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Tuesday 23 October 2018

Herbert Hedemann – the tough versatile veteran

The story of Herbert Alexander Hedemann as a distance runner is closely bound up with the development in Australia as an enduring professional running scene.

The Stawell Gift started 120 years ago as an athletics competition between miners in the Victorian goldfields in Australia.  Held every Easter in the small town of Stawell, three hours west of Melbourne,  the  distance race  was over one mile, 'The Miners' Handicap', first run in 1880,. That first mile in 1880 was won by C. Astall from J. Croughan and T. Bennett (Scratch) in a field of 14. The winner was probably Stawell's first 'dark horse' because back marker Croughan and scratch-man Bennett could not catch him in the final dash. No time was taken.

Right from its earliest years Stawell catered for all distances and athletes; in 1896 it first staged a three mile handicap which was changed to two miles in 1900. Winner of the 1896 three miles was H. Hopper from A. V. Fosse and T. Ballinger. His time was 14.59.6, winning margin was several yards and winner collected £14.

Herbert Hedemann was  born on the 10th November 1881 in Sydney. When he showed promise as a distance runner, the professional ranks must have attracted him. His close contemporary Arthur Postle, the famous Australian professional sprinter made his impact on the running scene, some five years earlier than Hedemann, and Jack Donaldson. another famous professional sprinter, who was five years younger, also was competing internationally by 1909.

It is possible that for family reasons Herb Hedemann delayed his move in the professional rankings until he was nearly 30 years old.  However when he finally did so, he became recognised as one of the greatest Australian distance runners. He recorded a feat which has still to be beaten - winning the Federation Mile and Grampians Two Miles in the one day at the 1912 and 1913 Easter Gift meetings  

When in 1913 Hedemann won the Federation Handicap mile event at Stawell,  
second was Charles E Bergmeier. Professional sprinter Jack Donaldson described the then desperate situation in Australian professional athletics, 'With matches as scarce as hens' teeth and handicaps almost hopeless’. After the Stawell race Hedemann and Bergmeier decided to seek their fortunes on the more flourishing and therefore more  attractive  British professional running  circuit.

An golden opportunity presented itself virtually as soon as Hedemann stepped off the boat in Britain. In September 1913 at the Powderhall Grounds, Edinburgh,  Canadian Hans Holmer had beaten the then World Mile Champion, Frank Kanaly (USA).

[Frank Kanaly had first become prominent between the years 1899 to 1901 when competing as an amateur, winning the US national five mile championship. In 1902 he had turned professional and in the next five years held US national titles in the half-mile, the mile, the two mile and the five mile events. After his great success in America,   Kanaly decided to widen his horizons  and competed abroad  for several seasons adding the world's championship in the half-mile, the mile and the mile and a half.

Hans Holmer came from Halifax, Nova Scotia and from 1907 onwards, when he won first the Mayor's Cup and then the Natal Day 6 Mile road  race, was known as the leading runner in the Canadian Atlantic Provinces. He had failed to finish in the Toronto Canadian Olympic trial in June 1908, but that year won the Round the Bay race in 1:51:16

When the Marathon Craze hit following the Dorando disqualification in the 1908 Olympics, Holmer had quickly turned professional and won six consecutive marathon victories. After losing several races through his excessive initial pace, Holmer had set a world marathon record on the Edinburgh Powderhall track of 2:32:21.8   on the 3rd January 1911.  In 1912 he had claimed the world marathon title in Berlin, but lost his world record to the Finn Willie Kolehmainen. One source credits him as being the 10 miles world champion in 1913]

Hedemann had reached England by the time the World Mile Championships had been won by Hans Holmer and he immediately challenged the Canadian for the title. They were matched at the Snipe Inn ground at Audenshaw, Manchester, for a purse of £100.  The venue was selected by the Lancashire Pedestrian Syndicate, who became the promoters of the match.  Over two thousand spectators turned up, despite an important football match between Salford and Wigan on a neighbouring ground.

The half a mile track at the Snipe Inn ground was usually used for trotting races by horses and consequently was rather soft on top, although  brushes and heavy roller had been  used to make a better surface. Both Holmer and Hedemann were satisfied with the track, knowing a fast time was out of the question. The then professional world mile record was 4:12.75 by Englishman Walter George, set some twenty-seven years earlier.

 Holmer was trained for the match by the famous miler, George B. Tincler, while Hedemann was prepared by his fellow Australian Charles Bergmeier.

On the day of the race Holmer won the toss and chose the inside. He stood up in what was called  the old style while Hedemann went down into a crouch start. Immediately the gun was fired, Hedemann went to the inside, and was to keep that position throughout the race. With Holmer running at his shoulder Hedemann ran relaxed.  At half way, Holmer tried to spurt past him, but Hedemann held his position, and it became clear that Holmer lacked the pace to take the lead.

Some 300 yards from the finish line, Hedemann began to sprint, opening a gap of nearly five yards. Despite Holmer's desperate efforts in the last 100 yards, Hedemann hung on, despite being exhausted. He won by three yards in 4 minutes 34 seconds. Holmer at once congratulated the new world mile champion.

After Hedemann beat Holmer, he heard rumours that Harold Wilson, the 1908 Olympic silver medallist at 1500 metres and current English mile champion, was claiming that he was entitled to the world championship title.  This was despite the fact that Wilson had been beaten for the world title by Frank Kanaly in Blackpool, [who subsequently had been beaten by Holmer] Wilson was then currently running in South Africa and defeating all opposition.

On hearing this Hedemann decided to go to South Africa and meet Wilson in a mile race.  Once there he engaged the famous South African trainer, Tom Christian, to prepare him. The match was set to take place on the 28th February 1914 at the Lord's ground, Durban. Wilson jumped into the lead at the start and set a fast pace. This suited Hedemann who lengthened his stride and took over the lead. At the halfway point, Hedemann slackened the pace and Wilson re-took the lead. At the bell, Hedemann took the lead once more, but it was not until halfway around the bend that the little Englishman began to move up. Hedemann responded - three times Wilson tried to take the lead, each time the bigger and stronger Australian (1.72 metres/62 kg)  just lengthened his stride, to win by four yards in a time of 4 minutes 39.2 seconds. Hedemann was the undisputed champion of the world.  He was never beaten in a match race on even terms.

It is not known what Hedemann did after this win.  Powderhall and Pedestrianism, the book on professional running in Britain states that " a strong endeavour was made to maintain the recreative diversions of the people throughout the years of strife." So the Powderhall meetings went on as usual. The "marathon" was held annually and the entries had a good international spread, including Hedemann’s former opponent Hans Holmer. Jack Donaldson, Hedemann’s Australian contemporary, sprinted against Applegarth at Salford, England  in 1915. I have found no mention of Hedemann defending his world title, or even competing. However elsewhere professional runners in other parts of Britain ran out of competitions, Cumbria being a good example. With so many young fit men conscripted for war service, meetings would lack strength in depth.

Perhaps having got to Durban in 1914, because of the War or some other reason, Hedemann decided to stay there. Possibly having achieved his ambition of becoming World Champion, he gave up professional athletics and settled down - he would have been 32. We do know that after the First World War, Hedemann was in  South Africa and apparently living in Durban, the large port on the Indian Ocean. With a pleasant climate and one of the largest open air swimming baths in the world, it was an ideal location for the former professional athlete.

In  late 1925 Hedemann decided to immigrate to the United States. Durban seems to have been fairly prosperous at this time, so the reasons for the move are not clear.  He travelled by ship first to Britain, where he obtained a visa for the United States in London. On the 4th February 1926 he sailed for New York on the passenger ship SS Olympic from Southampton. The ship, the twin of the ill-fated Titantic, had actually been built before her sister ship, however reassuringly she was known as “Old Reliable”.

 By 1926 the massive four funnelled SS Olympic had been converted to oil burning and could carry close to two and a half thousand passengers. It was said that she was was the largest British built liner afloat  Sailing at around 22 knots, the SS Olympic would complete the trans-Atlantic voyage in under six days. 

On the list of passengers, Hedemann gave his occupation is given as `athlete’., so perhaps the now veteran Hedemann hoped to revive his former career.

Hedemann settled in New York and soon married a widow with children.  Now 45 years old, he had decided to put down roots at last. However supporting his new family was not to be easy. There was no  professional running scene in the United States at this time.

By early 1928 Herbert Hedemann was broke and he and his wife and five children were reduced to living in one room but possible salvation was at hand..  In late 1927 the promoter C.C. Pyle had come up with the idea of an annual Trans-America footrace, using the newly completed Route 66 from Los Angeles to Chicago and then onward to New York. The entry fee was $25 with food and lodging provided by Pyle. The 1928 Trans-Continental race offered Herbert Hedemann a lifeline, a chance to re-join the professional running scene once more, and perhaps even a way out of poverty.

The 1928 race was said by its promoter to be the first of an annual series of races across America, like the famous French Paris-Strasbourg walk and the Tour de France cycle race. Hedemann, out of condition after at least  ten years away from the professional circuit, was to use the first race as preparation and experience for the future events.  Unlike his fellow Australian, Mike McNamara, Hedemann managed to complete the race, reputedly finishing 38th. The promoter of the race, C C Pyle was not able to come up with the prize money but another promoter, Tex Rickard and the Californian millionaire father of one of the finishers, ensured the money was paid.

Many of the veterans of the 1928 race decided to provide their own handlers for the 1929 race, and invested their prize money in a vehicle for a handler. Hedemann and his fellow countryman, McNamara, pooled their capital and built their own motorised caravan.  As Pete Guvuzzi, one of the strongest runners in both races, often remarked, “The first race was an amateur event. The second was professional.”

Hedemann was a very different competitor in the 1929 race, placing 6th, 7th, 2nd in the first three stages.  Hedemann would have taken the overall lead on the fourth day if he had not been misdirected off course and lost 40 minutes.

On Day 5 in  the 37 miles stage from Wilmington to Havre de Grace Hedemann was locked in battle with the much younger Paul Simpson. For 30 miles they matched strides until eventually Simpson was forced to slow to a walk.  The bearded Hedemann won  in 4:44:45, and moved into the lead on cumulative time. However his early push had been premature, and other more cautious and prudent runners now began to come into their own. On the sixth day stage, Hedemann dropped to 18th, and within five days was down to 10th place on the elapsed time.

Hedemann overcame his inclination to push hard at every stage, and soon became established in the 7th to 10th slot in the cumulative elapsed time, alongside McNamara. This was no mean feat, racing experienced ultra veterans over stages that could vary between 30 and 60 miles a day. The trick was to keep a close watch on the runners immediately in front and behind you on the cumulative elapsed time, ensuring that the latter did not eat into your lead over  them, and seeing if you could gain on those in front without expending too much energy.  Pushing too hard on one stage could be costly if it had a detrimental effect for several days afterwards.

Occasionally, like on the 31st day, Hedemann would finish in the top three, covering the 33 miles from Springfield to Miller in 4:35:05.  The shorter distances suited him, as when he won the 32 mile stage from Oakcliff, Dallas to Fort Worth  in 4:20:40 on Day 42, but having said that two days later he was second over a 52.2 mile stage, clocking 7:25:50, also finishing second the next day on a rare sub-marathon, 24.7 mile stage, and the next over 37 miles. But the gap between him and Harry Abramowitz, one place ahead of him, was measured in hours; Abramowitz tried never to let Hedemann get too far away from him in a stage, so unless Abramowitz became injured or ill,  moving up involved Hedemann taking the risk of over-extending himself and suffering the consequences in the following days.

Hedemann and McNamara were suffering under a major disadvantage. Their motorised caravan had broken down and they were the only leading runners without their own trainer.

When eventually Abramowitz did crack, Hedemann was then in direct competition with his fellow Australian Mike McNamara. Days 72 and 73 were classic examples of race tactics with both men coming in 5th place together. When Abramowitz attempted to regain his place, Hedemann stuck with the younger man no matter what. One knowledgeable spectator described the courage of the old veteran the greatest he had ever witnessed in sport. Although Abramowitz was to win the 70 mile 76th stage by three hours, it was too late, he too far behind to beat the two Australians.

At the end of the epic race of 3,635 miles/5850 km which had lasted 79 days, the two Australians were separated by just three hours, McNamara with a time of 627:45:28  in 7th and Hedemann in 8th with 631:23:48.  Many of the runners had lost up to fourteen pounds/6.5kg in weight.

They should have been well rewarded for all their efforts – with McNamara receiving $2000 and Hedemann $1750. Instead they were offered worthless cheques.  Pyle had run out of money.

Many of the Trans-continental runners returned home from Los Angeles, but some of the elite performers  tried to make a living as professional runners.  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.  Hedemann was part of one team that clocked up 424 miles in the 6 days. The runners each received $5, less than a cent a mile. 

Several of the Pyle runners kept in touch, letting each other know of professional racing opportunities, such as 15 mile events and snowshoe races in Canada. Unlike Hedemann, these men appear to have been unattached and did not have his family responsibilities. The two-man 6 day team race in Los Angeles appears to have been his final professional race.  Having twice deserted his family in search of elusive success as a professional runner, Hedemann probably felt  it would be irresponsible to do it again, especially as he was now nearing 50 years old.  Arthur Newton, his contemporary,  could afford to trade on his established reputation in the hope of professional prize and appearance money, but he had no ties or responsibilities.

Subsequent correspondence between the former Pyle runners shows Hedemann was still living in Los Angeles. But he eventually did make his way back to New York to his wife and family.

As the Depression got worse so the few race opportunities for the remaining professional Pyle runners finally disappeared anyway, and the rest of the runners were forced to turn to other occupations.

What actually happened to Herbert Hedemann afterwards is largely unknown. By the 1940s he was living in East 53rd Street, New York and working for the largest Real Estate  broker in Manhattan, Douglas Elliman & Co and worked from the Park Avenue office. (Elliman was a long established company, founded in 1911.) There had been a  massive improvement in Hedemann’s financial situation.

With the attack on Pearl Harbour, and the threat to his Australian homeland, Hedemann was determined to do his bit, and joined the equivalent of the Home Guard at the age of 60. On his eventual retirement, he relocated to Los Angeles in California  According to the Stawell Athletic Club, he was a regular visitor to the Stawell Easter gift at least up to the mid sixties, traveling from the USA. At that time, he would have been in his eighties, so he obviously was still active into his old age, with the funds to pay for frequent trans-Pacific trips.

Herbert Hedemann died on the 22nd September 1976 in Los Angeles, California, in his mid nineties.  He was the longest lived of the Pyle runners, although his greatest opponent from the 1929 race, much younger Harry Abramowitz, was still around in  1985.

In 1958 the Stawell Athletic Club named their annual Mile competition, the Herb Hedemann Mile, and the event has been won by several distinguished professional runners since. It is a fitting memorial for one of Australia’s great distance runners, but ironically perhaps his greatest performance, racing across America, is largely forgotten.

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