Larner takes long walk into the history books

Two other events that only featured at London 1908 were the 3,500m walk and the 10 miles walk, both of which were held in mid-July. Great Britain’s George Larner won both and remains the holder of each title  to this day.

Larner was a latecomer to athletics; he worked as a policeman and was 28 when, in 1903 he began walking competitively. It brought instant dividends: he won the two- and seven-mile Amateur Athletics Association titles in 1904 (in the same years, he set a world record in the former that would survive for 39 years), retained them in 1905 and then, unsure whether or not to continue with a sideline that tended to conflict with his job, was granted extended leave by the police force to continue with his athletics. In 1906, he began a two-year break designed to ensure that, by the time the 1908 Games came around, he would be in peak condition.

He had already drawn admiring glances among journalists though his close-on 50-inch stride and upright demeanour, notable for sparing use of his arms. His was a style that seemed to economise upon effort but in fact Larner was a formidable competitor and dedicated trainer, showing as much when he again won the two-mile title shortly before his selection for the Olympic team.

The 3,500m walk was first up on 14 July, and Larner knew that he would be competing primarily against close rival and fellow Briton Ernest Webb. It proved that way from the start, each winning his heat comfortably and proceeded to the final, which Larner, wearing the number five, eventually won by almost 12 seconds to take gold. It was a thrilling introduction to the Games for Larner, by then 23, but the 10-mile event would capture even more imaginations.

This took place on 16-17 July; the first heat was won by Webb but manipulated by the three fellow Britons in his pursuit, who conspired to finish in a line together for joint second place, with the first four qualifying for the final. One of the three was Larner’s younger, and less feted, brother Ernest. Larner’s heat was a cleaner run if, like the first, surprisingly tight given the distance: he fended off Ralph Harrison by six yards, and just over two seconds, and would go head-to-head with Webb once more the following day.

George Larner and Webb sped away in the first mile, essentially making for a two-horse race from the off. Larner broke the hour mark within the first eight miles and, by the nine-mile stage, both were comfortably within the existing record set for this distance. Larner eventually won by a full 300 yards in 75 minutes 57.4 seconds – the best time ever recorded by some 1 minute, 41 seconds. The record would stand for 26 years.

“There is no doubt that the Ten Miles Walk was one of the best things in the Games,” the Official Report said approvingly. “Both Webb and Larner walked without the semblance of doubtful action, in the fairest possible manner.”

Yet it would not be seen on this stage again, and nor would Larner. He retired after the Games, making a short-lived comeback in 1911 to win the British seven-mile title. He did not compete at Stockholm 1912, though, leaving Webb to compete and take silver. By then he had become an author, writing ‘Larner’s Text Book on Walking’, and he was certainly an authority on the topic: he was, at this stage, only the second British athlete to have won to gold medals at the same Olympics.