The Day Run

by Andy Milroy

“How far can a human run in the cycle of the sun” was the slogan of one notable 24 hour event in the 1980s which  neatly encapsulated the essence of the event. The 24 hour race has a natural quality to it that is missing from any other ultra event. The race limits are not delineated by some artificial construct of the human mind, like hours or kilometres or miles. The day has been an integral part of the cycle of life for eons, affecting the existence of all living creatures and plants.

The early history

Man’s running has always been tied to this daily cycle of the sun. In the distant days of prehistory  hunters would follow the trail of  their prey until dusk, sleeping on the animal’s tracks until sunrise when their pursuit could continue. Until settlements grew up and running messengers were required to carry urgent information between home­steads and villages actually running at night was not necessary or desirable.

The hemerodromoi of Ancient Greece was the most famous of these early running messengers. The word “hemerodromoi” appropriately actually means  “day run­ners”.

 

It is from this period that come some of the earliest known records of distances covered within a day. A Plataen named Euchidas ran from his home town to Delphi, returning the same day, covering a distance of about 1,000 stades, which is approximately 182km/113 miles  in 479 B.C. According to Pliny the Elder, some time around 325 B.C., Philonides, the hemerodromos of Alexander the Great, seems to have run the 1,200 stades (219km/136 miles) from Sicyon to Elis in a day,  though the account of the run is not clear.

 

A Manx walker, Alswith, son of Hiallus-nan-ard, took part in one of the earliest challenges to cover a specific distance within a day . This took close to 1300 years later , around the tenth century A.D., on the Isle of Man, a small island situated between England and Ireland. Alswith undertook to walk around all the churches on the island in one day. The roads were very rough and there were many churches on the island. Alswith had almost completed his task, having covered around 70 miles/112km, when he fell exhausted. Alswith’s feat is commemorated annually in the Manx Parish Walk. Some two hundred years later in 1171 a shoemaker named Gilbert walked from Canterbury to London, 106.2km/66 miles in one day.

 

The actual 24 Hour challenge may be based on a tradition which has more to do with allocating land based on endurance. Leo Tolstoy retold an old Russian folk tale in his short story “”How Much Land Does a Man Need?” (1886) A Russian peasant travels to the land of the Bashkirs, a Turkic people, who lived on the slopes and confines of the southern Ural Mountains and the neighboring plains. The peasant was told he could have as much land as he could walk around in one day, but he must get back to the place he started from before the sun set he would lose his money. In his greed he tries to encircle too much land and dies from exhaustion trying to get back to the starting point.

This traditional way of allocating land appears not to be just limited to the Bashkirs. When Norse settlers came to Iceland in the ninth century the leaders staked out estates, as much land as they could walk around in one day.

(The Lakeland 24 Hour record in Britain is based on the same premise – unless the runner returns to his start point before the completion of 24 hours the additional peaks he may have covered within the 24 hours do not count towards a new record. The current record of 77 Peaks covering a total distance of approximately 109 miles was achieved by Mark Hartell in 1997.)

The first successful 24 hour run, in something approaching modern terms, took place in the fifteenth or sixteenth cen­tury.  One of the running couriers, or peichs of the Turkish Empire made a wager to run from Constantinople to Adrianople, approximately 200km /125 miles, between two suns (i.e.within 24 hours). The peichs were usually Per­sians by birth. They would normally carry mes­sages between the two cities in two days and two nights. These running couriers always ran in bare feet. Their feet were reputed  to be so hardened by this, that the peichs reportedly had themselves shod, like horses, with light iron shoes!  It is not recorded whether the peich undertaking the wager  wore iron shoes; fortunately his win is, despite the heat of an August sun.

 

Footmen and Pedestrians

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries modern competitive long distance running began to develop in the British Isles. By the early eighteenth century various running footmen in service to the nobility of the period had reputedly covered more than 100 miles in 24 hours. Most notable among these were Owen M’Mahon, an Irish footman, who was recorded as running the 112 miles/180km from Trillick to Dublin in about 1728, and Beau Nash’s footman, Bryan, who reportedly ran from London to Bath , 107 miles/172km,  more than once in 1732.

 

Perhaps the earliest British 24 hour match took place in June 1754. For a “bett” of 50 pounds John Cook undertook to walk or run 100 miles/160km. He  was taken ill after 12 hours and 60 miles/96km,and forced to forfeit the wager. However John Hague, another Briton, was more successful eight years later when he completed 100 miles in 23 hours 15 minutes.

 

The idea of the lone athlete in a match against time continued for many years. Foster Powell, the great pedestrian of the eighteenth century, set out from the Falstaff Inn, Canterbury, to go to London Bridge and back,  in September 1787, a distance of some 112 miles/180km in 24 hours. He won his wager with ten minutes to spare, despite being given brandy instead of wine on the return journey,

 

The birth of the 24 hour race

The first actual 24 hour race, to cover as great a distance as possible in a day, was probably in October 1806. Abraham Wood and Robert Barclay Allardice, the two greatest pedestrians of the day, faced one another for the first and only time. Wood had run 40 miles in 4:56, in bare feet, wearing just flannel drawers and a jacket, so quickly that few horsemen could keep up with him. Allardice, his opponent, was better known as Captain Barclay, the name under which he competed in athletic matches. He was  one of the greatest athletic figures of the nineteenth century, who had walked 100 miles in 19 hours and run a quarter of a mile in 56 seconds. Partly because Wood hadn’t a backer willing to put up a big enough stake, the gentleman Barclay was not keen to race the professional Wood. However the race was arranged on the Newmarket to London Turnpike on a roped off mile when a Spitalfield publican came up with 150 guineas. The match was for 600 guineas a side and Barclay was allowed a generous handicap of 20 miles/32.1km. In other words Wood had to win by over 20 miles!

 

Arguably the first 24 hour race was the most successful yet seen in terms of the number of spectators who were determined to see the event. The race attracted the greatest crowd of people ever seen at Newmarket, which was a town   well known as a venue for horse racing, and thus used to large crowds.  “Carriages from barouche and four to the dicky cart, and the horsemen and pedestrian exceeded all accurate calculation.” A guinea was refused for a bed, all the inns were full, and even stables and haylofts were used profitably for accommodation.

 

In the period leading up to the race Wood had been 100 to 90 in the betting but at the start Barclay was five to two favourite.  Both men were dressed in the appropriate garb for such a race in that period, in flannel with no legs to their stockings. In the first hour Wood covered eight miles/12.8km to  Barclay’s six/9.6km. He had clawed back four of the 20 miles/32.1km he had given Barclay by the end of the third hour, and at 24 miles/40km stopped for refreshments. Some 16 miles/25.7km later, after just 40 miles/64km he retired from the match, amid great controversy. Apparently, after he had run 22 miles, some of his handlers had deliberately given him liquid laudanum, a form of opium. The `mastermind’ behind this fixing of the race is perhaps easy to work out. Wood’s Spitafield backer had never risked even 20 pounds on anything less than a certainty, and on the day of the race was betting on Barclay to win!

 

Potentially one of the great 24 hour races had become one  of its  greatest  anticlimaxes. It was a classic match between a faster runner over shorter distances pitted against a known stayer. Abraham Wood had run 50 miles in seven hours while in training, but had stopped in the dangerous, wet conditions while still fresh to avoid injury. However, the knowledgeable experts of the period  considered that it was very likely  that Barclay would have covered 135 miles/216km. This would have forced Wood to cover 155 miles/248km to win which would have been beyond him.

 

It was to be left to a hostler named Glanville to achieve the greatest distance  in 24 hours in this period, not Barclay or Wood. Glanville agreed to walk 142 miles/227.2km in 30 hours for a wager of 80 guineas. (It was acceptable in those days  for a walker to run occasionally to ease cramp so his walk/run was described as “go-as-you-please.”) He set off at a brisk pace and later broke into a shuffling “walk” of six miles/10km an hour. Despite great difficulty, he eventually won his wager, on the way covering 117 miles/187.2km in 24 hours.

 

The Napoleonic Wars, during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, had been  a golden age  for the gentleman walkers and runners. However as the new century progressed their premier challengers, the  pedestrians, as the professional athletes were now known, had the field to themselves. This was to be so for the next 25 years or more, but the pedestrians often found the financial  rewards were small. In 1823 Russell, a  young Irishman  undertook a match  to cover a specific distance within  24 hours.  The interesting thing about  this performance was that he had to cover  100 Irish miles  (an Irish mile being 2,240 yards/2048 metres). He reportedly succeeded, thus cover­ing 127 miles 480 yards/204.825km.

 

Only one pedes­trian was reported to have surpassed this mark, as far as I know, prior to the great revival of ultra-walking and running in the 1870s.  On the Helston road in Cornwall, well away from the gaze of the knowledgeable, a professional named Swain was said to have achieved 130 miles/209.2km in 24 hours 5 minutes in 1856, this merely for a collec­tion, not even a substantial wager.

 

The First Women 24 Hour Performers

There is very little recorded of early female performances in the event, though obviously women also had to cover long distances on foot as part of their ordinary lives from earliest times. Women first appear in the history of the 24 hour in the mid eighteenth century  when in July 1765, a young woman went a distance of 72 miles/115.8km from Blencogo to within two miles of Newcastle in one day. Later, in May 1827, on a half-mile stretch of the Carlisle Road,  Mary McMullen,  apparently about 60 years old, set out to walk 92 miles/148km in 24 hours. She subsequently made good that challenge, covering the distance with 31 minutes to spare.

The 6 Day Boom

Russell’s walk had been around the Basin in Dublin, a 529 yard/483 metre course, and all the previous 24 hour  marks had been set on the road. One man was to be responsible for the event  moving to the track. American Edward Payson Weston   in December 1874 succeeded in accomplishing a feat which had been long regarded as impossible, of covering 500 miles/804.6km in 6 days.  His success generated so much interest  that the era of the professional  6 day racing was born.

 

Success had not come easily to Weston. Prior to his December walk he had failed to cover 500 miles three times in 1874. Reputedly he had failed to cover l00 miles/160km in 24 hours 47 times in the 1860s before finally succeeding! However in his earlier failures to cover 500 miles, Weston had covered 112 and 115 miles [180.2km and 185km], on the first day of his attempts, to set new world 24 hour track bests. Riding on the interest generated by the 6 day racing boom, other walk­ers were to improve on this. Briton Harry Vaughan reached 120 miles/193.1km in a 24 hour race, and in a 26 hour event fellow countryman Billy Howes produced a daily split of 127 miles/204.3km.

 

The 24 hour record began to really take on a modern look when British runners George Hazael and subsequently  Charles Rowell took the best mark  from 133 miles/214km to 150 miles 395 yards /241.763 km in the first day of  6 day races. Rowell’s style was well suited to such a event, being described as an  incessant  “dogtrot”. His 24 hour mark is even more remarkable in that he only took 22:28:25. If he  had continued for the full 24 hours at the same speed he would have gone over 160 miles/257km. This was perfectly feasible because after a mere three and one half hours of sleep, he went to subsequently set new world bests at 48 hours of 258 miles/415km and 72 hours, 353 miles/568km later in the race!.

 

Female pedestriennes were keen to get in on the act too, and ultra walking events for women were not uncommon.  In 1877 Mary Marshall achieved 90 miles/144.8km in Boston in a 100 mile match against time, to set what may have been the best female 24 hour track mark. It was left to American Amy Howard, the greatest of the women pedestriennes to tackle the 6 Day, to push the 24 hour mark out to 95 miles/ 152.887km,   the best distance of the century  This was her split in a 6 day race in San Francisco, and obviously 100 miles was within her capabilitie, in one day event.

 

The great interest in professional long distance endur­ance contests inspired amateur athletes to tackle such events  Britons John Fowler-Dixon and F.M. R. Dundas contested a 100 mile walking match in August 1877, in which the former became the first amateur to cover 100 miles in 24 hours. In the United States J. Bruce Gillie, a Scotsman , improved on this with 108 miles/173.8km, and then another British walker Archibald Sinclair covered 120 miles/193.1km at Lillie Bridge in London  in 1881. Yet another Briton, James Saunders,  came over to New York the following year, and in a race in the American Institute Ring, ran 120m 275 yards/193.372km, apparently non-stop. The final word by the walkers, at least in absolute best terms, was 131 miles 580 yards /211.354 km by Tommy Hammond of the Britain in 1908.

 

Arthur Newton  and Wally Hayward

Hammond’s walking mark was to stay as the best mark by an  amateur  for over 40 years, and for an even longer period the professional best remained with Rowell. It was Arthur Newton, the greatest ultrarunner of the 1920s, who was to take up the 24 hour challenge. New­ton had made his name with wins in the early days of the Comrades Marathon in South Africa, before coming over to Britain to set road bests for the London to Brighton and the Bath Road 100 Miles. He then turned professional and attempted to exploit his fitness in the 1928 Trans-continental Pyle race across the United States. He was hit by injuries in that race and in the subsequent event in 1929. Along with other veterans of the two races he remained in training, and made a limited career as a professional athlete in 500 mile relays, snowshoe races, and even 6 day races against horses! The professional 24 hour world best attracted Newton, and he decided to have a crack at it even if he had to pay for the privilege, which in the end he did.

 

He promoted an indoor 24 hour in Hamilton, Ontario in Canada in April 1931, at the age of 47.  The track was specially built but was small, with 13 laps to the mile, but its design incorporated square corners to offset dizziness. The early pace was cut out by a fellow veteran of the Pyle races, Australian Mike McNamara, who  picked up world bests for 30 and 40 miles before he  continued on  to 100 miles in a little over 14 hours. At this point McNamara  stopped for a bath while Newton continued to circle the small track until the Australian  returned. His return was to be delayed for some 20 minutes because McNamara was seized by cramp. Newton felt he was honour bound to take the same length of time off the track  over his bath. This gesture, in fact, served no useful purpose since McNamara retired from the race soon after. Thus Newton was left well in the lead, aiming “to travel with the most perfect rhythm” he was capable of achieving. He had covered 152 miles 540 yards /245.113 km  by the time the full 24 hours had elapsed.

 

The women’s 24 hour  was to be raised to new heights by  another South African based runner. Geraldine Watson was a very tough individual who would set off on very long walks  – 200 miles/320km  was quite an ordinary sort of distance for her -  with only a small automatic pistol for protection. Watson  had run the Comrades in 1932 and ’33, and then decided to enter a 100 mile road race  organized at Durban in 1934 .  The race was held on a circular road course, in perfect weather  for the first nine hours. The event was then hit by rain and gale force winds. Despite these conditions, Watson clocked 22 hours 22 minutes to become the first woman ever to cover 100 miles in 24 hours..

 

Arthur Newton moved to Britain permanently after the Second World War and persuaded the Road Runners Club to  promote  an amateur  24 hour event. The great South African runner  Wally Hayward had come to England with the intention of setting new records for the Brighton and Bath Road races. After he had successfully completed these tasks, Newton persuaded him to stay on and tackle the RRC 24 hour.

The 24 hour was new territory for all the runners who lined  up at the start of the Motspur Park event  in November 1953. It had been initially suggested that Hayward should be opposed by paarlauf teams of two, running as a relay,  but the  Road Runners Club decided to make it a straightforward race. In the Hamilton indoor race Newton had reached  the 100 mile point  in less than 15 hours; in the Motspur Park race

 

Hayward blazed through the same distance in 12:46:34. It had been planned that Hayward would take a brief rest of ten minutes at this point but he  was so tired that he wanted to come off the track for a shower and a massage. It was only after half an hour that he finally rejoined the race. By then he had stiffened and was cold. He was forced to  run differently, he walked, then ran, then walked again before he finally got into a laboured running rhythm. He was to struggled on like this to the end. He described it later as running “like a pig with its snout to the ground”. Hayward had apparently been aiming for 170 miles/270km but he still fin­ished with a very credible 159 miles 562 yards /256.400 km. Derek Reynolds, the 50 mile record holder, took  second place, also passing Newton’s mark with 154 miles 1,226 yards /248.960 km. The Motspur Park race was also remarkable for the fact that the average age of its three finishers   was 44 years!

 

The Revival of the 24 Hour

Hayward’s  24 hour mark was to remain as a  sport­ing novelty for over a decade before a stalwart of the RRC, Don Turner,  began lobbying for the club to  revive  the event. A 24 hour race was originally scheduled for October 1969 but by general agreement this was changed to a 100 mile event instead. However eventually in November 1973, the RRC  put on the 24 hour event at the Walton track.

 

Since 1953 there had been other 24 hour races elsewhere in the world. New Zealander Denis Stephenson had run 142 miles/228.5km along the Auckland waterfront in 1963 and then subsequently had covered 131 miles/210.8km on the track the following year. In  1971 another pioneer  Italian Enzo Boiardi  had covered 211,831 km/131.6 miles  on the track at Piacenza, and earlier in 1973 Armando  Germani, another Italian, had run over 221.479km/137.6 miles at Trieste.  Later that year, in South Africa, Alan Ferguson covered  222.2km/138 miles . The time was ripe for a revision of the world best in the event..

 

The 100 mile track races that had been promoted by the RRC in the late 60s and early 70s had given British runners some experience of the stresses likely to be faced in a 24 hour race. It was a veteran of such races, a 41 year old Tipton miner, Ron Bentley, who seemed best prepared mentally. Passing 50 miles in 6:08:11 and 100 miles in 13:09:32 he did not stop at the latter distance, unlike Hayward.  Bentley only began to falter when he reached Derek Reynold’s British record of 248km/154miles.. With three and a half hours to go Bentley strained a muscle in his right leg and that, together with the torrential downpour of rain that happened  about the same time, reduced him to walk­ing, then running slowly.  The drive and concentration which had pushed him to break Hayward’s mark evaporated  on reaching the South African’s world best. In the last hour he just limped around the track with a blanket around his shoulders. He was only able to add two miles/three kilometres in that last hour, ending up with 161 miles 545 yards/259.603km.

 

It is interesting to speculate  what Newton, Hayward and Bentley could have achieved in a second or subsequent 24 hour races. Since these run­ners set their records, it has become obvious that competi­tors usually improve as they gain experience in the event. Jean-Gilles Boussiquet, for example,  improved with each of his first three track runs.

 

Following Bentley’s run there was no sudden great explosion of interest  in the event.  From 1973 until 1977 the 24 hour event  was still confined to just  Italy and South Africa until Tom Roden ran 156 miles/251km at the Crystal Palace in London in 1977, the best mark in the world since Bentley’s run. Then, gradually, 24 hour races began to appear all over the globe, in the United States, France, Rhodesia, and Czechoslovakia.

In the United States 24 hour races in the late 1970s were  often low-key affairs with informal lap recording. It was such  deficient re­cording that twice denied  Park Barner’s efforts from receiving due recognition, on the first occasion nullifying a U.S. record, and then subsequently in 1979 a possible world best with over 162 miles/261km. However, this confusion over recognition of world bests was to be eventually resolved when the following year one of the great figures of the event ap­peared, Frenchman Jean-Gilles Boussiquet.

 

Jean-Gilles Boussiquet

Boussiquet had formerly been  soccer player, and  had been running less than two years when in November 1979 he tackled the 257 Km /159 miles Millau-Belves race. Boussiquet  tied for second place in the race in 28:15:30. Three weeks later he tackled his first 24 hour,  on the road at Niort, where he was second with 139 miles/224km. He learned swiftly, and five months later at Coetquidan covered 162 miles /261km. This mark was not recognized for record purposes because no lap times were taken.

 

Boussiquet traveled to England  to ensure that the next time he set a world best it would be recognised. In October of that year at Blackburn, he  offi­cially broke Bentley’s record with 164 miles 192 yards /264.108 km. Obviously not content with that, a month later he returned to Niort to  set a new road best of 255km/158 miles.

 

Lausanne in  Switzerland in 1981 was the first major international 24 hour race  and saw a classic confrontation between Boussiquet, the 24 hour runner and perhaps the top 100km runner on the Continent, the Czech  Vaclav Kamenik. This match was reminiscent of that between  Captain Barclay and Abraham Wood  close on two hundred years earlier.

 

Kamenik naturally went out fast, clocking 7:34:58 for 100km  and 12:28:16 for the 100 miles, the fast­est  such split time  seen up until then in a 24 hour. The Czech had over-reached himself. Running a  beautifully paced race, Boussiquet surpassed all the other contenders and took the world best to new heights, adding eight kilometres/ five miles to the world best with a distance of 272.624 km/169 miles 705 yards.

 

1981 was perhaps the year that saw the event come of age. Three different runners covered more than 260km/162 miles in three different races that year. One such mark was by the 21 year old Mark Pickard, who set a new  British  record  of 263km/163 miles. Fourth in that race was Dave Cooper making his 24 hour debut,  the start of his remarkable career in the event.

 

Women take the 24 hours seriously

Women were encouraged to enter longer running events by the rise of the feminist movement in the United States in the early 1970s. Miki Gorman, a Japanese-American, clocked 21:04  in running a 100 miles in 24 hours in an indoor race in Los Angeles, setting a new track best.. Gorman  was  subsequently to  drop down to shorter distances, running the second fastest marathon ever in 1976 of 2:39:11 and  dominat­ed the American marathon scene in the ’70s.  Gorman’s world 24 hour mark did not remain on the record books for long; the following year a South African grandmother, Mavis Hutchison, ran 106 miles 736 yards /171.2 km. Hutchison had a subsequent career as a journey runner, and still holds the women’s best for the Trans-USA run.

 

Eight years later Marcy Schwam, one of the most prolific of the early female ultrarunners, extended the world track best to 113 miles/182.9km, taking en route new world bests at 50 miles, 100 km, and 100 miles. Other Americans Sue Ellen Trapp and Sue Medaglia continued to move the  world mark ever upwards in the early ’80s; in 1981 the latter covering 203.4km/126 miles

 

The British enter the fray.

That year had also seen one of the most competitive road 100 mile races of alltime when Briton Martin Daykin just beat his fellow countryman Dave Dowdle  by some 23 seconds (12:16:46 to 12:17:09)!. Dowdle had actually finished that race in fairly good shape but had just been unable to withstand Daykin’s finishing kick. It  was decided to promote a 24 hour  track race the following year to enable the two runners to compete in a longer event.  World and British record holders Boussiquet and Pickard were also invited to the race.

 

Weather conditions were wet and sometimes windy, but the fierce  competition did much to mitigate this. Mark Pickard  was an early leader, with Daykin and Dowdle a little way back.   Daykin then  began to push on with the intention of setting a new 200km best.. Boussiquet unfortunately had been taken ill soon after 100 km. Daykin retired at 200km, and Dowdle was left alone in the lead. He overcame a bad patch  and rallied as the 24 hour time limit approached. Even a late, very heavy  rain squall did not slow his determined drive to the finish. During  his bad patch, Ron Bentley and Jean-Gilles Boussiquet were seen urging him forcibly back on to the track  Dowdle’s  final distance of  274.480 km/ 170 miles 974 yards  was a new world best.

 

Dowdle  had trained hard for the event, his training peaking at 240 miles/380km  a week. His life prior to the race had consisted for many months of just running, eating, and sleeping, apart from when he was not putting in a  full day’s work as well. The race took place in May, and as part of preparation he had covered over 3000 miles/4800km since the previous Christmas  As a result this training he was able to complete the race without significant breaks,  moving at nine minute mile/5.6 minute kilometre  pace.

 

This race was also significant for another reason.  Behind  Dowdle was a battle between Lynn Fitzgerald and Ros Paul  The two women had contested the previous year’s London to Brighton race  with Fitzgerald  emerging  eventually as the winner. It was the first occasion British women had run  a track ultra. Fitzgerald was to dominate the women’s race, setting new world bests at 50 miles and 100 km. She had problems at 100 miles, but  rallied to set a final distance of  214.902 km/ 133 miles 939 yards, a new world best. Paul tracked her all the way, and also surpassed the previous world best with 129 miles/208km.

 

Three months later Ros Paul broke Fitzgerald’s  mark, covering  216.648 km/ 134 miles 1089 yards. Most remarkably this performance was set on day one of a 6 day race! Paul was to continue to set new world bests at 48 hours, and 6 days, too. Her performance was watched by an interested spectator, a certain Eleanor Adams.

 

Dowdle’s mark was to be surpassed on the road later that year at Niort by Bernard Gaudin of France, who recorded  274.715km/ l70 miles 1231 yards.

 

A Greek dominates the day run.

You may recall  the day runners of ancient Greece, the hemerodromoi who appeared earlier in this story of the 24. Perhaps this where the story comes full circle. Most famous of the hemerodromoi  was Philippides, better known to history as Pheidippides. Philippides had run.from Athens to Sparta in 490 B.C to ask for the Spartans  to help fight against  the invading Persians. His Athens-Sparta run appears to be a historical fact, unlike the later run from Marathon to Ath­ens, which was added to the story many years afterwards.

 

Philippides’  famous run from Athens to Sparta was to become the basis for a race, the Spartathlon. In 1983 the first Spartathlon was won with great ease, by an unknown Greek named Yiannis Kouros. Since this unknown runner had managed to beat several very experi­enced 24 hour  performers and  cover the tough 245km/152 mile course in under 22 hours,  the sceptical were convinced  that he had cheated. Kouros was subsequently invited to compete in a  multi-day stage race along the Danube. There he proceeded to show his true credentials, decimating the  elite field.  In 1984, the following year he was invited to take part  in the New York 6 day race.

 

In  Kouros’ first ultra track race, he  covered 262km/163 miles the first day, 165km/103 miles the second, and 146.4km/91 miles the third. The knowledgeable members of the ultrarunning world waited for his inevitable retirement, but it did not happen. Yiannis Kouros shattered George Littlewood’s  96 year old  6 day record by 12 miles/20km!

 

Kouros  returned to the United States later that year to compete in a 24 hour road race at Queens, New York. He went through 100 km in 6:54:43 and 100 miles in 11:46:37, and achieved a finishing total of  284 km/177 miles, this despite taking a very leisurely 27:50 over his final  mile. Kouros  had added six miles/10km  to the 24 hour road best!

 

The following year the French Montauban 48 hour was endorsed as a champi­onship event. Kouros was invited since he had broken the 48 hour record en route in his 6 day run in New York. He did not make any concessions to the fact that he had a second day to run. In  23 hours  he covered 283.6 km/176 miles 388 yards. He then stopped for an hour’s rest, having easily broken the world track best.  He then continued to complete 281 miles /452 km to set a new world 48 hour best.

 

Tougher opposition faced him later in the year when he returned to New York, Hurricane Gloria. The Queens 24 hour one mile loop  was battered by five hours of 60 mph/100kmph winds, driving rain, and falling debris. In order to surpass  his previous road best set on the same course, Kouros was forced to use the whole 24 hours. His final total was  178 miles /286.463 km, another world best.

 

Fierce Female Rivalry

When Ros Paul broke the 24 hour track record in 1982, as I have said, it was under the watchful eye of Eleanor Adams. Adams herself took the record three years later with 138 miles 777 yards/222.8 km but  wanted to go further, to 140 miles. At Honefoss in Norway  the following year she  just missed out on breaking her own world best, but the indoor loop and tough marble slabs of Milton Keynes  gave her the opportunity to achieve her ambition.

 

Her most serious competition in the race would come from fellow countrywoman Hilary Walker. Walker  had set a new road best of 137 miles/220km in 1986  and  the  match between the two women was viewed with great anticipation They were only ten minutes apart at 100 km, but Walker was forced  to slow through a back injury. Adams pushed on to set a new absolute best of 141 miles 375 yards /227.261 km at the indoor venue. At Feltham on the road three months later Walker added three kilometres/two miles to that total, recording 143 miles 527 yards/230.618 km, and in 1988 improved her road best to 146 miles /236 km. Meanwhile the track best had been edging upwards; Belgian Angela Mertens  moved the world mark to  140 miles /226 km in the same year.

 

Adams was to have the final word in her competition with Walker. In 1989 she   traveled to Melbourne in Australia for a track 24 hour. There she averaged ten km every hour to finish with 149 miles 411 yards /240.169 km, her greatest 24 hour performance.

 

International Championships

In 1990 the first International Championship was held at Milton Keynes in Britain on an 890 metre loop indoors around the shopping mall. The Milton Keynes venue  offered protection from the vagaries of the weather,  but its merciless marble surface was very hard on the feet and legs. Perhaps the great­est 24 hour field  assembled up until that point contested the race. Don Ritchie  was among these runners. He  was widely regarded as one of the great 100 km runners, but  had a poor record at 24 hours. That was to change. He ran away from the rest of the field, passing 100 miles in 12:56:13 and 200 km in 16:31:08, achieving a  final distance of 166 miles 429 yards /267.543 km, a new indoor best. Eleanor Adams made a similar impact on the women’s race. She reached the  200km in  19:00:31,  the fastest yet on any surface, and her final distance of 147 miles 1408 yards /237.861 km  was second only to her own track record.

 

Kouros Returns To Set His Greatest Mark

At Surgeres, France in 1995, after a brief retirement, Yiannis Kouros returned to the ultra scene, this time as an Australian. He set a new world track best of 285.363km/ 177m555y in the first day of the 48 hour. The following year, feeling in excellent form, he moved the world best onwards at the Coburg track in Australia  to greater heights  with  294.104km/182m1316y

Kouros’ long stated aim had been to run 300 km in 24 hours. He was thwarted in  this ambition  in his next 24 hour by the very wet weather conditions in Canberra in March  1997,  but  still managed to set another world track best of 295.030 kilometers/183.3 miles. Still intent on 300km, and on hearing of the possibility  of better weather conditions for the Coburg race six weeks later, he made another attempt.

 

Until the 200km mark he  was moving well, but was then affected by back and knee injuries and forced to settle for a  final total of  266.180 kilometers.

 

He returned to  Surgeres in France for another attempt on the 48 hour best  but this was also hampered by injury. Sensibly he now took the time to fully recover from his injuries, staying in Europe during the summer. By October Kouros felt he was as ready as he would ever be. He entered the annual Sri Chinmoy 24 hour event in Adelaide. He was to there achieve his masterpiece  -  303.506km/188m 1308 yards. After the race  Kouros stated emphatically that he expected his world mark to last for centuries and that he would never race over 24 hours on the track again.

 

He could be right about his record lasting for centuries. His new world record is 17 miles/27.3 km greater than the next best 24 hour distance on record, a dominance perhaps matched only in athletics by Tomoe Abe’s 6:33:11.

 

Lomsky and Reutovich

The women’s 24 hour had been developing meanwhile. Sigrid Lomsky, a former stalwart of the German 100km team, set a new world road best of 151m706y/243.657km at Basle in 1993 to win the European Challenge  at the age of   51.. Her  mark was to be the undisputed world absolute best until Elena Siderenkova ran 248.901km/ 154. 6 miles in an indoor race at Podolsk in Russia in 1996. However this latter mark cannot be ratified..

In 1998 another Russian woman, Irina Reutovich, surpassed the world track best with  242.624km/150m1336y  in the national  championships in Moscow in  May.  Reutovich  established herself as the dominant female performer at the turn of the millennium. Howver a new performer was to emerge. Winner of the World 100km, Edit Berces moved up to the 24 hours and  forced the world best up to 250km on the track in 2002.

In May 1998,  Kouros had returned to the 24 hour event, this time on the road.. He ran 290.221km/180m589y at Basle in Switzerland, to set a new world road best. Then in Marquette, France in August that year Belgian Lucien Taelman ran the greatest distance yet seen in an international championships 267.626km/166m519y. In 1999 Kouros ran 269km/167 miles and 262km/163 miles one week apart. Perhaps on recent form it could be argued that as he begins to move towards his 50th birthday  his margin of superiority over other runners will naturally start to  decline. As yet however there is no one who looks likely to challenge his dominance. One interesting feature of the 2004 season has been the dominance of the Japanese. Will they have the organisation and talent to close the gap on Kouros?

The Future

As to the future?  For years top female ultrarunners have thought that 160 miles (258 km) is within their  capabilities. With good  competition and conditions such a distance could well be feasible in the next few years. Bearing in mind how effectively the rivalry between Adams and Walker drove up the record in the 1980s, perhaps two well matched adversaries could provide the necessary competitive drive.  The Japanese runner,    Sumie Inagaki has already set a new world 48 hour track best of  382.416km/237 miles 1095 yards in 2006.   This is excellent preparation for an assault on Berces’  250.106km/155 miles 719 yards world track best, and pushing the absolute best out to 260km plus.

 

Closing the huge gap between the top male 24 hour performers and Kouros’ world track best is a much tougher task. To achieve this regular truly global competition is necessary, perhaps over many years. Already the Japanese. suited by their endurance traditions, have become dominant in the international championships, and the young Russian, Denis Zhalybin ran 282.282km/175 miles 707yards in 2006, so the 280km barrier is already under pressure.

 

The Appeal and Challenge of the 24 Hour

The 24 hour  event  is far more, however, than just the history of its record holders.

A 24 hours is more difficult  to organize than a 100 km for example, yet there are around 200 day races held each year, which indicates its  popularity. The fact that a day is natural block of time, familiar to all, means that  the idea of running for a whole day appeals to many people. To run for a few seconds, or a minute, or even for an hour offers no real challenge, but to run for a whole day, that is something quite different. In his book, Ultramarathon Jim Shapiro said, that the 24 hour race seemed a good tool “to pick up and use, to pry myself open to see what I am made of.”  The appeal to many is intellectual as much as it is physical.

 

There are so many variables in running a 24 hours making it very difficult, if not near impossible to get everything right, the pace, the food, the most suitable clothing, the correct permutation of running/walking strategies, all this before the  environmental variables, such as  weather, road and track surfaces etc , are even considered.

 

Few people have mastered the event. Too often success is followed by failure. The race is so complex that consistency is very difficult to achieve.  Dave Cooper of Britain ran his first 24 hour in 1981 but he was denied a fine debut by a forced retirement at 22 hours. However he had found an event at which he could excel. He became acknowledged as the expert on the event after completing thirty-five 24 hour races  at a remarkable average of 134 miles/215.6km. His greatest period was in 1989. In a l2 month period he ran seven 24 hour races, each over 140 miles/225.3km, with an average of 144 miles/231km. The following year he set a personal best of 155 miles/250km for a new world over 55 best, this after nine years in the event  Perhaps significantly this last mark was achieved with negative splits…

 

Yet despite all this success, Cooper then  hit real problems which he found hard to handle despite his vast experience. For many, this is the true fascination of the event. Nothing can be taken for granted, no assumptions can be made. If a runner emerges from a  24 hour race unscathed, is it simply because he or she did not push hard enough, did not go close enough to her or his physical limits?

 

The correct pacing is crucial in a 24 hour run. Looking at performances of 260km/160 miles, there are  two schools of thought as to the best way to tackle the 24 hour monster. Dowdle, Barner, and Boussiquet favoured the even pace approach . (At Lausanne Boussiquet’s 50-km splits were 4:08:27,4:16:42, 4:15:13, 4:14:16, and 4:54:38) The other option is the fast 100 mile approach of Hayward, Kouros, and Ritchie. Most opt  for the middle ground, with splits at  100 mile in the range of 13:05 to 13:15,  compared to 14 hours plus for Barner and 13:30 for Boussiquet and Dowdle.

 

Interestingly Kouros himself has adopted different strategies over the years. The blazing pace of his early career, sub seven hours at 100km and sub  12 hours at 100 miles, have latterly been tempered to a much more even paced formula. His schedule is now so closely defined that errors in lap recording can be deduced from it  Perhaps responding to his experiences in the Westfield race, he would  reach 100 miles in around 12:10  and  200 km in around 15:20 – 15:50  before  pushing on to 280km  It is worth noting however that his more even pace schedule was still based on a faster start than either Hayward or Ritchie.. Significantly  when Kouros  went for broke, to get his long cherished 300km, he reverted to the fast start. Although he only reached 100km in 7:15, the 100 miles took just 11:57:59, and 200km  15:10:27. His final 100km was close to nine hours.

 

To get on terms with Kouros’ road best, using an even pace schedule,  a faster average speed than Boussiquet or Dowdle  would be  required – around say 12:30 for 100 miles and under 16 hours for 200km.

However for elite 24 hour performers seeking to run the optimal performance there can be further complications.  Championships at national and international level. The 24 hour as an ultrarunning chess game, where  the rooks, bishops and pawns are one’s mental and physical resources, becomes even more complex with the additional pressures of maintaining the optimal pace in sometimes difficult conditions whilst sustaining an adequate drinking strategy. Then add to that the need to take into account the needs of your national team!

Since the first amateur  24 hour race back in 1953 the event has come a long way, from a  test of survival to a test of self-knowledge, tactics, and experience. However, the 24 hour  remains a knife-edge run; the modern hemerodromoi strain to achieve their  optimal speed, whilst risking the ever-present possibility of the crash into the abyss of fatigue, injury, and exhaustion. That is the fascination and the attraction of the 24 Hour race.

 

 

An abbrievated record progression

 

The first man reputed to have covered 100 miles under competitive conditions was the British pedestrian John Hague in 1762. The first track performance of 110 miles was by Edward Weston (US) in 1870 in New York. The first over other significant distances is shown below.

miles   yds km

120 miles Harry Vaughan (GBR)  London W I 1876

200km Billy Howes (GBR) London W I 1878 127 1210  / 205.493

130 miles George Hazael  (GBR) London I 1879 133 110/   214.144

140 miles Charlie Rowell (GBR) London I 1880 146 251/  235.194

150 miles Rowell (GBR) New York I 1882 150 395/   241.763

250km Wally Hayward (RSA) London T 1953 159 562/  256.400

160 miles Ron Bentley (GBR) Walton T 1973 161 545/  259.603

260km Park Barner (USA) California T 1979 162 537/ 261.204

270km Jean-Giles Boussiquet (FRA) Lausanne T 1981 169 705/ 272.624

170 miles Dave Dowdle (GBR) Gloucester T 1982 170 974/  274.480

280km Yiannis Kouros (GRE) New York R 1984 177 /    284.853

180 miles Kouros (AUS) Coburg T 1996 182 878/293.704

300km                    Kouros                                    (AUS)  Adelaide          T  1997   186 1038/  303.506

W = walking performance. I = indoors. T = track. R = road.

 

Note that Hazael and Rowell’s marks were splits in a 6 day race.

 

Women

24 Hours

90 miles          Mary Marshall                   (USA)                 Boston               IT  1877

100 miles       Geraldine Watson            (RSA)                 Durban                R 1934

110 miles       Marcy Schwam                 (USA)                Woodside, Cal    T .1979    113m1183y/182.937km
120 miles        Sue Ellen Trapp                (USA)                 Miami                  T 1980      123m 593y/198.491km
200km             Sue Medaglia                    (USA)               Greenwich, Conn  T .1981   126m 749y/203.462km
130 miles        Lynn Fitzgerald                  (GBR)                Gloucester            T .1982    133m 939y/214.902km
210km             Ros Paul                             (GBR)               Nottingham            T 1982     134m1089y/216.648km
220km             Adams                                 (GBR)               Nottingham           T 1985     138m 777y/222.800km

140 miles       Adams                                (GBR)                Milton Keynes      IR  1987    141m 375y/227.261km

230km            Hilary Walker                      (GBR)                Feltham                 R  1987    143m 527y/230.618km

240km            Adams                                (GBR)                 Melbourne           T  1989      240.169km/149 miles 411 yards

150 miles       Sigrid Lomsky                     (GER)                Basle                   R  1993      243.657km/ 151 miles 1713 yards

250km            Edit Berces                         (HUN)                 Verona                 T  2002       250.106km/155 miles 719 yards

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5 Comments on History of the 24hr race

  1. [...] History of the 24hr race [...]

  2. norm eburne says:

    Fascinating stuff!
    Is this for sale anywhere between covers?
    I’m teaching a track coaching class this winterand will rer the class to you material.

    norm eburne

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  3. debbie shaw says:

    I spent many a childhood day watching my dad Ken Shaw take part in many a long distance race, even sleeping on the steps of crystal palace with my 3 brothers while our dad Ken Shaw took part in many an ultra distance race. Theses were dads happiest days, even now he speaks about them with great joy.

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  4. I do not even understand how I stopped up here, however I thought this post was once great. I do not know who you’re but certainly you are going to a well-known blogger in case you are not already ;) Cheers!

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  5. goth shop says:

    This site was… how do you say it? Relevant!! Finally I have found something that helped me.

    Appreciate it!

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