Athletics: Littlewood's giant strides
The Anniversary: 110 years ago an Englishman defied sabotage and fatigue to run 623 miles
Sunday 29 November 1998
Next Tuesday marks the latest anniversary of George Littlewood's enduring feat. Not that Littlewood will be around to celebrate the fact. He would, you see, be 139. He died in 1912. His finest hour, though, lives on - or his finest 144 hours, to be precise. It took Littlewood that length of time to run into the record books back in 1888. He holds the British record for the farthest distance covered in a six-day race.
It would be fair to say that six-day races do not exactly crowd the British athletics calendar these days but Littlewood's record survived a close call eight years ago when James Zarei, twice winner of the 164-mile Spartathlon race, finished one mile short of it in an international contest held at Gateshead Stadium. In 1966 the physiologist BB Lloyd described Littlewood's achievement as "probably about the maximum sustained output of which the human frame is capable". He was about right. Littlewood's epic run stood as a world record for six years short of a century - until 1984, when the Greek ultra-marathon man Yiannis Kouros covered 635 miles 1,023 yards at Randell's Island, New York.
It was in New York that Littlewood established his record. At Madison Square Garden, between 27 November and 2 December 1888, he ran 623 miles 1,320 yards. He did so in the most dramatic circumstances too. At the end of the fifth day he very nearly fell foul of a saboteur when he took a break to soothe his aching feet and a match was deliberately dropped into his alcohol bath at the side of the track. The culprit, presumed to be a disgruntled backer of one of Littlewood's rivals, was never caught. Neither, for that matter, was Littlewood. His feet and legs were badly burned but he carried on, hobbling at times, to complete 85 miles on the final day.
Such malpractice was not uncommon as six-day races (or "wobbles", as they were known, because of the physical state to which they reduced most participants) became big sporting business on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1870s and 1880s. The six-day racers were pedestrians, 19th-century professional runners, and huge wagers were often at stake. Handlers of Patrick Fitzgerald, fearing he would lose his lead and the purse in the 1884 world championship race in New York, made incisions in his thighs to ease the stiffness in his legs. Blood pouring from his wounds, he staggered to victory, but he never raced again.
Punters flocked to Madison Square Garden and to the Royal Agricultural Hall in Islington, the mecca of pedestrianism in England, to behold such gruesome spectacles - and to bet on their favourites. Six-day races were not, however, universally popular. They attracted volatile criticism in the press. Indeed, an American journalist, after witnessing one contest, wrote: "The poor jaded and abused bodies of the runners made me feel sick. The memory of them will play havoc with my sleeping hours for months to come."
The second-hand memory of those and other unfortunate "peds" did, however, inspire Peter Lovesey to frame the plot of his first Sergeant Cribb novel around a six-day race at the Royal Agricultural Hall, the venue where the great promoter of professional running in Victorian England, Sir John Astley, used to stage his showpiece events. Wobble to Death won the Macmillan crime novel award in 1970.
Littlewood's reward for his 1888 "wobble" in New York was an Astley world championship belt, a $4,400 prize and a $1,000 record bonus. Thousands lined the streets of Sheffield to witness his triumphal return. Sheffield, though, was not quite Littlewood's home. He was a native of Rawmarsh, the South Yorkshire mining village that, in 1988, was celebrating the Olympic silver medal winning success of another of its fleet-footed sons, Peter Elliott.
Littlewood, in 1888, was 29. Since taking his first steps as a competitive runner, winning the school cup for 100 yards at the age of nine, he had covered countless miles in racing and training.
He exercised three times a day, mixing running and walking, and completed in excess of 200 miles most weeks. The motivation, though, soon deserted him after his New York run. He hung up his battered racing shoes and, with his hard-earned winnings, bought himself a pub in Sheffield. The King's Head still stands today, on Attercliffe Road, in the shadow of the Don Valley Stadium, where the track stars of today can but dream of George Littlewood's record-book longevity.
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