An indoor marathon
524 laps of the Royal Albert Hall
The Olympic event I'm looking forward to most is the marathon - the women's one takes place this Sunday (5th August), the men's a week later. Having hobbled one myself, in over twice the world record time of 2 hours 3 minutes 38 seconds, I'm constantly amazed at the effort it takes to run that fast for that long. The other reason I love the marathon so much is it reminds me of one of my favourite bits of bizarre London history - the indoor marathon staged at the Royal Albert Hall in 1909 ...
The event had its roots in another Olympic marathon, the London one of 1908. That race is famous for the Italian runner Dorando Pietri crossing the line first, but only after being helped when he collapsed near the end. Not that surprising in view of the fact that he gargled with wine as he ran; water wasn't seen as helpful in those days, so competitors were offered champagne, brandy and Oxo (the latter being the Games' sponsor). Nevertheless the fact he was helped over the line led to his disqualification, the gold medal going to American Johnny Hayes.
All of which is pretty well known. What's not so famous is that because the London crowd took Pietri to their hearts, they were keen to see him run another marathon. After a rematch with Hayes in America that autumn, which Pietri won by 75 yards, the Italian returned to London in December 1909 to tackle the 26.2 mile distance yet again. The London organisers took inspiration from the very unusual factor about that American marathon - it had been indoors. The two runners ran 260 laps of New York's Madison Square Garden. Only in America, as they always say. Except this time they'd be wrong - the London race was 524 laps of the Royal Albert Hall.
Hard to imagine this was what dear old Victoria had had in mind when she commissioned the hall as a tribute to her beloved husband, but no matter. Pietri's opponent now was the Brit (indeed the Londoner) C.W. Gardiner. At first Gardiner's manager Bob Hunter objected to the idea of running indoors, suggesting the circuit at Chelsea's ground Stamford Bridge instead. But Pietri's manager (his brother Ulpiano) said the Italian wouldn't run outdoors between October and April. So the home of the Proms it was. A 90 yard track was laid out in the arena and covered in coconut matting. The two runners ran clockwise, 19 laps to the mile, starting at 8.15pm.
2000 spectators turned up, though the organisers were savvy enough to realise that if all the punters had to look at was two blokes chasing each other around a circle for two and a three-quarter hours (the record has tumbled since then), boredom might ensue. So they laid on a military band and an Italian tenor to ‘make the time pass more pleasantly'. (Presumably one musical influence from each country to ensure impartiality.)
If monotony could have been a problem for the audience, surely the danger for the two athletes was dizziness? 524 laps, all in the same direction? But, the Hall's archivist Elizabeth Harper assures me, that's what they did. No anti-clockwise nonsense for them. Pietri's downfall, it turned out, wasn't nausea but his shoes - he was wearing new ones, and they gave him, to use a very un-Italian phrase, some right jip. He changed them after 15 miles, but it was no good - blisters got the better of him, and he had to retire on lap 482. This left the field clear for Gardiner to finish his 524 laps and take the £100 prize. Pietri had to make do with half that.
What a wonderfully mad bit of British sporting history. Couldn't we have incorporated it into this year's Olympic marathon route? Nip down Piccadilly and past Harrods, into the Albert Hall, dozen or so laps, then back to the Mall for the finish. Come on LOCOG - where's your sense of occasion?