MY FIRST RECORD
I HAD five months of extra-strenuous training for my first big race, the 1922 Comrade’s Marathon, and I’ll admit it was due almost as much to good luck as good management on my part that I won. If it did nothing else it taught me that I had still, not only a tremendous amount of work to get through, but almost everything yet to learn, so I continued to wade stolidly into it.
A whole year went by, during which I covered more than nine thousand miles on my feet, and when the 1923 54-miler came round again I showed such an increase in stamina and speed that I was every bit as much astonished at the result as the general public were—it turned out to be a complete walkover. Moreover the time compared so favourably with the figures in the books for fifty miles that I decided I was at last ready to have a shot at the record.
I was then living on my farm in the Province of Natal, South Africa, no longer farming but spending the whole of my time at training. Hoping they would see their way to fall in with my ideas, I got in touch with the Amateur Athletic authorities at Pietermaritzburg (locally called ” Maritzburg “) and asked them if they would arrange a trial for me on the road. I explained that I didn’t want to face a track because the monotony would be too awful ; and the only road near the citv that I really knew well was a mountainous one. But in spite of that I felt I still had quite a sporting chance.
The authorities replied, saying they would stage the event on the Maritzburg-Durban road as requested, twenty-five miles out and twenty-five back, so as to end up at exactly the same level as I started at. While they busied themselves measuring the course I cut down my usual mileage so as to be fighting fit when the dav arrived. It had been scheduled for June 29th, the last day of the Royal Agricultural Show. Start and finish were to take place at the Showgrounds.
Old friends near the foot of the Town Hill, less than half a mile from the Grounds, offered to put me up for a few days and convoy me along the road. As they had looked after me on my two Comrade’s Marathons I knew I could rely on them to the limit ; when your public reputation is at stake you need those about you whose reliability is beyond question. So when all was ready I got into a friend’s car and a few hours later was dropped at Maritzburg, a hundred miles from the farm, and temporarily absorbed into the family of my host and hostess.
The start was set for seven a.m. and I got ready and was motored down to the grounds. The officials were all there—nobody else at that early hour—and I was sent off punctually. I was glad to get to work, though more than a trifle nervous, for I knew I should be extended to the limit. Only two years previously I had never dreamt of seriously tackling athletics, let alone such things as records ; yet here I was in my forty-first year actually being advertised as trying to collar one ; admitted the mountainous road must add greatly to the difficulty, yet I had purposely chosen it because I had learnt that better time could be put up on a road where you knew every inch than on an unknown course.
I was still pretty green at racing and had not yet learnt as accurately as I afterwards did just what pace was most suitable for the conditions at the moment; and when I got to the top of Polly Short’s Cutting, only a few miles out and about 600 ft. above the city, distinct spasms of cramp in the calves gave me a nasty turn. I concluded that overspeeding uphill was the cause and at once dropped to a steadier pace. Thank goodness it faded out quickly and no further symptoms occurred throughout the run.
The official cars, sometimes behind and sometimes ahead, kept well out of my way on account of the dust, for in those days none of the roads had been tarred, in fact the surface was what the Americans call ” dirt.” From time to time as I passed them parked momentarily at the side of the road, the officials gave me details as to measurement and how I was getting along, and of course I knew from my own experiences just about what my average pace was.
So far all was going quite well. It was easy enough for the first fifteen or twenty miles, though of course I had to slow down considerably on the hills—hills altogether steeper and longer than anything I afterwards met with between London and Brighton or Bath and London. I suppose it was the sustained effort that made it seem a wearisome long journey before I came to the dip, some 150 ft., down and up again, on the heights above Drummond Station where I knew the 25-mile mark lay. The cars went ahead to the point and I spotted them waiting on the hill while I went sailing down the escarpment on one side and cautiously climbed up the other towards them.
Now I didn’t know how they had measured the distance, whether by orthodox wheel or speedometer—I learnt afterwards that they had taken the average of several speedometers and added a trifle for safety—and the last thing in the world I wanted just then was to be obliged to run the course all over again should the distance be judged subsequently to be a few yards short. I had read about records being refused, and rightly so, because of this mistake, and meant to be quite certain it didn’t occur in my case. I had forgotten to mention this point and the officials raised some unexpected excitement at what followed. When I came to the turning point I went on for another hundred yards followed by shouts and protests, and then, just as they were hurrying after me, circled round in the road and began the return journey.
There was no getting away from the fact that I was already distinctly tired, though at the moment it didn’t worry me overmuch because I knew it was all part of the game. What I wanted was a pick-me-up and I had decided beforehand to run at least thirty miles before I stopped for one. Just didn’t I look forward to that drink ; when at last it came I had almost begun to fear I had put it off too long. (N.B.—Subsequent experimenting showed that I certainly had done so.) It consisted of strongish tea with about double the usual amount of sugar. I downed it as quickly as possible and felt a lot better, telling them I would probably require another dose ten miles farther on.
At this stage I was on top of the long ridge near Camperdown, roughly 1,000 ft. higher than the City, and the hills hereabouts are nothing to make a song about. I was travelling well but becoming really tired and there were still fifteen miles to go, every bit of which would have to be covered at racing pace if I wanted my record. However, another drink and the prospect of miles of downhill helped to buck me up ; no need to worry about what lay ahead till I got to it.
I waltzed down that long descent in fine style though I couldn’t keep my mind entirely off what was to come—first a climb of nearly a mile up a 300 ft. rise and, after a similar descent, the formidable 500-footer known as Polly Short’s Cutting, named after the man who had been in charge of the road gang when it was constructed. I got over the first hill all right, feeling thankful that the officials didn’t know how terribly fagged I felt, and then came to Polly Short’s. There was a bit more than a mile of this and the steepest part was near the top. Well, the long grind was nearly over, for when I surmounted it I should be able to see the city four miles ahead and some hundreds of feet below, so there’d be a fairly easy finish.
Even now I remember what a tremendous relief it was to realise that I had got over it and not too badly either, but the steep part had slowed me down a lot and I felt it was probably touch and go as to whether I should recover sufficiently to make sure of the record. However I was too tired to try to work out any more figures and anyway, worrying wouldn’t help; there’d be plenty of
time for that afterwards if it became necessary ; my only job at the moment was to keep moving as fast as ever I dared go.
A long easy descent helped greatly and presently I came to the bridge over the Umsundusi River and the outskirts of the city. It was little more than a mile now to the finish and, no matter how bad I felt, that last mile had to be done quickly to make quite certain that all my previous work would not have to be done over again. During the last ten miles I had been too done up to calculate accurate details : all I knew was that I still had some sort of chance and that every possible effort must be made to secure it. As usual, a crowd collected in a few seconds as I approached the City Hall, but the police kept a reasonable lane open and I charged through to battle my way down the last half mile before entering the Grounds.
Heavens ; what an ordeal; The stands were absolutely packed and I had to run right round to reach the tape and the officials. What struck me most was the amount of noise going on and no doubt it gave me a bit of a fillip. One last effort to exceed ten miles and hour and it was all over and I was shaking hands with the Mayor. Almost immediately afterwards the time was given out and you can imagine how thankful I was to hear that I had not only beaten the amateur track record (Lloyd 6h. 13m. 58s.) but the professional one too. The time was 6h. 03m. 5s. And then to my worthy friend’s house for a much needed bath and a long rest.