6 of running’s strangest tales

1/ Speed dating

Germany, 1650s; UK, 1600s-1800s

The historical ‘Shepherdess Race’, held in the rural town of Markgröningen in the southwest of Germany, is an event that began in the 17th century, when it was a rather rowdy and physical affair.

The origins of the race actually date back to the mid-15th century, when the shepherds of Markgröningen began the annual tradition of legging it across a 240m course set out on a stubble field. To prove their manliness, they did this barefoot and the winner was crowned the Shepherd King. In the 1650s the menfolk deigned to let the women join in and the Shepherdess Race was born. The ladies of Markgröningen were delighted but it seems they took the event a touch too seriously and it frequently descended into a free-for-all.

‘Each wishes of course to win the prize, and, in endeavouring to win it, all means are considered fair,’ relates one contemporary report of the race. ‘One shoves her companion to make her fall, and will even roll upon the ground with her. Another strikes her neighbour in the side that she may thus, for a time, stop the breath of a dangerous rival.’

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In fact, such was the mayhem that the town clerk had to be deployed on horseback to follow the runners, brandishing a whip with which to break up the numerous fights that invariably broke out.

The contemporary English equivalent of this German festivity was the ‘smock race’, which was a staple of country fairs up and down the country from the 17th century to the early 19th century, and while these events were not renowned for their violence, they were competitive.

As the name suggests, the winner received a smock of fine linen in recognition of her athletic prowess, but from time to time there was another prize on offer – a shiny new husband. Yes, the local chaps would watch the races and keep an eye out for a potential Mrs Chap. Entry to the races was restricted to young and unwed women – and sometimes being a virgin was also a requirement – and so it seems ‘smock races’ also served as a bizarre form of rural speed dating at which the menfolk would weigh up the physical attributes of the competitors. ‘Maids who wish to be wives can do no better than run for the smock,’ urged an article in a contemporary sporting magazine. ‘It will afford ample opportunity to demonstrate their strength and pliability when called into action.’

As disturbing as the connotations of ‘pliability’ are, these were, after all, the days before Tinder, and men and women had to hook up somehow.

2/ The science of attraction

UK, 2015

There is a fascinating school of scientific thought that maintains that how far you run can actually dictate how much sex you get. More specifically, the study concerned suggests that male long-distance runners are more attractive to the ladies than fellas who get out of breath after a 200m huff-and-puff to the corner shop. And it’s nothing to do with bulging calf muscles, toned forearms or washboard abs.

The research was carried out by researchers from the University of Cambridge and University College London, who analysed 542 male competitors taking part in the Robin Hood Half Marathon and discovered that the better the runner, the more likely they were to have the opposite sex swooning at their feet.

‘Long-distance running may be a lonely pastime – but academics say men who can run for miles may find it easier to attract women,’ reported The Daily Mail. ‘People who are better at running half marathons are likely to have been exposed to high levels of testosterone while in the womb, researchers from Cambridge University theorised. This means they not only have better cardiovascular efficiency but also a strong sex drive and high sperm count, suggesting that historically they were chosen by women as more desirable mates.

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‘This may be because “persistence hunting” (exhausting prey by tirelessly tracking it) was a vital way to get food. It means that men who could run long distances were more attractive to women – a trait the researchers say has persisted through the generations.’ The boffins discovered by photocopying the runners’ handprints and measuring race times and other data that the best half marathoners tended to have longer ring fingers, which is often a sign that they had been exposed to higher than average levels of testosterone in the womb.

‘The observation that endurance-running ability is connected to reproductive potential in men suggests that women in our hunter-gatherer past were able to observe running as a signal for a good breeding partner,’ explained Dr Danny Longman, the lead researcher on the study. ‘It was thought that a better hunter would have got more meat, and had a healthier and larger family as a consequence of providing more meat for his family.

In the days before you could order a couple of burgers or a rack of ribs from Tesco online, you didn’t have to sing for your supper, but you did have to chase your lunch. Male marathoners around the country welcomed the conclusions of the ground-breaking study, and added an extra tempo run to their training regimes.

3/ The real run streak

Germany, 2004

German sex therapist Dr Peter Niehenke is considered by many of his patients to be a guru on all matters carnal, but it is his running exploits that have made him something of a celebrity in Germany. Niehenke loves a jog. He’s always out on the roads around his home in Freiburg, clocking up the miles and working on his stamina. The problem is Niehenke refuses to wear a stitch of clothing on his jaunts and it’s landed him in rather a lot of trouble with the German authorities over the years.

His conviction for indecent exposure in 2004 after stepping out starkers in a local Freiburg park was merely the latest in a long list of naked indiscretions, and every time he’s collared by the boys in blue it’s not long before the doctor is pulling on his trainers and pulling off his clothes once again. By 2004 he had amassed almost €2,500 in fines and made numerous court appearances.

Niehenke argues that jogging in the buff is ‘sexually liberating’ and insists there is no specific law that forbids a spot of naked perambulation. The judge in 2004, however, wasn’t having that and ruled that the ‘court does not support the defendant’s view that running naked in public is one of his civil rights’.

Many of the reports concerning the court case maintained Niehenke took to the streets in no more than his socks and trainers but one dispatch had it that he actually ran with a nylon stocking over his genitals ‘to keep them warm’. It’s difficult to decide which would be the more disturbing sight – a fully naked sex therapist speeding past or one with a pair of tights strategically attached to his groin.

4/ Fred Lorz’s fraud

Missouri, US, 1904

‘I would prefer even to fail with honour than win by cheating,’ observed the Greek dramatist Sophocles. A fine sentiment indeed, but one that was lamentably lost on American long-distance runner Fred Lorz.

The scene was the men’s marathon at the 1904 Olympics, the third Games of the modern era, staged in St Louis, Missouri, US, and Lorz was one of 32 runners entered in the race. The debilitating 32C heat on the day, and a dust storm, meant only 18 runners completed the race and, when the crowd saw Lorz romping home in first place, there was much rejoicing. Alice Roosevelt, daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt, was even on hand to crown Lorz with a laurel wreath, but it was then that the muttering started and his triumphant day began to unravel.

Lorz had been spotted in the passenger seat of a car for part of the race and, confronted with his crime, he cracked and confessed that for 11 miles of the marathon he’d let the internal combustion engine take the strain. More specifically, he admitted that after nine miles he’d jumped into his manager’s car and only disembarked when it broke down, running the last six or so miles to ‘win’ the event.

The organisers immediately stripped Lorz of his gold medal and awarded it to his compatriot, Thomas Hicks, who had finished second in a time of 3:28:53 (the slowest winning time in the event in the Games’ history).

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Hicks also needed some help to complete the race, though – it later emerged that he had taken performance-enhancing drugs en route to victory. ‘I decided to inject him with a milligram of sulphate of strychnine and to make him drink a large glass brimming with brandy,’ admitted his trainer. ‘He set off again as best he could but he needed another injection four miles from the end to give him a semblance of speed and to get him to the finish.’

Technically, strychnine wasn’t illegal in the early 20th century – it was subsequently banned in athletics – but Hicks certainly couldn’t claim to be the cleanest of athletes.

Aside from Lorz’s outrageous cheating and Hicks’ dubious refuelling, the rest of the 1904 marathon was something of a comedy of errors. The South African runner, Len Tau, was forced to abandon the race after being chased by a pack of wild dogs, while Cuban Felix Carvajal got hungry during the event and stopped in an orchard to snack on some apples. Unfortunately, the fruit was rotten and Carvajal was struck down by stomach cramps, though he still recovere sufficiently to finish fourth.

5/ The forgotten footmen

UK, 1450s-1700s

Professional long-distance runners can make a good living these days from their natural ability to get from A to B in the quickest time possible, but one of the first groups to earn money for running for prolonged periods were known as the ‘running footmen’, and they had it tough.

The running footmen appeared in the mid 15th century. Their job was to accompany the horse-drawn carriages transporting wealthy people on their journeys, clearing obstacles from the road, helping free the carriages should they become stuck and running ahead to alert the local innkeeper that Mr and Mrs St John-Smythe would be with them shortly and would be requiring roast grouse and a nice claret for dinner.

A running footman became a status symbol – the more you employed, the posher you were, and the really wealthy could have up to six footmen trotting ahead of their carriages as they travelled the country. The problem was, as the years went by, the job became harder and harder. Fifteenth-century carriages rolled at a relatively modest 5mph, thanks to the terrible state of the roads (council budgets for road repairs were minuscule even back then), but as the quality of the highways and byways steadily improved, the coaches got faster and the later generations of running footmen had to keep up. By the late 18th century the carriages were estimated to be doing a heady 7mph (that’s 8:34 min/mile) and their human outriders were expected to run up to 60 miles a day, often clocking up 20 miles without a break.

Unsurprisingly, many running footmen collapsed and died from exhaustion. Others suffered the same fate after three or four years’ service, having contracting tuberculosis (possibly from the germ-laden air they constantly ran through, breathing heavily). Those deaths may have given rise to the erroneous 18th-century idea that running was bad for the health.

An onerous life indeed, but to add insult to injury the footmen’s employers often raced them against each other for sport and entertainment. The toffs, of course, couldn’t resist betting on the proceedings: ‘In the evening rode out to Woodstock Park, where saw a race between Groves (Duke of Wharton’s running footman) and Phillips (Diston’s),’ wrote one Sir Erasmus Phillips in his diary in 1720. ‘My namesake ran the four miles round the course in 18 minutes and won the race, thereby his master £1,000, the sum he and Groves started for. On this occasion there was a most prodigious concourse of people.’ As far as we know Groves and Phillips emerged unscathed but it was not always the case.

‘In the 18th century, footmen were frequently matched to race against horses and carriages,’ wrote William Shepard Walsh in A Handy Book of Curious Information. ‘One of the last recorded contests was in 1770, between a famous running man and the Duke of Marlborough, the latter wagering that in his phaeton [carriage] and four [horses] he would beat the footman in a race from London to Windsor. The poor footman, worn out by his exertions and much chagrined by his defeat, died, it was said, of over-fatigue.’ Just to clarify, that’s 25-odd miles for our footman against a top-of-the-range coach pulled by four horses. He never stood a chance.

6/ Powder failure

Connecticut, US, 2007

In 2004 the hunting of hares with more than two hounds was outlawed in Britain. For certain runners, though, hare and hounds means something quite different. It’s a fun way of enlivening a group run and sees a couple of lead runners (the hares) mark out a trail for their colleagues (the hounds) to follow. There’s absolutely no killing, or politics, involved.

One group that was particularly fond of hare and hound races was the Connecticut chapter of the Hash House Harriers (there are around 2,000 chapters of these informal, social running clubs across the globe). The members just couldn’t get enough of the format, but in 2007 it landed them in a whole heap of unanticipated bother with the local authorities.

Our hares for the day were Dr Daniel Salchow and his sister, Dorothee, who set off late in the afternoon to mark a four-mile trail for the rest of the club. Around 40 minutes later the job was done and Daniel and Dorothee retired to the doctor’s house to wait for the hounds to join them for a well-deserved postrun tipple (a common element in Hash House events).

It was then his wife phoned to tell him there was a bit of a problem. A massive problem, actually, and he’d better get his arse down to the car park of the local Ikea – through which the pair had routed the hounds – pronto. He was confronted by the disconcerting scene of scores of policemen and chaps in chemical suits cordoning off the area and everyone looking jolly worried.

Daniel and Dorothee had used flour to mark out their course, but we live in an era of heightened anxieties and when someone saw the pair liberally sprinkling white powder all over the car park, they jumped to the conclusion it was anthrax. Cue a major bioterrorism alert and the deployment of lots of people with specialist equipment. The scare forced the Ikea in question to close for the day and scores of customers returned home without their Billy bookcases.

When Daniel turned up he forlornly tried to explain the situation to Connecticut’s finest. He offered to taste the powder to prove it was innocuous, he even offered to sweep the mess up, but they ignored his pleas and promptly slapped the cuffs on. It soon emerged that the powder was indeed merely flour but the police department was still far from happy. Daniel was charged with a first-degree breach of the peace, a felony, while the police, the mayor and Ikea all considered suing the doctor for damages.

Thankfully, common sense prevailed and it was agreed that Daniel and the Hash House Harriers would work with the city and Ikea on a fundraiser to benefit local charities, as a way of making amends for the almighty kerfuffle he had caused. ‘It was absolutely not in any way what we intended,’ he said, breathing a sigh of relief, ‘and not what we anticipated.’


Adapted from Running's Strangest Tales by Iain Spragg.