When you toast the bells to ring in 2009, raise a glass if you will to an unsung Scottish sporting hero: William Sichel. He will almost certainly be nursing blisters, because he will be in the closing stages of a 300-mile run, due to finish at 9am on New Year's day in Arizona.
Sichel, who lives in Orkney, is competing in the Across The Years event, a 72-hour race which starts on Monday. A 48-hour race starts on Tuesday, and a 24-hour one on Wednesday. They are all timed to finish simultaneously on January 1.
Sichel won the 24-hour race on this course in 2004, and hopes this year to break his Scottish 48-hour record of 344.267 kilometres (almost 214 miles) and then "hang on" for the next 24 hours.
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"The 48-hour record is a soft' personal best," he says, "so I hope to get it up to 360 kilometres, and then aim for 480k over the three days, which would average more than 100 miles a day.
"The surface is like blaes, full of little stones, so I'll wear gaiters to keep them out of my shoes, and try to prevent blisters. But if there's one stone, it will find me."
This sounds like masochistic madness, yet for Sichel it is only a warm-up for an attempt on the oldest Scottish athletics record, the 567 miles in six days which was achieved in 1882 by George Cameron. Sichel tried and narrowly failed to break that mark earlier this year, but he ends 2008 as World No.2 for the event on road, and No.1 on track. "It will take 100 miles a day to beat that record and I am having another go in April," he says.
Sichel is in the finest stoic traditions of the iron men of ultra-distance running. The earliest model is Pheidipedes of ancient Greece. He was not the fictitious messenger who ran to Athens to announce victory at Marathon over the Persians. He actually existed, but ran the 153 miles from Athens to Sparta, to seek their support against the Persians.
Sichel has recovered from testicular cancer to set a record in the 153-mile race that commemorates that feat. He's also taken world-championship silver at 24 hours, set world records for 100 miles and 24 hours on a treadmill, and won the masters world 100k title while representing Britain 11 times. All since the surgery.
He and his wife make a living dying thermal wear made from the fur of Angora rabbits which he keeps on the Isle of Sanday. Sometimes he trains wearing three layers of clothing in Force 9 winds. "At Force 10, you can't run. You just stand still."
Yet he is in awe of his forebears of the 1870s and 1880s. Ultra running was an enormous sport then, the detail and extent of it never better portrayed than in the recently-published King of the Peds. It is one of the most detailed and best-researched idiosyncratic sports books you are likely to read.
Cameron, a lithographer who worked in Edinburgh, emigrated with his wife and their two surviving children of six to New York. He ran under the name Noremac, often wearing Cameron tartan, and had won numerous races in Scotland where the pedestrian scene was thriving.
In 1880, the 5ft 3in Noremac won a race at Newsome's Circus in Glasgow, collecting £50 for racing for 12 hours a day for six days, covering 357 miles. Inside five weeks he won two other six-day races, at Perth (344 miles) and in the Show Hall of the Royal Gymnasium in Edinburgh (384 miles). The Edinburgh track was just 125 yards long. Races lasted only six days because of Sabbatarian observance.
Sporting challenges attracted many spectators and heavy betting. One man that year succeeded in covering 440 yards 6000 times in 6000 10-minute periods (fastest 2min 02sec, slowest 8:12). Another covered 5000 miles in 100 days - but no running on Sundays. He was backed by the Church of England Temperance Society, on whose behalf he spoke daily on the "merits of alcohol abstinence from an athletics point of view".
Before quitting Scotland, Noremac was already a prolific winner. The Sporting Life listed victories at Aberdeen Recreation Ground, Perth Drill Hall, Strathbungo, Powderhall, and Shawfield. But rewards in the US were far greater.
Just months after his arrival, between Boxing Day 1881 and New Year's Day, at the American Institute in New York (now Madison Square Garden), Noremac contested the "Grand World Championship six-day go-as-you-please Tournament". This meant you could walk and run. The eight-lap-to-the-mile track was three-inch deep loam and sawdust laid on concrete. The event was preceded by a "sacred concert". Chairs and settees were spaced around the track, with a number reserved for spectators "of the fairer sex" - but only if accompanied by gentlemen.
Irishman Patrick Fitzgerald collected $1500, plus a $500 bonus, for setting a world record of 582 miles 55 yards. Noremac was second (565m 495yd), collecting $800.
The following summer, George Hazael became first man to cover 600 miles in six days, toppling the favourite, fellow Englishman Charlie Rowell. He collected almost $19,000 and left the US, evading a lawsuit by a trainer who claimed he was entitled to half the winnings. Noremac collected $2251 as a share of receipts for third, with 555 miles.
The New York Tribune could not have been more condemnatory: "The triumph of Hazael is a step downward in a rivalry with Rowell that was low enough already. The defeated champion had little to recommend him except a stout heart and legs of uncommon size . . . and an ambition that did not rise higher than the keeping of an alehouse on the proceedings of his races.
"His successor is morose and sullen, with no single redeeming trait in mind or person. He has no friends and never had any . . . if he failed to get a share of the spoils at the Garden, he would be forced to take up some honest labour, like shovelling dirt or sweeping up the streets. He has no brain for anything higher."
The Chicago Tribune reported how six-day races were organised by "a broken-down pedestrian . . . seeking to gain a livelihood by promoting disability in the legs of other people. Twenty-seven willing victims placed themselves at his disposal . . . and began pounding the sawdust for his benefit . . . watched by a small crowd of spectators in which the gambler, confidence-man, bummer, and prostitute element was conspicuously predominant."
Ridiculing varicose-vein and bunion-afflicted runners, the paper continued: "The one thing that never interferes with the practice of this business . . . is professional dishonour arising from palpable dishonesty in a race . . . one of the sorriest delusions that ever prostituted the game of sport. Taken altogether, the affair is a disgusting fraud, and one well worthy of police interference, both on account of the brutal nature of the exhibition and the decidedly immoral character of the audience which it brings together."
Later in 1882, Noremac tackled another six-day event. That's when he set the mark of 567.4 miles which Sichel will chase. Cameron might well have gone even faster subsequently, but within weeks, his life took a disastrous turn.
He had established a liquor store called The Walkers' Rest, but when he attempted to open the Midlothian Arms, on Eighth Avenue, his trainer, George Beattie, said he wanted to manage it. Beattie had displayed a drink problem when helping at The Rest, and Cameron refused.
Beattie began bad-mouthing Cameron's wife, saying she was seeing other men. Then he picked a fight with her, pulled a gun, and killed her before committing suicide.
Eventually, Noremac was to line up once again at the Garden, in a race for the championship of the world. Heavyweight boxing championship contender John L Sullivan presented a horseshoe to the favourite. The Marquis of Queensberry, clad in a beaverskin overcoat trimmed with bearskin, started the race.
There were 10,000 spectators as George "Lionheart" Littlewood of England completed a world record of 623.6 miles, and was served with a pint of Bass ale. He won $6000 and a silver cup worth $2000. That was 120 years ago this month.
Littlewood's world record stood for 96 years, until Yannis Kouros beat it by 12 miles with two hours to spare. The Greek won just $7500 in 1984.
"At first we thought these times were not properly authenticated," said Sichel before flying to Arizona yesterday. "We questioned the veracity of the measurement and accuracy of the timing. But all the data and lap times are recorded. There was such huge betting, with fortunes at stake, that competition was intense. We now believe these performances were absolutely accurate. They were amazing athletes." King of the Peds by Paul Marshall (Authorhouse)