by Andy Milroy
Ultrarunning has been shaped by a whole series of events and performances over the
years, some of which when they were run did not seem that significant
or important. With the benefit of hindsight such marks can be seen to
have pioneered new areas of the sport, or to have delineated how the
sport was viewed by outsiders, or to have determined how it was to
The earliest beginnings of the sport are not clear. The transitional
period between covering great distances on foot as a normal part of
everyday life, and the challenge of covering a specific distance in a
specific time was long and blurred.
THE FIRST 100 MILES IN 24 HOURS
The first time that 100 miles/160km was covered in 24 hours in
competition seems to have been in 1762 when Briton John Hague did so
in 23 hours 15 minutes, although obviously other individuals
achieved such a feat in undertaking the delivery of messages and the
FOSTER POWELL – THE FIRST ULTRA STAR
However, the first of the ultra stars was the Briton Foster Powell . He
gained fame when he walked from London to York and back in 1773, some
396 miles/637km in 6 days. This feat was undertaken for a wager of one
hundred guineas. He had great success as a professional ultra
performer or pedestrian, improving on the London to York feat on a
number of occasions, as well as tackling point to point challenges of 100
miles or more. Although Powell was primarily a walker, it was allowed in
those days to run to ease stiffness etc so his progress can best be
described as go-as-you-please.
THE INFLUENCE OF CAPTAIN BARCLAY
The next significant performance was Captain Robert Barclay Allardice’s
1000 miles in 1000 hours (a single mile completed in each of 1000 consecutive
hours) in 1808 at Newmarket in England. This performance was to make a
profound impact on the sport, and variations on the “Barclay Match” were to
be attempted throughout the century, one of the greatest exponents being William
Gale in 1880. It was attempting variations on Barclay’s feat that brought Ada
Anderson, one of the great women pedestrians of the late nineteenth century, to the public’s
Barclay had a profound impact on athletics generally and his
training methods, involving purging and sweating, and the eating of
meat, were widely used throughout much of the century.
EDWARD PAYSON WESTON OPENS THE DOOR TO THE 6 DAY CRAZE
The sport was to be re-invented by the next feat to capture the public
attention. American Edward Payson Weston succeeded in covering 500
miles in 6 days in 1874, an accomplishment which had previously eluded
the great ultra performers of the nineteenth century. Weston’s
competitions with Daniel O’Leary to cover 500 miles or better in 6
days were to develop into the era of professional pedestrianism across the
English speaking world and beyond, with serious international
competition for substantial prize money attracting top athletes into
the sport. Amateurs were also inspired to set up their own ultra
competitions, though these only went as far as 24 hours.
CHARLIE ROWELL AND THE 24 HOURS
One of the great figures to emerge in this 6 day era was the Briton,
Charlie Rowell. Rowell would run hard for the first three days of such
an event and thus dominate the race from thereon. In February 1882 he
set out to produce the definitive 6 day performance. He went through
100 miles in 13:26, covered 150 miles/241km in 24 hours, and 258 miles/
415km in 48 hours. In the coming years of the new century, it was his
performances at 100 miles and 24 hours which were to be targeted,
though both marks were to last close to fifty years.
THE FIRST AMATEUR LONDON TO BRIGHTON RUNNING RACE
Frank Randall’s win in the first London to Brighton running race in 1899
provided a vital link between the pedestrianism of the Victorian Era and
the developments that were to come in the 1920s. It was his performance in that race,
and that of Len Hurst’s run of 1904 that was to be later targeted by
Arthur Newton and subsequently Hardy Ballington.
THE COMRADES AND ARTHUR NEWTON
The 6 day craze did not last long and by the early years of the
twentieth century the event had ceased to exist. The sport was to
re-invent itself, as it had before. Memories of covering great
distances on foot once more inspired competition. South African Vic
Clapham recalled the forced marches of the First World War and thought
it feasible that runners could cover the 50 mile plus distance from
Pietermaritzburg to Durban. In 1921 the first Comrades Marathon race was
held, but it was to be the second race, held the following year, that was
to have a real impact. Arthur Newton came onto the scene and won the race
by over twenty minutes.
It has been said that the Comrades made Newton, and Newton made
the Comrades. His commonsense training, compelling motivation and
the fact he took time to specialise in Ultrarunning meant that he
swiftly became regarded as “the athletic wonder of his age”. His
success in setting world road bests at 50 and 100 miles in Africa, led
to his travelling to Britain to set new marks there. His success, and
his subsequent professional career resulting from the American
Transcontinental races, gave him the authority to ensure the wide
dissemination of his ideas on covering great distances on foot.
Subsequently, after the Second World War he was to be one of the major
driving forces behind the birth of the Road Runners Club in Britain,
which did much to develop the sport, particularly through the
organisation of the London to Brighton from 1952 onwards.
THE IMPACT OF THE “TRANS-AMERICA” RACE VETERANS
1928 saw the first professional Trans-America race organised by C.C.
Pyle. This event and the subsequent race in 1929 created a nucleus of
highly trained ultrarunners who, despite the fact that their own impact
on the sport was to be dissipated by the Depression , were to inspire and
coach the leading endurance runners in the middle years of the 20th century.
THE PIONEERS OF MODERN WOMEN’S ULTRARUNNING
It is hard to pin down the next crucial performance. Over the years from
1912 to 1934 there were a whole series of ultra performances by women
which probably inspired one another. In 1912 Eleanora Sears covered
110 miles in 39 hours in California. Sears came from an affluent family,
and was a great sporting pioneer across a whole range of sports, from
tennis to horse riding. In 1920 a British woman, Miss W. Green,
complete with coat and cloche hat, walked the 50 miles of the Manchester
to Blackpool event in Britain. In 1923 a South African typist, Frances
Hayward, ran the Comrades in 11:35. In 1926 Eleanora Sears walked from
Providence to Boston in just over eleven hours, a feat she was to
improve on several times. In 1928 she walked the 74 miles from Newport
to Boston in 17:15. In 1932 and 1933 Geraldine Watson ran the Comrades,
and in 1934 she covered 100 miles in 22:22. These early performances
were well reported in the newspapers of the time, and almost certainly
Sears and Hayward were the inspiration behind Watson’s feats.
These pioneering performances made it clear that the ultras were an area
of human activity which women could successfully contest. This was in
contrast to track and field competition, where the longest women’s
running event was the 100 metres until 1948. It was not until 1960 that
the 800 metres was open to women in the Olympics, the 1500 metres
had to wait until 1972, and the women’s marathon appeared only as recently as 1984.
THE FIRST ULTRA OF THE MODERN ERA
After the Second World War, in September 1946, Canadian Norman Dack
won a 50 mile race in Finchley, North London, England. This race was
significant in that it was the beginning of a whole series of British
ultra races over the next thirty years, usually held in London, which
were to revolutionise the sport. Many amateur track marks, dating back to the
heighday of the 6 day races in the nineteenth century, were modernised.
The Finchley race was also significant in that it was held on a loop
course. This was a major change from the earlier point to point events,
and was an indicator of the future development of the sport.
THE IMPACT OF THE FIRST MODERN LONDON TO BRIGHTON RACE
The next significant performance was the win by Lewis Piper of Britain
in the 1951 London to Brighton. Intrinsically Piper’s performance was
not noteworthy, but by establishing that British runners could
successfully contest the Brighton distance, his win ensured the race
would be put on again the following year. To do that, the Road Runners
Club [RRC] was formed, and a great force for the future development of
Ultrarunning was created.
THE FIRST MODERN 24 HOUR RACE
In 1953 Wally Hayward, the great South African ultrarunner, came over to
Britain. His main aim was to break the London to Brighton record, which
he did. After breaking the Bath Road 100 mile best, he was then
persuaded to stay on to contest the Motspur Park 24 Hours. The previous
24 hour race of note had been held indoors in Hamilton, Canada in 1931
to enable Arthur Newton to surpass Charlie Rowell’s 150 miles of 1882.
Thus it can be seen that the 24 hours had a very brief history. Despite
inexperience in the event,Hayward managed to grind out 159 miles/
256km. His mark was to be the start of the 24 hour event in its modern
THE BIRTH OF EUROPEAN 100KM RUNNING
100km walking races had been held for many years, and the
inaugural Biel 100km race in 1959 in Switzerland was just another such
race. However in 1960 it was changed to a go as you please race, and the
first of the European 100km running races came into being. These races
were to develop the 100km as an event, though it was not until the mid
1980s that accurate measurement of such course became the norm. From
these events the World 100km Challenge was to emerge. The fact that such
races often had generous time limits, some as great as 24 hours, opened
up the sport to a much wider spectrum of competitors.
WOMEN CAN RACE ULTRAS!
American Natalie Cullimore’s 50 mile run in a world best time in California in
October 1970 did much to change the perceptions of both men and women as
to the capabilities of latter in ultradistance events. This was
reinforced the following year when Cullimore ran a world best 16:11 for 100 miles at
the same venue.
THE BEGINNING OF THE WESTERN STATES AND TRAILRUNNING
In 1974 Gordie Ainsleigh found himself without a steed in the annual
horse race from Lake Tahoe to Auburn in California so he decided to run the
course on foot. From this run developed the Western States trail 100
miler, which has done much to develop to the sport of Trailrunning in
the United States, which in turn has created interest in the trail
events elsewhere in the world.
MODERN MULTIDAY BEGINS
In April 1975 Siegfried Bauer of New Zealand and John Ball of South
Africa took part in a 1000 mile race from Pretoria to Cape Town. Bauer
won a close race in 12d21:46:30 and thus began the history of standard multiday
races in the twentieth century.
WOODWARD & RITCHIE: THE 100KM BECOMES A MAJOR EVENT
The 100km track record was 6:59, the actual distance covered in the
European 100km races was unknown. At Tipton, England in 1975 in a track
100 mile race Cavin Woodward went through 50 miles in 4:58:53, becoming
the first person to break 5 hours for the distance. He then clocked
6:25:28 for 100km, taking half an hour off the previous best. He then
`hung on’ for a further 38 miles to set a new 100 mile best of
11:38:54. With this single, dazzling performance, he opened up a whole new way
of looking at the longer ultras, and he also revolutionised the status of the 100km.
It was now a serious footrace. This fact was underlined three years later when Don
Ritchie broke Woodward’s record with 6:10:20. That mark still stands as
the absolute best for the event.
– AND FOR WOMEN TOO!
In 1976 Christa Vahlensieck of Germany, former holder of the fastest
time for the marathon, ran 7:50 for 100km. In the early ‘80s another
former marathon record holder, Chantal Langlace of France, ran under
7:30 twice on uncertified courses. These performances by world-renowned marathon runners
again added to the stature of the 100km as an event for both men and women.
MASS PARTICIPATION IN ULTRAS
The growth of distance running in the 1970s was to be echoed in the
ultras. In 1976 the JFK 50 mile, with over 1,700 entrants, had a larger field
than any American marathon. In 1978 the Comrades had over 2000 runners for the first time
[2,721 finishers], however such mass participation was to develop slowly
elsewhere in the world.
THE REVIVAL OF THE 48 HOURS AND 6 DAYS
Chinese-American Don Choi’s pioneering work in multiday races in 1979
and 1980 in California opened up a whole new branch of the sport.
Without his organisational and athletic efforts, there would probably be no present day
48 hour or 6 Day races. He was also to win the first 1000 mile road race on a loop
course held later that decade.
THE 24 HOURS COMES OF AGE
The 24 hours came of age as a competitive event in 1981. Perhaps the
event which crystallised this was the international track race held
at Lausanne in Switzerland where Jean Gilles Boussiquet of France
covered 169 miles/272km to set a new world best, becoming the first human
to sustain a consistent running pace through the entire 24 hours.
THE MODERNISATION OF THE 48 HOUR AND 6 DAY
The former glories of the 6 day event began to emerge when Briton Mike
Newton became the first man to cover 500 miles /800km in a modern 6
day race at Nottingham in November 1981. Five months later he took the
modern 48 hour race best to 227 miles/365km. This marked the start of
rapid development in the `new’ events – the following year Tom O’Reilly
took the 6 day total to 576 miles/927km, and Jean Gilles Boussiquet the
48 hour to 235 miles/379km.
MAJOR PRIZE MONEY ENTERS THE MODERN SPORT
1983 saw a major injection of prize money into the sport when the first
Sydney to Melbourne race took place. The race saw an unexpected win for
61 year potato farmer, Cliff Young, with a 58 year in second place, George
Perdon. The performances of Young and Perdon showed that older runners
could be very effective in multiday races.
THE SPARTATHLON AND YIANNIS KOUROS
Also in 1983 the first Spartathlon from Athens to Sparta in Greece was held. The
experienced ultrarunners agreed to allow the entry of a late entrant, a local Greek.
He won the race so decisively that questions were raised as to the legitimacy of his
run. These questions were later answered emphatically. The runner’s name was
THE 19TH CENTURY PEDESTRIAN RECORDS ARE SURPASSED AT LAST
1984 saw Charlie Rowell’s 48 hour mark surpassed after 102 years by
Ramon Zabalo of France,[260 miles/420km] and then George Littlewood’s 6
day mark was finally beaten by Yiannis Kouros.[635 mile/1022km]
THE BIRTH OF THE WORLD 100KM CHAMPIONSHIPS
In 1987 the first World 100km was won by Domingo Catalan of Spain. The
venue was one of the major European 100km, Torhout in Belgium. From this
beginning, year upon year would develop the World 100km Challenge, around
which the world ultra calendar is now built.
THE START OF INTERNATIONAL 24 HOUR CHAMPIONSHIPS
1n 1990 the first 24 hour international championships was held at Milton
Keynes, in Britain, thus establishing the global championship status of the
second of the two standard ultra events.
THE WORLD 100KM COMES TO NORTH AMERICA
In 1990 the World 100km left Europe for the first time and came to North
America. The race was held in Duluth, at the Edmund Fitzgerald 100km, and was
to mark the first national team competition in the World 100km.
AGE IS NO BARRIER
In 1993 51 year old Sigrid Lomsky of Germany ran 151 miles/243km to
set a new absolute world record in winning the European 24 Hour Challenge.
Her performance had a huge impact on older runners. It changed the way that
people approaching the age of 50 viewed their potential. American Sue Ellen Trapp,
already a world-record setter in her prime, was inspired to set new world bests at 48
hours while over the age of 50, and Frenchman Roland Vuillmenot ran 6:43
for 100km as a 50-year old. Briton Stephen Moore’s performances have subsequently shown
that ultrarunners could produce international class performances
consistently when over 50.
A WOMAN CLOSES IN ON SEVEN HOURS FOR THE 100KM
Later that year American Ann Trason set a new world 100km best of
7:09:44, ushering in the possibility of a woman running under seven
hours for the event. She came very close to making this a reality two
years later at Winschoten when she recorded 7:00:48 in winning the World
100km Challenge by over a half hour.
WORLD 100KM TRAVELS TO ASIA
1994 saw the World 100km event travel to Asia for the first time when
the race was held at Lake Saroma in Hokkaido, Japan. Almost overnight,
Japan blossomed as a new force in the sport.
KOUROS EXTENDS THE LIMITS OF HUMAN ENDURANCE
1997 saw the culmination of a series of successful attempts by
Yiannis Kouros to extend the limits of human endurance at 24 and 48 hours. He
ran an inconceivable 188 miles 1038 yards/ 303.506km more than 7 consecutive
marathons at an average pace of 3:21 per marathon. A year earlier he had set the
current 48 hour best of 473.797km/294.4 miles.