Tag Archives: Rob Hadgraft

“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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“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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“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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“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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