SOUTH AFRICA LED THE WAY
IF their governing bodies won’t do it, the athletes themselves must, like everyone else nowadays, alter their outlook and methods, for you can’t have progress without change. I learnt that lesson long ago, but our English authorities resent anything in the nature of radical change and do what they can to prevent it.
As you know, athletics suffered considerably from the war, though long-distance running came out better than most sports. Perhaps that’s because war training doesn’t need sheer sprinting ability as a rule so much as stamina and dogged endurance ; but anyway, cross-country and distance work battled through the ordeal better than many of us expected.
Ever since 1922 South Africa has been teaching athletes a lesson, yet owing to the disinclination of the authorities to accept changes, we have hardly begun to realise the value of it. There was a spate of controversy in the local press when Vic. Clapham started the Comrades’ Marathon in 1921, the 54-miles road-race across mountainous country between Maritzburg and Durban in Natal. Those who had never had actual experience of this kind of thing were apt to condemn it outright because, as they thought, it was altogether too strenuous ; but Clapham knew what he was about and stuck to his guns. After a lot of time had been wasted in useless controversy his Club told him he might organise it under their auspices provided he guaranteed that it didn’t cost them a penny and, chancing whether he lost heavily or not, he promoted the race which was destined to become famous throughout the athletic world.
It was quite unlike other races in more ways than one. In the first place the majority of competitors—yes, actually the very great majority—entered without a thought of winning or even being placed ; they knew well enough that where they were up against such a tough job honours were not overlikely to come their way.
But that didn’t matter. Everything in their experience told them that much more than average stamina was needed to cover such a distance in twelve hours, and they sent in their names with no other object than to prove to themselves (and maybe to their friends) that they were no less able than others to achieve the task set them.
By the way, two women, one a typist and the other a school-teacher, competed unofficially at different times, and both succeeded. Prizes, generously donated by the principal newspapers and other bodies, were not only on a lavish scale but were numerous, yet they were not the attraction they might have been in shorter events ; the only thing that really mattered was that a fellow should prove his ability to stand the gruelling and reach the tape as undismayed as others.
That was how nearly all of them carried on, at any rate for their first attempt. After that, many of them found that training had improved them so wonderfully that they could make a much better job of it next time without running themselves almost to a standstill, and they had another go.
Then there were a few, and I happened to be one of these, who entered intending to win, or at any rate get mighty close to it. These latter had to do even more in the way of preparation than the bulk of the field if they wanted to stand a sporting chance. You see, those who were only just sufficiently trained to ” make ” the distance in standard time (twelve hours) always arrived at the finish in considerable discomfort—if being most distressingly tired can be classed as discomfort ; anyway I know that was how I felt when still fifteen miles from the end of my first attempt. But the well-trained men were always capable of a bit more when they timed in, for they were not called upon to punish themselves so severely.
It was not only a case of building up muscles to stand the strain ; a fellow’s mind had to be developed at the same time to make sure his muscles acted according to plan ; otherwise he lost a good place or even a win solely through faulty judgment. There was one year when it was all but a dead heat between two at the finish. The second man had been creeping nearer the leader for mile after mile, but he had kept just a bit too much in hand and was finally unable to close the gap ; only a second or two more and he would have done it !
There was another occasion when the man in the lead at fifteen miles struck a bad patch, probably caused by running too fast immediately after a hearty breakfast, and one after another the second, third and fourth men went ahead and left him out of sight-behind. Although constantly losing more ground he knew time might enable him to get over his temporary trouble, and carried on for the next two hours buoyed up by this hope. Round about forty miles he began to pick up, and to such purpose that within the next ten miles he had overtaken all three ahead, finally winning
I could,, I daresay, tell you a lot about the various Comrades Marathons if I had the time, for I competed in six of them and should have run in many more had I not gone over to America for the Transcontinental Footraces. Amongst other things thev introduced a new method of training which almost at once°proved to be an advance on anything as yet tried. Men were told that for rnarathon work they should ignore speed almost entirely and do nothing more than train six days a week until thev had mastered the art of covering considerable distances every time they went out, no matter how slowly so long as they learnt to perfect their style while actually trotting. At the same time everv possible economy in action was stressed. Joe Binks and Colonel F. A. M. Webster quickly recognised this as a valuable advance, and didn’t hesitate to say so, but ” authority ” on the whole didn’t expect or want to be taught anything by outsiders, a position still maintained.
However, those who accepted these tips and incorporated them into their work did astonishingly well : more than half a dozen South Africans ran right up against, or well into, world records, and then men in other countries began to take notice. McNamara.. the Australian, put up new world’s indoor track records for everything between thirty and hundred miles ; Hardy Ballington followed with even better times on the road, and as recently as 1948, Stanley, another Australian, won the marathon in his continent in vastly better time than had ever before been recorded there. This last man was a member of Cerutty’s marathon club (Victoria) where marathon men were carefully coached on these lines by the founder, P. W. Cerutty : and in the championship event, which Gordon Stanley won, the next seven places went to two new South Wales men and five more marathon clubsters.
When South Africa sent Hardy Ballingtou over here to snaffle a few records for his homeland, he began by cutting the London-Brighton time by one second. The former mark was too fearsome to permit of any great margin, yet Ballington could almost certainly have bettered his attempt had he been able to stay another month or so and get on with his training. You see he had hardly acclimatised himself before he had to tackle the job, and a man can always do better when he has got accustomed to new conditions.
But Ballington had no time for another London-Bright on run just then, as he had come over with intention of having a slap at the hundred miles on the Bath road as well. D’you know, even now people hardly understand bis amazing time of 13 hours 21 minutes for this distance : just think, it beat the acknowledged world TRACK record by nearly three hours—by 15 per cent! Yet Ballington had to run up and down steep hills and long ones, as well as through tens of miles of heavy traffic. Surely it stands to reason that if he could do this his training methods MUST have been altogether ahead of anything previously practised.
Well, it made Englishmen, and even Americans, sit up and think. It was obvious there wasn’t a man in either country at the moment who had any sort of hope against him at his own distance—in the London- Bright on run his nearest rival, a Canadian, was an hour behind ! Among others, Pat Dengis, the American ex-marathon champion, took the lesson to heart and applied the new methods. He didn’t believe in them and openly said so, but his training in the usual way had proved such a strain that he was warned his running days were over. As a last resource, however, he decided to try the new tactics. Within a year he had won the Portchester rnarathon, and then the Pan-American championship, the latter with half a mile to spare. Unfortunately he was killed shortly afterwards in an air-crash.
In this country V. B. Sellars, realising that our men were hopelessly undertrained for marathon running, arranged with his club, the Finchley Harriers, to promote an annual 20-miler for a start; today the ” Finchley 20 ” is a classic. For some time he has had in mind an annual 50-miler, and it is greatly to be hoped that he will eventually be able to stage it.
Some years ago another club, this time the South London Harriers, at the suggestion of C. G. Herniman who provided a floating trophy, also put on a 20-mile event, and found the demand for distance so widespread that it was increased to thirty miles, which was what Herniman originally intended it to be. This, too, is now a very popular annual, and has on two occasions, first by Tom Richards and then by J. T. Holden, brought new world records for the distance. When Richards put up his record over the course Cote, the Canadian, was also inside the old time, and Cote had trained for years on the same lines as Richards, the professional Peter Gavuzzi having been his tutor.
Before the war there were half a dozen South Africans who, because of Comrades’ Marathon training, could probably have filled five out of the first six places in any English marathon race, but if our men now turn to these advanced methods, as some of them undoubtedly will, England will be in a very much better position to accept a challenge. Tom Richards, who trained on these principles, put up a much better performance in the 1948 Olympic Games than any other English runner, and, but for the lapse of attention at one spot, would almost certainly have won the marathon.
Practically all the men who indulged in events of this type served in the Forces in one capacity or another, among them Vic Clapham and his five sons. The encouragement given to cross-country running in this country has now brought in many a new man who is anxious to prove his worth, and it is up to these to study the methods I have suggested. Then there are the old stagers who still compete regularly with the object of keeping themselves in good trim and at the same time offering what assistance they can to the newcomers ; they too will do well to consider the matter.
Rationing with food has of course been one of the snags we have had to put up with, and there have been others as well. If food counts for a lot, so does rest ; and I’ve known men turn out for a race with altogether insufficient sleep beforehand. On one occasion I remember a man, whom I confidently expected to find among the leaders, arrive in exhausted condition in seventh place. Knowing him quite well I asked what was wrong. He told me that if he wanted to compete he had to cut into his sleeping time in order to travel. Acting as one of the officials in the same race was one of the organisers ; travel, combined with lack of sleep, had kept him out of it altogether. Another man, the Club secretary, started off with the bunch knowing his condition was hopeless, for he had only had an hour’s sleep the previous night ; before half the distance had been covered he had the sense to pack up.
We in England don’t seem as yet to have realised that distance running provides not only a more solid foundation for training purposes than sprinting, but is every bit as popular amongst the rank and file. The number of entries in notable cross-country events greatly outnumbers as a rule that of any hundred yards or quarter-mile race. Admitted the Army and Air Force know something about it—though to my mind not enough—and make many of their men, particularly in the Air Force, get thoroughly used to cross-country work.
Well, do you see where all this is leading to ? With peace conditions returning there are hundreds of thousands of young and young-middle-aged men in better physical trim than they have ever been in their lives. They’ll have to work off their exuberant physical energy somehow, and the cross-country clubs will find there’s a bigger field than ever to be catered for. That’s what happened after the 1914-18 war and this time the effect will be even greater because of the number of men engaged and the staffer training they have undergone. All this is to the good. Not only will there be an immense fillip to athletics, but the whole nation has benefitted by the training of its manhood. Taken all round, then, the outlook was never better, and it’s up to individuals as well as clubs to make hay while the sun shines. Perhaps we shall never get such another chance.