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

develop subsequently.

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

like earlier.

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

attention.

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

form.

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

Yiannis Kouros.

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.

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