Arthur Newton – old school running hero

Arthur Hamilton Newton is not a name that would be recognised as easily today as “Rudisha” or “Bolt” but he’s nevertheless one of the great heroes of the sport and his exploits puts a welcome perspective on much of what has happened to athletics since his heyday. Arthur Newton was a prolific runner and coach and by many considered the “father of modern ultra-running”. Between 1922 and 1935 Newton accumulated 103000 miles in training (73000 running, 30000 walking) and his daily mileage was as high as 25 miles in 1923.

Winning the Comrades marathon

The catch to the story is that Newton was not an athlete in the sense that the word is being used today – he was an aggrieved farmer in the little province of Natal, in today’s South Africa, who had emigrated from England and spend 16 years working on getting his farm to prosper. When it became government policy to resettle natives around the land of Newton’s farm, his business became untenable and his work went to waste. His pleas for compensation or a farm swap fell on deaf years and the, by now 39-years old Newton, entered the Comrades Marathon – a 54-mile run from Pietermaritzburg to Durban (or back) setup a year earlier to commemorate the soldiers lost in the First World War.
Newton’s running background consisted of some cross-country racing when he was younger as well as many extended hikes and general physical activity. He had been known as a very popular teacher in his early years in South Africa with a penchant for holding his breath longer than anyone under water and incredible mental fortitude acquired from studying the teachings of the yogi of the time. Unfortunately, he had a similar fanatical devotion to smoking and only managed to put down this lifelong habit by replacing cigarettes by a puff of pipe after each run he’d successfully completed.

Self-taught athlete

Very little training lore existed at the time, so Newton, unlike today’s runners, had to figure out what to do largely on his own. What he had in abundance was time and hilly trails around his farm but he was running low on finances and had barely run for over a decade. Trotting around at various paces, Newton eventually happened upon longer and slower distance as his primary training tool – he decided to do a time trial against the train from Harding to Izingolweni by staying to the direct road. This would be a run of around 35 miles but Newton pushed so hard up one particular hill that he felt a sting in his heart and was left with the feeling that he may have “damaged the organ”. After that day, he never attempted time trials again and all his training was done at more leisurely paces. While he never excelled over shorter distance he was competitive with several wins and top-3 placings in cross-country and in road and track races shorter than 10 miles.

Another natural runner

His efforts paid off initially and he would go on to win the Comrades marathon 4 consecutive times and 5 times in total and establish several new records – one which would stand for 12 years when he ran 6:24 on the hilly dust-tracks (7:07 minute/miling or 4:25min/km pace). Newton was a runner after our own heart and his running style and approach was described like this ahead of his first attempt at the London to Brighton 50 mile road record:
“He usually ran in the lightest shoes possible, ordinary plimsoles with the thinnest of soles rather than the heavy rubber ones and employed an economic pit-pat style similar to American Indians. Unlike many sportsmen of the time, he didn’t go in for heavy massage, just a quick rub-down with a rough towel. He mostly took just cups of tea during his long races, having filled up earlier on a large breakfast of eggs and bacon. For over two years the 41-year-old had averaged between 22 and 23 miles per day.” Rob Hadgraft, Tea with Mr Newton
So this middle-aged Englishman, seemingly defying the wisdom that the shoe industry and sports nutrition manufacturers would have us believe is essential today, broke the existing world record for 50 miles but did not settle for that – he had a bad day with humid weather and a lack of breakfast (it never materialised!) so decided to return shortly after for another attempt. This time he started out so fast he worried his supporters – he came through 10 miles in 59 minutes  – a time which would have placed him well within the coveted top-100 spot in the Ballycotton 10 mile this year.  He then passed the marathon distance in 2:42 – only five minutes outside the English record of the time – and once again a time that would be celebrated as a career-defining moment by many modern athletes. The record for fifty miles of 5:53 took an hour off the previous best and meant Newton held a pace close to 7 minute miles on average (4:23min/km pace).

The old school running legacy

He’d go on to win many more ultra-races and take most of the world records up to 100 miles. His last record was set at the tender age of 51 after which he retired to a quiet and austere life and wrote many books on his training methods. There was a short period when having “tea with Mr Newton” was seen as a prerogative to becoming a successful runner – young hopefuls would travel to Newton’s London suburb home to learn of the old master. One of his most colourful guests would be Percy Cerutty who took much of Newton’s knowledge and used to trigger the period of Australian greatness led by the legendary Herb Elliott.
Once again a picture is painted of a main using common-sense and simple training methods – running in minimal footwear for very long distances and leading an active, natural life – and succeeding well beyond the marks the majority of runners dream to hit today. Often I hear “I’m too old” or “I’m getting one” but when you read Newton’s exploits, you know this is not a statement of physical fact but merely a mental limitation the person has imposed on themselves. We can choose to believe everything we are told about how world class running is now only possible with hi-tech footwear, expert nutrition, high class training facilities and a horde of physical therapists, or we can look to Newton and wonder if he had it right. I don’t know about you, but I choose Newton.
To read more about Newton check out Rob Hadgraft’s “Tea with Mr Newton” or the more recent “Running for their Lives” reviewed earlier on these pages.
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Director and coach at Borg Coaching Services
Rene Borg is the head coach of Glendalough AC and a passionate runner competing over all distances and terrains.

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