A Perfect Shrubb

A Perfect Shrubb

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The Little Wonder: The Untold Story of Alfred Shrubb, World Champion Runner
(by Rob Hadgraft, Desert Island Books http://www.desertislandbooks.com)

  Alfred Shrubb is a name few runners know, yet in running history he ranks close to Paavo Nurmi and Emil Zaptopek. Like them, he pioneered new levels of hard training, and thus transformed competitive standards. In the first year of the 20th century, the little Englishman (5 feet 6 inches, 126 pounds) set 13 world records at track events we still offically recognize and another 15 at distances such as 4 or 5 miles; he dominated the flourishing new sport of cross country in England and Europe, winning the first two international championships; and then spent 10 years almost unbeatenin the cauldron of America professional racing. 

  In 1912, when Arthur Conan Doyle, in his prehistoric THE LOST WORLD, wanted to illustrate how slow dinosaurs were, he wrote that an ordinary human by comparison would be “a perfect Shrubb.”

  In case you think even top runners were slow in those old days, try to match this set of times: 3M in 14:14.6 (a world record that stood for 29 years); 10,000m in 31:02.4 (world record for seven years); and 10M in 50:40.6 (24 years) all run on rough cinder tracks often heavy with rain or crumbling dry.

  Other notable phrases of his life included the “Marathon Mania” indoor professional races in America that followed the 1908 Olympics, when Shrubb’s on starting fast even in the marathons set up some dramatic defeats, and successful periods as track coach of Harvard and Oxford Universities. He coached the English team that ran a world record 4×880 and at Penn Relays in 1920.

    One of the greatest personalities of running, the colourful Shrubb at last receives the attention he deserves, in a new biography, The Little Wonder, by English journalist and runner Rob Hadgraft. It’s a modal of thorough research in contemporary magazines and newspaper, as well as good recent sources and personal interviews. Shrubb’s daughter, in her 90’s enabled Hadgraft to elevate to book from a calalog of races into something close to a real biography, a rarity in the literature of running.

  We too easily equate greatness with the Olympic Games, but as Hadgraft explains, the early Olympics were a minor novelty, supported mainly mainly by the wealthy upper classes. Great Britian sent no team to the 1904 St. Louis Games, but Shrubb’s best time would have won by 4M by two minutes. Hadgraft estimated that Shrubb, between 1904 and 1912, would have won at least seven individual Olympic gold medals, outranking Nurmi (six).

  Nor was professional running as degraded as it was painted by the spin doctors of the gentleman-amateur federations. This is a story darkened by prejudice and official hypocrisy. A rural apprentice carpenter, Shrubb showed prodigious running talent at 19 and was recruited and financially assisted by an elite club, which set him up as a tobacco storekeeper. All over England and Scotland, he attracted big crowds to offically sanctioned events that willingly paid his costs. But none defended him when he was banned as an amateur in 1905 for eccepting such expenses.

  The story ends in Bowmanville, Ontario, where the adaptable Shrubb, still running and walking daily, settled happily as a zookeeper and manager of the tourist park. There, thanks to Al Storie and the “Durham Road Dogs with Canada’s Running Room,” an annual 8k race has been created in his honor. The 2005 date is June 5. If the shade of Alf Shrubb takes part, in top form he will lead the first mile and then cross the finish line in 24:33. Not many will be ahead of him

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