Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Running and the Dream of Horses

Last night in my dream I saw several horses running on two legs - their hind ones of course. It seemed that some horses had decided to become human too - they were hard to distinguish apart from being a bit taller. There was some sense that it was a bit unfair for them to take part in races with natural born humans... clearly need a session with a therapist, some unresolved competition issues!

I guess horses are the power animals par excellence for runners. In some parts of the world, humans have been living alongside horses for thousands of years, and must have always been impressed by their speed and endurance.  As formal athletics developed in the 19th century, human races were modelled on their animal counterparts - hence we have the steeplechase, and cross country developing from 'hare and hounds'. Sometimes humans have even tried their hand at racing horses - over longer distances the horse's advantage can decline.

The Western States 100 ultramarathon in California famously traces its origins to Gordy Ainsleigh running the 100 miles alongside the horses in the 1974 Western States Trail Ride. There's even a Man versus Horse Marathon (pictured above in June 2013), held every year since 1980 in  the Welsh town of Llanwrtyd Wells - though it took until 2004 for a human to win the race.

On the subject of horse dreams, here's one of my favourite songs - Judy and the Dream of Horses by Belle and Sebastian. Of course the band have also some written some great songs about running.

Friday, 18 October 2013

Friday Photos (8): Why is the last mile the hardest mile? - Jim Peters Collapses in Vancouver 1954

'Why is the last mile the hardest mile? My throat was dry, with the sun in my eyes'
(The Smiths, Is it really so strange)

Hackney-born Jim Peters (1918-1999) was the fastest Marathon runner in the world for much of the early 1950s, breaking the world record four times in that decade. In 1953 he was the first runner to complete a marathon in  under 2 hours 20 minutes, setting the record in the Polytechnic Marathon from Windsor to Chiswick, West-London. He set a new record in the same race the following year, winning in 2 hours 17 minutes 39 seconds.

But probably his most famous race ended in a DNF. In the 1954 Empire Games in Vancouver, Peters entered the stadium 17 minutes ahead of the second place runner. But suffering from heat stroke and dehydration, Peters began to stagger and fall. He struggled on for 11 minutes, covering just 200 yards, before the team masseur intervened and called a stretcher. 

There is BBC footage of the Vancouver race; and Pathe News footage of his 1954 Marathon world record.

Jim Peters after setting world record in 1954

Previously in the Friday Photos series:

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Running Books: The Ghost Runner - John Tarrant (1932-1975)

'The Ghost Runner: the Tragedy of the Man they Couldn't Stop' by Bill Jones (Mainstream Publishing, 2011) is the story of English runner John Tarrant.  Fundamentally it is the rather sad tale of a talented and (obsessively) committed long distance runner failing to achieve his potential, at least partly because of class, power and bureaucracy. But it is also about a refusal to submit to other people's rules and to keep on running - whatever the cost.

Tarrant, born in Camberwell in 1932, had a tough childhood marked by the death of his mother from TB and years in a brutal children's home during the Second World War. A spell as a teenage boxer in Derbyshire brought little success and a total of £17 prize money - but under the strict rules on amateurism enforced by the Amateur Athletics Association this was enough to prevent him taking part in any mainstream athletics events. These pernicious rules not only banned runners like Tarrant who had earned pocket money in unrelated events as a young person, but also enforced a boycott of people like him by other athletes. Athletes could lose their amateur status if they were found to have taken part in any competition with somebody who wasn't  an ameteur.

Banned from officially taking part in races, Tarrant started turning up anyway and running without a race number.  Gate crashing events like the 1956 Liverpool marathon and the following year's Doncaster-to-Sheffield Marathon led to him being nick-named 'The Ghost Runner' by the press. Official results left out his name -  the AAA didn't recognise him as a runner - but his cause generated lots of supportive publicity.

John Tarrant running without a number
After a couple of years the AAA appeared to back down and allowed him to run in its events - but his hopes of an international career were dashed when they later announced that he was still banned from taking part in events outside of the UK under IAAF rules. Taking up ultra-distance running, John Tarrant set world records at 40 miles (in 1966) and at 100 miles in 1969, running 400 laps of a track at Walton-on-Thames. Tarrant won the Exeter-to-Plymouth 44-mile-race five years in a row from 1965 to 1969, as well as the London-to-Brighton 54-mile race in 1967 and 1968 (running for Salford Harriers). He had expected that winning the latter would lead to him being sponsored to take part in the Comrades Marathon in South Africa,as had happened to previous winners), a 56-mile road race, but the IAAF ban excluded him from this. Tarrant resumed his ghost runner tactics and turned up anyway to run this 56-mile race between Pietermaritzburg and Durban in 1968. He came 4th but once again was expunged from the official record.

Taking part in this event had unexpected consequences. On the day he wasn't the only unofficial runner - there were several black and Indian runners who ran but who were also denied recognition - this was a Whites Only race at the height of Apartheid in South Africa.  Under the Separate Amenities Act, it was illegal for black and white athletes to even share changing rooms and other facilities.

A Natal Runners Association had been formed in the late 1960s to fight the racist exclusion of black athletes from the Comrades race. In 1970 they decided to put on a non-segregated 50 mile race of their own, and to make it a genuinely multi-racial event they needed to attract white runners. In the 1970 Comrades Marathon, 'scores of white runners had worn black armbands in support of the black athletes competing alongside them as numberless ghosts' (Jones), but only one white runner was prepared to actually run in the non-segregated Goldtop race in 1970 - John Tarrant, who finished first that year and the following year.

Tarrant continued running until his death from late-diagnosed cancer in 1975 at the age of 42.

Tarrant (left) after winning the 1968 London to Brighton run, with runner-up T.R.Baker
(see pathe news reel of this race)

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Songs about Running (1): Fugazi's Long Distance Runner

There are thousands of songs with running in the title, but most most of them aren't really about running. More about fleeing - running from commitment, running from danger, running for the hills...

But Fugazi's post-hardcore anthem Long Distance Runner, from their 1995 album 'Red Medicine',  sounds like it was written by someone who knows what they're talking about. Not sure who in Fugazi was a runner, but pretty sure somebody must have been. I guess you could draw a link between songwriter Ian MacKaye's straight edge philosophy (no drink, no drugs) and a hardcore fitness regime. The opening line of this song would make a great name for a running blog, if anyone fancies starting another one!

The farther I go the less I know
One foot goes in front of the other
It all boils around to not hanging around
To keep moving in front of the gravity
The answer is there the answer is there
but there is not a fixed position
It keeps moving along so I keep coming along
and that's why I'm a long distance runner
and if I stop to catch my breath
I might catch a piece of death
I can't keep your pace if I want to finish this race
My fight's not with it
It's with the gravity
Long distance runner

Friday, 4 October 2013

Friday Photos (7): Lillian Board (1948-1970)

One of my earliest childhood sporting memories is the death of Lillian Board. A runner at 100m, 200m, 400m and 800m, she was only 19 when she won a silver medal running for Great Britain in the 400m in the 1968 Mexico Olympics. 

Colette Besson (left) narrowly beat Lilian Board in 400m in Mexico in a fantastic finish

The following year she won gold in the 800m at the European Athletics Championships in Athens (pictured below), and another gold as part of the world-record setting women's 4 x 400m relay team. 

 She was a massive star in Britain with a great career seemingly ahead of her, but sadly she died in December 1970 at the age of 22 from bowel cancer.

Lillian Board and team mate Janet Simpson training in Mexico in 1968

Front cover of Athletics Weekly, September 28 1968: left to right: Maureen Tranter, Anita Neil, Lillian Board, Janet Simpson - the 4 x 100m team in Mexico 1968 (they came 7th)

Lillian Board was featured on the BBC's Desert Island Discs in 1969. The songs she chose were:

Mikis Theodorakis - Title Theme (from Zorba the Greek)
Simon & Garfunkel - A Poem on the Underground Wall
Nat King Cole - When I Fall in Love
The Sandpipers - Guantanamera
Tom Paxton - The Last Thing On My Mind
Mason Williams - Classical Gas
Jack Jones - Without Her
Judy Collins - Both Sides Now

Lots more about Lillian Board here

Previously in the Friday Photos Series:

Thursday, 3 October 2013

Art of Atheltics (4): Daisy de Villeneuve's Run Colour Run

Designer/illustrator Daisy de Villeneuve has produced a series of portraits for her Great North Run Culture commission, Run Colour Run. They were inspired by photographs of people in and about the Run in 2012: 'I went around with my camera and I took photos of anyone I thought looked interesting. So, I’ve taken pictures of a whole range of people – not just the athletes and participants, but the hospitality staff, security, the Red Arrows, event organisers, people with their families, kids cheering on their dads, people in costumes, different characters that stood out to me. A lot of these will show up in my portraits.”

The portraits include Canadian paralympian Josh Cassidy, who has won the wheelchair race at the Great North Run three times (unfortunately he did not finish this year due to mechanical problems).

Josh Cassidy
Cassidy and US sprinter and Olympic silver medallist Ryan Bailey came to see their portraits at the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle when the exhibition opened. It's on there until November 3rd (admission free)

Ryan Bailey
Since 2005, a culture programme linked to the Great North Run has been commissioned every year, with works linking art and sport.

See also in the Art of Running series:

Jindřich Heisler, Czech surrealist
Chris Ofili - For the Unknown Runner
Martin Creed's Work 850