Have I mentioned that I ran a sub-3-hour marathon earlier this year? It’s one of my proudest running achievements and one, indirectly, I probably owe to a stubborn old goat who died in 1959. Arthur Newton (1883-1959) was a trailblazer in ultra-running and responsible for placing an emphasis on high mileage and The Long Slow Run in training for distance events. Later coaches (such as Arthur Lydiard) would take these principles and refine them, all leading to me running 80-mile weeks in the early months of 2018 and achieving something I once thought impossible.
Newton’s story is remarkable because of what an eccentric crank he was. He only took up serious running in his late 30s, but then proceeded to win South Africa’s Comrades race 4 years in a row, and subsequently set several world records at the 100 mile-distance.
What prompted him to run was entirely idiosyncratic; his cotton and tobacco farm in colonial-era South Africa was failing, and he placed the blame on the government, whose policy of providing land to native South Africans around his farm was – from Newton’s perspective – making commercial farming impossible. There’s no escaping his racism here – Newton would use derogatory language to describe black Africans throughout his life. This, combined with his stiff-upper-lip formality means that in Rob Hadgraft’s excellent biography Newton comes across as 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 Out).
Newton wanted the government to change its policy, or at least give him decent compensation, but he felt that he would never get a fair hearing while he remained a nobody. This introverted, limelight-avoiding man therefore decided that he needed to become famous, and the simplest way to do it was to become a successful runner. Obviously. At this point I was reminded of a scene in the Oscar-worthy masterpiece “Snakes on a Plane”, where the crime lord is asked whether he is certain that he wishes to go through with the titular plan, and his response is that “we have exhausted all other options”. Really? What about Bubonic Badgers on a Bus? Killer Kite-Flying Kittens?
But the extraordinary thing is that he achieved the fame he desired. After winning the first of his Comrades victories in 1922 he became one of the most famous men in the country…but still couldn’t get the government to change course. This became a recurring theme in Newton’s life – fame but no riches. Eventually this strict believer in the purity of amateurism was forced by poverty to switch to a paid professional career, joining the inaugural trans-America run, nicknamed the Bunion Derby, in 1928. This turned out to be a shambles of an event – effectively a travelling circus – that lost money and was unable to pay prizes to any of the 55 runners who completed the 84-day fiasco. Newton himself dropped out through injury early on, but he stayed and became a mentor to the other runners, forming a particularly close bond with working class runner Peter Gavuzzi The history of their friendship is chronicled in more depth in another excellent book “Running for their Lives”. Gavuzzi and Newton went on to form a pro-running partnership, competing in Canada.
Newton would go on to set his final 100-mile record in 1934 at the age of 51, and then he retired. Over the course of his 10-year career he had run an extraordinary 100,000 miles. Even in retirement he was running 600 a month! In later years he became a deliberately controversial columnist, with his views on the pointlessness of speedwork at odds with those of other coaches. Although Newton believed in training slowly, it’s worth pointing out that he was no plodder in races; during the London-Brighton 52-mile race he covered the marathon distance in 2:42.
In death he is now known as the Father of Comrades, and at the halfway point in the race runners will go pass Arthur’s Seat, where legend has it that doffing your cap to the great man will lead to a strong second half of the race. For my part, I will thank him for persuading me that running all those snowy 20- and 15- milers in February and March would be worth it in the end. Did I mention I broke 3 hours?