Although they are likely to have had an informal presence in rural communities for centuries before, the earliest reliable evidence of running races in England is as part of rustic festivals, beginning in the sixteenth century. These ranged from tiny local contests to famous and prestigious events such as Robert Dover’s Cotswold Olimpicks, a hugely popular multi-discipline event held annually over two days starting in around 1612. Hated by the puritans who saw the games as pagan in origin and beloved of their libertarian supporters (including the king) the Olimpicks drew large crowds of spectators from across the social spectrum – a rare gathering of everyone from farm labourers to royalty. Similar, though smaller scale, rural sports days were the mainstay of competitive running well into the nineteenth century and significantly later in some parts of the country, with cash prizes and opportunities to gamble on outcomes drawing runners and spectators in large numbers. With the odd ‘eccentric’ exception, rural sports events during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were a completely working-class phenomenon, offering an opportunity for local fame and modest fortune to talented runners, as well as opportunities for betting and excitement to their often unruly spectators.
Rural sports seem to have been relatively egalitarian and inclusive compared to the athletics meetings that superseded them in Victorian times. Both men and women competed, and there is even evidence of age group races, allowing children and veterans (over 35s) of both genders a chance to compete in their own contests. Races took place on ‘saints’ days, church festivals, local feast days, at horse races, market days, weddings and cricket matches’. Research by Peter Radford has unearthed 20 different annual women’s races in villages in the county of Kent alone throughout the eighteenth century. The biggest of these was the Running Lands Race, held at Old Wives Lees, which required qualification via victories at less prestigious races and specially arranged heats. The prize money could be significant; up to £10 for the winner (the same amount as for its counterpart men’s race) at a time when a servant girl would only earn £2 plus lodgings annually. Because winners were often excluded from competing at the same race twice talented men and women would travel around the county looking for opportunities to compete at different races and earn as much money as possible. We do not know all of the distances competed over, but some were recorded as long sprints of between 200m-400m.
In the early part of the nineteenth century opportunities for working-class runners to earn (or at least supplement) their living through the sport peaked. Race purses could be generous, and the money staked on races by gamblers could be huge. Talented runners would ply their trade itinerantly, sometimes running in disguise when people became wise to their ability and thus unwilling to bet against them. As tourism and ease of travel increased through the advent of the railways, villages in rural regions such as the Lake District that had a pre-existing running tradition (rooted in the ‘guides’ races’ in which mountain guides would compete to advertise their prowess to potential patrons) began organising annual events and keeping written records of their victors (e.g. the races at Lothersdale, inaugurated in 1847 and Grasmere, 1868). At this time even relatively modest races could attract thousands of spectators, with some contests watched by football sized crowds.
Throughout this period many local running traditions were established, each with their own idiosyncratic rules, and no formal over-arching organisation or record keeping. Some races were held over specific distances, but many were simply ‘out and back’ races to a local landmark or circuits around local streets or fields; everyday places of work and life temporarily transformed into a kind of theatre of drama and excitement, free to anyone who cared to watch. Some incorporated treasure hunt style elements, chasing and catching, or overcoming obstacles. Physical contact, including barging and tripping appear to have been acceptable in many races. Cheering and jeering from noisy and often inebriated crowds, as well as occasional physical interventions in races by spectators (and stray dogs) were par for the course. Runners (both men and women) sometimes participated in states of undress that would have been shocking to society’s more ‘civilized’ elements, but delighted running’s more earthy crowds. Early running contests were vital, raw and rowdy; closely associated with seasonal and religious festivities at which workers could ‘cut loose’ after months of toil in the villages and fields. German scholar, Henning Eichberg, argues that in these early forms, running was part of a European ‘culture of laughter’ that acted as a kind of social safety valve by providing an opportunity for the common people to get together and let off steam by poking fun at their privileged ‘betters’ without fear of reprisal (rather like at carnival in other contexts). In this light the naked runners could be understood to have been cocking a snook at their easily offended, puritan masters. In their rural context, running races were part of the rhythm and ritual of the agricultural year, woven into the fabric of social life.
Money was an important part of running before the mid-nineteenth century in the same way it is to horse racing today. It was central both as an inducement to participate (often in the form of valuable prizes rather than cash) and, more perniciously, in the form of wagers and gambling. Huge amounts could be staked on the outcome of a single contest – by spectators and the runners themselves – so the temptation to cheat or throw races often proved irresistible. This generated doubts about the authenticity of races that made rural running vulnerable to those who, during Victorian times, wanted to centralise and regularise running, eventually leading to traditional rural running contests all but dying out in most parts of England.
Interesting further reading: