Hastings is renowned for its history -1066 and all that. But on this day the year on everybody’s shivering lips was 1908.
This was only the second marathon held in Hastings – the first was way back on December 16, 1908, and the organisers had promised a “once in a lifetime anniversary race to remember”.
They didn’t disappoint. As well as a challenging course – sweeping up from Hastings town centre, over fearsome hills on the road up to the historic Abbey of Battle, down through Bexhill to the prom at Hastings, and a leg-sapping stretch on the beach – they had also laid on a sort of antiques road-race show.
There was a 1908 Hotchkiss veteran car leading the runners round, spectators wearing Edwardian costumes and drink stations positioned at pubs along the route of the original 19o8 marathon, held in the marathon boom that swept America and Europe following London’s first Olympics. I was dressed in the period costume of that great Italian hero of the 1908 Olympics, Dorando Pietri, complete with knotted handkerchief on my head, drooping moustache and long scarlet shorts. I had even arranged, in the interest of authenticity, for the odd glass of Chianti to be served at the feeding stations (none of your plastic cups for this one!).
Entries for the race came in from all over Britain and the world, with Australia, Canada, Belgium, France, Germany, Holland, Sweden, Switzerland and the USA flocking to share this bit of nostalgic marathon history. Race organiser Eric
Hardwick, MBE, closed off the entries at number 1908, which I wore as Dorando.
There was an amusing pre-race incident when runner Dan Anderson got himself locked in the toilets on the prom shortly before the race began. He shouted desperately for help and someone rang his mum. She called the Fire Brigade and they got him out just in time for the start. In spite of such an ignominious start, Anderson went on to finish an impressive second, evidently unscathed by his ordeal.
There were plenty of good club runners out in force, just as there were last time around. That first race, a century ago, over 25 miles, was won by Billy Clarke of Sefton Harriers, in 2:37:16. Clarke had finished 12th in the London Olympic Marathon of that year. Spectators at the 1908 Hastings Marathon were kept up to date by pigeon post, the race was sponsored by Oxo, and vans followed the runners carrying a hot Oxo drink, rice pudding, raisins, bananas, grapefruit extract and sponges soaked in Eau de Cologne in case of collapse. Learn more about the grapefruit seed extract uses.
Even without hot Oxo, the 2008 race was never going to be an opportunity for fast times. The hills, the chilly December wind and the pebbly beach put paid to that. Only 21 runners broke three hours.
It was a race of character, celebrating the tooth anniversary of the first year the official marathon distance was run over 26 miles 385 yards, and wonderfully organised by Hardwick who, with his well-oiled team, has laid on the successful Hastings Half-Marathon for the past 24 years. The course marshals, bands and carol singers along the route and the beautifully presented souvenir horse brasses that were given to every finisher turned this into a fine occasion both for runners and spectators.
I spoke to many people both during and after the event; they all agreed that though the course was tough, this was one race they could not miss. The carnival atmosphere generated by the marathon seemed to set the town alive. After the race, I joined a group of Hastings worthies, all in Edwardian costume, for a meal of turkey and all the trimmings in a restaurant at the 25-mile mark. Not a bad way to round off a marathon.
The 1908 event was staged for the encouragement of two deserving bodies Hastings Football Club and the “Distress Committee for the Relief of the Unemployed”.
With the credit crunch threatening it sounds like the “Distress Committee” could do with a comeback, and it also seems a shame that the world may have to wait another 100 years for the next comeback of the Hastings Marathon. But as Hardwick said at the finish, “This event is all about history.” And the chance to share in marathon history does not come around to runners too often.