Tag Archives: Marathon

“Tea with Mr Newton: 100,000 Miles – the Longest ‘Protest March’ in History” by Rob Hadgraft

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?

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“Strides: Running through history with an unlikely athlete” by Benjamin Cheever

Running “makes a wide variety of people palatable to each other” says Benjamin Cheever in this memoir about his lifelong passion. Well, it doesn’t sound to me like he’s been in a fast-moving pack of men – and I do mean men – during a 10k. By mile 2 it’s like they’ve been scoffing baked beans all night. The sheer amount of methane that gets emitted is staggering, let alone the frog chorus of orchestral flatulence. The only thing palatable about a fast farty group is that it gives you an incentive to head to the front and push the pace, if only so you’re not downwind of several tiny pairs of Ron Hill shorts.

Strides is one of those running books I pick up occasionally on Amazon at random for 1p. I knew nothing about it before reading, and was not familiar with Cheever himself, who is apparently a successful novelist with an even-more famous father. I hadn’t heard of him either.

It’s a ramble through a life in running, interspersed with stories of running in history. Cheever himself is easy company, and his attitude to running – sociable, yet still mildly competitive even in his veteran years – is far more familiar to me and most runners I know than the knit-your-own-snacks-bollocks (see earlier review) of some writers I could mention.

Structurally, Strides is a mess, but it had just enough “Did You Know” stuff in it to keep me interested. One fact that struck me is that exercise science only started as a field in 1953. Professor Jeremy Morris found that London bus drivers, who spent all day sitting, had significantly more heart attacks than the conductors, who ran up and down stairs all day. The connection between exercise and heart health – so obvious now – was finally established.

There are some interesting chapters about Kenya (but Adharanand Finn’s book is better) and the wine-soaked Marathon du Médoc (which went straight on my bucket list), but surprisingly for me the best chapter was about running in the US army. Strides was published in 2007, with huge numbers of American soldiers still stationed in Iraq. Where I am a bleeding-heart pacifist liberal, Cheever is unapologetically pro-military, and his descriptions of the various men and women he met challenged my assumptions about who signs up for the US army and why they serve. In one scene that stayed with me, he asks a Princeton-educated lieutenant if he should salute a high-ranking officer, and is told no – the US army believes Cheever, as a civilian in a democracy, outranks everybody in the army.

We learn about how running is an integral part of army life, with every rank of soldier expected to pass the Army Physical Fitness test, which includes a 2-mile run, at least once a year. To get full marks, the run needs to be completed in 13mins, which is a decent pace…but reassuringly feasible for the likes of me. Many soldiers take their running far more seriously than just passing the test, and the Boston and Honolulu marathons even run satellite versions of their races on US army bases in Afghanistan and Baghdad, complete with official t-shirts, numbers and timing gear.

Cheever ended up running a 10k in Iraq, running on the pavement around Saddam’s ornamental lakes, coming first in his age category

He declines to mention how fragrant the race was.

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“Don’t Stop Me Now: 26.2 Tales of a Runner’s Obsession” by Vassos Alexander

Running – it’s just brilliant isn’t it? And marathons? They’re pretty brilliant too. And running through the night? It’s a bit tough, but ultimately brilliant. Okay, I’m being a bit facetious but that’s basically the gist of this memoir-cum-celebration of running by the BBC Radio 2 sports reporter and all-round nice guy, Vassos Alexander.

Don’t Stop Me Now is structured around the 26.2 miles of the particularly gruelling marathon that Vassos ran at the end of an Ironman. Each chapter opens with a section revealing what was going on in his mind and body during a particular mile. Vassos then talks about a different aspect of running, such as his favourite races, going barefoot or nutrition, before finishing each chapter with a short contribution by a different guest writer.

And what a cast of guest writers it is! It’s a Who’s Who of celebrity British running, including Paula Radcliffe, the blokes who present Marathon Talk, Alistair Brownlee and Helen Skelton from Blue Peter. My favourite contribution was from former US 100m world record holder Donovan Bailey, who says “I decided to go for a 22-mile run, which as a sprinter, is just the worst thing in the history of the world”. This can only be a reference to him taking on the Man vs Horse race in 2015, where one of my clubmates said by the end he looked (and I’m paraphrasing here) “rough as a cow pat”.

So yes, it’s impossible not to smile at this book – Vassos is so relentlessly positive and chirpy. That being said, I did find his reference to a horrible-sounding long-term injury sustained in the Ironman somewhat at odds with the tone of the rest of the book: “my calf took weeks to recover and my knee never has…that left knee still hurts most days, appallingly so if I twist or jar it”.

But then he lets us know that he used the downtime from running to do other sports, such as open water swimming “which was (and is) completely ace”. Order is restored.

I think what this review boils down to is that I’m not the right audience for this book. I suffer from the critic’s curse of having read too many running books, so I find it hard to get excited about something as lightweight as this. However, I don’t think it’s just me – I doubt that long-time runners will find much in here that’s new or particularly revelatory. There are other memoirs that I would argue are more inspiring for the experienced runner (e.g. Feet in the Clouds).

For the right audience though, this will be a cheery, get-your-trainers on, read. For those who are relatively new to running or thinking about getting into it, hearing Vassos’ assorted tales should provide a lot of positive encouragement, and reassure you that you are not going mad. He might even make you try new things, such as parkrun, trail running, joining a running club, and yes, even a marathon. If the book helps people get more joy out of their new-found sport, then all I can say is, well…brilliant.

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“Plimsolls On, Eyeballs Out: The Rise and Horrendous Fall of Marathon Legend Jim Peters” by Rob Hadgraft

As an athletics fan, I always find it frustrating when people talk about Paula Radcliffe as if the most significant thing she ever achieved was to do a gingerbread man halfway round the London Marathon. Or they talk about her as a failure because she never won an Olympic medal. Her world record is extraordinary, but life can be very cruel to remarkable people. We only like to remember the times when people messed up. Just ask Michael Fish.

Hypocrite that I am, my knowledge of mid-20th century British marathon champ Jim Peters extended purely to one incident; he was the guy in the 1952 Olympic marathon whom Emil Zatopek (see review) asked “is the pace a bit too slow?”. When Peters jokingly said yes, Zatopek responded “oh, right” and zoomed off into Olympic history. Peters himself dropped out of the race.

What a shame. 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 post-war era. A world record holder, he was a man who transformed how people trained for the marathon. He was a contemporary of Roger Bannister, Chris Chataway and Chris Brasher, but unlike those university men, he was a working class lad from East London who saved up his money in Depression-era Britain to buy his first plimsolls from Woolworths, and balanced his training regime with full-time work as an optician.

Peters’ story illustrates how some athletes take time to find their true distance. Prior to the Second World War, he showed promise but didn’t set the running scene alight. Following the war he won a major 6 mile race, but what struck me reading Plimsolls On was that Peters was not a Steve Prefontaine (see related review), winning every race in sight. In the 1947 National Cross-Country he only placed 62nd. He did make it to the 1948 Olympics, but finished 8th in the 10,000m final, well behind emerging star Zatopek. The book makes you wonder how much of his shorter-distance talent was wasted by the 6-year lay-off caused by the war, as well as how many potential stars of the sport never had the opportunity to shine.

His failure in 1948 led Peters to retire from the sport, much to the delight of his wife, who wanted him to focus on being an optician and raising their son. Yet the temptation to return was always there, and his former coach, Jonny Johnston persuaded him to give the marathon a shot. He never looked back. On his debut at the Polytechnic Marathon in 1951 Peters hadn’t bothered to taper, and shocked the onlookers and “expert commentators” by surging at break-neck pace throughout the race, just as 2008 Olympic winner Sammy Wanjiru would do more than 50 years later to much acclaim about how the Kenyan had changed the sport. Peters broke the British record in his first race and the world record (which was then 2hrs 25mins) a year later, ending a period of dominance by Japanese and Korean runners.

Peters would go on to race several marathons a year and set 4 further records, taking his marathon to 2hrs 17mins. He became the most talked-about athlete in Britain, capable of generating headlines in the News of the World. His weekly mileage of 100miles+ was frankly insane for a man doing a full time job, and he did it all in flimsy plimsolls. His training methods represented a sea-change in thinking, moving away from the opinions of early 20th century ultra-runner Arthur Newton, who advocated lots of long, slow running to build stamina. Instead Peters never did what he called a “jog trot” in training. He only ran fast. His standard 10mile training run in Epping Forest was usually completed in around 55minutes, about 8 minutes faster than my own race PB!

The 1952 Olympics went wrong for Peters. He had a horrendous journey, which included illness, a howling draught in the plane, and the same plane being struck by lightning during the flight. However he went on to win several more races and come second in the Boston marathon in 1954. His goal though became to take gold for Britain at the Empire Games in Vancouver later that year.

The Empire Games was the predecessor of today’s Commonwealth Games, and was an opportunity for athletes from Canada, Britain, New Zealand and others connected by a common British heritage to compete. Peters was favourite to win the marathon. In classic “I don’t taper style” he ran in the 6 mile race the week beforehand, just as Galen Rupp ran in the 10,000m before taking Bronze in the Rio Olympics in 2016. The day of the marathon was swelteringly hot, but this was a time when races had few water stops, and in Vancouver they didn’t even have the wet sponges that Peters usually expected. The British team were also suspicious that the course was too long, although their concerns was overruled.

Peters took a comfortable lead. At 25 miles he was 3 miles ahead of the nearest competitor. Then tragedy set in. As he entered the stadium he collapsed with just 380 yards to go. He got up, then collapsed again. Repeatedly. All carried out in front of a horrified crowd that included the Duke of Edinburgh. He finally crossed what he thought was the finishing line and then was pulled away to get help. In a cruel twist, the finishing line for the marathon was actually 200 yards further on, and he was disqualified from the race, which was eventually won by Scotsman Joe McGhee, who arrived in the stadium 15 minutes later, rather surprised to hear that he was the winner.

Team-mate Chris Brasher would later tell the media that Peters’ brain temperature was recorded at 107 degrees, meaning that his brain was literally close to cooking. Another medically trained team-mate stayed behind to watch over Peters, and so it came to pass that about a week later Jim Peters and Dr Roger Bannister stepped off a plane in London to tell their deeply contrasting stories to reporters. Bannister had won the “mile of the century” against Australian John Landy; Peters had narrowly survived death, and retired instantly from competitive running.

It would later transpire that the Vancouver course was indeed too long, and when re-measured it was found to be close to 27 miles. Peters had already completed the marathon distance before his collapse in the stadium. Some speculate that if he’d known that he had a 3-mile lead, he would have slowed down and not over-exerted himself in the heat. Others disagree, saying that Peters’ flaw was that he only knew one way to race: eyeballs out.

Peters died in 1999, but today he is remembered in other ways. The first Briton to cross the line of the London Marathon wins the Jim Peters Trophy. The most notable winner of the trophy? Paula Radcliffe, Britain’s most remarkable marathoner since Peters. But yes, it is hard to forget she did a poo mid-race.

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“Today we Die a Little: The Rise & Fall of Emil Zátopek” by Richard Askwith

The bravest thing I have ever done is watch an episode of Button Moon. This seemingly innocent 1980s TV programme about a bottle man with kitchenware for arms filled my childhood with terror. At night the Freddie Krueger-esque presence of Mr Spoon would enter my dreams, leering horribly and dangling his merciless spoons of violence ever closer at my face. I couldn’t bear to see the show or hear its demonic theme tune. My so-called friends thought this was hilarious, and would regularly send me Button Moon-themed birthday cards and children’s TV soundtracks. One day in my 20s I gave in, and decided to face the peril. Loaded up on Plymouth Gin I sat through the opening credits and about 2 minutes of utensil-themed space action. Then I ran screaming into the night.
A story, then, of bravery and cowardice, both of which are the overriding themes of Today We Die a Little, the excellent new biography of Emil Zátopek by Richard Askwith (see earlier reviews of Feet in the Clouds and Running Free). Zátopek can rightly be regarded as one of the greatest athletes and Olympians of all time. He is one of only 4 athletes to have his own statue outside the Olympic Museum in Switzerland. At the 1956 Helsinki Olympics he won gold in the 5000m, 10,000m and the marathon (his first ever race at the distance), a feat that is unlikely to be equalled. He broke an extraordinary 18 world records during his career, which lasted from 1941 to 1958.  However, today his world records have been comprehensively demolished, and there were other athletes of his era – Vladimir Kuts, Lasse Viren, Gordon Pirie, Ron Clarke – who can all lay a claim to similar athletic greatness. Why then has the name of Zátopek passed into legend?

Bravery is part of the reason. Zátopek took training and endurance of pain to new levels. When Roger Bannister and Chris Chattaway were training to run the sub-4-minute mile, they were running 25-30 miles a week. Zátopek was regularly doing 20-mile interval sessions a day, doing 50, 70, 100 x 400m reps, all at eyeballs-out pace. In army boots. He wasn’t afraid to give everything he could on the track, and the resulting grimacing and gurning was a gift to sports journalists. “He ran like he was a man wrestling an octopus on a conveyor belt” is one of my favourites.

His appeal was about more than just guts. Despite only having a basic school education, Zátopek taught himself multiple foreign languages so he could converse with the people he met on his travels. If foreign fans knocked on his door, he would insist on speaking their native language of Finnish, English French etc rather than Czech, to make his visitors feel more welcome. A consummate sportsman, he famously gave Australian Ron Clarke – a great champion who never won an Olympics – his gold medal from Helsinki on the grounds that Clarke deserved it. He would tie his competitors’ shoelaces on the line if he noticed they were loose. He would cheer other runners over the finish line long after he completed a marathon. In many ways he was the Olympic spirit.

All of this was against the background of the Cold War, with Zátopek on the Communist side of the Iron Curtain. Here is where his story becomes troubling. In 1950 he was a signatory to a letter justifying purges of opponents of the Czech Communist regime, several of whom were executed. Many Czechs today regards him as a collaborator and even a snitch for the secret police. Askwith shows that Zátopek’s relationship with Communism was more complicated than that. Zátopek was a firm believer in the ideals of Communism and creating a fairer society for all, but he became disillusioned with the Soviet system.  In 1968 he joined the protesters of the Prague Spring, pressing for greater freedom of expression and liberal reforms. When the Russians subsequently invaded and clamped down on dissent, Zátopek manned the barricades against them. As the David Beckham of his day, and internationally famous, he was ‘too big to jail’, but the authorities slowly ground him down.

Small humiliation after small humiliation was piled upon him. He was dismissed from his role as Director for Sport in the army. The man who had once been the first person to break 29 minutes for 10,000m was forced to join a mobile drilling crew. To evade further persecution he was forced to recant his support for liberal reforms, dismaying many of his comrades of 1968 who had chosen to suffer imprisonment or exile. Friends on both sides of the political divide abandoned him, and it was only after the collapse of the Soviet Union that he re-emerged into public life. Ultimately, the bravest athlete of his day was a coward when it came to facing up to bullies.

Or that’s how some see it. But let’s be honest, who of us today can comprehend the horrors of life under totalitarian government? Who amongst us would be brave enough to risk death to preserve our ideals? Most of us, however famous, would just do and say what was expected of us in order to survive and keep our families safe. Sometimes the Mr Spoon-like tentacles of the State are too terrifying to resist.

 

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