Category Archives: History

“Deerfoot: Athletics’ Noble Savage” by Rob Hadgraft

On the social running website Fetcheveryone, you can make bets on how other Fetchies will perform in future races. I’ve never seen the point. Winning virtual credits won’t help me pay for my running shoes (see Running Free review). Back in the nineteenth century, things were different. People gambled cold, hard cash on running and walking races, with crowds of thousands gathering to drink, bet and watch professional athletes do laps of a track. In the pre-amateur, pre-Olympic world, this was the sport known as “pedestrianism”.

It was not an honourable or glamorous world. Upper class men shunned it. Women were actively discouraged from attending due to the alarming amount of male flesh on display (actual knees!). Born out of pub culture, and managed by a loose network of landlords, this was a firmly working-class sport.

I like to think about it as similar to professional wrestling. Runners had nicknames; the Gateshead Clipper; the Norwich Milkboy; and the…erm…Welsh Chicken. There was an element of theatre involved in order to drum up interest, even if the races themselves weren’t rigged.

Having flourished in the early part of the century, by the 1850s pedestrianism was in the doldrums. Cue George Martin, a maverick promotional genius. While travelling to America, he spotted a star – a fleet-footed Native American called Louis Bennett who had won a number of local races with impressive performances. Martin brought him back to the UK for what would turn out to be an extraordinary two years, a tale well told here by Rob Hadgraft, author of several biographies of historical runners.

It is hard to convey the sensation that “Deerfoot”, as he was rebranded, must have caused. Most Brits had barely travelled outside of their home towns or visited London, let alone gone abroad. Now they had the prospect of gawping at a real-life ‘savage’ in their midst, and thousands came to see him run as he toured the country. He single-handedly reinvigorated pedestrianism, attracting toffs, the Prince of Wales, and even – can you believe it – women to attend races. When he lined up at the start line, the 6-foot and 11-stone Deerfoot must have cut an awesome sight in comparison to his 5’6” and 8-stone competitors. The closest modern comparison I can think of is when the late, great Jonah Lomu performed the haka in 1995 and then destroyed the entire England rugby squad.

Of course, much of the presentation of Deerfoot was pure pantomime. In reality he was a Christian who wore western clothing, but on race day he was paraded around in traditional costume, headdress and all, and ran with a wampum belt of shell beads. His management actively encouraged his war whoops at the finish line when he won races. And he won virtually every race, beating the best that Britain could offer with his unprecedented surging tactics.

Some saw through the game. Allegations of match-fixing were rife, culminating in a court case where fellow runners admitted they had thrown races in order to let Deerfoot win and maintain crowd excitement. American newspapers poured big buckets of scorn on the whole enterprise, with the New York Herald exclaiming that the foolish Brits were being duped, and that Deerfoot was not the “savage” he was claimed to be.

In response to all of this controversy, Deerfoot let his running do the talking. The match-fixing cloud led to accusations of him being a third-class athlete, but this was a man who regularly ran 4.30 minute miles during distance races, and could comfortably run 10 miles in 52 mins. He would break the one hour distance world record three times during his stay in the UK, in honest races against the clock that could not be fixed. As author Rob Hadgraft laments, sadly the 1-hour race has gone out of fashion nowadays, despite the fact that the holders’ list is a who’s who of the greats; Alfred Shrubb, Paavo Nurmi, Emil Zatopek, Ron Clarke and Haile Gebrselassie, who set the current record in 2007. It’s time to bring it back.

As a 21st century reader, one has to ask the question of whether Deerfoot was being exploited. Clearly people were making money from him, and playing up his ‘primitive’ credentials in a circus sideshow manner that seems deeply offensive to us now. Equally, Deerfoot appears to have gone along with it all voluntarily, and earned a lot of money in the process (enough to buy a farm when he returned home), He was presented with unprecedented opportunities to travel. Yet 2 years away from his home and family, coupled with near-constant racing, caused cracks to appear in his modest demeanour. Pub brawls and at least one Eric Cantona-esque incident with a spectator suggested his mental state grew increasingly fragile, while his injury-plagued final races were a complete damp squib. Welcomed with cheers in 1861, and feted by high society in those glorious early months, Deerfoot sadly left Britain to a chorus of bored boos in 1863. He was no longer a novelty, and no longer invincible. Back in North America, he continued pro-running into his 40s, but eventually settled down to a life as farmer, dying in relative obscurity in 1897.

Rob 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 ideals of sportsmanship took over. Was it exploitative? Yes. Were the results sometimes questionable? Undoubtedly. Yet were the sportsmen talented? Most definitely. And in our current era of doping in athletics, match-fixing allegations in tennis, and the spectre of Lance Armstrong, have we really moved on?


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“Pre: The story of America’s Greatest Running Legend, Steve Prefontaine” by Tom Jordan

My closest brush with glory at university was when I nearly made it onto the baked beans eating team. Competitive baked beans eating is a highly skilled sport, requiring speed, dexterity with a toothpick and immunity to flatulence. I was good at it, arguably great. Alas, on the day of the final try-outs, several weeks of non-stop freshers’ drinking finally caught up with me, and my hands couldn’t stop shaking. I failed to make the team, and could only participate as a spectator a few weeks later when the crunch varsity match against Cambridge took place. Former Arsenal and England footballer Ian Wright had inexplicably been drafted in as a celebrity judge. Despite supposedly being impartial, he came over to the Oxford table and allegedly said, “right lads, let’s stick it to the Tabs” (slang for Cambridge). Oxford won by a margin of several tins, a proud moment in a centuries-old inter-university rivalry.

I’d like to think that this story of unfulfilled potential places me in the same pantheon as Steve “Pre” Prefontaine, the James Dean of American track running who died in a drink-driving accident in 1975 aged just 24. To someone like me, born after his death and outside of the US, the hero worship of Prefontaine has always felt a bit baffling. This was a man who never won a medal on a global stage, or set a world record. Why all the fuss?

Reading about Pre, you start to understand why he was the kind of runner who could get crowds genuinely thrilled by track running. The prevailing tendency in athletics to run steady for most of the race, and then kick on the last lap, is boring for most spectators – you’re essentially drumming your fingers until lap 13, when something finally happens. By contrast, Pre was a gutsy front-runner, leading out every race hard from the gun and daring other runners to keep pace with him. The closest modern-day comparison I can think of is David Rudisha, whose 800m victory in the 2012 Olympics is still the finest piece of running I have ever seen.

Pre comes across as the kind of supremely cocky sportsman to which British crowds rarely warm. Arrogant. Brash. A sore loser. On the other hand, it was that same extreme competitiveness that made him such a force during his brief time in the sport. He could handle fatigue and pain better than anyone else, remaining unbeaten in the US over 2 miles for several years, and setting a number of long-standing American records on the way.

And he did all of this despite having limited financial resources. He was an amateur athlete for his whole career, living in a trailer and reliant on food stamps. He fought with the Amateur Athletic Union  to win better rights and funding for athletes, but he ran for running’s sake, not because he expected it to make him rich. He referred to his talent as The Gift, and felt it was an insult to others who lacked The Gift if he didn’t to push himself to see how far he could go. There’s a purity in that mindset that has appeal across generations… and helps sell t-shirts and posters with his mustache on them.

There is a great book about Pre waiting to be written. Unfortunately, this is not it. Pre was a rock star of the running world, but for me Jordan fails to convey that excitement effectively. The book feels like a cobbled-together history of race reports and non-sequitur anecdotes from assorted contemporaries that tell us little about the man. You can learn so much more about the drama that Pre could inject into a race by simply watching the 1972 Olympic 5000m final, where his brave frontrunning probably cost him the bronze medal.

Right at the end of the book, Jordan throws in a couple of brief references to the fact that Pre set up a running club in his local prison and also trained teenagers at local schools, both voluntary activities that counter the impression the book gives of him as being a selfish loner off the track. Pre was also involved in the fledgeling years of a small company called Nike, becoming the world’s first sports marketing ambassador, long before Michael Jordan. More on all of this side of Pre’s life would have been welcome and fascinating.

Indeed, the Pre alluded to in these brief snippets sounds like a much more intriguing character than the one-dimensional racing fiend depicted in most of the book; beer-swilling, business-minded, and with a busy social life. A man who too, might one day see a toothpick, contemplate a tin of Heinz’s finest, and decide that he too would like to Stick it to the Tabs.

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“Duel in the Sun: Alberto Salazar, Dick Beardsley and America’s Greatest Marathon” by John Brant

As I write this, I am a shambles of a man. My legs have been replaced with twin pain sticks. Negotiating stairs requires abseiling equipment. Going to the toilet requires the assistance of a full SWAT team. Yes, I have just completed a marathon…and it went very, very badly. Inevitably this means I am sat on my sofa feeling glum and muttering “never again”, while simultaneously looking up the dates and course maps for “revenge marathons” next year.

Reading Duel in the Sun, an account of the 1982 Boston Marathon, made me realise that, despite my collapse from sub-3 pace to 11 minute mile-ing, I hadn’t actually pushed my physical barriers at all. 1982 became the stuff of legend not only because Alberto Salazar and Dick Beardsley finished within 2 seconds of each other, but because the toll of the race effectively destroyed both men’s athletic careers. John Brant’s gripping book cleverly interweaves the narrative of that day with the surprising backstory and terrible consequences.

To runners of my generation, Salazar is better known as Mo Farah’s coach, a man with allegedly questionable attitudes towards performance-enhancing medication. Reading this book helped me better appreciate his mindset. In his prime, Salazar was a teenage prodigy and fearsome competitor, winning the New York Marathon 3 times between 1980-2. Tapering was for wimps, and he would do intensive speedwork and flat-out 10ks days before a marathon. In both running and life, he was a man of extremes, and once pushed himself so hard at the Falmouth Road Race that he collapsed and was read his last rites by a Catholic priest.

Following Boston in 1982, he spent years unable to train properly, constantly suffering from mysterious breathing difficulties. It would later transpire that he had lost 40% of his lung function by over-exerting that day. Salazar’s career was cut short because pushing the body to absolute extremes was not sustainable. In the athletes he coaches, it seems he seeks people who can push themselves super-hard, but whom he can help with a more scientific attitude towards recovery and training than he himself followed. The question is, I suppose, where science ends and cheating begins.

For those who think Salazar arrogant and aloof, his family’s story is illuminating. His religious father was a college friend and early supporter of Fidel Castro, but was then forced to flee Cuba when he became increasingly critical of Castro’s communism and godless government. The son inherited his dad’s strong faith and sense of machismo. Salazar’s innate conservatism would occasionally lead him to be shocked by the actions of his fellow athletes…although even I was gobsmacked by the author’s revelation that the race director of the first London Marathon in 1981 had hired “escorts” for the elites!

At that very same London Marathon, Dick Beardsley was responsible for one of the most iconic images in British running. He and Inge Simonsen crossed the finish line in joint first place, holding hands as they did so. Many found the gesture a heart-warming image of solidarity and comradeship. Salazar, tellingly, was disgusted by the lack of zeal to win. Yet Beardsley was no hippy. He ran because he needed to earn, and he entered and won an extraordinary number of races, averaging a marathon every 8-10 weeks. Despite this pedigree, in the pre-race build-up, Salazar didn’t even acknowledge Beardsley as a threat.

That would change during the race itself. For mile after mile, the two men stuck together. One of the best sections in the book highlights racing tactics that you simply cannot see on TV coverage. The surges. The deliberate attempts to disrupt rhythm. The mind games. But neither man was able to break the other.

Beardsley would ultimately push himself too hard that day, overriding his brain’s ‘central governor’. Within weeks he suffered a career-ending injury, continuing a terrible chain of events that would result in years as a pain-killer addict and prescription-fraud felon. I have rarely read a better description of addiction as an illness that the sufferer simply cannot control.

Both men would eventually find redemption. Salazar found a cure of sorts in – of all things – Prozac, which re-set his cortical-enzyme levels, and allowed him to compete in – and win – his final race, the Comrades ultramarathon. Interestingly, thyroid medication – the subject of many of the allegations against him as a coach – was something he tried but which did not help his condition. Taking Prozac exposed him to accusations of using a performance-enhancing drug, although he was public about it, and it was not on the banned list. Perhaps the most significant thing about his Prozac years is that it forced him to admit that he also suffered from depression. For the machismo-ridden “man of valour”, in an era when athletes did not discuss mental health issues, this was a turning point in making him more humble.

Beardsley found a path back to normal life by simply getting caught, which he had craved for years. The legal and rehab processes that followed allowed him to slowly, painfully rebuild his life. He set up an annual half-marathon in Detroit Lakes, and in 2003 he even had a special guest runner: Salazar. The two men who had barely spoken in 1982 had become friends over the years, each recognising something of themselves in the other’s suffering.

This is an enthralling story of the consequences of pushing the human body and mind to its very limits, and what it means to truly race. For all of us runners, it is a cautionary tale that extreme exercise can be seriously damaging to your health, and maybe – just maybe – there are other things in life worth keeping in balance.

Nonsense. I have of course chosen to ignore that message entirely, and have signed up for the Liverpool Marathon in the course of writing this review. What’s the loss of a little lung function in the pursuit of a sub-3?

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“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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The Perfect Distance: Ovett & Coe – The Record-Breaking Rivalry by Pat Butcher

There’s a poignant moment at the end of the (excellent) film Rush, where Formula 1 racer Niki Lauda admits to his arch-enemy James Hunt that their bitter enmity on the racetrack made them both better drivers and champions: A wise man gets more from his enemies than a fool from his friends.”

Ali vs Forman. Federer vs Nadal. Coyote vs Roadrunner. Rivalries define all great eras in sport. Truth be told, most sports are quite boring to watch if you don’t have something invested in the human drama behind it all. Competition makes things interesting, which is one of the reasons why Mo Farah struggles to get the universal appreciation he deserves; at his preferred 5,000 and 10,000 distances, you never doubt that he will win.

For people my age (35) and younger, it’s hard to fully appreciate the excitement created by the Coe vs Ovett era of athletics in the early 1980s. The 9 o’clock news was famously interrupted to broadcast Coe’s attempt on the mile world record. For a brief period of time, the wider public actually cared about elite-level running. All of this generated by two men who only raced each other 7 times in 17 years.

The contrast between the two athletes has “film-script” written all over it (and, as it happens, Daniel Radcliffe has been cast as Sebastian Coe in a planned adaptation of this book). Steve Ovett was the tough working-class lad who was hated by the press, but admired for his innate talent. One of the things that emerges from this book is just how astonishing his natural ability actually was. Ovett could take on – and hammer his opponents at – a range of distances. Despite being a 1500m specialist, he once entered a half marathon on the day at a whim, and won it easily in 65mins. Seb Coe was the weedy posh kid who trained liked a demon, and whose impeccable manners endeared him to reporters. ‘The Tough and the Toff’ would dominate the narratives of both the 1980 and 1984 Olympics, and every major athletic meet in between. Coe was an 800m specialist, and Ovett a 1500m runner. Yet the curious outcome of their rivalry was that they actually won gold medals at each other’s distances, and neither won Olympic gold at their preferred event.

Both were in thrall to their parents to a degree that most of us would find unusual, bordering on unhealthy. Ovett’s mum, a market-trader with a potty mouth, controlled media access to her son, and her regular sweary tirades at reporters were partly responsible for Ovett’s poor standing with the press. Coe was coached by his engineer father, Peter Coe, well into his 20s, a highly unusual arrangement and relationship that few outsiders could understand. Peter’s political views were apparently somewhere between those of Thatcher and Genghis Khan, which goes some way to explaining Seb’s later career as a Tory MP. Ovett, meanwhile, once set the mile world record wearing a Soviet team vest. However, despite the class divide, what both parents gave their children is immense self-belief. At an early age, both athletes were told that they would make the Olympics in 1980. The mental barriers to success simply did not exist.

Pat Butcher’s book is as comprehensive a guide to their story as you could hope to read. As a long-time athletics correspondent with extended access to both Coe and Ovett, he writes as an insider, and his account is peppered with stories from the various colourful characters involved. One of the highlights is an interview with Olaf Beyer of the former German Democratic Republic, who shocked the sporting world by actually beating both men in 1978, and who promptly ran out of the stadium in shock at what he had achieved. Butcher is also good at rehabilitating Ovett, who he clearly regards as a self-assured man who ran for enjoyment of the sport and family pride, and who didn’t give a damn what the media thought. Ovett had a mischievous side though, and would have had fun in the age of Twitter, once baiting fellow British Olympian (and media bogeyman) Daley Thompson by describing Thompson’s event, the decathlon, as “9 Mickey Mouse events and a slow 1500m”.

If I have one criticism of the book, it’s that Butcher is a little too dedicated to providing finish times for virtually every race either man entered. Don’t get me wrong – I’m a stats nerd – but even I started to glaze slightly over in certain sections. I was reminded of the story of how one of J.R.R. Tolkein’s work-in-progress readings of Lord of the Rings was interrupted by a fellow Oxford academic with “Oh no! Not another f*cking elf!”.

It’s a minor complaint though. Butcher writes well, and his passion about the mile as a racing distance is infectious. “Four laps of the track. Like a four-act play. Prologue, Exposition, Action, Denouement. All inside four minutes.” As well as their Olympic feats, Coe and Ovett repeatedly traded the mile world record, and “The Perfect Distance” is a reminder of what has been lost in recent years. Why are serious mile races so rare? The current record is 16 years old. Someone, somewhere, needs to throw down the gauntlet to Mo.

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