He was arguably the greatest sports star ever t o come from Sheffield.
Athlete George Littlewood was known across the globe, adored on both sides of the Atlantic and broke records of almost superhuman endurance in the 1880s which still stand today. He once raced a horse and trap over 20 miles, and lost by just 400 yards.
More impressively, perhaps, this Attercliffe-raised son of a Rawmarsh steelworker did it all against a backdrop of sporting skulduggery and while training on a diet of chicken, calf’s foot jelly and pints of Bass beer. Now, this week marks the 125th anniversary of his most incredible hour. Or, more precisely, his most incredible 144 hours.
In six days, between November 27 and December 2 1888, in front of more than 170,000 people at New York’s Madison Square Garden, he ran an astonishing 623 miles.
The feat – a record which stood for almost a century – was the high mark of a 19th century global craze called pedestrianism, a sporting phenomenon in which long-distance runners compete in Go As You Please races.
In these almost unbelievable challenges of endurance participants would run as far as they could within a set period of time, be that 42 hours, 72 hours or 144 hours.
Rest, food and drink were all optional extras. Trying to nobble one’s opponent was common. It was claimed Littlewood had his beer poisoned the week of his New York triumph. Another story has it that, while he sat in a trackside bath of alcohol soaking his blisters, a spectator tossed in a lit match.
Whether these incidents occurred it is difficult to verify but either way, Littlewood’s performance that week was so impressive, it has since been described by 20th century physiologist B B Lloyd as “probably about the maximum sustained output of which the human frame is capable”.
His record was only beaten by Greek ultra-marathon runner Yiannis Kouros in 1984.
“When you consider not only the physical stress but the mental suffering too, this was an incredible achievement,” says Littlewood’s great nephew and biographer Paul Marshall. “The toll on the human body can’t be underestimated. By the end of these races some athletes were literally crawling round the track.”
The run earned Littlewood – nicknamed The Sheffield Flyer – a prize pot of $5,400. As he arrived back at Sheffield Midland Train Station, thousands of adoring fans lined the streets. When interviewed by a local reporter he noted modestly: “I had plenty of time to beat the record still further if I had wanted to.”
Not bad for a lad whose obsession with running started after he won his school’s 100 yard cup, aged just nine.
As a teenager he would run round Attercliffe three times a day. Most weeks he completed 200 miles – drinking pints of Bass in between training sessions.
In 1879, aged just 20, he came fourth in his first Go As You Please race and then competed regularly in such events through the 1880s. Famously, in 1882, he smashed the 42-hour heel-and-toe world walking record by completing 531 miles at Sheffield’s Norfolk Drill Hall. The record still stands today.
A good all-rounder, he also once entered a lion’s cage in a Wombwell menagerie for a bet. Reports the lion cowered may have been exaggerated. But Littlewood’s finest hour was that New York race 125 years ago.
After falling behind in the first day (blamed on that possibly poisoned beer), he picked up the pace and – according to his own report – barely walked or ran on the last day so confident was he of breaking the record and winning the event.
“I don’t know how far I might have ran without stopping had not Billy O’Brien come to me and asked me to stop and not beat the record by too much,” he told The Telegraph.
After that, pedestrianism fell out of fashion – it increasingly became seen as physically dangerous to its competitors – and Littlewood retired back to his beloved Sheffield.
“In his later days he had the King’s Head pub in Attercliffe and although he had to work very hard, he became a very wealthy man,” says Paul, 54, of Elsecar. “When I think of what he achieved, it makes me incredibly proud.
“I would say he was one of the greatest athletes of all time. What he did makes a lot of modern achievements pale into insignificance.”
Littlewood died of consumption on December 4, 1912, aged 53. His funeral in Darnall was attended by more than 3,000 people.