MY LAST RACE
TALK about a sea of troubles! That’s just what I headed for every time I tried the hundred miles on the Bath Road. Yet it wasn’t the distance that beat me, for I ran more than half as far again in Canada ; it was the spate of handicaps that erupted everv time I had a go at it.
Take my first try in 1928. It was mid-winter, and although I managed to scrape through in 14h. 22m. 10s. I knew it was nowhere near the time that ought to have been put up considering the type of training I had undergone—a type altogether in advance of previous methods. Fortunately the public seemed pleased, but that was only because they didn’t realise how poor the time really was—Ballington, the South African, taught them that a few years later.
Handicaps ! Just look at them ! 1927-28 was one of the most severe winters Southern England had had for many a long year. While training I passed cars abandoned on the main Oxford Road almost completely smothered in drifts, and the snowfall was so excessive that there was one day when I didn’t run at all. I was quartered up on top of the Chiltern Hills and tried to get through a four-foot-deep drift, but after a prolonged struggle gave it up and made nay way back to the house again. Next day, trying a different route which led across a wire fence hidden in the snow, I managed to reach the road and had the usual run. Here I was being treated to weeks of snow and ice, whereas for the previous twenty-five years I had been perspiring in South and Central Africa !
Then, of course, the days were at their shortest and many miles of the route had to be covered in darkness or the hundred wouldn’t be finished by four in the afternoon, and the Press photographers said it was essential I should complete the journey by then. Darkness is a severe handicap to running, for without thinking about it you naturally lift your feet higher off the ground when you can’t see the surface, and this tends to waste energy and tire you sooner.
On top of all this the road was quite new to me, for weather conditions had prevented any travelling over it as I had intended. Finally, when, on the afternoon before the race, I was able to get down by car, there was a temporary thaw and the countryside was inundated, hundreds of yards of the road being flooded. Then accommodation at Box, the village where the two a.m. start was to take place, was so overtaxed that I had to share a bed with another man and go mighty short of sleep into the bargain. You can gather from all these adverse circumstances that I was anything but satisfied with the result in spite of its being a record. But I had no time to spare then, as I was due to sail for America alnmst immediately to compete in the First Transcontinental Footrace, so I shelved the idea of another attempt until the outlook was more hopeful.
Nearly five years went by while I raced in Canada and the States and it wasn’t till I was nearing fifty that I found a chance to get back to the only record I was thoroughly dissatisfied with. Early in 1933 I was again training on the Bath Road determined that this time I would know every inch of it and cut out all the mistakes of the former occasion. I would run in May, when darkness and low temperature could no longer spoil my chances.
After six weeks’ training up and down the road at Newbury
I moved to Marlborough to learn the far end of it. Just after settling down there I got a cablegram from my American manager, who was then in France, saying he had booked me with my electric running platform at a theatre in Nice and urging me to embark immediately. I was quite fed up at having to alter all my arrangement when I was on the point of achieving my purpose, but after travelling to London and seeing Binks, who had all the arrangements in hand, I decided to go straight on to France and postpone the ” hundred ” till my return.
Six weeks later I was back once more and Binks had picked on July 1st for the attempt. This time there was no sign of anything wrong and I had every reason to expect all would go well. Would you believe it ? the day itself was the hottest during the entire year ; dry heat, as in South Africa, would not have mattered, as I was used to it ; but damp heat is a terrible handicap to prolonged effort, as many of our marathon races over here will prove.
In the cool of the morning and even during the forenoon I managed to travel well, so well that at seventy miles I was nearly three-quarters of an hour ahead of the previous record. But then the heat began to tell and stomach trouble came on which continually held me up. I carried on hoping for the best, but unfortunately got worse, and finally at eighty-five miles both those great runners, W. G. George and J. Binks, who were among the officials, advised me to quit. I was then still twenty minutes ahead of the former run but, as they pointed out, I should certainly lose all that and more, besides running unnecessary risks. Knowing it was absolutely sound I took their advice and ” called it a day.” Afterwards, when I came to look into things, I found I hadn’t entirely wasted my time, for I had put up a new sixty-mile record at 7h. 15m. 30s.
Well, so much for two goes at it, each of them most unsatisfactory. I told Binks I’d like to have another shot at some future date and he willingly offered to convene officials and supervise details, and in the meantime I carried on with training.
The next date decided on was three weeks later, July 22, and once more I went down to Bath so as to be handy for the starting point at Box, a small village a few miles nearer London. The week before I went there I was alarmed to discover signs of serious inflammation at my right Achilles tendon. I cut down the daily mileage at once and the trouble eased considerably : in fact the foot got so much better that, with, the trial still a week away, I went out for a thirty-miler to see how it would stand up to it and, as it appeared to be no worse, decided to go ahead with the race. Ah ! if only I had known !
Twenty-four hours before the start the tendon again showed definite signs of trouble and I was in a deuce of a fix. If I wired to Binks putting off the run he might be unable to get in touch with the officials in time to prevent their travelling down—they were going by car—whereas if I started it was quite possible, or so I thought
that I might actually get through all right. There was nothing for it but to wait till Binks arrived and discuss the position with him. Both he and W. G. George thought it would be better to start and chance my luck : as they said, it MIGHT be all right, and anyhow there could be no knowing till I did try.
I set off at three a.m. and for more than a dozen miles all went well. The next dozen, however, made me very uneasy as to whether I should get through or not ; another five and I was walking with one leg and dragging the other after it. I was quite shocked at the disaster and at having given the officials so much work and travel for nothing. Good sportsmen as they were, they seemed to be far more concerned over my ailment than their own loss of time.
Back I went to Gerrards Cross, where I was then staying. My leg was bad but I would never permit anything of that sort to to stop training ; I had long since proved that the only safe way to conquer strains was to continue, certainly much more gently and carefully, with the exercise that caused them. So I went out for a short distance every day though it could hardly be called a run : I limped dreadfully and went on limping for the next ten months, improving so slowly that progress was only noticeable at intervals of many weeks.
Of all my physical troubles this Achilles tendon was the most exasperating. I knew I was in for months of annoyance yet underestimated its duration—it was almost exactly a year before I had completely recovered and knew it was really safe to make a last attempt. Once more I approached Binks and found him as ready as ever to undertake all the arrangements and see the thing through. July 20th was the day decided on and, with a week to spare, I was down at Bath once more. It was neck or nothing this time and I knew it ; already fifty-one years old. I couldn’t expect to keep up 700-800 miles a month on my feet indefinitely.
For the fourth time, then, I left the Bear Hotel at Box at three a.m. and set out for the long journey to Hyde Park Corner. The first twenty-five miles was always child’s play since I was obliged to travel leisurely in order to be able to last out over the entire distance. You can say roughly that at about forty-five miles I began to get a bit tired ; at seventy I was badly tired, and ninety desperately so, and for the last ten I just hung on—goodness only knows how, but I managed it—hoping for the best and knowing that the end was in sight.
Well, things appeared to be more hopeful this time for I had all the daylight I wanted and there wasn’t a sign of either wind or rain. I got along quite decently, too, and stopped for my first drink just after twenty-six miles at the foot of the hill leading from Marlborough to Savernake Forest. The miles were mounting up satisfactorily and before long I was passing the 50 mark and still going well. The day was getting very hot, however, and perspiration seemed to be taking it out of me more than I thought it should :
so much so that before I reached seventy miles I was pretty badly ” gone in.”
It was just about here that I became aware that the combination of damp heat and prolonged effort was bringing on stomach disorder again and that it was this, and not merely heavy perspiration, that was making me wilt. Yet I wasn’t as bad as on the former occasion when I had dropped out at eighty-five miles, and though the pace was reduced by all of a mile an hour I reckoned I should get through —indeed, knew that I must, since it was my last chance.
It was a pretty near thing all the same. Whereas at 70 miles I had been the best part of three-quarters of an hour ahead of the 1928 record, at a hundred, what with all the time lost during the last third of the run, I was only sixteen minutes (14h. 6m. 0s.) to the good. Thank goodness it was just sufficient to break the new track record for the distance set up in Canada a couple of years previously.
Well, it was no good fighting shy of the fact ; I had to admit to myself that, so far as the ” hundred ” was concerned, I had completely failed to put up reasonable time on this course, and I was too old to think of continuing for another year or two. There remained only one useful alternative, and that was to put my experience at the disposal of other athletes so that they could carry on where I had left off.