When Colin McCourt crossed the finish line at a 5K in Lancashire this weekend, clocking in at 15:38, it was far from his fastest race, but it was his most significant. In less than a year, he’d dropped his time from 24:00 to sub-16, and his weight from 14 stone 11 pounds to under 11 and a half stone - and become something of a folk hero along the way.
That’s because McCourt’s 10-month weight-loss and fitness-regaining journey began as a bet. McCourt, now 32, had once been an internationally competitive middle distance runner, hitting 1:46.73 in 800 metres and 3:37.06 for 1,500m. But in the years since he’d retired from the sport, he stopped running and put on weight. Last January, his old running buddies - 17 of them - issued a challenge: McCourt had to run a sub-16 5K within a year - and if he couldn’t, they’d each get to tattoo their name somewhere on his body.
As McCourt trained for the race, the legend grew. His friends were said to have had pizzas delivered to his home, hoping to throw him off his programme. All for nought. On Sunday, McCourt cleared the challenge with ease, walking away from the race course £1700 richer - that was his counter-wager - not to mention healthier and (as far as we know) free of any tattoos bearing his pals' names.
McCourt’s was only the latest high-wager race to capture the public’s attention. Last month in Minnesota, for example, Erik Anderson bet his brother Nik $5000 (£3778) he could run a marathon right then and there - despite having just downed several sloppy joes and plenty of dessert at a family party.
Though “the longest distance [Erik] had previously run was 13 miles a few years ago,” according to the Twin Cities Pioneer Press, the 29-year-old from Arden Hills got up, went outside, and ran 26.2 miles on an improvised and meandering course, finishing in an unofficial time of 4:28. Nik stayed true to his word, and was partially reimbursed by family and friends who also wanted to see Erik’s unlikely marathon.
Running and betting have a relationship that goes back much further than the latest news cycle, however. In fact, gambling on one person’s ability to cover a daunting amount of terrain is integral to the history of our sport. While McCourt and the Andersons probably didn’t know it, their spur-of-the-moment wager picks up a historical through-line largely lost in today’s running culture.
WE BRITS LOVE TO BET ON RUNNING
Given the primal nature of running, it’s nearly impossible to say when and under what circumstances the first footrace took place. From the beginning, humans had to run to avoid being eaten, as well as run in order to eat. Running was essential for early humanity’s survival, but who really knows when two of our first bipedal ancestors decided to run just for the hell of it, or to see who was faster for sport?
We do have a better sense of when interested third parties began to place bets on the outcomes of running-based events. There are sparse accounts of betting in ancient Rome on the chariot races, but it’s generally depicted as something to frown upon.
Actually, it was we Brits who appear to be the first to popularise gambling on displays of human endurance.
In a chapter contributed to 2001’s Marathon Medicine, Olympic medallist-turned-writer Peter Radford describes 17th- and 18th-century Britain’s love affair with gambling on otherwise low-stakes tests of endurance:
The “athletic class” had not yet appeared in the 18th century, and foot racing was accessible to all regardless of age, gender, nationality, race, class or physical shape, condition or ability… to enter into a wager, its terms had to be agreed with another person and trustworthy third party to hold the money.
So while initially the bets were between competitors, with spectators merely watching or serving as the “trustworthy third party,” that line was quickly crossed. The winner of a race could expect to take home some dough, and often so could those who bet on them. Early British proto-marathons varied in seriousness (some involved eating or drinking while running), distance (recorded races varied from sprints to 40-plus miles in length), and even species of competitor (in 1791 a man raced a 20-miler against a horse), but the one constant was the gambling.
Running bets even played a role in the setting of British legal precedent.
THE CURIOUS CASE OF LYNALL V. LONGBOTHOM
Volume XCV of The English Reports: King’s Bench Division - a sprawling tome of 18th-century legal discourse - discusses a 1756 legal dispute between two Middlesex County men, Thomas Lynall and Thomas Longbothom.
Lynall alleged that Longbothom owed him 471 units of unspecified currency, after the two wagered on whether or not a third man, John Clarke, could cover four miles in a time faster than 20:30. The legal arguments were largely semantic, centered on whether or not a solo time-trial qualified as a “foot-race,” somehow a relevant distinction to make in determining the legality of the Thomases’ verbal contract. The two party’s lawyers argued whether it was a race if the sole competitor was the clock, turning an extremely silly court case into a larger examination of every runner’s existential dread.
Longbothom’s team maintained that Clarke, being unaware of the bet and not racing any competitors, was just running fast for his own bemusement. As such, he was not playing a game - a requisite for a bet to be legally binding. The court ruled in Longbothom’s favor, establishing a precedent that participants in a bet-upon race had to be aware of the bet for it to be valid.
This may be the earliest example of interested parties debating whether racing the clock counts as racing at all (cf. Kipchoge, Eliud).
PRE-NETFLIX, PEOPLE BINGE-WATCHED A MAN WALK FOR 1,000 HOURS STRAIGHT
And as time went on, this penchant for speculating on runners ballooned, reaching its apex in 1809. That was the year that one man - Captain Robert Barclay, a famed endurance walker - made the bold proclamation that he would cover on foot one mile, per hour, for 1,000 consecutive hours.
And Barclay stood to gain a lot, according to the Guardian:
Barclay's original wager was for 1,000 guineas against James Wedderburn-Webster, but with side bets it was rumoured that it was worth 16,000 guineas if he succeeded. At the time a farm labourer or artisan earned on average about a guinea a week 50 guineas, as a year's wages, was the yardstick that most people who made up his audience would have as a measure of Barclay 's potential winnings. So, for the majority of the crowd, Barclay had originally wagered more than 20 years' income, but now stood to take home the equivalent of 320 years' income. It was impossible to comprehend.
The spectacle drew crowds from all over the land over the course of his month-plus spectacle, and they placed the equivalent of over £38 million in side wagers.
Barclay succeeded not just in covering the 1,000 miles within the preordained parameters but in capturing the attention of thousands in a manner a contemporary gimmick-attempter could only hope to accomplish (cf. Blaine, David). In 1809, Barclay was the only show in town. And for much of the 19th century, watching people walk or run long distances within small confines remained a wildly popular spectator sport.
AMERICAN ENTREPRENEURSHIP MEETS BRITISH TRADITION
This tradition picked up steam across the Atlantic as well, and was thriving in the years preceding the American Civil War. On August 25, 1856, the New York Times reported that a man named John Stetson Jr. was attempting to run or walk 60 miles in under 12 hours, six days in a row, on the outskirts of Charleston, South Carolina. The wager: $500 (£377). Admission fees were charged, and thousands showed up to watch. At press time, two days into the attempt, “with the exception of slight lameness in one knee, he appeared as fresh as when he commenced.”
Somewhere in the years following, “pedestrianism,” as the sport came to be known, lost its way. During what was known as the “1929 International Great Transcontinental Footrace,” 77 men set out from New York City, headed for Los Angeles, all vying for a $60000 reward (£45330) for arriving first. This marked a shift: the money involved was not being gambled by the race’s participants - it was being ponied up by a wealthy organiser, looking to somehow capitalise on the stunt.
Perhaps due to the point-to-point nature of the course, and the fact that GPS technology wasn’t even a twinkle in humankind’s eye, tracking the runners proved difficult, and side bets were harder to initiate. But the death blow to running and gambling’s seemingly inextricable bond came at the hand’s of the race’s now-nefarious organiser, C.C. Pyle, who never paid any of the competitors a dime.
The Great Depression soon followed, rendering would-be gamblers void of most liquidity, and the following decades saw baseball’s colour barrier crumble, the formation of the National Basketball Association, the National Football League merge with the American Football League, and the boom of casino and hotel development in Las Vegas. Essentially, by the time gambling was feasible again, there was a new infrastructure in place for it that favored the team sports that dominate popular culture to this day.
A SILLY BET? OR A CONTINUATION OF A PROUD LEGACY?
Which leads us back to the McCourt. In many ways, his feat of reclaimed endurance lies as close to the core of the sport’s heritage as a man attempting to crack two hours for the marathon. And to some, the humanity intrinsic in such a personal and humbling task as McCourt’s makes it the most compelling sort of tale running has to tell.
Generally, racing is intrinsically painful and potentially rewarding enough to not require any outside incentive. But for a certain, perhaps even more masochistic breed of athlete, an added layer of possible financial windfall or ruin - or threat of a few bad tattoos - is what it takes to get out the door. And it’s always been that way.