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