Why has Noremac’s record lasted 129 years?
Why has Noremac’s record lasted 129 years?
We thought it would be interesting to have a brief look at the reasons behind the longevity of George D. Noremac’s 6 Day, Scottish distance running record – 567 miles in 6 Days, set in 1882, at the Madison Square Garden, indoor venue, in New York.
What’s surprising is, that it is an athletics record, that has lasted so long. We are so familiar with running records being fairly regularly revised, that even a 20 year old record is considered as ‘very old’. Noremac’s record has been on the books for 129 years.
I have identified about five areas of interest that may help to explain the durability of Noremac’s performance.
Records get broken when there is competitive pressure to break them or a highly motivated and inspired individual decides to take them on – simple as that. In Victorian times there was immense pressure, within the sport of ‘pedestrianism’, to achieve greater and greater distances within the 6 day time limit. Why was there such competitive pressure? Because the finest endurance athletes of the period concentrated on the 6-day event due to its popularity with the public and the huge financial rewards available.
Currently many of the best endurance athletes of our day tend to move to the marathon fairly quickly, as a lucrative career can be found there, if you are good enough, whereas far fewer athletes compete in 6-day or other multi-day races, partly because there is no prize money on offer and far less coverage from the media.
In Noremac’s period we find the combination of runners being in the media spotlight and under the public gaze, a large number of existing top 6-day runners (with more up-and-coming hopefuls ready to take their place), plus the tremendous prize money attracting more athletes toward the sport. All this would have led to huge competitive pressure and thus an ideal environment for setting and breaking records.
Today, despite the increasing growth in ultra-running, 6-day racing is a minority event within what is currently a minority sport. 6-day racing has little if any media coverage and hardly any recognition from the public at large. 6-day races tend to attract only a small number of athletes – who compete for no prize money at all, regardless of whether they win, loose or break a record. Unlike the situation in Noremac’s day, none of this helps in creating the kind of competitive pressure which leads to record breaking performances.
For a 20-25 year period in the late 1800’s, the most talented athletes of the day, from the English-speaking world, moved up pretty swiftly to the multi-day events, of which the 6 Day was the most popular. Consequently athletes were running multi-day events when quite young – Noremac was just 28 years old when he set the record.
These days the most common pattern is for ultra-runners to have first had a career of some kind as marathon runners – the marathon being the main competitive long-distance event of our day and drawing the greatest media and public awareness. Frequently some athletes move up into ultra-distance running, but often only when they are a little older and then often only when they can no longer compete at the top levels in marathon running.
Athletes in the Victorian period competed quite frequently, sometimes doing three or more 6 Day events per year, as well as other races. These races were spread throughout the year and as a result there were a lot of performances and the top athletes were brought together in head-to-heads quite frequently through the major race series such as the “Astley Belt” races.
In the modern era, the 6 Day event was revived in 1980 and has enjoyed increasing interest up to the current day. In 2010 there were three stand-alone 6 Day races and several longer events in which a 6 Day split distance could be achieved. The ranking lists for 2010 indicate that 154 men recorded a 6 Day distance.
Nowadays the leading protagonists are frequently spread across different races and it’s often the case that two or more races are held close together, limiting the possibilities for more than one performance per year.
So in Noremac’s day the “pedestrians” could expect to have several chances to take part in a 6-day race each year, and also to expect to face stiff competition in whichever races they entered from those other athletes at the top of the sport, while today an ultra-runner is only likely to have a single chance to compete in a 6-day race each year, and their chosen race may or may not have several elite athletes present to race against.
Scotland’s strongest contender for the record, in the past, was the Scottish-Canadian Al Howie who blazed an ultra distance trail in the late 1980s through to the early 90s. Although Scotland could be considered something of an “over-achieving” nation in many ways, given that we currently have a population of only just over 5 million, Scotland’s relatively small population, coupled with the minority status of the sport of ultra-running (let alone 6-day racing), all adds up to a situation in which very few Scots have been in a position to try to break Noremac’s record.
Huge prize money up for grabs
In Noremac’s period the prize money for the winners of the major events was huge – up to £250,000, in current values, for an Astley Belt triumph. The size of the purses depended on gate money and betting successes, as it was the gambling element that fuelled the sport, followed by the huge attendances. The gold belts awarded to the winners were also hugely valuable.
When Noremac set the Scottish record, when finishing as runner-up, he won about £40,000 in today’s money. The ‘Peds’ were the ‘Premier League footballers’ of their day.
These days if even the winner of a 6-day race, can cover only half the expenses involved in entering the event, they would consider themselves to be very lucky! Currently ultra-running doesn’t attract much in the way of sponsorship, let alone any actual prize money, and entering a 6-day race probably means a runner taking a couple of weeks off work. So it is perhaps unsurprising that there has not been a long line of contenders for Noremac’s record.
In the old days, placing well in a big race could bring in a real fortune whereas a failed athlete (and their family) would have no form of social security to fall back on, no NHS, and a genuine fear of things like the Work-House or malnutrition. Multi-day racing, at the time of Noremac, would have offered similar incentives to working class British and Americans to those of say Kenyan runners today – basically a way out of poverty.
Nowadays there is little money in the sport with the main events being organised by enthusiastic clubs, occasionally with the support of local sponsors. These days, entering a 6-day race is pretty much guaranteed to reduce your finances, not increase them!
Huge crowd support
The interest in the sport was extraordinary, at it’s height and watching the ‘peds’ became a ‘must see’ activity for the Victorians.
The best races attracted crowds of 10,000 a day and it was always in the interests of the athletes and the promoters to create interest, speculation and rivalry amongst the leading contenders to keep the crowds rolling in. The impact on performance can only be imagined as thousands of enthusiastic supports cheered on their favourites.
Nowadays the races are attended by a handful of enthusiasts, although the numbers following the races on the internet actually exceeds the Victoria attendances, with my web site achieving over 500,000 hits during the 1000 mile race last year. But coverage of ultra-races on the internet is provided free of charge by those involved in some way in the sport, whereas in the Victorian heyday spectators paid to attend the races, and part of this gate-money went to the athletes as prize money.
Unfortunately the huge internet following doesn’t produce a performance enhancing atmosphere such as Noremac would have enjoyed.
Availability of drugs in Victorian society
Nowadays we are very familiar with the concept of clean, drug free sport and millions are spent every year on world-wide anti-doping policies. This wasn’t the case in the 19th century.
Victorian Britain was a culture awash with drugs. Opium, morphine, cocaine and cannabis were all on sale in every high street pharmacy. Victorian society saw a rampant, though covert, use and abuse of drugs and alcohol.
In extreme endurance events the use of powerful stimulants would have provided significant advantages. We have absolutely no evidence that Noremac used performance enhancing drugs, but it is well documented that other ‘Peds’ did so and quite legally.
Nowadays the 6 Day races are organised under the auspices of the International Association of Ultra Runners (IAU) and all participants may be drug tested at the completion of the events. No competitor may use any substance deemed inadmissible by the World Anti-doping Agency (WADA).
This change from the acceptance of the use of drugs in both society as a whole and sport in particular is one of the reasons why we have both “modern” records and “all-time” records. Modern records are set under strict control from IAU and WADA to ensure that no competitor is using banned stimulants or other performance enhancing drugs, whereas it will always remain an open question what substances may or may not have been used by any athlete in races during the Victorian period, as they were legally allowed to use a range of now banned substances, and were frequently encouraged by their trainers and coaches to run under the influence of both powerful central nervous system stimulants and extremely potent painkillers.
In Noremac’s time all the races were indoors. Venues varied from large marquees in fairgrounds around the country, to drill halls and on to the major hosts such as the Agricultural Hall in Islington, London and the Madison Square Garden in New York.
The best venues used purpose-built small tracks, constructed by carpenters and consisting of a bed of sawdust and topped with ‘tan bark’ to provide an excellent, forgiving surface. The small tracks were often less than 200m in length requiring several laps to the mile.
Nowadays weather conditions can be a major factor in race performances, with all the races being on either road or tracks outdoors. Obviously the indoor races removed the potential problems of anything from flooding and high winds through to sun-stroke.
When I did my current personal best distance of 532 miles in Hamm, Germany in 2008, the track actually flooded very badly in the later stages and I had to run multiple laps in the outer lanes whilst the flooding was cleared. The extra distance covered couldn’t be credited to me. In the Athens 1000 Mile World Cup race last year a hot storm demolished race tents, hoardings and tables leaving runners to battle onwards.
Having said that, it is well documented that the environment, at some of the indoor venues, wasn’t always ideal. Thousands of smokers and unsanitary conditions produced a ‘fetid atmosphere’ at times. Currently there are no indoor multi-day races. If there were, adverse weather conditions could be removed as a factor in the event which would most probably lead to the potential for better performances.
This analysis of the competitive pressures around at the time, the effect of having huge prize money and crowd support at the events, coupled with the availability of legal stimulants and indoor venues, gives some indication as to why Noremac’s record has lasted so long. It will be interesting to see how long it actually does last.
William Sichel & Shaun Brassfield-Thorpe, April 21st 2011
“The King of the Peds”: www.kingofthepeds.com
Drugs in Victorian Britain:
“The How & Why of the Oldtime Six Day Races”
by Andy Milroy