Got an Hour to Spare?

Running for an hour has a unique appeal to a distance runner. To run for a minute is a desperate sprint, to run for a day is an extreme test of endurance. Running for just sixty minutes is testing, yet achievable without serious discomfort. It is this simplicity that made the Hour one of the earliest recognized running events. The history of the Hour run disappears back into the distant mists of time, its early practitioners are legendary.

The first hour runner, whose name has been preserved, was Edward or Edmund Preston, a Leeds butcher. His usual racing distance was apparently ten or twelve miles/16-19.3km, the former event he easily ran in less than an hour. He flourished in the 1690's. In those days betting was the life-blood of the sport. Thus when Preston met the King's footman in a running match, five or six thousand people came to watch and bet. Many wagered all they had. Preston won and whole families were ruined. Some after wagering their horses on the result were forced to walk home.

Shortly after this race Preston was sent to London by a member of the nobility. There he stayed under a false name, claiming to be a miller. The stakes in these races were so high that Preston's noble patron arranged for him to be disfigured so that no one would recognise him (this was centuries before anesthetics of course). The noble lord then wagered that his 'miller' would beat another famous runner. This runner and his backers, eager to win the lord's money, readily agreed to race this unknown. Preston won of course, gaining many thousands of pounds for his patron.

Over the next fifty years such distance races became better recorded by the developing press. Standards improved but at a cost. In 1753 Woolley Morris ran 10 miles in 54:30, a new world best, only to burst a blood vessel and die within the hour. A few years earlier a well known Welsh runner, Guto Nythbran was reputed to run the 10.4 miles/16.7km from Newport to Bedwas in several minutes under the hour. He collapsed and died soon after the race, following an over enthusiastic slap on the back from an admirer. British distance runners learnt to pace themselves over the following century, but perhaps fearful of the fate of Morris and Nythbran, never approached their performances.

The Hour eventually began to develop once more in the 1840's, this time across the Atlantic. In October 1844 1,000 dollars was offered to the runner covering the greatest distance within an hour. The race was to be held on the Beacon course, at Hoboken, New Jersey (the course was a mile loop). A crowd estimated at 30,000 flooded the course, some breaking down the fences and getting in free.

The actual course was thronged with spectators and it took an hour before it could be cleared. Thousands of dollars were wagered. The prize had attracted several runners from Britain, and amongst the Americans were a number of native Americans. An Englishman, Greenhalgh, led through 10 miles in 57:01.5 but he couldn't resist the final surge of American John Gildersleeve the winner, with a final distance of 10 miles 955 yards/16.966km. The obvious success of this promotion encouraged others to put on similar races. British runners went over to compete in the States on several occasions. One of the most successful was William Howitt, who ran under the name of William Jackson for family reasons.

Back in England on the Hatfield turnpike, two miles from Barnet, Howitt met one of his arch rivals, William Sheppard. The race was to decide who had the right to claim to be the Champion runner of England. Crowds came from as far away as Sheffield, Birmingham and Manchester. The course was far from easy. The road was a hilly one mile between two milestones and the runners had to stop and turn at each milestone. The two men ran the first mile in 5:05, and reached five miles in 26:17. Sheppard led at 10 miles in 53:35, the fastest time yet. At that point he collapsed. Howitt pushed on to become the first man to cover 11 miles in the hour, 11 miles 40 yards/17.739km according to one account.

By the 1850's the success of such races meant there were a dozen or so running tracks established in the major industrial cities. The railways made for the easy transportation of large crowds, thus making such tracks profitable. The owners of the tracks were often the landlords of nearby or adjoining public houses. The matches between two or more runners would be made there, and the publican would act as stakeholder and referee. The tracks were not much like modern ones, often irregular in shape and size and sometimes lined with trees that obstructed the view of spectators.

In 1861 this English running scene was shaken by a challenger from America, Louis Bennett, better known as 'Deerfoot'. Deerfoot was a member of the Eagle tribe of the Seneca nation. His appearance caused a sensation. He ran in a beech-clout, with moccasins on his feet. He was defeated in his first race, hardly surprising after being cooped up on a long trans-Atlantic crossing. Thereafter he produced a number of fine performances, disrupting the pace of the English runners with sudden surges. He was a popular attraction and even the ladies came to watch him. This was most unusual as running tracks were considered to be brutal rough places. His naked chest and short beech-clout was regarded too revealing for such genteel spectators, and so he ran in a guernsey and long drawers.

In his last race on British soil Deerfoot was matched against William Lang, the latter receiving a handicap of 100 yards. It took the Seneca Indian ten miles to get on even terms with Lang, his time being 51:26, the fastest yet achieved. Lang won by half a yard, but Deerfoot, having started from scratch, achieved a great hour record of 11 miles 970 yards/18,589km. Deerfoot had done much to popularise distance running and had even performed in front of the Prince of Wales.

In the following decade the amateurs began to emulate the professional feats. The greatest of these was Walter George. He never succeeded in surpassing Deerfoot's mark in competition. However, in those days time trials were an accepted part of training. In such a trial George claimed to have run 10 miles in 49:29 and 59:29 for 12 miles. In the 1890's three of the top amateur runners were permanently suspended for receiving appearance money. In paced attempts as professionals two of these, Fred Bacon and Harry Watkins, succeeded in surpassing Deerfoot's mark.

The first amateur to do so was Alf Shrubb, a remarkable athlete. Such was his superiority over his opponents that he would build up a big lead, then slow to a jog to allow them to catch up before he spurted away again. Shrubb first discovered his talent as a runner, when he easily beat a fire engine that was tearing along to a fire three or four miles away. Shrubb dominated British running from the mile to 10 miles, but his greatest run was an Hour run at Ibrox Park, Glasgow in 1904. He passed three miles in 14:45.8, six miles in 29:50.4, 10 miles in 50:40.6 and recorded 11 miles 1137 yards/18.742km in the Hour. Shrubb never went to the Olympics, Britain did not send a team to the St.Louis Games.

The first Olympic medallist to hold the Hour record was Jean Bouin of France, who lost by a yard to Hannes Kolehmainen of Finland in the 1912 Games 5,000 metres. Bouin, after falling short in an attempt on the Hour record in 1911, ran 11 miles 1442 yards/19,021km in 1913 in Stockholm in 1913. Sadly his great career was to be cut short by his death in the First World War.

Distance running in the twenties and thirties was dominated by the Flying Finns. The greatest of these was Paavo Nurmi, winner of six individual Olympic gold medals. After setting numerous world records at events from 1500 metres upwards, he turned his attention to the classic Hour event in 1928. He had already taken Bouin's 10,000 metres world record seven years before, now he added a further 200 yards to the Hour run to remove the Frenchman finally from the record book. It was another holder of the 10km world record, yet another Finn Viljo Heino, who pushed the Hour best past the 12 miles in 1945. But the days of Finnish dominance were numbered.

In the fifties distance running was transformed by the legendary Emil Zatopek, who must be rated the greatest 10,000 metre runner ever. He ran 60 10kms on the track in his career and only lost seven (including six of the last thirteen he ran). Understandably, like his predecessors as record holder at 10,000 metres he was attracted to the challenge of the Hour. On September 15th 1951 he added 240 yards to Heino's record. Dissatisfied with that, a fortnight later he became the first man to run 20km in the Hour. What is even more remarkable, at that time only five men had beaten the half hour for 10km!

Zatopek's record was to survive for nearly twelve years. The record breaker was to be the first non-European to hold the world best since Deerfoot a hundred years earlier. In 1963 on the Lovelock track Auckland, twelve runners, six New Zealanders and six Japanese, contested the race. Over the final few miles the race was between Bill Baillie, the iron man of New Zealand and Kokichi Tsuburaya. Baillie finished ahead but the Japanese runner also broke Zatopek's record. Tsuburaya would suffer another blow at the Tokyo Olympics, losing the silver medal, when overtaken by Basil Heatley on the track at the close of the marathon.

Baillie's record didn't last long. In 1965 another of the alltime greats of distance running claimed it for Australia. Ron Clarke had broken his own 10,000 metre record by 35 seconds earlier in the year. Back in Australia he broke the Hour best to complete a set of world records for 3 miles, 5,000 metres, 6 miles, 10,000 metres, 10 miles and 20,000 metres. Only Nurmi had previously held all seven of those records and even he did not hold them simultaneously!

As has been revealed above, it has usually been the holder of the 10,000 metre world record who has gone on to claim the Hour best. However, Clarke's successor was, in fact, one of the great steeplechasers and cross country runners of his generation. Gaston Roelants of Belgium won the gold medal in that event in the Tokyo Olympics of 1964 and twice improved the world record. In 1966 he moved up in distance and added a whole lap of the Louvain track to Clarke's old record for the Hour and then following the Munich Olympics added a further 120 metres. Only Zatopek had improved the record by a greater margin.

It was at this point in time that the ladies came on to the scene in earnest. Way back in 1822 an unknown Scottish woman had run 8 miles in the hour on the Edinburgh to Glasgow road in the depths of winter. The new pioneers were influenced by the feminist movement of the early 1970's. Brenda Webb of the United States came close to 10 miles in 1972, but it was Christa Vahlensieck of West Germany, three weeks after the world best for the marathon, who pushed the best out to close to 10 1/2 miles in 1975. The Italian Silvana Cruciata dominated the the record from 1981 with 11 miles 416 yards/18.084km until Kenyan Tegla Lourope recorded the present world record with 18,340m/11 miles 696 yards set at Borgholzausen Germany in 1998.

Roelant's record was to be challenged by another runner from the low countries in 1975. Racing through 15km in 42:54.8 and 10 miles in 45:57.6 Jos Hermens of Holland misjudged his run and came up 45 yards short. A fortnight later he moderated his strategy and improved on Roelant's mark by 130 metres. The following year, still not content with his world record, he made another attempt. This time he ensured his place in history by becoming the first man to run 13 miles in an hour.

Under the pressure of commercial road racing the Hour event began to disappear from the world distance running scene. However, in 1990 at La Fleche in France a major Hour event was staged. Dionisio Castro of Portugal sensationally missed out on a new Hour record by just one metre after breaking Hermen's 20,000 metre world record en route.

Arturo Barrios of Mexico was the latest of a long line of 10,000 metre world record holders to fix his eyes on this ancient challenge. He prepared carefully for the race. After fifth places in two top class cross country races he passed up the World Cross Country Championships in favour of the La Fleche race in 1991. Barrios passed 10,000 metres in 28:19.8 in second place and reached 15km in 42:34, the fastest time yet recorded on a track. He broke the world 20km record with 56:55.6 before forcing his way to a new world Hour record of 21,101km/13 miles 196 yards. Not only was Barrios the first man to run 21km in an hour, he also was the first man to cover the half marathon distance within the hour on a non-aided course.

The La Fleche race seemed a brief attempt to revive the event. Looking at the world long running scene over the past quarter of a century or so, the Hour event appears to have become a thing of the past, no longer relevant to the distance runners of today.

One eminent athletic statistician remarked quite correctly that he had did not have personal bests for the Hour by any significant number of the world's top 100/200 distance runners, yet 40 years ago, many in that group would have run the event, almost as a matter of course.

However perhaps we are looking at the picture the wrong way round. Twenty-five-/thirty years ago the distance events were dominated by European and Western runners. Part of that European running culture was the Hour event; it was the way young runners learnt pace judgment, deemed as essential for a good distance runner. It was the way the good class distance runner judged his fitness coming off of his winter training, or gave a closing flourish to the season, as national records were targeted.

The present day picture is very different. In the 2002 world junior lists the Best European performance at 5000 metres and 10,000 metres appeared as footnotes below the main list dominated by Africans and the occasional Japanese. Those European marks were by Mohammed Farah of GBR and Mohammed Bashir of Denmark, that would seem to reinforce the idea that nowadays the leading Europeans are often originally from elsewhere.

Thus, perhaps the disappearance of the Hour etc from the world scene has less to do with the decline in interest in the event and more to do with the decline in the standards in Western distance running. Even pace, once the essential requirement of the distance runner, is perhaps seen as ineffective against the variable pace and surges of African runners.

This is debatable. If, as has been claimed, the African dominance is due more to the `hungry fighter' syndrome, that the Africans work much harder than their Western rivals, then surely mastery of even pace matched by self-belief and a strong work ethic will bring western runners through in the later stages of the race. If runners run the best race they can at the most even pace they can sustain they will optimize their performances. Following the pace set by African runners merely plays into their hands.

But has the Hour race disappeared? An extensive search on the internet shows that the event is still alive and kicking at the club level. In Germany every running club seems to hold an hour race a year, with half hour events for younger or more senior runners. Some German clubs hold regular hour competitions adding the cumulative distances together to decide the overall winner for the year.

In France, the progression of the event seems to be the half hour for the youngest runners, then the 45 minute race and finally the Hour event. So the event still has a role at the club level.

In Italy, there is another variation on the event with 12 X 1 hour or 24 X 1 hour races being held regularly, with clubs matched against each other. The distances achieved by the individual runners are published at the finish of the event along with the total distance covered.

In the United States, running clubs also include the Hour event in their yearly schedules. The Hudson Mohawk Road Runners Club in Albany, New York, for example have had an annual Hour race since 1972, with only one break during that period. Some British clubs have a similar history with Hour events going back twenty or more years.

Bearing in mind the previous comment that the `disappearance' of the Hour event fits in with the decline in Western male distance running, an analysis of the women's event does not show the same situation.

The top of the women's list is dominated by marks set in the 1990s, and the present century. A recent mark is the Latvian record set by Jelena Prokopcuka in Riga on the 30th of August 2003 of 17,776 metres. It is true that Tegla Loroupe of Kenya has set the recent world records, and that Japanese runners also figure prominently, but in women's distance running, European and other Western nations are still major contenders, and this is reflected in the list.

If even pace running is the most cost effective way of running distance, then it is arguable that even African runners would benefit from learning this skill. Perhaps the Hour race, arguably the most precise tool for learning and practicing this skill, should be considered for a major revival.

An aim which has been discussed in the media is the two hour marathon. With the best mark standing at 2:04:55, the target looks attainable to the general public. However at present, the world bests for the Half Marathon are still only comparable with the Hour mark of Barrios set thirteen years ago when the marathon best was 2:06:50. The Hour event perhaps offers a way to move closer to the Two Hour barrier.

When Barrios set the current world mark of 21,101km, he held the then world 10,000 metre record at 27.08.23. The World record for the 10,000 is now 26:20.31 by Kenenisa Bekele, nearly 48 seconds faster. Barrios went through 10,000 metres in the course of his Hour run in 28:19.8, just over 10 second slower than his world record. This perhaps suggests a 20km split of 53 minutes for Bekele is not impossible.

Barrios covered 1.1km in the last three minutes of his Hour run, doubling that to 2.2km gives a conservative estimate of 22.2km, not far from a 14 mile/22.5 km target.

Admittedly the trend is now towards elite marathons being run using negative splits, but is this a competitive strategy, rather than an optimum method of achieving the fastest time? To be comfortable at covering the half distance in close to the hour, runners need to experience covering that sort of distance at a slightly faster speed and then pushing on to see how far they can go. The Hour event offers that opportunity, which the half marathon does not.

Andy Milroy