George Littlewood: Is This The Hardest LAD You’ve Never Heard Of?
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He may just be the most hard-as-nails LAD you've never heard of. Now, this year one of the UK's great forgotten heroes is set to be (rightly) remembered once more.
Yorkshireman George Littlewood was so tough, it was reported he once got in a cage with a lion - and the lion cowered.
But, as a film currently being penned will show, it was as a long-distance runner that he made his name for sheer physical might. In 1888, in front of more than 170,000 spectators at New York Madison Square Garden, he ran 623 miles in six days.
Let that sink in.
For context, it's the equivalent of four marathons a day for six consecutive days.
It was a world record which remained standing for almost a century; and is quite possibly the most astonishing feat of endurance ever achieved by a British sportsman.
Not bad for a LAD whose training methods included racing horse-and-raps over 20 miles (he normally lost but not by much) and whose mid-race refreshment of choice was pints of Bass beer. The ale, he said, helped him replenish nutrients.
"Littlewood is one of Britain's great unknown sports stars," says Paul Marshall, the historian and author who has researched the athlete's life and is now writing that script. "His achievements just aren't very well known but anyone who is ever told about them normally has one reaction: 'wow'."
The 1888 feat was the high mark of a 19th century sporting craze called pedestrianism in which contestants would run or walk as far as they could in a set period of time - generally 42, 72 or 144 hours. The person who had gone furthest by the end was the winner.
Food, drink and rest mid-race were all optional extras during the races. In 144-hour challenges, contestants would pitch tents in the middle of the stadium circuit in order to take nap breaks - but rarely used them. Massive cash prizes for the winners meant most pushed themselves beyond any normal human limits in search of glory. Many ended up in hospital. Indeed, the sport eventually fell out of popularity after it was found to be more brutal on the body than bare-knuckle boxing.
"The poor jaded and abused bodies of the runners made me feel sick," wrote one American journalist after witnessing a race. "The memory of them will play havoc with my sleeping."
Skulduggery was rife, too.
"There was a great deal of organised gambling around the races and that meant dark arts were often employed to try and damage contestants who might cause big losses," explains Paul, who has previously written the definitive history of the sport, called - unfortunately perhaps - King Of The Peds.
Ahead of Littlewood's 1888 victory, for instance, it was claimed the then 29-year-old - the only Brit in a field of Americans - had his beer poisoned while in New York. Another story has it that, while he rested in a trackside bath of alcohol soaking blisters, a spectator tossed in a lit match.
Whether these incidents occurred it's difficult to verify but either way, Littlewood triumphed. And easily, it seems. When interviewed about the record-breaking achievement in the aftermath, the absolute legend bragged: "I had plenty of time to beat the record still further if I had wanted to."
The performance was later described by 20th century physiologist B B Lloyd as 'probably about the maximum sustained output of which the human frame is capable'. The record was only beaten by Greek ultra-marathon runner Yiannis Kouros in 1984.
Littlewood, himself, had started running while at school and, it was in 1879, when he was aged just 20, he competed in his first pedestrianism race, coming fourth.
From there, he competed regularly, climaxing - as the new film will tell - with that 1888 victory, which netted him $5,500 (£3,965) prize money.
As the sport fell out of favour in the next decade, he retired to his home city of Sheffield and found a career linked to his other passion: he became a pub landlord, until his death in 1912, aged 53.
His life should, in short, make some movie.
Find out more at kingofthepeds.com
Words: Colin Drury