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Ultramarathon – James Shapiro

By Jamesrichardadams @jamesradams

I heard about this book a year ago. It’s an easy one to miss as it’s so rare but anyone wanting to read the history of ultra-running up until 1980 should seek this gem. I got it as a birthday present (a second hand copy in good condition cost around £100) and read it in one sitting.

Ultramarathon – James Shapiro
It starts with the American author tackling a 24 hour track race in Crystal Palace. He talks of being in good enough form to have a go at the World 24 hour record which stood at 161 miles and paints a strangely compelling picture about track ultras. I always wanted to do one some day for the experience and a different kind of race. I know a lot of people say “never in a million years” to this kind of thing but it has always appealed and the atmosphere Shapiro creates when describing his experience is very tempting.

To be in a race knowing exactly where you are compared to others and how much you are gaining or losing on them sounds overwhelming. Even back then before garmins would spout out your pace and heart rates there was a wealth of information about your time/pace and position. The race started at 3pm and went on into the night (where the announcements went silent to not disturb the locals) and then on through the next day.

Most of the book is not about Shapiro’s experience but of him tracking down some of the historical figures of ultra-running and talking to them about their experiences. Remember this is before the days of some of the “classic” ultra-marathons. Before the Spartathlon or Badwater or the MDS existed. The Western States 100 was only just gathering momentum. 100 mile races tended to be the 100 mile points of 24 hour races since it as difficult to measure 100 miles otherwise. It was before some of the more modern household names had got into this kind of stuff such as Yiannis Kouros and Scott Jurek.

The book is rich in stories of races and runner of years gone by.


From where competitve ultra-running started in the UK in 1810 with the "wobbles", 6 day events around tracks that draw in huge gambling crowds and hence large prize pots. These were walking races until a chap called Charles Rowell decided to run sections. Rowells records were impressive; in 1882 his recrods were 13.26 for 100 miles, 35.09 for 200, 150 miles in 24h, 258 in 48 and 353 in 72. These were popular for the whole century and the Victorian working class would often go to the tracks after a hard days work and watch their runner press on. Such endurance feats spread to the US but there is was more walking/running from city to city.

A great interview with Peter Gavuzzi on his racing across the US in 1928 and 1929 brings new light to the books I have already read on the subject and probably inspired him to make hs own US crossing a few tears later in Meditations from the Breakdown Lane (My next book to read).

The best parts I think are the focus on the 2 big races that helped make ultra-running what it is today. The story of Comrades, particularly the early years when Arthur Newton was breaking new ground in endurance is fascinating. Arthur Newton wrote lots of books on the subject of running in the 20s and 30s and even though he only took running up at a later age he managed to win comrades 4 times and was winning the 1928 bunion derby until injury struck.

London to Brighton is one of a lot of discontinued UK ultras that are mentioned (London-Bath, Plymouth-Exeter, Woodford-Southend, Epsom 40). The chapter is a detailed report of an epic race between Don Ritchie and Cavin Woodward, two of the greatest distance runners of the day. Ritchie was famous for going out hard in every event no matter what the distance and had an incredible talent for keeping that pace. Woodward and Ritchie had spent the previous years trading world records with each other for the 50 and 100 mile distances and the race between them in the 1978 London to Brighton did not disappoint.

I love this book and it is a great history of ultra-running up until 1980. It certainly paints a different picture to how it was in the UK back then, although ultra-running has always been a very inclusive sport for people of all abilities and backgrounds it seemed to be more serious at the sharp end back in the 70s. Though I love the UK scene now and my position in the middle of the pack there does seem to be a lack of these types of really hardcore ultra road runners who could entertain crowds with hard racing over 40+ miles. Much as I like to plod along canals I admit that there is little in it from a spectator point of view but I can imagine more interest in seeing 2 or more mentalists trying to smash each other at 10 miles an hour along undulating roads. Perhaps we need to bring London to Brighton back?

It's also full of great pictures going back years.

Anyhoo, it is a great book and provides a great history of the sport until 1980. Recommended reading for anyone interested in Ultra-running. Let me know if you want to borrow the book, I might lend it to you. You'll have to wear gloves though.

It is not pain I feel but sinking

My involvement with the world grows dimmer

It occurs to me that it would be nice to keel over

A barely audible whisper says it would be a way out

It seems almost impossible to bother any more..

but I do

Don Richie, usa, Newton, 

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