Alf Shrubb won over a thousand races in his career. As an amateur, he set records that lasted for decades. As a professional, he was so untouchable that he sometimes raced relay teams and horses, beating both. 

Like Walter George before him, Alf Shrubb’s first success on foot came from fox hunts, where he could outpace the hounds and the cavalry over the countryside. Through his teens, as a laborer and carpenter, he’d run to and from work.  Legend has it that one night he beat a horse-drawn fire wagon to the scene of a fire three miles away, and when the local athletics captain witnessed the race he invited young Alfie to join his club. 

In 1901, Shrubb won England’s four mile and ten mile titles. The next year he did it again. The next year he did again but added the one mile title, as well, then did it all over the year after. In 1904 he set the world record for the ten thousand meters and the one hour run in the same race (he also set world records for every distance in between). That year, he surely would have won a gold medal or two at the Olympics, but Great Britain neglected to send a team.

Instead, Shrubb turned professional. 

He won his first professional race a few days before his wedding, then won his second race on his wedding night. He raced hard and often, fueled by the vigor of a man with a realistic sense of his own mortality and a family to support. In 1907, he sailed to New York City to take on America’s best professional runners but found little competition for any distance over a mile. He raced relay teams instead, famously beating five of America’s best two-milers, running in two mile segments, over the course of ten miles.

After the 1908 Olympic Games, however, and the drama of the Marathon, Alf Shrubb found both a niche and a rival. 

Race promoters began hosting massive marathon derbies in Madison Square Garden, pitting runners against each other like aerobic gladiators, dueling each other to exhaustion over hundreds of dizzying laps around the smoke-filled, beer-soaked stadium. The cast of recurring characters included Dorando Pietri— the first person across the finish line in the 1908 Olympic Marthon, Johnny Hayes— the “official” winner for the 1908 Olympic Marathon, and Shrubb’s new rival Tom Longboat— the winner of the 1907 Boston Marathon and favorite going into the 1908 Olympic Marathon (he had dropped out at mile twenty, some believe due to strychnine poisoning). 

The four would fill the sports columns over the next few years as America enjoyed its first ever “Marathon Craze.” Shrubb and Longboat would race most often; Shrubb would win anything under twenty miles, and Longboat would win anything over twenty miles. 

The rise of the Olympics and amateurism led to the decline of professionalism, however, and Shrubb retired in 1912. He returned to England in 1919 to coach Oxford University, but sailed back to Canada in 1928 where he settled until his death in 1949.

Shrubb kept a meticulous training log and wrote two books on running and training. He advocated running every day, at least twice a day, except Sundays. He called for a brisk walk in the morning, followed by breakfast, then a steady run of three to eight miles. After a hearty lunch and time for digestion, another run of five to ten miles, or a two mile time trial. 

Ideally, he wrote, the athlete follows some sort of progression, building up to twice-daily runs of eight to ten miles before dropping the mileage and running a series of time trials to prepare for the race—an archaic precursor to Arthur Lydiard’s system of peaking. 

More importantly, Alf Shrubb believed in devising a plan, sticking to it, and training as hard as your body would allow, but no harder. As amateurism, moderation and balance became more vogue, Shrubb maintained that an all-encompassing devotion to the task— not just in training but in diet and lifestyle— benefited both the body and the mind. 

Seventy years before governing bodies allowed track athletes to compete for money, Alf Shrubb embodied The Professional Approach.

“I have accomplished much, but it has not all been from my ability to run, but because I have been temperate in my habits, and rational in my methods and consequently, I say that the great initial element is not only the desire to achieve but the wish to profit mentally and physically by the exercise.”

—Alf Shrubb