The Unlikely History of Pub Athletics

Village PubThese days the pub is probably not the first place that springs to mind when thinking about top class athletics. In fact, going to the pub and competitive running are probably about as culturally – and physically – different as you can get as far as pastimes go. Yet for the best part of a hundred years starting in the late eighteenth century, pubs and their landlords were a vital part of the British running scene.

From time immemorial running races were a part of rural life. Village fairs, festivals, feast days and wakes were opportunities for fleet-footed agricultural workers to win prizes and local renown, as well as for spectators to gamble on who would come out on top. But with the industrial revolution and the mass movement of rural populations to the cities, these traditions diminished. However, the taste for sporting entertainment did not, and when factory workers were granted a few hours each week as time-off, they were keen to fill them watching all kinds of sport, from cricket to bare-knuckle boxing.

For many industrial communities the pub was the centre of social life, and savvy publicans were quick to spot the opportunity to attract punters and make extra cash by putting on sporting events. Different pubs specialised in different sports, as attested by the names they retain to this day, such as ‘The Cricketers’ or ‘The Wrestlers’.

Down the pub for a quick half (mile)?

Running or ‘pedestrianism’ was hugely popular from the late eighteenth century through to the late Victorian era, creating a great business opportunity for landlords to organise and promote races. The publican took on many roles, drawing up rules, providing prizes, holding stakes and inviting the greatest talents to race. In those days many pubs owned large pieces of land that provided ample space for on-site running tracks, some of which even had purpose built stadia. Many tracks were enclosed so that the publican could charge an entry fee and sell food and drink to a captive audience.

Research by Samantha-Jayne Oldfield reveals that in London the White Lion in Hackney Wick was home to an impressive 260 yard gravel track, built in 1857. The entry fee on race days was six pence, or a little more if you wanted a place in the pavilion on the finishing straight. The pub was credited with boosting the popularity of running in London, drawing crowds of many thousands to watch the top runners of the day.

In Manchester the preference was for sprinting and distances up to a mile. One of the most spectacular events took place at the Royal Oak Hotel in 1864, when 30,000 spectators watched six of the country’s top milers race for a huge prize of £110 and a silver cup weighing over 2kg. The race was won by Edward Mills in 4 minutes and 20 seconds.

Last orders

But this was the late heyday of pub athletics. Landlords and professional runners were already coming under suspicion of dishonestly, match fixing and corruption. And the link between running and the ‘loose morals‘ associated with gambling and drinking disturbed the middle- and upper- class Victorians who were then pushing the ‘amateur athletics’ code.

In the years that followed the well-resourced and powerful amateur movement side-lined the mostly working-class professional sport. Universal rules, standardised distances, amateur athletic clubs and purpose built tracks finally supplanted the pubs, publicans and professional runners. I suppose that’s progress, but can’t help thinking the experience of the British pub beer garden in summer is much the poorer for it!


This article was originally published in Running magazine, October 2016.

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.

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.


Running and Body Image

running womanIt’s no secret that many people take up running to lose a a bit of weight. And provided you’re fit enough to sustain a few miles a few times a week there aren’t many better ways of shifting fat and burning calories.

And for those who stick to the sport long-term, running can gradually – but profoundly – alter body shape and composition. Regular racers often have greyhound-like physiques with ultra low body fat and toned muscles. Committed runners in their 50s and 60s are able to maintain physiques that many 20-somethings would be jealous of.

The running ‘look’ has become highly desirable in wider culture in recent years, partly because of the success of running in promoting itself as the sport of successful, fit, healthy, attractive people. As a result lean, toned running bodies have become status symbols. They give off signals about a person’s fitness, energy and perhaps their mental toughness. As many runners attest, they make us feel good about ourselves. They are outward signs of who we are, and of what we are capable of.

The data collected via the Big Running Survey offers the opportunity to look at how running involvement alters people’s self-perceptions around their bodies over time. By looking at how likely respondents are to apply different body descriptors to themselves depending on how long they’ve been running we can see how body image changes qualitatively with running experience. We can also look at changes in the scores of body satisfaction over the time, helping us quantify the positive impact of running on body image.

Key body descriptors

So first, here are the frequencies of three key body descriptors that are associated positively with running experience. The black line indicates the overall trend:

Runners describing themselves as 'slim' over year of running

Runners describing themselves as 'lean' body image

Runners describing themselves as 'athletic' body image

It’s clear from the black trend lines on the above charts that there is a strong relationship between people’s self-descriptions as ‘slim’, ‘lean’ and ‘athletic’ on the one hand and years spent running on the other. Looking a little more closely at the individual means for each year (the blue dots) we can see that there is a steep rise in these descriptors over the first 5 years of running and a steady increase thereafter.

The wider spread of blue dots at higher numbers of years is because there is less data at the really high numbers of years, so less opportunity for means to even out.

Next are two descriptors that are negatively associated with increasing running experience.

Runners describing themselves as 'carrying a few extar pounds' body image Runners describing themselves as 'overweight' body image Again we see an especially steep change in these descriptors over the first few years of running, and a steady change after that. Whilst 24% of people in their first year or so of running describe themselves as ‘overweight’, by year four it’s down to 9%. This could be for a couple of reasons: Either running is helping these people lose weight rapidly over the first year, or perhaps overweight people tend to give up running after a year or so if it doesn’t seem to be helping them lose weight. It’s probably a bit of both.

The gentler descriptor ‘carrying a few extra pounds’ shows a much smoother slope with a clear downward trend.

Body satisfaction

So what do these changing perceptions of body characteristics mean in terms of runners’ body satisfaction over the years of their involvement in the sport? We can find a strong clue in the self-rating of current body satisfaction (out of 7) provided by each respondent.

Here I have broken the data down into male and female respondents, and the line represents the overall trend across the first 32 years of involvement in the sport.

Runners' body satisfaction over the years

We can see that there’s a clear and strong relationship between years of running and body satisfaction. For women this starts around 4/7 and rises to around 5/7. For men it goes from 4.4 up to 5.4. This is a significant jump as most of the body satisfaction scores cluster around the 3 – 5 range. Few people give themselves a 1, 2 or 7.

What’s driving this change? There are a few possibilities:

  1. Runners’ ‘ideal body shapes’ remain the same over the years, but their bodies are shaped by running in a way that brings them closer to this ideal.
  2. Time spent involved in running, seeing runners, aspiring to be a better running, reading running media etc. subtly alters the runner’s body ideals in ways that make them closer to their existing body shape.
  3. A bit of both of the above: Long-term runner’s have been immersed in a running culture that both shapes their bodies to be more like ‘running bodies’, and also celebrates running bodies as attractive and healthy.
  4. Perhaps getting older makes people more at ease with their bodies irrespective of how much running they do. Long term runners are, on average, older than short term runners (the latter haven’t been alive long enough to amass decades of running experience).
  5. Older runners may become more satisfied with their bodies because running helps them maintain certain valued characteristics that their contemporaries increasingly lack as they get older. So older (more experienced) runners feel happy about their bodies because they compare them to less active people of the same age.

Unfortunately the data doesn’t allow us to unpick this. However, I am currently conducting interviews that should throw more light on the stories and lived experiences over time that could help explain these changes.

I’m sure that the precise reasons for improving body-esteem in runners over time vary hugely from person to person, but the overall picture is a positive one for runners. The big picture shows a strong relationship between long-term participation in the sport and positive body image.

Because running bodies are also active, healthy bodies this has to be a good thing.


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.


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.