Friday, 5 October 2012

Shrubb's Fame Flowers Again

ABOVE: "Tell me about your dad!" Alf Shrubb's daughter
Norah gets the third degree.

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WHEN it comes to gimmicks, you can forget Mo Farah’s mobot and Usain Bolt’s lightning bolt. When Alf Shrubb won a race (which was often), he’d simply stroll to the changing rooms, fetch his camera and take a picture of the man coming in second. Now that’s what I call class.

Shrubb was so damn good that race promoters couldn’t find a single human being to give him a decent race. Eventually they had to resort to horses.

And when he beat the horses, someone had the idea of racing him single-handedly against entire relay teams. That was easy - he barely broke sweat.

Alfred Shrubb was THE sporting superstar of the Edwardian era, a man whose running achievements, looked at today, simply beggar belief.

This weekend I’ll be joining dozens of other runners to pay homage to the man once known as ‘The Little Wonder,’ an athlete virtually unbeatable for ten years at all distances between 2 and 20 miles. On Sunday morning (October 7th) the Alf Shrubb 5-mile Memorial XC race winds its way across the same West Sussex fields and paths the great man used to cover himself.

It’s nearly half-a-century since Shrubb shuffled off this mortal coil and began circling that great running track in the sky. By the time this multi-world-record holder died in 1964, his incredible achievements as a distance runner had been largely forgotten. As the years rolled by, people would often hark back to the days of history-makers like Roger Bannister and Harold Abrahams, but the name of Shrubb somehow dropped off the radar completely.

Now, I’m glad to report, all that has changed. My 320-page biography of Shrubb was published a while back and helped set in motion a chain of events that have given his fame a new lease of life. A yearly 8k road-race in his name has become well established in Canada, he’s been inducted into the England Athletics Hall of Fame, the annual Shrubb memorial cross-country was introduced at his birthplace, an entertaining Shrubb website has been launched – and now he even has a dedicated page on Facebook.

Shrubb’s talent was first spotted when he chased and beat a fire-wagon to a haystack blaze while wearing working boots! The local athletics club signed him up and before long he was winning everything - and along came the big guns of South London Harriers to woo him away.

He smashed records galore, won national and international titles with ease, and was recognised as the finest distance runner on the planet long before deciding to emigrate to Canada between the wars. He settled just outside Toronto, where in 2012 they are as proud of him as we are over here.

Allen Storie, the Canadian club runner who launched the road-race in Shrubb’s name, coined the phrase ‘Shrubbmania’ to describe the renaissance of interest in recent years of this forgotten hero.

21st century Shrubbmania kicked off thanks to a bizarre coincidence. One day in early 2003, beginning my research for the book on Shrubb, I made contact with a museum in the little Ontario town of Bowmanville, where reportedly some Shrubb memorabilia was on display. It seemed a good place to start.

For years this museum had experienced little interest in their former local resident Shrubb, so were astonished to receive my transatlantic enquiry within hours of Allen Storie turning up at the door to ask the same questions!

Storie had stumbled upon the Shrubb legend while out running with a member of a long-established local family. Thousands of miles away, I had picked up on it while on holiday at a sports resort in the Canary Islands. Some quick ‘googling’ got me some tantalizing snippets of his life-story, including how he was controversially banned for accepting expenses, thus preventing certain gold at more than one Olympics. Shrubb’s reaction was to stick two fingers up at the English authorities, jump on a ship to North America and make a fortune as a professional.

As more aspects of his remarkable life came to light, it became clear that here was a book demanding to be written. Thus it came to pass I was rubbing shoulders at the training camp with a few well-known modern-day athletes, but was more interested in a runner better than any of them – and of whom they’d never heard!

Ideas born over a few beers in a bar sometimes fizzle out in the cold light of day - but this was different. My thought processes were lubricated by the half-price ice-cold lager on offer during happy hour, and by the time I next spoke with my publisher back in Essex, the idea was well formed.

Meanwhile in Canada, my new acquaintance Allen Storie (known locally as ‘Running Pal Al’) was forging ahead with his Alfie Shrubb road race idea. Our projects got off the launch-pad simultaneously and this two-way enthusiasm fed and nourished progress. Researching Shrubb’s exploits was a joy: I unearthed dusty treasure troves of material and a visit to his 89-year-old daughter near the banks of Lake Ontario was the icing on the cake.

The book was written over four months beside Sydney’s glorious Northern Beaches in Australia (that’s another story), where national hero and track legend Ron Clarke revealed himself to be a big Shrubb fan, and agreed to write the foreword to the book.

The finished product was well received, I’m glad to say, and even got honourable mentions at the William Hill Sports Book of the Year bash. Shrubb’s daughter Norah must have also been impressed, for after seeing the book she promptly handed over an ancient suitcase packed tight with personal papers and other memorabilia handed down by her famous dad. It was no easy matter carting this back to the UK, but more Shrubb treasures couldn’t possibly be turned down, could they? Enough for a second book maybe?

This weekend I expect to be running alongside at least two distant relatives of the great man in the 3rd Shrubb Memorial Cross-country in Slinfold, his picturesque birthplace just outside Horsham. This race comes hot on the heels of 500 Canadians assembling in Bowmanville at the 8k road-race in his name. Six-year-old Zoe (Shrubb’s great-great-great-granddaughter) started a junior race that morning, representing a fourth generation of Shrubbs to attend that event.

Shrubb himself was a modest chap by all accounts, but I suspect if he were looking down on events all these years after he quietly passed away, he would be proud and astonished at how his fame lives on.

* “The Little Wonder – The Untold Story of World Champion Runner Alf Shrubb” by Rob Hadgraft (Desert Island Books, ISNBN 1-874287-81-3) is available as hardback, softback or e-book for Kindle. More details at www.robhadgraft.com

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