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Tuesday 24 April 2018

The 24hr Race of 1931

by Andy Milroy

The  24 Hour race of 1931

It is always interesting to get an eye witness view of a great race; frequently such a report appears in a magazine or book which goes out of print and is forgotten 

Arthur Newton, the great pioneer of the Comrades and a great influence of the development of training for long distance  wrote a book in 1940 called  “Running on Three Continents” , which recorded his experiences of running ultras  in Africa, Europe and North America.  In it  he recorded   a detailed account of  an indoor  24 hour race  in Hamilton, Ontario  on the  3 / 4 April 1931

The race was to be held on indoor on a specially constructed track of 13 laps to the mile. To help prevent dizziness, the `square’ track had banked corners. This helped the runners around the turns. The surface was made of a special composite boarding, which was not too hard on the feet, yet could take the wear of and tear  from the repeated  circling of the track without becoming too worn.  The runners all wore crepe-rubber soled shoes.

Arthur Newton, who came from Rhodesia, collected together a field of seasoned veteran professionals from the Pyle Trans-Continental races. As well as himself and Pete Gavuzzi, his English partner, the other runners invited were Mike McNamara, originally from Queensland, Australia  but was then resident in New York,  Earl Lin Dilks, a railwayman  from Newcastle,. Pennsylvania, Paul Simpson, a college  athletic instructor from Burlington, North Carolina, Phil Granville, a Canadian Afro-American from Hamilton, Ontario,  and Tom Ellis, a Canadian from Hamilton.

Gavuzzi had finished second in the 1929 Trans-Continental  race. Simpson  had finished fifth in the 1929 race  and  had also made a name for himself for outrunning a Texas cow pony. Granville was primarily a  very good race walker, who held his national 100 mile record, but was also a strong runner. He had represented Canada in the 1924 Olympics as a walker, and won the Manchester to Blackpool race in Britain, breaking the course record. He finished third in the 1928 and sixth in the 1929 Continental race  McNamara  had finished seventh in the 1929 event.   Dilks had run the 90 miles  from Newcastle to Erie  in 17 hours .in 1927. Both he and  Ellis were veterans of both Trans-Continental races.

Newton himself had run three 100 mile races but was now approaching  50. He figured he had one last chance to set a world record on the track and was aiming at the 24 hour mark of Charles Rowell’s record of 150 miles 395 yards/241.763km set in the first day of a Six Day race indoors in New York fifty years earlier.

Here is Newton’s account of the race:

“A few days before the great race the men arrived and were put up at the Stafford House Hotel, at which we were staying: although constant rivals, we were the best of friends at all times, due no doubt to the sharing of troubles in those desperate Transcontinental races. 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.

With this as part of our programme, McNamara and I let Gavuzzi do all the real speeding at the outset, merely keeping within reasonable reach of him in case trouble occurred. In this latter event we two older men had agreed to leave whichever felt like it to take up the running for the forty-mile record while the other safeguarded the position by slowing down for the twenty-four hours’ work. This might not be good generalship but was the best we could do under the circumstances: having hinted at both records we had to deliver the goods.

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.

As soon as we knew this, McNamara and I had a word or two while circling the track and he told me he was going well and was quite willing to take on the work Gavuzzi had been obliged to leave. As he was several laps ahead of me this seemed to be the best course to follow, and off he went while I slowed down, knowing that I had got to make sure of keeping the pot boiling for the full twenty-four hours. At the time McNamara was only about a miles behind Gavuzzi, but 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!

But by that time it was obvious that if he were to have any sort of chance of staying the whole distance he would have to travel much more circumspectly, and he very wisely moderated his gait, though even then it took him only 6h. 7m 30s to  complete fifty miles. At this point he was three miles ahead of me but by the time the hundred had been reached the gap was no more than a mile.

Plenty of experience at this sort of work had taught us that a short, sharp hot bath to remove the accumulated refuse from the pores of the skin would do more to brace us up for the rest of the journey than anything else, and we had accordingly arranged for this. No matter who was leading, McNamara and I had agreed that one of us should go off the track at a time and the other remain running until he returned: also that the second man should take precisely as long over his bath as the first, in order to prevent any possible advantage being gained by this means.

Shortly after the completion of the 100 miles McNamara  went off, while I trotted round looking  forward keenly to my turn. I expected him to take about four to five minutes and was beginning to be alarmed when ten had gone and he still did not appeared. A question to an official elicited the information that he would be back almost at once, so on I went. As a matter of fact it was twenty-one minutes before he re-appeared, which, of course, meant that I had to take twenty-one minutes over my bath, whether |I liked it or not. Rotten bad luck, but you couldn’t blame McNamara: muscle trouble had laid him out and he was obliged to resort to massage before he could come out again. So I had an extra long bath and returned feeling fifty per cent more energetic.

But with McNamara this was the beginning of the end : 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.”

“After  McNamara’s retreat the rest of us just carried on going round and round and round – the local paper reported it as “the nearest  approach to perpetual motion” – with a half a minute’s stop for a drink now and again and an occasional glance at the clock to see how much longer it had to be borne. But at last the 150-miles mark was in sight, and what was still more to my liking, there would be time to crowd in a mile or two more before we stopped. I felt quite happy when I knew we had kept up our end of the contract, for it had been broadly advertised that we expected to exceed the hundred and fifty miles.”

Arthur Newton covered 152 miles 540 yards/245.113km., Lin Dilks [USA]117 miles and Phil Granville [CAN] 116 miles, Paul Simpson 115 miles and Mike McNamara 110 miles

Note: Mike McNamara set new track records for 30 miles – 3:13:29 and 40 miles – 4:31:31.  At 50 miles he was 6:07:30.  His 100 mile time was 14:09:45 and he covered 110 miles in 24 hours.

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”.

Newton stated in his book “Running on Three Continents”  that the loss of time in connection with the baths and a nine minute stop caused by a faulty press camera would make it certain that several miles could be added to the record, “probably anything from ten to fifteen miles.”  This assessment was made by the most experienced ultrarunner of the period.

Newton was not to learn from the Hamilton race. In 1953 when the British Road Runners Club promoted a 24 hour track race,  the great Wally Hayward reached the 100 mile mark in 12:46:34 and was allowed to come off at that point for a shower and a massage. After half an hour he returned but by then had stiffened up. He walked  for a short while, ran for a short while, then walked again before he gradually started running heavily and awkwardly, struggling this way to the finish. Hayward covered 159 miles  562y/256.400km. Reflecting on this run  later, Hayward reckons he should have covered 170 miles/273.5 km.

Newton’s target, Charles Rowell’s record of 150 miles 395 yards/241.763km was set in just 22:28:35  and after that Rowell  went on to set  48 hour and 72 hour records of 258m220y/415.411km and 353miles 220y/568.299km.  Rowell would undoubtedly been capable of considerably further in a straight 24 hour race, undoubtedly well over 160 miles since he did not run for the last hour and a half when he set his day mark.

Newton reckoned that 162 to 167 miles [260 to 268km] was possible in 24 hours way back in 1931; twenty years later Hayward was estimating 170/273.5 km. All this suggests that today’s performers, 70 years after Newton, and 50 after Hayward should be a lot closer to Yiannis Kouros’ 24 hour track mark  than they are. 

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.

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