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Tuesday 24 April 2018

Mike McNamara - Gallipoli Veteran and Trans USA runner

Mike McNamara – the forgotten Australia Ultrarunner
by Andy Milroy
Mike McNamara set world records on the track, raced across America and contested multiday snowshoe races. Arguably he was one of the greatest Australian distance runners between the Wars. However, aside from his races in North America, until now very little has been known about this enigmatic individual. Hopefully this article will give a fuller picture of Mike McNamara and of his varied running career.
Michael Browne McNamara was born on the 11 April 1890 at Bollon, near St George, Queensland, Australia. He was the fifth child and third son of James McNamara who had been born in Australia, and his wife Caroline Louise James, who had been born in England. He looks to have been given the middle name Browne in memory of his paternal grandmother. The family home was at 28 Spring Street, Fortitude Valley, a north eastern suburb of central Brisbane and the young Mike looks to have grown up in inner city Brisbane. He later recorded that he had an 8th grade elementary education so had probably left school at the age of 13 to bring in money to help feed the family of nine children.
By the time he was in his early twenties he was working as a fireman in the town of Rockhampton, living at Bolsover Street not far from the river.  Rockhampton was situated on the Fitzroy River and was the major port for Central Queensland. At this time it was a fast growing city with a new rail link to the state capital Brisbane.  His competitive career as a runner appears to date from this period. He seems to have been a professional, perhaps aiming to make a couple of pounds to supplement his fireman wages. However all the newspapers reporting professional sports - pedestrianism, horse racing, boxing etc look to be in Sydney, none in Queensland.  The Sydney newspaper, The Referee on the 14th May 1913 reported under the headline PROFESSIONAL  - Our Central Queensland correspondent, writing from Rockhampton (10/5/13) says:— The half mile cycling event of £10 at the Eight-hour Sports last Monday, was won by Thomas H. McDonald (15yds) from E. Ricketts (40yds) and M. B. McNamara (65yds), after a very close finish. [Eight hour sports were common – it just meant the programme of events lasted eight hours, from 10am to 6pm for example.]  Other details of the young M B McNamara’s running, or indeed cycling career, are not known although he apparently claimed to run races from 440 yards to 10 miles.

The First World War was to change his life.  When he enlisted in the 15th Battalion of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF)  on the 5th November 1914  his service record describes him as being 5 foot 10 inches (1.78 metres)    although later documents claim 5 foot 10 ½ (1.79 metres),weighing  10 stone 2 pounds (142kg), with a fair complexion, blue eyes and fair hair. His religion was given as Roman Catholic.  Arthur Newton, who knew him well, wrote in 1931 “He is quite unusually modest, and more than a bit reserved”.
Three-quarters of the 15th Battalion AIF were recruited as volunteers from Queensland, and the rest from Tasmania. McNamara was appointed initially to be based at Enogerra which was a Brisbane suburb. With the 13th, 14th and 16th Battalions 15th formed the 4th Brigade, commanded by Colonel John Monash.

The   recruits   from Queensland and Tasmanian were brought together  when  the battalion trained together at Broadmeadows, Victoria. After a short period of training, the battalion then embarked on the transport ship SS Ceramic in late December 1914.
Mike McNamara would have been in the army only about seven weeks when they left Melbourne. 

The battalion stopped briefly at Albany, Western Australia, and then sailed through the Suez Canal.  The 4th Brigade disembarked at Alexandria on 3 February 1915. Throughout February and March an extensive period of training in the desert was undertaken.  It was on 10 April when the 15th Battalion went by train to Alexandria, from where the troopships Australind and Seeang Bee took them to Gallipoli via Mudros on the island of Lemnos in Greece.

The 15th Battalion was assigned to follow up the initial attack in the Gallipoli campaign, landed at Anzac Cove on the afternoon of 25 April 1915 and was rushed into the line on the left side of the beachhead. The thrust inland faltered and the 15th became isolated and in serious danger.  This is when McNamara was promoted to sergeant when the unit’s sergeant was wounded.  The following day he too was wounded, in his left arm.

We have a first hand account of the strain inflicted during this battle. “The noise was terrific – bullets always make a great noise passing over a valley, but we found that each shell made a roar like an express train. Machine-guns made it worse, and the heavy shells from the ships worse still, and the echoes from the cliffs at the back of us redoubled it, until we were nearly driven mad by the racket…Noise is not supposed to hurt anyone but under those conditions the strain was terrible.”  Captain James Durrant of the 13th Battalion.

The wounded McNamara was taken to the Kasr-el-Aini Hospital Cairo on the Derflinger Hospital ship. A fortnight later he rejoined the Battalion but perhaps he had returned too soon. He seems to have picked up some kind of infection, an inflammation of the joints. Such infections were far from unusual in the Gallipoli campaign.

Only during the fiercest fighting did the proportion of wounded men evacuated from Anzac exceed the proportion being evacuated through illness.  Fly borne diseases combined with the heat, dirt, shortage of water, poor diet, exhaustion and open wounds were a bigger threat than the enemy.  Even when the sick and wounded were evacuated to Mudros, there was only relief from the bullets and shrapnel.  The medical and nursing staffs were also plagued by diseases which stemmed from the inadequate hygiene.
John Baker, a private in the British Royal Marines recorded later “It was with great difficulty that we obtained water as the only water we got had to be brought in petrol tanks for the port of Alexandra. I remember the parched lips and rusky throats whilst waiting for the water boats to appear on the horizon. At last they were in sight. A loud cheer greeted them, then died away when the enemy shells sunk them. That meant many anxious hours waiting for more. Every hour seemed a year, we were parched, and our tongues hung out of our mouths.” “food and water was a most vital question. I did not get anything for practically a week”

McNamara rejoined the Battalion on the 7th July.  In the period from early June to early August (from before McNamara had been taken ill), the battalion’s personnel were almost completely replaced.  A month later an offensive was launched to break the stalemate with the Turkish forces. The 15th Battalion was assigned to attack the Abdel Rahman Bair heights, known to the Australians as "Hill 971”

It seems likely that  McNamara  had  not fully recovered, or his immune system was
compromised by his earlier wound and illness. Less than three weeks after rejoining the Battalion, he was admitted to hospital suffering from a feeling of weakness and debility, the next day he was transferred to Mudros Hospital suffering from a bacterial infection in his lymph glands, this swiftly became a fever and within a week he was diagnosed with bronchitis and taken to the hospital on Malta on the hospital ship SS "Itonus". Ten days later McNamara embarked hospital ship "Regina de Italia” for England where he was there admitted to the 5th London General Hospital.

He did not really recover from this infection and some six months later the Surgeon General of the AIF diagnosed cardiac enlargement.  McNamara embarked at Portland on the south coast of England for return to Australia on the troop ship Themistocles.

He arrived back in Australia on the 25 June 1916 in Sydney before catching leaving for Brisbane later in the day. 

On the 1st April 1918 Mike McNamara married Ethel Flora Bell, (born 31 Jan 1891)
a woman of Irish parentage, and the 1919 electoral roll  Fitzroy (Rockhampton),  shows McNamara and his new wife  living at the Sisal Hemp plantation at Bajool  working as a farmer.  It is possible that this new work was as a soldier settler.
What happened between 1919 and 1924 when McNamara next makes a documented appearance is unknown. Perhaps some speculation can reasonably be made based on his much later occupation as a poultry farmer.
During the later stages of the First World War, consideration had been given in Australia at both a national and state level as to what to do with the returning soldiers.  The scheme was hatched that they should be encouraged to become “soldier settlers”.  Such settlers would be expected to clear and prepare the land allocated and were required to work at least 48 hours per week. Training would be given to men with no farming experience, and money to purchase stock and equipment was available on what were said to be reasonable repayment terms. Men who were less fit were encouraged to apply for land, and to consider poultry farming or bee keeping.

It is possible that later in the early 1920s McNamara opted for poultry farming, as I said, based on his later interest in the industry.  However over the next few years the soldier settler scheme began to unravel. The Brisbane Courier in 1920 concluded “instead of the settlement becoming a success end in a ghastly failure. .The returned soldiers… cannot afford to maintain...     the few unproductive acres....They want their farms to keep them, but, according to their own showing, they have been keeping the farms, and doing it by hard work and by using their small capital, now fast nearing its end.”

A later Royal Commission identified four main reasons for the failure of soldier settlers. These were:  the selection of inexperienced settlers, lack of capital, the size of blocks of land allocated and the prices received for agricultural products. There were other major problems for those who had opted to become poultry farmers. In late 1922 again the Brisbane Courier recorded that “the average price of eggs being about 1/- (12 d) per dozen. It cost 10 ½ d to produce a dozen eggs at present, calculating only the food. That left very little for labour” Earlier that year poultry  farmers had complained that “They were now paying 80 per cent, more for feed than hitherto.”  The reason for the increase in price was the severest drought that Australia had experienced for two decades. In Queensland, as elsewhere in Australia there was failure of wheat crops, dying sheep and cattle and disastrous bushfires. (Morning Bulletin Rockhampton January 1923)

It was against this background that McNamara may have heard of a talk by Mr. V. Kappler of the National Utility Poultry Breeders' Association in America. The talk to the Queensland Poultry Breeders Association was widely reported in the Australian press.  Kappler painted a very rosy picture of the state of American poultry farming.  Assuming that McNamara had become a poultry farmer, it may well have been this which was to prompt McNamara to leave the “ghastly failure” of the soldier settler scheme and to seek a new start in the business in America. I must stress once again, we do not as yet have any evidence that McNamara was a poultry farmer at this stage in his life.

The McNamaras emigrated from Sydney in April 1924. They sailed on the steamship SS Euripides which regularly made the Australia-England run via the Cape of Good Hope.  Michael Browne McNamara’s occupation was listed as labourer. They arrived in Southampton on the 27th April and less than three months later they resumed their journey from that port to Quebec in Canada on the SS Melita of the Canadian Pacific Steamship Lines.  This time McNamara listed his occupation as “farmer”.

What McNamara and his wife did in England during those three months is unknown. However it can be surmised that they went to see McNamara’s mother’s family. It is possible that they lived near Colchester in Essex. (A Caroline Louise James was born in the Colchester registration district area in 1855.)  It looks like they lived in a rural area and it is possible that they were poultry farmers, possibly turkeys.

On arriving in Quebec, the McNamaras stated they intended to be permanent residents and planned to become farmers.  However in just over a month they had travelled via Toronto to Windsor and crossed into the United States at Detroit. Whether they had been looking for a farm to rent in Canada, or whether they had been seeking an easier way into the United States isn’t clear.  In the early and mid-nineteenth century many immigrants to the United States came via Canada because Canadian ports of entry did not have the same regulations that U.S. ports did. Coming to the U.S. through Canada was easier.

On the 29th May 1924 the McNamaras made the border crossing at Detroit. Their stated destination was Madison, Missouri and Mike McNamara’s intention was to become a farmer. They reportedly had $900 on them.

Once again Mike McNamara disappears from history.  He was eventually to wind up in New York City but he does not appear on the city census of 1925.  Possibly he did try poultry farming in the Mid-West, however by 1928  he was in New York. Reputedly just before the Trans-America race was announced the failure of  a partner he had backed with all his money left him close to penury.

We have not managed to discover  any  details  of  McNamara’s  running and walking
career in Australia – neither professional nor amateur. However he must have had some experience as a runner or walker in order to contemplate entering a race which would cover the 3,423-miles from Los Angeles to New York.

The suspicion must be that in Australia he did not have  the time, energy or inclination to develop his running talent. Remember at the age of 24, he had joined the Australian Imperial Force and soon after been sent overseas. There had been  no potential coach to spot his talent and persuade him to commit to the sport. With no one to push him, McNamara’s talent remained largely hidden until the pressure cooker of the 1928 race.

The Great American Transcontinental Footrace was to be run across America from Los Angeles to New York, via Chicago, to promote the opening of Route 66.  A training camp was set up at the Ascot Speedway on the eastern edge of Los Angeles, California. Runners were required to report to camp by February 12th, 1928 “for final conditioning for the race.” It was reported that there were over 400 initial entrants. Fewer than 200 reported at Ascot. Among them was Herbert Hedeman, a fellow Australian, who  hand been  living in one room in New York with his wife and five children. When the Official Program was printed there were 249 entrants listed. On March 4, 1928, when the race started, there were 199 runners who actually crossed the starting line.

The runners were subjected to a strict training schedule that started at 6 a.m. After breakfast they ran 25 to 50 miles to prepare for the promised 40 to 75 miles a day. Lunch was served at noon and the afternoon was also devoted to more training. Dinner was served at 6 p.m. and the runners were allowed to relax and have their injuries treated before lights out at 9 p.m. The official program called the arrangements for feeding the runners a “traveling cafeteria deluxe." They were promised eggs, cereal, toast and fruit for breakfast and “soup, salad, roast or boiled meat, several vegetables, both cooked and raw, a dessert and all the milk, tea and coffee desired” for dinner. Harry Sheare, runner #123, told the newspaper: “Pyle pulled the best one three weeks before we started. He notified all runners that they must assemble in Ascot Park, Los Angeles, to train and then for three weeks charged each man 50 cents per night for bed and 50 cents for each meal.”

The race started at Ascot Speedway in Los Angeles and finished in Madison Square Garden in New York City. 199 runners left Los Angeles, California on March 4th, 1928 at 3:30 p.m. 55 runners finished on May 26th, 1928. Only men were allowed to enter the race. The race took 84 days to run from coast to coast. The Bunion Derby followed Route 66 from Los Angeles to Chicago. From Chicago to New York City the race ran wherever the promoter, C.C. Pyle, could get the town to pay a fee. Dr. K.H. Begg, a prominent medical expert, predicted that the race would take five to ten years off the runners’ lives.

The runners ran an average of 40 miles a day, nearly the equivalent of two marathons. The shortest distance they ran was the first day, 17 miles from Ascot Speedway in Los Angeles to Puente, California. The longest distance was 74.6 miles from Waverly, New York to Deposit, New York, the 79th day. The race ran from California through Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York. The race covered a total of 3,423.3 miles (5505 km).

During the race itself, the runners’ times were clocked daily. All runners started at the same time and they had to reach a designated checkpoint. As each runner crossed the checkpoint, his time was logged. Each day’s time was added to the last. The fastest cumulative time would win the race.

In the 1920’s amateur athletes represented the purity of the sport, and the Olympic games exemplified this spirit. The runners who entered the Transcontinental Foot Race had little concern for their amateur standing, considering the chance to win $25,000 well worth the loss of their amateur status. To put things in perspective, the Ford Motor Company was paying factory workers $1,200 per year at the time. The winner’s prize thus represented 20 years' wages.

The runners ranged in age from 16 to 63 and came from all over the world. Some of the runners left jobs to run the race; others ran just to be able to say they had done so, but for the most part the runners were men who had nothing to lose.

The early leaders who pushed the pace were soon forced to retire. The more cautious had to cope with the heat, the burning sands of the Mojave Desert, with few drinks available from the race.  Those with trainers accompanying them were at an advantage. In his book on the Pyle races, Harry Berry recorded that “It was not hard to tell if a man has taken part in the 1928 race. A look at his right shoulder and ear, was normally sufficient. Running from West to East, the sun beat down on that one side. It blistered exposed skin within the day. These burst and became sores, and were enlarged, leaving permanent scars.”

From desert the route moved in to Arizona and the Rocky Mountains. The road climbed from an altitude of 2,000 to 5,000 feet in just two days. The 52 mile stage into Peach Springs AZ on the eleventh day marked a crisis point for many of the runners.

Until that point runners who did not complete the day’s stage were allowed to go back the next day to where they had stopped and then carry on. Now runners who failed to reach the checkpoint by midnight were disqualified. Many runners withdrew at that point, reducing the field to one half the original numbers. McNamara was among that number  “unable to continue”. His lack of long term training meant that he had never been in contention at any point, he had struggled to survive. But the hard work he had put in would show dividends later.

At the finish Pyle did not have the money to pay the promised prize money. Fortunately the boxing promoter, Tex Rickard advanced Pyle $40,000 and the millionaire father of one of the runner, Harry Gunn, made up the balance.

At the finish of the 1928 race, the now professional runners looked around to find some means of making a livelihood. Tex Rickard sought to recover his money by putting on a 26 hour team race. There were forty runners, of whom sixteen completed the race.  Among them was a team of Mike McNamara and Alfred Middlestate. They finished out of the money in 13th place.

The two Australian veterans of the 1928 race, McNamara and Herb Hedemann, decided to pool their resources and built their own motorised caravan. Their financial circumstances did not allow for any luxuries.  However I suspect that the partnership between the two Australians also benefited McNamara as a runner. Hedemann was a vastly experienced professional runner who had won the world mile title, beating Hans Holmer, in 1913. In 1924 Herb Hedemann had written to an Australian newspaper, from South Africa where he was then living, stating “I claim to be the best coach of an athlete, especially flat running… I can guarantee my ability, as  can both  Natal and Transvaal Athletic bodies, for whom I have done service” and claimed “thirty years' study, experience, and knowledge of pedestrianism”.  Arguably McNamara was getting more than a partner, he was getting a very experienced coach.

However he would benefit not just from Herb Hedemann’s advice, to a considerable degree the 1928 and 1929 Trans-America races were a university for distance training. Not only was there the like of Willi Kolehmainen, who had helped guide his brother Hannes to Olympic glory, there were numerous other Finns and Swedes, then among the most successful distance runners in the world. Allied to those was the like of Olympians Estonian Juri Lossman, American August Fager, Canadian Philip Granville and of course, Arthur Newton.  Not surprisingly Newton’s partner Pete Gavuzzi became a successful coach in the 1930s. The evenings after a long stage would have meant long discussions about the one thing they all had in common – long distance running.  Ideas and experiences would studied and dissected; the less experienced runners eager to gain an edge which might bring financial success in the professional races.

Up until the 1929  Trans-America race McNamara had not been a major force as a distance runner. He needed the high mileage of the two Pyle races to get himself into shape. The partnership with Hedemann plus the unrelenting hard daily mileage of the 1929 race made him a great runner. Obviously as a veteran of the 1928 race in preparation for the 1929 race he had trained hard, simulating the daily mileage that would face him, but  it was  more likely the 78 days of racing distances from 22 to 82 miles, across all kinds of terrain and weather conditions, built him into the strong, versatile distance runner that we later see.

Pete Gavuzzi  was later to tell me “The first race was an amateur event. The second was professional.”

The Australian pairing were much more in evidence in the second race. Hedemann won the 5th stage of 37 miles from Wilmington to Havre de Grace in 4:44:45 to lead the race on cumulative time. McNamara made a more cautious start but by the 16th day he was lying in 8th place, one ahead of Hedemann. They were to stay in these positions for stage after stage, with McNamara moving up to 7th by Day 40 with Hedemann in 9th. The two men seldom won a stage, but were solid and consistent.

A good day was on the 56th stage when Guisto Umek won the 34.4 miles from Van Horn to Sierra Blanca with Hedemann and McNamara in joint  third in  4:58:10. Hedemann pushed harder over the next ten days and moved up to 8th, but was still around 10 hours behind McNamara. They were to finish in those positions. McNamara in  7th  and in the money, with an elapsed time of 627:45:28 and Hedemann in 8th in 631:23:48. The expected prize money of $US 2,000 and $US 1,750 respectively, never materialised.

With no likelihood of another trans-continental race forthcoming after Pyle’s financial disaster in 1929, the `Bunioneers’, as they had been called, had to seek other avenues of endeavour. They quickly formed an information network, primarily in North America, keeping each other advised of potential races in which they might make some money. In the meantime most of them drifted back to their old occupations.

In July 1929 a two man team 6 Day race was arranged at the Ascot Speedway Stadium, Los Angeles. The aim was to surpass the mark made by the French team of Orphee and Cabot set in 1909 at the Madison Square Gardens. Johnny Salo and Sammy Richman emerged as the winners, with 749.5 miles, ahead of George Rehayn and Niels Nielson with 642.5 miles. The runners each received $5, less than a cent a mile. Herb Hedemann ran with another Pyle professional, Pat Harrison. They finished with 424 miles. That may have been Hedemann’s last race; he had a wife and five children to support. He appears to have made his way back to New York and later worked from a real estate broker. McNamara was to stick with the professional running.

Later that year two man teams were pitted against teams of horses in another 6 Day race, this time indoors in Philadelphia. The runners were to run alternately four hours a piece, as were the horses. The runners set off at seven miles an hour, the horses, who were on a track outside the runners, were some fifteen miles ahead at the end of the first day.

By the close of the second day, the runners and the horses were on level pegging, but the horses were beginning to get restive, going around and round the small indoor track. The jockeys were finding that despite their best efforts the horses would drop into a walk for a few laps. Eventually the horses refused even to trot, and just walked around listlessly.

Unknown to the spectators, new horses were then substituted, but soon they too ended up in exactly the same state, and once again had to be replaced, this time by the original horses. By this time the runners were firmly in the lead.

The winners were Salo with a new partner Joie Ray, who had originally turn professional after being recruited by Tex Rickard to run in indoor marathons against Olympic marathon champion Boughera El Ouafi. Salo and Ray’s final distance was 523.3 miles, ahead of Newton and Gavuzzi on 521.25 miles, with the horses Redwing and Fleetwood third with 510.5 miles. The first two teams of runners were to receive $500 per man, but the failure of the horses had meant a greatly reduced attendance on the last two nights, and thus a reduction in the runners’ fees of 25 per cent was negotiated.

In the United States professional ultrarunning was dying. However in Canada, there was an opportunity for trained ultra performers to make money – snow shoe racing. The first snowshoe races in Canada had been promoted in 1926, the first from Montreal to Swinton over 300 miles, and won by a 47 year old Eugene Cloucette. This proved so popular that in 1930 the Peter Dawson Marathon was held over 500 miles. This was a team event, and Newton and Gavuzzi entered, as did Ray and Salo, along with Dilks, Souminen, Granville and Mike McNamara Much to the disappointment of the local snowshoe enthusiasts, the winners were Newton and Gavuzzi, from Ray and Salo.

Earlier in 1930 in a 15 miles track race, won by Joie Ray in 1:41:50  McNamara had finished fifth in an event way below his best distance, out of contention from the first mile.

In August that year, McNamara entered 26 hour team race Men v Horses at  De Lorimier in Quebec.  His partner was the diminutative Ollie Wanttinen. Their team covered about 225km during the  26 hours, beating the horse Little Brother, ridden by Russell Kingsley, who finished eight miles behind. Four horses abandoned the race. McNamara and Wanttinen had beaten perhaps more fancied runners such as  Edward Fabre, Johnny Salo and Jole Ray.

In February 1931 in the 200 miles 1st February 200 miles Ushers Green Stripe snowshoe race with 8 daily stages.  McNamara, raised in the heat of Queensland, felt unprepared for the cold of Quebec. It was reported “He has a sweater and tuque woven in one piece, the tuque being so constructed that it covers his face entirely, except for a small aperture over the eyes, and a breathing space.” He also had heavy coloured googles made, which fitted over tuque, to protect his eyes from the glare of the unrelenting whiteness of the snow, as well as giving some defence aginst the cold and driving snow. He also had specially knitted trunks and underwear, and a huge number of socks. It was said the combined weight of all this was twenty pounds – just under 10kg! Despite all these precautions. McNamara was led in for the last four miles suffering from snow blindness by Ollie Wanttinen, who was a fellow competitor  on the first stage.

McNamara seems to have recovered quickly from the snow blindness. On the 6th stage he finished fifth, ahead of Wantinen and Joie Ray.  Reportedly he later won a 25 mile stage which prompted the headline - AUSTRALIAN WINS IN SNOWSHOE RACE. 

 It was to be in April 1931 that McNamara’s real abilities were shown. Arthur Newton arranged a 24 hour race indoors so he could have a crack at Charles Rowell’s  world professional record. The race was on a specially constructed track of 13 laps to the mile. To help prevent dizziness, the `square’ track had banked corners. The runners all wore crepe-rubber soled shoes.

Newton collected together a field of seasoned veteran professionals as well as himself and Pete Gavuzzi, the other runners invited were McNamara, Earl Lin Dilks, from Newcastle, Pennsylvania, Paul Simpson, from Burlington, North Carolina, Phil Granville, a Canadian Afro-American from Hamilton, Ontario, and Tom Ellis, a Canadian from Hamilton.

Newton later wrote “Sundry details had to be worked out before we stepped on the track; for not only was the twenty-four record to be attacked but also that for forty miles. The latter was advertised and specially included because Gavuzzi fancied his chances were much better in a distance he was thoroughly used to than in the prolonged grind which was so much beyond anything he had yet attempted. At the same time it was, of course, possible that any one of us might strike misfortune in the shape of stitch or muscle trouble, sufficient to put an end to any hope of world’s records. So we had to arrange that at least two of us would be ready to tackle either the forty miles or the twenty-four hours. That meant that McNamara and I would have to hurry somewhat for the first twenty or twenty-five miles, after which, if Gavuzzi appeared to be safe, we could settle down more gently for the longer event.”

“It was a rare thing indeed for Gavuzzi to meet with trouble during a race, but he managed it this time. He was moving splendidly and apparently had the forty-mile mark “in the bag” as the Americans say, when just over twenty miles McNamara and I found we were beginning to lap him instead of his lapping us as had been the case up till now. Another half-mile and the trouble was obvious: he had to retire with muscle injury in a leg.”

McNamara took up the chase for the forty mile record. Newton recorded that “he opened up and raced around that small track – thirteen laps to the mile – in a really astonishing way: he made up so much time that at thirty miles he was two minutes twenty seconds inside the professional world’s record for the distance. As he passed me again just after this he informed me that he was still quite good enough to continue for the next ten miles and went on at the same pace to obliterate the forty-mile mark as well. Never have I seen such brilliant distance running as McNamara then put up: at forty miles he was some three minutes ahead of the world’s record time again, and he was a man of forty-one!”

McNamara then deliberately slowed but still reached fifty miles in  6h. 7m 30s. At 100 miles  his time was 14:09:45. He then came off for a bath, he then needed a massage and as Newton put it “his earlier efforts would not permit of such an abnormally extended programme: his legs were giving in, and at 110 miles he was obliged to stop and retire.”

Newton got his world indoor 24 hour record covering 152 miles 540 yards/245.113km
Mike McNamara’s new world track records were for 30 miles – 3:13:29 and 40 miles – 4:31:31.  McNamara’s 14:09:45 also deserves closer examination. Only the phenomenal Charlie Rowell had run a faster 100 miles indoors – 13:57:13 in 1880 and 13:26:09 two years later, and Rowell had not set records at shorter distances enroute!
As an Australian professional track 100 mile mark, it was to last nearly forty years until  George Perdon ran 12:25:09 in Melbourne in 1970.

It was to be 15 years until Jack Holden, a winner of the European Marathon Championships, improved on McNamara’s time at 30 miles and 21 years until Derek Reynolds surpassed his forty mile mark. These marks were set in much shorter races; neither runner had to continue to 100 miles and beyond. It was to be 44 years until a runner attempted a similar feat when the Briton Cavin Woodward set 50 mile and 100km world records before carrying on to 100 miles.- also setting a world record at that distance. [4:58:53/6:25:28/11:38:54] 

Interestingly the plan of campaign mentioned by Newton before the start of the Hamilton race was based on the assumption that either he or McNamara could cover over 150 miles in 24 hours if necessary to fulfil the contract. This gives a good indication of the Australian’s abilities. In another of his books, Races and Training, written in 1949, Newton wrote that he “had confidently reckoned on a fierce battle with McNamara over the last twenty or thirty miles”.

The Hamilton race did not attract many spectators, and the `show’ made a loss and cost Newton £200. The runners got a `fee’ of just $10 and their expenses paid.

In August 1931 came the 500 mile Peter Dawson Relay. The former elite marathon runner, Joie Ray had now teamed up with McNamara, obviously seen as the emerging distance star among the Pyle runners after his Hamilton performance. They were tipped as the favourites to win, but perhaps McNamara still had the Hamilton race in his legs, and he had problems with them from Day 1.  However he and Ray still finished third behind Newton and Gavuzzi and August Fager (a former Olympic athlete and local Quebec runner Johnny Jokela.

Newton reported in one of his letters in 1931 that McNamara was training every day on snowshoes on grass and was “in my opinion, the only man who has a decent chance of beating Hoey”  (the winner of the previous year’s snow shoe race).

Hoey seems to have won the 1932 race but in February 1933 the Professional Snowshoe championships were held in Quebec.  The race was dominated by Finnish immigrants and local Quebec runners used to the conditions, but McNamara held his own finishing 8th in a 162 miles. He was third  on the 27 miles third stage, fifth behind three Scandinavians and a French Canadian on the fourth stage and on the fifth stage
was  fourth  behind three former Scandinavians.  The final 12 mile stage saw him finish  sixth, to finish in eighth place overall and in the prize money.

Interesting in the local papers the first names of the runners was commonly used. However McNamara was always referred to as M B McNamara. As Newton had commented “He is quite unusually modest, and more than a bit reserved”.  Among the Pyle runners he was known as Mac and in a letter he wrote to Earl Lin Dilks in 1930 which was addressed to Earl , he signed it Mac.  In those days it was not uncommon for initials to be used in results and nicknames were used, first names being reserved almost exclusively for family use.
The Great Depression was to force the end of this short-lived experiment in professional athletics. McNamara was forced to find another career, which is the tough days of a massive economic recession was not easy. In the 1930 census he is recorded as being an unemployed handyman, but over the coming years he was able to turn this skill into a more permanent job. Later we find references to him being a superintendent.  A building superintendent  was, and is, the manager responsible for repairing  and maintaining a residential building. McNamara would have been expected to take care of small repairs and other problems such as minor leaks or blockages, the heating system, and the security of the building. If there are major repairs required they will co-ordinate and supervise the work of the contractors.

In  1932  McNamara’s  father  died  in Brisbane and five years later so did his mother.
There  is  no  evidence that he returned to Australia during this period, but an intriguing journey took place in 1937. The Brainerd Daily Dispatch. Minnesota in April 1937 carried the headline : BRITISHER GETS TURKEY EGGS FROM AITKIN TO IMPROVE ENGLISH FLOCKS. The story was that an English poultry fancier, M B McNamara had travelled to Aitken in Minnesota to acquire turkey eggs to take with him to England when he sailed to England the following week. How McNamara had known of the Aitken poultry farm is unknown, but it does suggest that he had previous experience in the industry in the United States.

 A week later Mike McNamara and his wife Ethel set sail from New York, arriving in Southampton in England on the 10th of May.  In London they proposed to stay with Arthur Newton since they gave his address 9 Cottingham Chase, Ruislip. 

It is not absolutely clear why the McNamaras travelled to England and the turkey eggs
add to the mystery. If his mother’s family kept turkeys, and the eggs were a gift to his relatives, this might explain the eggs.

 The leading South African ultrarunner, Hardy Ballington had travelled to England to attempt to break Newton’s London to Brighton and Bath Road 100 mile records.   Arthur Newton was probably the person who had initiated this and
he had probably contact McNamara and invited him across. 

During both events McNamara travelled in the same car as Newton, and acted as handler for Ballington, running along side him when necessary despite being dressed in everyday clothes.  In appalling conditions Ballington took a second off of Newton’s previous best over the London to Brighton course (5:53:42) but in better conditions took over an hour off of Newton’s time on the Bath Road run (13:21:19) At some stage  photographs of McNamara, Ballington and Newton posed in running gear was taken.  The 100 mile run took place in early July and the McNamaras returned to New York in late August.  Whether they visited turkey or other poultry farms in that time is not known.

The possibility is that the trip in 1937 was not just about the London to Brighton and Bath Road races. This could explain why Ethel came as well. They were maybe looking into the possibilities of poultry farming in the UK.  Perhaps they had already made contact with English poultry farmers and were bringing the turkey eggs as a way partly of funding their journey and also of exploring possibilities of poultry farming in England.  The assumption must be that it did not work out. But the dream obviously persisted.

McNamara’s involvement in the London to Brighton and the Bath 100 mile, travelling across the Atlantic, does raise the question as to whether he was involved in coaching and handling distance runners in New York.  Both Arthur Newton and Pete Gavuzzi subsequently coached other notable runners. Unfortunately the runners who might have been able to help give information on this are no longer around;  however one distinct possibility as to someone he might have coached is Mike O’Hara, a prolific marathon runner, who ran his first marathon in 1937. O’Hara lived in New York, and, one would have suspected, would have moved in the same Irish Catholic environment as McNamara. The first club O’Hara ran for was St Anselm’s AC.  O’Hara even latterly was one of the first modern US ultra runners and was running marathons until the 1960s. It would be surprising if the two had not known each other, O’Hara ran over fifty marathons whilst McNamara was living in New York.

By the time of the 1940 US census McNamara was recorded as getting $1200 a year (about the same as Ford Motor factory workers were earning.) Since building superintendents often got cheaper rent or even free rent, in addition to their salary, depending on the size of the building, McNamara may have been able to build some savings to enable him to make choices to suit him in his later years.  Neither he nor his wife had become naturalised Americans by then.

By the early 1950s when Mike McNamara reached his early sixties, they decided to move back to Australia.  They appear on the 1954 Queensland electoral roll as living on Settlement Road, The Gap, which is a suburb of Brisbane.  McNamara is recorded as being a poultry farmer. This was to continue until at least 1963, but by then he had moved to Kaloma Road.

Shortly before he died he seems to have made a request to see his WWI service records for some reason. He died in September that year and was buried at Nudgee Cemetery. Ethel also died that year. We have found no evidence that the couple had any children, but three of Mike McNamara’s siblings out lived him and probably handled the estate when he died. 

Michael Browne McNamara was one of the most notable Australian distance runners between the two world wars. One of the most knowledgeable experts on distance running in this period, Arthur Newton, wrote of him in 1931 that “Marathon men will be well advised to study his action, if they wish to make themselves good enough to be candidates for their country at the next Olympics.”  

What could McNamara have achieved at the marathon?  An estimate of a likely marathon time - even pace based on his 30 mile time gives 2:49:19 – but remember he had to accelerate over the ten miles from twenty miles onwards to make that 30 mile time.  2:49 would rank him in the top 60 marathon runners in the world for 1931   Aside from Roland Bateman in 1928 in Sydney [2:45:51.4] it looks unlikely that any other Australian had run faster by 1931  His 30 mile was a split in a race where he covered 110 miles in 24 hours and 14:09:45 for 100 miles.... Running the two Trans-Continental races meant that the Pyle runners (including McNamara) were the best trained distance runners in the world. The marathon was too short. But Mike McNamara showed their potential over the shorter distances.

But M B McNamara was not just a fast runner, he was versatile.  The two Trans-Continental races, particularly that of 1929, showed his abilities in long point to point races across demanding terrain,  which contrasted sharply with his world records at 30 and 40 miles set on a small, indoor track followed by the drive to push on to 100 miles following those exertions. Add to that his capacity to challenge even experienced snowshoe performers, conditioned from childhood to cover distance across icy snow, and his abilities reveal their rare qualities.

Arthur Newton wrote of Michael Browne McNamara that he was “quite unusually modest, and more than a bit reserved”. In 1930, despite having run two Trans-America races and other professional races, he still described himself in the 1930 US census as an unemployed handyman. Perhaps it was his innate modesty that led to Mike McNamara becoming Australia’s forgotten ultrarunner.
I would like to thanks Michael Peters for his great help in researching M B McNamara’s life and Paul Foisy for his support in piecing together his snowshoe career in Quebec.

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