only hope that the person who comes 24th also has the joy of being ranked as the 24th best 8k runner in the country.

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3 thoughts on ““The Little Wonder: The Untold Story of Alfred Shrubb – World Champion Runner” by Rob Hadgraft

  1. […] Hadgraft’s book, like his earlier biography of Alfred Shrubb (reviewed here), offers a fascinating glimpse into a forgotten professional world before the amateur and Olympian […]

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  2. […] As I learnt from Rob Hadgraft’s definitive biography (see my reviews of his other books about Alf Shrubb and Deerfoot), Jim Peters was arguably Britain’s greatest athletics star of the immediate […]

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  3. […] an easy man to admire, but a difficult man to like. (See earlier reviews of Hadgraft’s books The Little Wonder, Deerfoot, and Plimsolls on Eyeballs […]

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