A Brief History of Timing

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.



This article was originally written for Running magazine, www.runnersradar.com

The Empire’s Fastest Man

pedestrianism - sprintersSprint 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.


This article was originally published in Running magazine, Winter 2016. www.runnersradar.com

For more on Benjamin Bradley Hart see Pedestrianism (2014) Edited by Dave Day. MMU Sport and Leisure History.

Gate-crashers and Ghost Runners

John Tarrant - the Ghost Runner
John Tarrant c. 1957. (copyright unknown)1957

Today, running is one of the most inclusive of sports. Athletics clubs are open to all, and mass races such as the London marathon offer anyone with the bottle the chance to test themselves in one of the world’s great sport events. But running hasn’t always been so democratic. Victorian hang-ups about women and professionals (the latter a thinly veiled euphemism for working-class athletes) lingered well into the twentieth century. Women were barred from long-distance races for decades, and anyone who had ever accepted payment for participating in any sport was banned for life. This left the way open for a clique of self-funding male athletes to dominate the sport for years.

As the twentieth century wore on however, social attitudes were changing, and running’s draconian rules began to look old fashioned and unfair. But any change was resisted by the privileged elite of former athletes who controlled the sport. Frustrations built, and some excluded runners, feeling like they had exhausted all routes to participation, decided to take direct action.

The Interlopers

Two key figures in this struggle were John Tarrant and Kathrine Switzer. Tarrant was a tough and talented, working-class runner from Derbyshire. He was refused entry to official races in the 1950s because as an 18 year old boxer he had received £17 in expenses, inadvertently stigmatising himself as a ‘professional’ for life. Switzer was an aspiring American marathoner who was barred from the 1967 Boston Marathon simply because she was a woman. Both decided to fight their exclusion in a similar way. They would gate-crash a race incognito, simultaneously achieving a sporting ambition and drawing attention to their plight.

Tarrant became a regular sight at road races in England, running without a number, hiding in the crowds at the start so as not to draw attention. Once the race was underway he was too fast for the officials to stop, and with the crowds roaring him on, he became more famous than many of his officially sanctioned rivals. In fact, so popular was he that race organisers started asking him to gate-crash their races, advertising the presence of the fabled ‘Ghost Runner’ in advance to boost crowd numbers!

Switzer entered the Boston Marathon as ‘K. Switzer’ dressed in an inconspicuous grey tracksuit. Although she couldn’t rely on her speed to escape angry officials she did have the advantage of being accompanied by her burly, hammer-throwing boyfriend, Thomas Miller. When one of the race’s organisers leapt onto the course to physically eject her, Miller brushed him aside. Switzer ran on to complete the race that was supposedly ‘too tough’ for women.

The Court of Public Opinion

The media played an important role in both stories. Tarrant was an exceptional athlete whose David versus Goliath story was mana from heaven to the newspapers. He built up a powerful group of supporters, including many fellow runners, and eventually the pressure told – he was cleared to compete nationally. Unfortunately his international ban remained, barring him from the Olympics, his greatest goal. However, he went on to win many official races and broke two world records at ultra-distance before his tragically early death at just 42.

Switzer wasn’t the only female runner to gate-crash the 1967 Boston Marathon. She wasn’t even the fastest (that was Bobbi Gibb, 3 hours 27 mins). Her good fortune was that the incident when the race official tried to grab her was caught on camera. The picture created a media sensation and generated the sympathy and support that eventually led to the opening up of the Boston Marathon to female runners in 1972. Switzer went on to win the New York Marathon in 1974.

Thankfully for runners today, the old barriers have been broken down. The accessibility and diversity of mass participation running have become some of the sport’s most attractive features. Trailblazers like Tarrant and Switzer played a small but important role in helping this happen.


This article was originally published in Running magazine, September 2016. www.runnersradar.com

You can read the full story of John Tarrant in Bill Jones’ excellent book: The Ghost Runner: The Tragedy of the Man they Couldn’t Stop. https://www.amazon.co.uk/Ghost-Runner-Tragedy-They-Couldnt/dp/1845966066


From Jailbirds to Presidents: The Extraordinary Rise of Running for Fun

Today, running is part of the fabric of everyday life. Yet only fifty years ago the sight of someone running down the pavement without a very good reason could cause a minor scandal. Pavements, after all, were for going about your business or for dignified promenading. Jogging seemed as inappropriate and inconsiderate as cycling on a busy pavement might seem today. It also seemed inexplicable. One jogger in 1960s New Zealand was jailed overnight by local police because they could think of no legal reason for a grown man to be running down the road after dark!

So how did we get from there to here? How has running on the public roads gone from being an activity practised by a few eccentrics to the mainstream, highly popular sport of today?

Preparing the ground

As with many cultural changes during the second half of the 20th century the emergence of running as a mass participation sport began in America. During the 1950s and 1960s the country was experiencing an economic boom. This prepared the ground for the growth of running in two ways. First, young people became wealthier and were more likely to stay in education longer, giving them the space and funds to develop their own separate cultural identity. This new ‘youth consciousness’ challenged many existing conventions and placed great value on youth and appearances, and had a profound effect on American culture over the coming years. Secondly, more affluent, luxurious lifestyles were linked to rapidly increasing rates of illnesses relating to obesity and inactivity, causing great public concern.

All this generated a receptive environment for the promoters of healthy living. Anything that could keep you young (i.e. slim and toned) on the outside and healthy on the inside found a willing audience. Fitness entrepreneurs pushed all manner of regimes, from the short-lived ‘Dance of Socrates’, which involved slow motion jogging with a ‘completely limp’ upper body and rolling head (in the privacy of your own home, thankfully) to activities that remain popular today, such as aerobics.

Bill Bowerman goes jogging

At around this time Bill Bowerman, the University of Oregon track coach and future founder of Nike visited New Zealand to meet fellow coach Arthur Lydiard to discuss training techniques. Whilst he was there he was invited to attend one of Lydiard’s jogging groups which, Lydiard explained, were like normal training sessions, but stripped of their competitive element and attended by non-athletes, many of whom were recovering from heart attacks. Bowerman joined in, and was shocked to find he couldn’t keep up with even the slowest group. A 74 year old man graciously slowed down to keep the 52 year old Bowerman company as he slogged to the finish.

Bowerman was an instant convert. Modified, low intensity training sessions could transform the health of even elderly heart attack victims. As soon as he returned to the US he began setting up jogging groups at his university and writing his million selling book, Jogging, which brought the concepts to a wider audience and is widely credited with sparking the running boom.

Respectable at last

By the mid-1970s, as a result of the work of evangelists such as Bowerman and the success of American long-distance runners such as Steve Prefontaine, jogging had become a fashionable pastime and an everyday sight in cities across the US. Soon after, the rest of the western world followed suit. Mass races sprang up, tapping into competitive motivations and providing grass-roots runners with access to prestigious events in a way unparalleled in any other sport.

Such was the transformation in the status of running that even President Nixon was keen to have a go. He entered a 10k race in 1979, but was unable to finish and needed medical attention. For his opponents this was seized on as evidence of his lack of the ‘right stuff’ for the highest office. Once worrying evidence of a subversive streak, running had become a symbol of presidential qualities. In just two decades the transformation in the cultural status of running had been complete.


This article was originally published in Running magazine, August 2016. www.runnersradar.com


The Enduring Appeal of Endurance

Celebrity endurance challenges certainly seem to be in vogue at the moment. Recently, Eddie Izzard’s marathon challenge across South Africa for Sport Relief has been compulsive viewing. There’s something fascinating about watching a familiar face putting mind and body through the wringer. Perhaps as runners we find it particularly easy to empathise with Eddie’s struggles, doubts and blisters – and his exhausted elation at the tape. But this fascination isn’t new. We’ve been enjoying watching people running themselves to exhaustion for centuries.

The first detailed accounts appear in the 17th century. Samuel Pepys described the excitement around ‘footman races’ in 1660s London, with aristocrats pitting their footmen against each other to see who could run the furthest. Footmen were servants who ran ahead of a coach to clear the way or prepare lodgings before their employer’s arrival. They must have been extremely fit young men, and were often chosen for their athletic physiques, good looks and height. Betting on whose man could keep running at coach pace for the longest was an exciting diversion for the idle rich, and a great spectacle for those they passed along the way.

Anything but Pedestrian

By the later 18th and 19th centuries endurance running and walking, known collectively as ‘pedestrianism’, had become popular throughout British society. Such was the interest it was possible for talented athletes from all walks of life to make a living – even a fortune – as professional runners. Because their incomes normally came from winning wagers, it could be an advantage for runners to look much less capable athletes than they really were. This created the opportunity for some far from stereotypical athletes to make a name in the sport. For example, people were all too happy to bet against Mary Motulullen, a frail looking Irish woman in her sixties, or Emma Freeman, a girl of just eight years old, when they arrived in a new town and announced their latest challenge. But appearances can be deceptive. Mary ran over 90 miles to win one wager, and little Emma covered an incredible 40 miles to help feed her family.

The most famous pedestrian of all though, was Captain Robert Barclay. A Scottish landowner of ‘ancient family’ whose feat of walking a mile in each of 1,000 consecutive hours to win an astronomical bet of 1,000 guineas (about twenty years income for a labourer) had the national enthralled. Barclay’s incredible physical and mental strength appeared to confirm the natural superiority of the ruling class, and fed a craze for endurance sports amongst the privileged during the early 19th century.

The Shifting Meaning of Endurance

However, as the century wore on endurance began to lose its social cache. Perhaps ‘enduring’ was too closely associated with the drudgery of the factories that were springing up across the land. The wealthy turned their attentions to shorter distances and the sanitised world of the athletics track. Endurance running was left to the workers of the growing industrial cities, where runners with awe-inspiring names like North Star, the Gateshead Clipper and Young England still drew enormous crowds.

An indication of just how social attitudes had changed around endurance comes from the treatment of William Gale, a Welshman who smashed Captain Barclay’s record by completing 1,500 miles in 1,000 hours in 1877. If Gale had hoped for a similar reception to Barclay he would be disappointed. He was described as having the ‘determination of a dog’ and as an ‘over-worked horse’. One article dismissively states: ‘of what particular benefit it may be to the world at large it is utterly impossible to imagine’.

Thankfully things have moved on. Endurance sports once again capture the imagination, inspire and enthral us. And in terms of ‘benefits to the world’ the millions raised by Eddie Izzard for Sport Relief make a neat retort!


This article was originally published in Running magazine, July 2016. www.runnersradar.com