Remembering Walter George: The Mile’s first superstar
“Certainly, he was a man who was years ahead of his time, It was his form of training that inspired the celebrated Swedish coach Gosta Holmer to devise the popular fartlek system.”
By Simon Turnbull for World Athletics Heritage
You could say Walter George did not exactly have the ideal preparation for accomplishing the first sub-4:20 Mile by an amateur runner.
He spent the night before and the early morning of the British Civil Service Athletics Club Sports at the Lillie Bridge Stadium in London on June 3, 1882 – 140 years ago today – enjoying what he liked to call “a spree”.
The distinctively tall, upright, willowy Englishman might have been an innovative, dedicated trainer and a trailblazing runner who racked up 32 world records over six years, but he was partial to a beer, a cigar, a bet on the horses and some high jinks. Indeed, only the previous New Year’s Eve, after spending the evening drinking in London, he had broken into Lillie Bridge with three friends and taken part in a one-lap race in pitch darkness on the stroke of midnight.
Thus, in the early hours of his barrier-breaking Mile run, George found himself strolling the streets of England’s capital city seeking amusement after a night on the town with friends from the London Athletic Club. The occasion was vividly depicted by the man himself and faithfully detailed in Rob Hadgraft’s meticulously researched 2006 biography, Beer & Brine: The Making of Walter George, Athletics’ First Superstar:
“At about three in the morning on the day of the race, Junker and I made a move for home, Crossley volunteering to go a little of the way with us. When we had reached Regent Street, the latter insisted on running off a sprint handicap between the three of us. This we speedily arranged and accomplished without interference, although one bluecoat [policeman] was an interested spectator.
“I quite forget the result but after this impromptu spin I made a bee line for Tavistock Crescent, where I was staying, and I ran the whole way. On arriving there at 4:00am, I found a telegram from a lady friend at Brighton, asking me to meet her at 8:00am that morning at Victoria Station. Thinking that if I went to bed I should oversleep myself, I decided not to risk it, so going to the bathroom I had a good warm tub and rub-down and then, putting on fresh clothes, started to walk to Victoria Station, where I arrived in good time to meet the lady.
“We had breakfast together and chartered a hansom cab, driving all over the West End, transacting business and shopping until it was time to make tracks for Lillie Bridge. Driving quickly there, I found I was barely in time for the race and moreover I was without running shoes or clothes. However, I managed to borrow these and, getting into them, I rushed to my scratch mark just in time to be fired off.
“It was a terribly hot and depressing day – such an atmosphere makes one feel too tired and lazy for walking about, let alone running – yet strange to say I ran right through my field, an excellent one, and took the lead at about 1000 yards, ultimately winning rather easily in a new record time of 4:19.4. This time I might have considerably improved had I anyone to push me for the last 700 yards of the race.”
Like most races of the era, it was a handicap affair. George started on ‘scratch’ and had to overtake 13 rivals, one of whom enjoyed a 120-yard advantage. Athletes ran on uneven cinder tracks with hard, leather shoes, weighed down by Guernsey jerseys and long, flapping shorts.
George improved his record to 4:18.4 at the 1884 AAA Championships at the Aston Lower Grounds in Birmingham, the home of his club, Moseley Harriers, and one of the most popular leisure complexes of the day. Buffalo Bill Cody performed his Wild West Show there and the tightrope walker Madame Genieve fell to her death during a blindfold performance on the site that is now home to Aston Villa Football Club.
Cummings no match
It was at Lillie Bridge in 1886, however, that Walter Goodall George ran the race of his life. By that time, the former chemist had turned professional to face William Cummings, the diminutive Scottish who had been credited with a sensational 4:16.2 Mile in the murky, betting-driven world of ‘pedestrianism’ – as 18th Century professional running was known – at Preston in the north-west of England in 1881.
On Monday, August 23, 1886, George stunned a packed crowd at Lillie Bridge by running 4:12.8 (given at the time as 4:12¾). An exhausted Cummings collapsed 60 yards from the line.
George’s time remained unbeaten for 29 years – until 1915, when Norman Taber of the USA clocked 4:12.6 with the aid of three pacemakers who had been given handicaps to assist (10 yards, 120 yards and 355 yards). It was not bettered in standard racing conditions until 1923, when the peerless Finn Paavo Nurmi clocked 4:10.4 in Stockholm.
“This was a phenomenal time,” the great, much-missed Mel Watman wrote of George’s 4:12.8 in his Encyclopaedia of World Athletics. “In a time trial in 1885 he had gone even faster. He was reliably timed at 4:10.2 for six yards over the Mile – and that wasn’t beaten officially until 1931.”
Continue reading at: worldathletics.org