by Rob Hadgraft
ALFRED Shrubb was small, wiry and rank like a demon. In his first big race, in 1900, astonished onlookers labelled him ‘The Little Wonder’ - a nickname the press latched on to and which stuck. Within a few years Shrubb’s fame had spread worldwide and he laid claim to being athletics’ first international superstar.
Shrubb was a quiet, working class lad from the rural south of England. His hitherto unknown talent for distance-running was discovered one moonlit night, when in his working boots, he raced a horse-drawn fire tender to the scene of a farm fire three miles fromhis home. The captain of the local athletics club saw this and immediately invited him to join them. Within a short time Shrubb had become local, then national and then international champion, and was soon amassing titles, trophies and world records. Some of his best times remained unbeaten for almost half a century.
His adventures around the world make him unique among the top performers in sporting history. He thought nothing of running solo against entire teams of relay runners, for example, such was his need for opposition to test him. Banned for life for breaking amateurism’s strict code, he turned to professional racing in North America in 1906 and his subsequent exploits on the pro circuit beggared belief. In some cases his opponents were not even human!
In his heyday Shrubb was virtually unbeatable at all distances between 2,000 yards and 15 miles. He won more than 1,000 races and suffered only a handful of defeats – the latter usually coming at one mile or in marathons, distances he wasn’t best suited to.
He ended his ‘official’ career as an amateur with a stack of world records to his name. This was an era before IAAF ratification of records, and times were recorded for a wide range of distances that are no longer recognised in the modern world. Many of Shrubb’s records were not beaten for years – for example, his 3-mile world best set in London in May 1903 (14.17.6) was not beaten for 30 years – also in London – by one of the famous Flying Finns, Lauri Lehtinen. Some of his native British records lasted even longer.
But, despite his many track and road achievements, deep down Shrubb always preferred cross-country running. High-stepping across fields and through forests filled him with delight and he loved the sense of freedom and the chance to escape the discipline of being timed and having to lap a track monotonously. His first taste of running free had come as a teenage boy when he’d followed the local fox-hunt near his home. Little did he realise then that galloping across the fields and ditches would be perfect preparation for his later career – which would include victory at the first two International (World) Cross Country championships ever staged.
Shrubb received coaching from some of the top names of the era, but generally preferred to manage his own training and racing schedules and his astute planning and common sense attitude led to him becoming quite an expert. He would write two training manuals, published around 1908, which are still spoken of in reverential terms by aficionados 100 years later.
WORLD RECORD HISTORY
Shrubb’s official and unofficial world records:
(* = ratified in 1921 by the IAAF)
(^ = passed by the AAA records committee)
5.07.2 Stamford Bridge 26-9-03
5.40.2 Stamford Bridge 26-9-03
5.37.0 Glasgow 11-6-04
(i) 6.50.0 Ilford 30-05-04
(ii) 6.47.6^ Stamford Bridge 26-09-03
(Beat 3-year-old existing record by 3.4 secs)
8.21.0 Glasgow 11-06-04
(i) 9.17.0^ Kennington Oval 12-09-03
(Beat 7-year-old existing record by 0.4 secs)
(ii) 9.11.0 Ilford 30-05-03
(iii) 9.09.6*^ Glasgow 11-06-04
(Lasted 22 years as world record and 32 as GB record)
10.57.6 Stamford Bridge 27-09-02
(Beat 9-year-old existing record by 0.6 secs).
(i)14.25.0 Chelmsford 19-07-02
(On grass; beat 13-year-old record by 9 secs)
(ii) 14.22.4 Horsham 08-03
(iii) 14.17.6*^ Stamford Bridge 21-5-03
(Lasted 29 years as world record and 33 as GB record)
(iv) 14.17.2 Abergavenny 27-08-04
(i) 15.03.0 (estimated) Glasgow 15-06-03
(ii) 14.59.0 (estimated) Glasgow 13-06-04
(i) 19.31.6^ Brighton 25-10-02
(ii) 19.26.8 Reigate 20-09-02
(On grass; beat 15-year-old existing record by 18 secs)
(iii) 19.23.4^ Glasgow 13-06-04
(Lasted 20 years as world record)
24.33.4^ Stamford Bridge 12-05-04
(Beat 12-year-old existing record by 20 secs; lasted 48 years as GB record)
29.59.4 Glasgow*^ 05-11-04
(Beat 12-year-old existing record by 18.4 secs; lasted 26 years as world record and 32 as GB record. Last world record at ‘standard’ distance to be set by GB athlete for 49 years.)
31.02.4 Glasgow 05-11-04
(Lasted 7 years as world record and 32 as GB record)
35.04.6 Glasgow 05-11-04
(Beat existing record by 34.2 secs)
40.16.0 Glasgow 05-11-04
45.27.6 Glasgow 05-11-04
50.40.6 Glasgow*^ 05-11-04
(Beat 20-year-old existing record by 39.4 secs; lasted 24 years as a world record and 31 as a GB record)
56.23.4 Glasgow 05-11-04
11 miles & 1,137 yards (or 18,738 metres) *^ Glasgow 05-11-04
(Beat existing record by 205 yards; lasted 9 years as a world record and 49 as a British record)
NOTES ON THE RECORDS:
• In Shrubb’s era, records set in the UK would be considered by the AAA at an end-of-year meeting and only ‘passed’ if the conditions of the race met their criteria. Some of Shrubb’s finest runs were on grass, as opposed to cinder tracks, meaning he held a number of records not regarded as ‘official’, although widely publicised as such in the press. A further complication for statisticians of the time was the existence of records for both amateur and professional runners - although, again, only the amateur marks, with AAA approval, were considered ‘official’. In 1921, the International Amateur Athletics Federation (IAAF) decided to tidy the whole situation up by issuing a list of ratified world records at standard distances. From that day, their figures would be the only ‘official’ world records.
• In Shrubb’s day, timing was by hand. Seconds were broken down into fifths. For the purposes of this website, one-fifth is always denoted as 0.2, two-fifths as 0.4, etc.
• Shrubb’s tally of official and unofficial world records set on British soil is thought to be higher than any other runner, before or since.
• Even though Shrubb left the amateur ranks in 1905, the IAAF’s new ratified records list of 1921 still featured his name at a number of distances. Many of these records finally fell in the 1930s, but some of his English native records lasted into the early 1950s.
• After Shrubb in 1904, the next UK runner to set a world record at a standard distance was Gordon Pirie, some 49 years later, with his 28.19.4 for 6 miles in the 1953 AAA championships.
• A remarkable fact about Shrubb’s records is that none were achieved with the help of pacemakers. Moreover, most were achieved at events where there were no other runners of comparable ability to push him. However, in some handicap races, he did sometimes have opponents to chase.
• Although he was twice English mile champion, Shrubb never broke records at this distance. His best time was 4.22 (02-07-04 at Rochdale).
• Shrubb’s 3-mile world record set in London on May 21, 1903 was beaten on September 12, 1922 by Paavo Nurmi who clocked 14.08.4, but as the IAAF didn’t recognise Nurmi’s performance, Shrubb’s mark stood until June 19, 1932, when Lauri Lehtinen ran 13.50.6; Shrubb’s time was not beaten by a Briton for 33 years until Peter Ward on July 11, 1936, who ran 14.15.8.
• Shrubb’s 3-mile performance on May 21, 1903 was the last time a world record would be set at this distance on British soil for 51 years. Vladimir Kuts was next to achieve the feat, in 1954.
• In August 1973 Brendan Foster became the first British world record holder at two miles since Shrubb, some 69 years earlier. Foster clocked 8.13.8 to beat Lasse Viren’s mark by 0.2 secs.
• Shrubb’s six-mile world record at Glasgow on November 5, 1904 was beaten on November 16, 1911 by Jean Bouin of France (29.51.6), but this was not recognised by the IAAF, so Shrubb’s mark stood for nearly 26 years until Paavo Nurmi ran 29.36.4 on June 9, 1930. No Briton beat Shrubb’s time until William Eaton ran 29.51.4 nearly 32 years later on April 13, 1936.
• Shrubb was declared ‘world indoor record holder at three miles’ by the press after he clocked 14.27, then 14.23.4, then 14.19 - all during February 1906 in professional races at London’s Olympia.
• Shrubb’s 10-mile time at Glasgow on November 5, 1904 (50.40.6) would only be beaten once by an Englishman during the next half-century (i.e. between 1904 and 1954).
• Shrubb ran 15 miles in 80.15.0 at Stamford Bridge on July 21, 1902, which was fully two minutes inside the existing 10-year-old world record. Unfortunately for Shrubb, Fred Appleby ran even quicker in the same event to become the new record holder.
Shrubb’s AAA titles
One mile champion
(i) 1903 4.24.0 Northampton
(ii) 1903 4.22.0 Rochdale
Four miles champion
(i) 1901 20.01.8 Huddersfield
(ii) 1902 20.01.4 Stamford Bridge
(iii) 1903 20.06.0 Northampton
(iv) 1904 19.56.8 Rochdale
Ten miles champion
(i) 1901 53.32.0 Crewe
(ii) 1902 52.25.6 Stamford Bridge
(iii) 1903 51.55.8 Northampton
(iv) 1904 54.30.4 Rochdale
(Ten AAA titles were achieved by Shrubb in only four track seasons, equalling the career record set by Walter ‘WG’ George)
Shrubb’s major cross-country titles
International XC championships (latterly the World Champs):
Winner 1903, 46.23 at Hamilton (inaugural event)
Winner 1904, 47.59 at St Helens
English National XC:
Winner 1901, Leicester
Winner 1902, Lingfield Park
Winner 1903, Haydock Park
Winner 1904, Wolverhampton
(4 successive wins equalled Percy Stenning’s record)
Winner 1901, Wembley Park
Winner 1902, Lingfield Park
Winner 1903, Haydock Park
Winner 1904, Lingfield Park