WHEN EVERYTHING COMES UNSTUCK
EVERY now and again I used to shift my training grounds in order to explore new country. In February, 1020, I was at Brighton when I received a challenge from R. E. Cole, the Welsh runner, to compete against him for the professional marathon championship of Great Britain.
I had never met Cole but knew he was a good man ; knew, moreover, that he greatly wanted to earn this championship, though at the moment he could not claim it because I had put up
better time than he had on the road. Yet I had never given the title a thought, because the 26-mile marathon was not my distance —my style of running was suited only for fifty miles and upwards. There was to be no remuneration for the race, though we all naturally hoped that what gate there was would be sufficient to cover our actual expenses, but this was quite a secondary affair, for both Gavuzzi and I were willing at any time to accept a reasonable challenge.
Straight away I took a coach for Southampton and talked it over with Gavuzzi, and he gladly agreed to take a stab at it. We decided to travel by coach and break the journey at two or three points so as to get out and loosen up a bit, for we both knew the troublesome inertia brought on by a long journey, and meant to counteract it as far as possible. So we took tickets for Bath for a start and got out there for a ten mile run. After that we caught another coach and went on to Bristol, where we put up at a hotel. Acting on our plan we went out in the dark just before seven o’clock next morning for another run.
It was mighty cold before ever we set out on this trip, but while we had been travelling the thermometer had been steadily going down, and at Bristol that morning we were treated to sixteen degrees of frost. It was just a bit too thick, and we got no further than a mile and a half from the hotel when we both decided it was not good enough; with only shorts and sweaters we were getting far more than merely uncomfortably cold and knew it would be folly to continue like that. So we breakfasted at the hotel and presently boarded a coach for Gloucester, where we got out for a walk, and afterwards continued our journey to Hereford.
All this time the mercury had been receding and we found the Wye solidly frozen over owing to a temperature of twenty degrees of frost. However, we ambled round and found comfortable rooms, and then walked out to have a look at the Cathedral and inspect the city generally. And all the time it was getting colder !
Surely, we thought, the limit had about been reached ! But when we got up next morning the thermometer was advertising twenty-two degrees below freezing point, the sky was dull and overcast, and a steady snowfall was blanketing the whole country. This began to look like almost a major disaster, but anyhow we felt it would handicap Cole as much as it did us. For the sake of exercise we walked round for a mile or two, but the cold soon drove us back to our rooms again.
Well, we were ” for it ” and no mistake ; the mercury was even two degrees lower when we arrived at the ground for the race next day. We found it was a slightly tilted field, round which a 440-yard track had been measured. The snow had been so prolonged and heavy that whoever was attending to the preliminaries had been unable to keep the fairway clear, and to start at all we should have to trample down about three inches of it. Gavuzzi and I donned two sweaters each as well as gloves and ran in the usual athletic shorts. Mv word it was cold ! It seemed to be even more unbearable than the worst we had struck in Canada. And the gate didn’t amount to half a hundred : you couldn’t expect people to stand still for any length of time in that weather, though fortunately it had stopped snowing.
Off we went with Cole in the lead while Gavuzzi and I followed tJose at his tail. I know we put on the pace a trifle in an endeavour to try and warm up, but it didn’t seem to have much effect. Occasionally Gavuzzi or I would take the lead for a lap or two, but Cole always stuck close up, just as we did when he went ahead. The surface was absolutely rotten, simply great blobs of frozen and slippery snow, and we were running of course in gym shoes; there wasn’t an atom of decent going anywhere, and a lot of our energy was wasted in overcoming slips and slides.
After about ten miles of it Gavuzzi began to flag, the cold was evidently too much for him. But he hadn’t yet given in, for during the next four miles he brightened up and nearly caught us. That was his dying flutter however, and very shortly afterwards he retired.
Around the nineteenth mile I found I was definitely weakening, and rather than risk dropping out, reduced the pace, whereon Cole started to open up a gap. He stuck to it wonderfully and at twenty-four miles lapped me. I was too ” done ” to attempt any sort of comeback and could do no more than keep to a modest nine an hour to the finish. It ended up with Cole more than a lap (600 yards) in the lead, with his title, which he had so ably earned, safely tucked away. His time was 2h. 48 m. 45sec.
Well, I tell you these passing details to put you on your mettle, for you never know what conditions you may have to run under. Had I known what it was going to be like I should have arranged things differently; we might have stood a better chance had we travelled direct to Hertford and then spent two or three days loosening up on the spot. What really spoilt any hope of winning the race (and I don’t think it was a great one at any time) was our running a bit wild at the start because we felt the cold so badly; had we let Cole go as he pleased and travelled more moderately for the first six or eight miles we should not have weakened so badly and, even if he had lapped us several times, would have been able to extend later on. Make a note of that point next time you race, for it’s one of the most valuable and least practised by marathon men.