Neil Featherby: A short history of ultra racing

John Stocker Back Yard Ultra

John Stocker and Matt Blackburn at the end of the Back Yard Ultra. - Credit: Challenge Running Ltd

Whilst we have seen a huge running boom during the last few years, we have also seen a massive increase in ultra-running events, and of course by the numbers of those taking part. 

I had a dabble years ago on the ultra-race scene when back then the numbers were much less. 

However, it also meant mixing it with some pretty tough cookies. 

Whilst the top guys were not necessarily 2hr 10min marathon runners, most of them were capable of sub 2:20 for which they could maintain and sustain a high output for many miles beyond the marathon distance. 

In fact those at the sharp end would run 50 milers under 6 min mile pace and 100 miles under 12 hours. 

Whereas today's ultra- stars are just as fast, the race field is now made up with much larger numbers what with so many more runners having a go. 

I have even chatted to some people who have taken part in an ultra before they have completed a marathon. 

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Just last week, I like many others became intrigued by the Back Yard Race which was taking place around a course on Knettishall Heath just over the Norfolk/Suffolk border. 

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I had seen this event before on YouTube in the US, so needless to say I found it even more interesting when seeing such an event taking place right on our own doorstep.   

A strange race for sure with runners having to complete one lap of 4.167 miles each hour until there is only one competitor left. 

John Stocker from Oxfordshire took the major honour whilst also setting a new world record of 81 laps/81 hours and 337 miles after runner up Matt Blackburn retired after 80 laps. 

That is like staying awake albeit with a few brief moments of shut eye for over three full days unless they did some sleep walking. 

John also still had to complete that last lap within the hour or no winner would have been declared. 

Going back 150 years or so and just prior to when the first modern Olympics took place, whilst amateur athletics was in truth very much the realm of the upper classes, any working class athlete who showed real promise was soon guided to what was then the professional ranks particularly when it came to what was very long-distance ultra-races. 

If you were considered to have real potential and prepared to really put your mind and body through the mill, then you could gain the support and backing of the gentry in the same way as that of a thoroughbred race horse. 

The rewards for both parties i.e. athlete or ped as they were known and of course any such backer were very good what with huge sums of prize money being contested for and of course trackside gambling. 

Races of up to six days took place in arenas such as at the famous Madison Square Garden in New York or the Agricultural Hall in Islington where the runners would circle a track which did not measure much more than 100 metres in circumference. 

Some of the performances were absolutely remarkable too. 

So much so, George Littlewood’s six-day world record of 623 miles 1,320 yards set at Madison Square Garden, in 1888 lasted 96 years before Greek super human ultra-star Yiannis Kouros beat it when running just short of 636 miles in 1984. Ironically also in New York. 

Kouros furthered his own record in 1991 by another 28 miles when completing 664 miles. 

What fascinates me most though are the extreme methods these hardened pedestrians (and backers) would go to, to keep circling the track hour after hour and of course day after day (and night). 

Forget any pre-made packaged super foods or gels as their diet or should I say sports nutrition back then consisted of lots of meat along with such things as calf foot jelly and eel broth. 

As for fluids, it was a mix of tea, coffee, ginger ale and milk, plus champagne and brandy when needing an extra pick-me-up. 

However, when this didn’t work other measures were brought in such as administering very small doses of strychnine and morphine or indeed the stabbing of sore aching and swollen muscles with sharp instruments so as to cause small bleeds assuming the flow would reduce inflammation. 

Why you may ask yourself would anyone put themselves through that sort of torture? 

Well as mentioned earlier in this column, the professional athletes of the day tended to be from tough working-class backgrounds for which they could earn up to what was 100 times the average annual wages for one of these events. 

For the gentry of course, whilst they were also looking for a return on their charges, I am sure their competitive spirit went well beyond just having some fun when it came to willing on their man to be the victor of the day. 

Or I should say, six days!