There have always been ways of making running pay. In the days when long-distance travel meant struggling along badly maintained dirt roads and pony tracks, foot messengers could often outrun riders on horseback. The feat of the messenger Pheidippides, who ran from Marathon to Athens to announce Greek victory over the Persians in 490 BC, has become legend. In Britain the first recorded fell-race is said to have been organised by King Malcolm Canmore of Scotland around 1040 AD as a kind of job interview, with the winner earning the position of royal messenger.
But in the 17th and 18th century, a new employment niche opened up for fast runners that offered hundreds of men not only a decent living, but also a chance to climb the social ladder. ‘Running footmen’ emerged as specialist messenger servants, but it was in accompanying their masters and mistresses on the road that their special status was cemented. Teams of footmen would run beside and ahead of a dignitary’s carriage to clear the route of debris such as stones and branches, and to prepare lodgings and refreshments in advance. The appearance of running footmen at a coaching inn or roadside tavern was cause for the landlord to celebrate – it heralded the arrival of important and wealthy guests.
Running footmen were highly visible extensions of their master’s power and personality. So, in keeping with the norms of conspicuous consumption, they needed to look good. The better dressed, taller and more handsome your footmen were the better it reflected on you. Inevitably, footmen became famed for their good looks, fashionable clothes and youthful vigour. With their physical appeal and relatively high income it’s hardly surprising that footmen quickly gained a reputation for fast living and for leading young girls astray. Not everyone can have been pleased to see half a dozen of these puffed-up young men swaggering into town.
But behind the glamour, being a footman was a tough and demanding role. It was imperative that they stayed in top physical shape, both in order to discharge their duties as runners and to keep ahead of the plentiful competition for their jobs. Training regimes included sessions running in weighted shoes, across sand dunes and through freshly ploughed fields. A book published in Poland in 1782 called The Medicinal Handbook for Runners contained training advice and recipes for herbal infusions and medicines purporting to increase stamina or aid recovery. Much like professional athletes today, diligent footmen would leave no stone unturned in their quest for ‘marginal gains’.
Training hard was also a possible route to long-term security and status. Aristocrats competed with each other to see whose footmen were fastest or could keep pace with a coach and horses for the longest. Much prestige and money was at stake. Footmen’s careers were short, but these contests offered a chance to find favour with their powerful employers, and might lead to a job as a house servant or even an honoured role such as butler after their running days were over.
However, not all potential footmen were prepared to play the long game of gruelling training and servile grovelling. After one young man had impressed the Marquess of Queensbury by winning a trial race along Piccadilly dressed in full livery, the old noble called to him ‘You will do very well for me’, indicating the job was his. The runner had other ideas though, shouting ‘and your livery will do very well for me!’, and sprinted off with the expensive suit of clothes the Marquess had lent him. Unsurprisingly, nobody could catch him.
What’s the most common question you’re asked after finishing a race? In my experience it’s almost always ‘what was your time?’, and talking to other runners it seems this experience is pretty much universal. It doesn’t matter whether you’re an elite athlete or a first time 5k runner, the vital fact is how long you took.
For many of us this focus on times is what makes running so attractive. It enables you to compete with people you have never raced or even met, and by comparing your times to your own past performances you can track your progress in a striking way. But of course, running predates stopwatches, and history shows that this obsession with timing isn’t as inevitable as we might think.
Rise of the clock watchers
From medieval times foot races were common at village fairs and feast days. Runners would race to a local landmark and back or around a marked course, competing for a prize and some local renown. No efforts were made to time the races – accurate timepieces weren’t available – so comparing the ability of two runners who had never raced each other could only ever have been a matter of debate.
This began to change with the industrial revolution, when running was swept up in a growing obsession with time-keeping in all aspects of life. Factory owners demanded promptness and efficient use of time. Working lives were regulated by the clock, and running followed suit. In this atmosphere a new form of the sport emerged in which individuals competed alone, and against the clock.
This was the era of ‘pedestrianism’, when runners and speed walkers covered huge distances across the country or simply around a measured track within a specified time. The famous Captain Robert Barclay covered 1,000 miles in 1,000 hours in 1809 to win a huge bet. A few years later an elderly female pedestrian tramped 96 miles in 24 hours. Particularly impressive performances were reported in the newspapers, providing a target for other athletes to try to beat.
In the second half of the 19th century the obsession with times became even more intense. By universalising race distances, track surfaces and rules it was possible to compare different athlete’s times fairly and accurately. For the first time the keeping of national records became meaningful. The Amateur Athletic Association set itself up as their administrator, and ratified only those performances that had taken place under a strict set of conditions.
More haste less speed?
Naturally these developments emphasised the importance of quick times over everything else. Not everyone approved of this, particularly in Germany, where an alternative form of athletics had taken root. Here, athletics had developed into something more like gymnastics, where poise and form were as important as muscle power. In running events the winner was the competitor who could go as fast as possible whilst maintaining an effortless stride and graceful posture. To these athletes the straining sinews and grimaces of time-focused British runners were quite unbecoming.
But of course in the end it was the time focused version of running that conquered the world. And today, running’s obsession with measurement and record keeping has reached a new intensity, as GPS watches, heart rate monitors and social media comparison abound. For many people the measurability of running is what makes it such an engaging sport. But there is a growing movement for rejecting the clock and comparison, and focusing instead on pressure free running, technique and escaping the tyranny of the clock. Whichever form you choose, you’re in great historical company.
I apologise for the change from the advertised topic for this post. I was planning to talk about the relationship between childhood experiences and involvement in sport, but have been sidetracked by writing up my PhD thesis which is now taking up most of my time. Part of this process has been to crunch some numbers from Sport England’s Active People Survey, a massive survey of over 150,000 people across the country, which tracks sports participation changes from year to year. I’m using the data to contextualise running within the full range of sporting and active leisure activities popular in the UK today. In particular I’ve been looking at how running compares to other sports in terms of participant demographics.
First of all, here’s a chart showing the relative gender balance (x-axis) and mean age (y-axis) of participants in a number of popular sports. The dark red lines indicate the mean age and gender for the sample. The fact that the mean gender is just over 0.4 indicates that more women than men responded to the survey. Sports to the left of the dark red line are more popular with women, sports to the right more popular with men. The further they are from the red line the stronger this bias is. The mean age of the sports (on the y-axis) runs from 22 (basketball) to 60 (golf).
The next two charts show occupational category data sorted in two ways. Each shows the percentage of participants in a selection of popular sports that have professional or managerial jobs (NS SEC 1-2, shown in blue) and the percentage that have traditionally working class jobs or are currently unemployed (NS SEC 5-8, shown in orange). The first chart shows the sports sorted by the percentage of ‘higher status’* occupations, the second is sorted by ‘lower status’* occupations.
I’m not going to comment on these findings at this stage, other than to say that they reinforce a strange fact about running. On the one hand it is a highly accessible sport with low barriers to entry that attracts men and women in almost equal quantities; on the other it attracts a disproportionately high level of middle class participants. In fact running sits above golf, tennis and mountaineering in terms of its proportion of higher status occupation participants. This is a paradox my research seeks to shed light on, and something I will come back to in future posts.
* The use of ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ here is related to the typical level of income and education of holders of these jobs – i.e. the socio-ecomomic status. They are not meant o imply that managerial jobs are inherently superior to working class ones.
Sprint superstars like Usain Bolt and Dafne Schippers, with their legions of fans and swollen bank balances, seem like a thoroughly modern phenomenon – a product of mass media exposure and the commercialisation of sport. But surprisingly, this isn’t the case. Research by cultural historian Peter Swain has unearthed the fascinating story of one of England’s first celebrity sprinters, who plied his trade almost two hundred years ago.
Born in a small village near Bolton in 1806, Benjamin Bradley Hart started his working life as a weaver. He supplemented his meagre pay by participating in wager races at local fairs and, after proving unbeatable at this level, decided to try his luck against the professionals.
At the time wager races were big business. Runners would challenge one another for an agreed stake, and the public would turn out in droves to watch and place bets of their own. Races were often officiated and promoted by a local publican, who would also act as the ‘stakeholder’, looking after the two runners’ stakes and handing them over to the winner.
Ben Hart’s decision to go professional paid off immediately. He won his first three races – all sprints – for a total of £25. This was a huge sum at a time when as a weaver he was probably only earning about £14 per year. But this was only the beginning. A string of victories meant higher and higher stakes against ever more illustrious opponents. Within a few years he was winning £100 or more for a single race.
A career highlight came in 1834 when he took on ‘The Mountain Stag’, Thomas Lang, on Kersal Moor. Perhaps 5,000 people watched and punters bet over a million pounds in today’s money on the outcome. After the race carrier pigeons and horsemen spread far and wide with the result: Another win for Hart, naturally.
By now Hart was acclaimed ‘Champion of all England’, ‘Ben the Conqueror’, and ‘the best runner from 100 yards to quarter mile in the British Empire’. His reputation was terrifying, to the extent that rival professionals would issue challenges to anyone in England, ‘barring Ben Hart’. To get races he offered opponents head starts – but almost always won anyway.
Hart’s celebrity was enhanced by his reputation for being one of the good guys. In a sport where cheating and bribery were endemic, he was believe incorruptible. This reputation would serve him well in later life.
As he neared 40, Hart began to meet with the occasional reverse to younger men. He decided it was time to retire. The fortune he had made enabled him to buy a string of pubs, from which he spent the rest of his life as an important and trusted race organiser and coach. He was known as a fair and trustworthy officiator, to the extent that he was even made stakeholder in races involving a runner he himself had trained – like letting a football manager referee a game his team was playing in.
But the move into administration hadn’t dampened Hart’s competitive instincts. A few years after he retired (and having put on a lot of weight) Hart was taunted by a young man who claimed he could easily defeat the old has-been. Like a boxer coming out of retirement for one last fight, Hart couldn’t resist the challenge. He offered to race over 120 yards there and then. Hundreds flocked to watch as the rotund, middle-aged publican rolled back the years to win the race at a canter, and claim one last moment of athletic glory in his long and illustrious career.
In a previous post I showed how different forms of running (road runners, fell-runners, obstacle course racers, ultra marathoners, track athletes) attracted different socioeconomic groups. We visualised the way in which participation was structured by plotting the mean income and education ranks for participation in each sport onto a chart with axes of education (x) and income (y). This was the result:
A quick look at the relative positions of the different forms of running suggests that the longer the distance of the event, the higher the average income level of those attracted to participate, and that education level is somehow connected to the type of environment people like to run in; lower education levels are associated with highly constructed, artificial spaces like the obstacle course and running track, and higher education levels are associated with participating in unstructured, natural environments and the wild. Perhaps there’s also a suggestion of a link between education level and preferences for communal or solitary running experiences.
But of course education and income can only explain so much. In fact there are other, more powerful drivers behind the choice of running form that need to be looked at.
In terms of their influence over our choices around sport, two of the most important social variables of all are gender and age. And of course these two factors are strongly linked to income (men and older people tend to earn more), so perhaps some of the effect we can see in the above chart can be explained simply by the age and gender of those taking part.
Below I have plotted the same five forms of running onto a similar chart, but this time with axes of gender and age. The age axis is self-explanatory, it’s simply the mean age of participants for each point plotted. The gender axis shows the relative proportion of male and female participants in the sport. The pink line marks the sample mean gender balance, so points to the right of this have more male participants than average, points to the left have more female. The further from the central line the more lopsided the gender balance gets.
I’ve also add some extra plots for key motivations (red) and included two extra running forms: Jogging [Jog] (non-competitive runners), and Orienteering [Ori] (for which I have just collected a booster sample of 300 respondents).
Interestingly the locations of the five forms we saw in the first chart are broadly similar in this one, even though we’re ostensibly measuring different things. This suggests that there may well be a relationship between gender/age and income/education.
We can see that the motivations associated more strongly with women are those around managing weight and improving their appearances, as well as social motivations. I should say that this is absolutely not to say that these are priorities for all female runners, the positions on the chart represent averages from my sample of almost 3,000 runners surveyed. Men are more likely to be motivated by competition (races) and exploring the outside environment.
To an extent these motivational tendencies are reflected in the forms that men and women participate in. Men are more likely to appear at a fell race or ultra marathon, both of which would often involve both competition and training in remote outdoor environments. Orienteering is the most male dominated of all the forms on the chart. Again we have a strong element of exploring the outside environment.
Women are more likely to go for OCRs (obstacle course races), which foster team spirit and camaraderie (i.e. feeding social motivations), and jogging, which is often practised to lose weight and involves no athletic competition. The location of sprinting is gendered female is harder to explain, but this may be because the sample of sprinters is relatively small, so the data may not be so reliable.
In terms of age, sprinting (unsurprisingly) attracts the youngest participants, with OCRs the second youngest group. Orienteering again stands out as by far the oldest of the forms.
Almost in the middle of it all sits the half-marathon. I think this reflects the open, easy access nature of this event. For many people it may be their entry point into running, and can be run as a motivation to stick to a weight loss plan or as a highly competitive race. It appears to be the one-size-fits-all event of running, attracting a gender and age balanced participant base.
Behind the Structure
How can we explain why different sports attract different social groups? This is a difficult question, and is key to anyone interested in promoting particular forms running and broadening their appeal. There are a number of possibilities:
People prefer to join up with sports that are already populated by ‘people like them’, be that class, gender or age. This is certainly true, and would help explain why social differences harden, but not how they formed in the first place. This may require a historical account of how each form of running came into being.
Some groups have greater physical access to the right infrastructure for a particular form of running, or have higher practical barriers to overcome to take part. For instance perhaps parents don’t have as much free time, so can’t fit in the training for doing ultra marathons, or self-employed people have more flexibility to fit in the large volumes of training for such events.
Some forms of running cultivate an image that puts off or favours certain groups. Forms such as Ironman triathlon and races such as the Man versus Mountain appear to be masculinised through their names. Could this make them less appealing to women? Are they positioned as symbols of masculinity?
People choose a form of running that suits their particular motivations, so competitive people choose more competitive forms, and people concerned about body image choose forms that they think will best address this. Again, this is certainly a factor, but sociologically speaking it’s quite a superficial answer. It fails to address why certain groups are more likely to have particular motivations than others. What is it about being a woman that makes you more likely to be motivated by losing weight; why are more educated people more interested in exploring?
People’s life experiences, linked to their age, gender, social class and other factors lead them to develop particular tastes and identities that make some forms especially appealing and some less so. This is an important perspective. It pulls together ideas about motivation and taste and the demographic variables we’ve been looking at. By understanding how people’s class, gender or age result in different life experiences, and how these experiences lead to particular preferences or tastes, we might be able to get at the underlying cultural reasons for the structuring of the forms of running.
Picking up on the last point, in my next article I’ll be looking at some real examples of the ways in which running participation is influenced by people’s life experiences. In particular I want to look at how different experiences of sport and running in childhood are influenced by the kind of school people go to (state/private, rural/urban) and their gender. These differences, which we can explore using the interview data I’ve collected over the last year, show how variations in the opportunities and experiences of childhood can lead to quite different orientations to running in later life.
As always, any comments, ideas or suggestions would be very welcome! Just use the box below.