MY LONGEST RUN
I WAS in Canada in 1931 with my racing partner Gavuzzi. We had been competing in snowshoes over some two hundred miles between Quebec and Montreal, coming in second and fourth, after which there were no major events in sight until the midsummer 500-mile relay. I had already collected the records between twenty-seven and a hundred miles yet there still remained one item I thought was needed to complete the list : the ” 24 hours.”
Races of this sort are not promoted nowadays, though before the motor age they were by no means rare. Besides, the number of men who are sufficiently trained today for such a distance is so small as to be almost non-existent ; it takes years of hard work to qualify for a run of hundred miles and upwards. All the same I had long since made up my mind to have a shot at it before I faded out and as I was now nearly fifty it was evident I couldn’t put it off much longer. Once before I had suddenly made an enormous jump in mileage when I raised my maximum temporarily from fifty to hundred without any special preparation. As my theories for extending the distance’ had worked all right I decided I’d chance it again and add another fifty, which would just about cover the ground necessary to obtain a, new record.
Gavuzzi, too, wanted to have a shot at the game though, as he had not yet tried actual racing over the greater distances, he felt forty miles would probably be more to his liking. These two track records, then, forty and hundred-and-fifty miles, were the ones we decided to attack.
I knew that the figures then in the books for the twenty-four hours were unreliable, as there had not been enough officials to check the laps ; but after talking things over with one of the actual competitors in those far-off races – they had taken place almost half a century earlier – I got a fair idea of what was required. One thing was certain ; if I wanted the goods I should have to buy them, i.e. provide the funds to stage the event and chance whether it was run at a loss or otherwise.
The 500-miles relay, for which Gavuzzi and I formed a team, was still six months ahead and this would allow us to stage the 150-miler in the Spring, thus giving us plenty of time to recover from the temporary exhaustion it was bound to cause. You don’t recover from racing of this sort in a day or two or even in a week ; to be quite at my best I needed rather more than a month. You might feel perfectly fit a few days later but another trial, if you were foolish enough to risk such a thing, would prove at once that you were still far from top form.
For a start w^e cast around to find someone who could attend to the actual details of organisation. We were much too busy with hard training (my own work was around 800 miles per month) to see to it ourselves, and were fortunate enough to find Tom Orompton enthusiastic over the idea. We both knew him well, for he had convoyed one of the Transcontinental racers across America with us the year before. He was a resident of Hamilton, which place would suit us perhaps even better than Montreal, as winter conditions there were not so severe or so prolonged. Whereupon we went there by train and took up our quarters at the Stafford House Hotel.
Crompton had made a mark as a walker in the North of England in his younger days and was now well established as an estate agent. As things turned out we couldn’t have made a happier choice, for Hamilton is one of the keenest athletic centres—weren’t the first of the Empire Games held there ?—and everyone knew him and volunteered to help.
Jacques Girling, another resident, mustered a posse of young men from the local University and took charge of the lap-scoring. There were four scribes to each runner, two ” on ” and two ” off.” Then the City Surveyor came along and measured the track both immediately before and immediately after the event to make quite certain that no mistake in the distance could possibly occur. Xever have I known a more perfectly arranged competition.
In the meantime Crompton was insisting on publicity to ensure success from a business point of view and suggested that we tackled the existing Toronto-Hamilton road record of approximately forty-four miles which then stood at 6h. 56m. 50s. You could see by the time that this had been put up by a partially-trained man and, as Gavuzzi and I were just then among the best-trained in the world, we knew we could manage the job and yet take it quite easy all the way. So easy in fact that we allowed the local newspapers to announce that we were likely to knock off an hour, though we did NOT tell them that no racing would be required to do this. We were obliged to go easy, for otherwise we might tire ourselves when the attempt at the record lay only ten days ahead.
I saw Crompton almost daily and soon got to know that things were being planned with unusual care. I stood for the athletes while he represented the general public. I knew that unless runners competed under reasonable conditions they wouldn’t stand much chance of putting up records, so the track was one of the first things to be considered.
The Arena, where ice-hockey and skating are held, was Crompton’s choice, and arrangements were made to lay a square track immediately after a hockey match finished. Crompton supervised every bit of the work in connection with this and it can’t have been a light job. We runners were very particular : we considered that wood was too tough and too noisy for such a long run ; we wanted something which was softer and wet which would not break up altogether. Crompton’s energy was amazing, and it wasn’t long before he produced a builder’s composition, a sort of mixture of felt and paper, which appeared to provide exactly the conditions we required, and a surface of this was laid down.
Why a ” square ” track ? Well, perhaps it needs some explanation. All we long-distance men practised on roads, rarely indeed on a track, and in consequence when we were called on to race round a circular course we became giddy after a time, and if we still went on with it, actually sick. The only way to prevent this was to use a square track with comparatively sharp corners, since it would do away with the perpetual turning of a circle.
The corners however would be awkward to negotiate unless they were well banked, and that involved climbing and descending a few inches four times each lap—a matter of some 1,500 ft. during 150 miles—but there was no way of avoiding it. Again, approximately twelve laps went to the mile, which meant that among men racing respectively 40 and 150 miles there would be endless overtaking. If the faster men had to run continually round the slower ones it would seriously increase their distance without altering the course measurement, and you can’t afford to keep on running yards out of your way when you go for world records. The competitors recognised this and all agreed to step aside when a faster man approached from behind so as to give him a reasonable chance. I may say that this was carried out both in the letter and in the spirit throughout the entire race ; even when fellows were desperately tired—and you’re apt to get that way after a hundred miles afoot—they made a passage for anyone they heard overtaking them. That such methods should be willingly and intentionally observed by professionals makes one wonder when amateurs, who are definitely taught by amateurs to make way for no one, will learn what unadulterated sport ought to be.
Presently the day came for our Toronto-Hamilton run, which had been arranged and advertised by the Hamilton Herald. At five a.m. on March 24th we got into a car and were taken to the City Hall at Toronto for the start of our return journey. Except for a short visit to a teashop for re-fuelling purposes, no time was lost and we soon got away. For the sake of appearances we did not run together ; once we were outside the city one of us would keep fifty yards or so behind the other for a few miles and then reverse the position, each careful to see that an average of not more than 7½ miles per hour was exceeded.
Somewhere about halfway one of the leading cars took a wrong road—we were to run through Dundas—and we went a mile out of our way before being called upon to stop and turn back. Even then we were so comfortably ahead of schedule that when we got to the tape at Hamilton we had cut more than an hour (5h. 52m. 15s.) off the previous record. Without waiting a moment we hurried round to our hotel to get a bath and change and only heard afterwards that, unknown to us, the Mayor had intended to give us a civic welcome but was frustrated by our hasty disappearance.
That run taught us two things : (a) we were in real good fettle for our attempt at record in ten days’ time and (b) at a later date we could, if we wanted to, certainly cut off another half-hour. But that would have to wait of course.
As the track in the Arena was somewhat small and also because it was useless having a lot of ” also rans,” we limited the number of competitors to a selected few of the best long-distance men in the States and Canada. McNamara, who I knew was as good as any of us, came up from New York where he then lived—he had formerly been farming in Queensland, Australia. Granville, the Canadian champion walker, who was also a runner, was a resident of Hamilton. Lin Dilks was the 100-mile running champion of the States and hailed from Newcastle, Pennsylvania. Salo and Richman, the six-day-record team, couldn’t manage the trip, so Simpson from Burlington (Vt.) was included. One more local man. Tom Ellis, and the list was complete.
T suppose we were all a bit dithery and anxious to get to work wheri the day arrived. Crompton had arranged for a cycling exhibition by Peden, the international racer, and others ; and also for several boxing competitions which took place in a ring inside the track. These lasted until nine p.m. when we Were due to start on our long run and, after we were going, continued till about ten p.m.
We had to make arrangements among ourselves as to how to carry out our programme. Rarely did any of us break down during a race, but precautions had to be taken. If Gavuzzi failed at his forty miles either McNamara or I could certainly manage it provided we were not too far behind him. So we two agreed to keep within two or three miles until we considered him “safe” after which we could slow down, as of course we should have to, or we shouldn’t last out for twenty-four hours. If it became necessary, a word or two as we ran round would decide which of us was to go for forty and the other could settle down for the longer distance.
What with photographs and a trot round the track following our introduction it seemed a long time before we got the signal to start. The new surface was ideal for running—we were all wearing crepe-rubber-soled canvas shoes—and Gavuzzi let out in convincing style. Each time he came round we all widened out and let him through, and the same applied to McNamara and myself who were doing only about half a mile an hour less. We dare not do more because if we did we should never last out for the full distance, and were afraid to do less because if Gavuzzi failed we should be too far back to collar the record. It was bad business for both McNamara and myself but the best we could do.
Once we were well on the move we had plenty to occupy our minds what with turning corners and passing other men. Then our times and distances were posted up every half-hour so that everyone should know where we stood. Gavuzzi was keeping his end up in right good style averaging just under ten to the hour and both McNamara and I were hoping he had his record ” in the bag,”‘ as the Americans say, when we were dismayed at just over twenty miles to find he was no longer lapping us. Another round or so and we were overlapping him and we slowed temporarily to get information. A leg was giving trouble which would necessitate his retiring immediately ; there was no hope of his being able to carry on.
At the time McNamara was just over two miles behind him while I was a mile further in the rear, and he said he was quite capable of taking over the ” forty ” as he was going strongly if I would concentrate on the longer journey. That suited me all right and I stopped speeding at once and travelled round at a comfortable and leisurely pace—something in the region of seven miles to the hour. McNamara however, ” trod on it,” and to such purpose that he gathered in a new record at thirty miles ; the way he continued to overtake us all seemed absolutely amazing, especially when you remembered that he had already done so much. At forty he was even further ahead of record, his time being 4hrs. 31m. 31s. After which no doubt he felt it was time to sober down if he was to have any hope at all of lasting for twenty-four hours.
By that time I was between three and four miles behind him and the others were many miles behind me ; for along with Gavuzzi, McNamara and I were quite the most strenuously trained runners there. Granville could easily ” put it across ” any of us at walking, but you can’t be a record walker and a record runner at the same time. He was three-quarters of a mile behind Dilks who was now in third position : Simpson followed making a close fifth and at the rear came Ellis, who had not tried these enormous distances before. Ellis finally ” gave it best ” between sixty and seventy miles.
After Ellis had gone Simpson started walking, a game he was distinctly better at than running. What’s more he kept on walking and ran no more. That of course prevented him overtaking any of the others, for Dilks and Granville stuck to running.
Each six or seven miles, sometimes perhaps even more frequently, a man would stop for half a minute to put away a drink of hot tea or coffee. Much more rarely we had something to eat—in my case my only meal was a fruit salad, though some of them had cheese-sandwiches—when we would either trot round at about six miles an hour while we devoured or (as I found I had to) actually stop and shovel it down hurriedly. There was no fear of indigestion : men as well trained as we were didn’t suffer from that, though I had known all about it before I started training. The running kept us comfortably warm and no more, for the temperature of the place couldn’t have been much above 40 F.
With Gavuzzi and Ellis gone and Simpson slowly but steadily losing ground through walking, though he kept up a really fast pace right to the end, Dilks and Granville settled into a battle royal for position. McNamara and I were beyond their reach unless something quite unforeseen occurred, but these two were so evenly matched as runners that after the first few hours there was still less than a mile between them. Granville, who was probably physically the stronger, evidently reckoned he could outpace his rival if he stuck to hard work, and Dilks, who was a runner and no walker, was determined not to be outclassed by another American.
The duel became obvious and quite interesting. At first, when one of them stopped for a drink or anything, the other put on the pace and tried to make the most of the opportunity, but after a time they learned that nothing was to be gained like that, for it was merely squandering energy which they could ill spare. So they gave it up and instead, when one stopped the other immediately did so too, both moving on together afterwards. By this means they were able to avoid sudden spates of energy which would have knocked them out had they tried to keep it up.
After what seemed like an almost interminable stretch of time the officials announced that McNamara was nearing the hundred miles and that a new record was being set up. His time at this point was 14h. 9m. 45s., which was all the more wonderful since he had, en route, annexed the 30-mile and 40-mile indoor-track records ; in fact it was the most brilliant long-distance running I had ever seen. Before the start he and I had agreed to retire for a quick hot bath after we had completed a hundred miles, leaving the track one at a time ; and the second man was to take as long as the first, when his turn came, so as to forestall any attempt to gain by this means. A short and really hot shower at this stage is more refreshing and re-invigorating than any food or drink, probably due to the fact that it cleans out all the refuse with which prolonged
exertion has clogged the pores of the skin. Whatever the cause the effect is almost magical, as we knew from previous experience. Just then however the photographers stepped in and asked for pictures : I suppose they wanted the public to see what men looked like after they’d completed a hundred miles on foot—perhaps they thought they’d be safer if they took one while the going was good in case we fell to pieces in the near future without finishing the job. Anyway, we were warned that two or three laps farther on we should be asked to stop at a chosen spot where the pictures could be taken, after which we could all move off again.
We were duly halted in front of a battery of camera fiends but one of the press men seemed to be in difficulties. I don’t know what was wrong and didn’t trouble to inquire afterwards, but his troubles lengthened out until we were really dismayed—it was nine minutes before we got going again. That spelt the loss of about a mile, due only to our wanting to oblige the photographer, though we certainly considered records more important than pictures of the runners.
McNamara then went off for a bath, while I travelled around with the comforting thought that in a few moments I should get mine. But another shock was in store for both of us. Just as he was about to return—he had been absent some five minutes—he was attacked by cramp and had to get assistance from a masseur. This caused so much delay that it was nineteen minutes before he could appear again, and when he did it was to discover that the earlier speeding in the day had to be paid for and that increasing cramp would put an end to further work. It must have been a terrible disappointment to him. But he kept going while—very much against the grain—I spent a similar period of nineteen minutes at my bath. He even ran a mile or two after I returned. But he had reached his limit; another attack, due to the enormous mileage since his earlier efforts, put an end to his hopes and he was obliged to retire. So, quite unexpectedly, I was left alone to try for the twenty-four hour title, for I had confidently reckoned on a fierce battle with McNamara over the last twenty or thirty miles. I daren’t look at the big clock too often—I chanced it about once an hour—because I was getting very tired myself. But I knew that if I just kept up a gentle seven an hour or thereabouts I’d collar the coveted record all right. When you get really desperately tired you can’t keep your mind off your condition ; it won’t answer to the helm as it does when you’re fighting fit, and I remember thinking that never again would I dream of risking such punishing discomfort though, having already undergone so much, I’d have to battle through the few remaining hours. Even while this was passing through my mind I knew I had thought the same thing every time I’d had a really big race, and knew too that as soon as I had fully recovered from the effects I should be perfectly ready to have another and (hopefully) more successful “go” at it. But I had only one job just then, and that was to travel along with the most perfect rhythm I was capable of: anything else and
I might fail. In spite of being so abnormally tired it seems I was partly successful, for the local newspaper subsequently reported that it looked like “the nearest approach to perpetual motion”. Every mile seemed a weary long way—ten miles was too tiring even to be thought about. Yet I knew that if I went on and on the ten would turn up, and another ten after that, and still another, till the actual 150 was in sight. After all, it was only once in a lifetime and I had been working years to get to such a stage, so I’d just got to hang on no matter how tired I felt.
Well, that’s how things were going. I continually tried to divert my mind from the aching discomfort but wasn’t very successful, because will-power was weakening along with physical ability. Yet at long last there came a time when Jacques Girling informed me that I was within a mile of hundred and fifty and at that I knew for a certainty that I was safe. The news gingered me up considerably and I increased the pace to eight, then nine, and finally ten an hour in an effort to crowd a few more yards into the final total. For the last lap or two Girling was running round with me, telling me just how long we had to go, and then I heard “TIME ” and knew that at last it was all over. I had covered 152 miles 540 yards in the twenty-four hours.
I pulled up at once, but noticed that Dilks was still plugging stolidly along. Officials went after him and stopped him—he was so far gone that he had lost all sense of everything except that he had to run and keep on running. A hot bath revived him considerably and so did the news that he had managed to keep his lead of three-quarters of a mile on Granville—they ended up second and third with 117 and 116 miles and the same gap that had separated them twenty hours earlier.
Our side of the affair had turned out all right except for Gavuzzi’s misfortune ; we had annexed the records we had aimed at and McNamara had gathered in quite a few extra ones. But in spite of all Crompton’s good work and the generous assistance (absolutely free of course) of so many amateurs, the show was a financial flop and I lost about £200 over it. Yet I still think it was worth it.
The various runners, instead of the percentage of ” gate ” profits they were entitled to, had to be content with all expenses paid and a trifle of $10 (£2) apiece as a “douceur,” and within a few days they were on their way back to their respective homes.