On Wednesdays, I’ll be reprinting posts from my old blog, Joe Felso
I’m a fan of backwater sports history—the stories of figures who held only momentary prominence and slid into footnotes. Their exploits aren’t important or consequential or influential or curious enough to make the hall of fame mainstream, and so they trickle along unnoticed.
In the age of the internet, however, their records don’t disappear entirely. Googling finds them waiting. Such is the case with Lewis “Deerfoot” Bennett, a Seneca Native American born in 1830.
Presently Ethiopian distance runner Haile Gebrselassie holds the record for the greatest distance traveled in one hour (21,285 meters or 13.23 miles), but, as amazing as that record is, it doesn’t erase the achievements of the great one-hour runners of the past, especially Deerfoot.
In the 19th century, when distance running was known as “pedestrianism,” it was more an excuse to gamble than a sport, and professional distance runners would make an audacious claim—”I can run 11 miles in an hour”—and then, one Sunday afternoon or Monday night, try it. As many as 30, 000 spectators might show up to watch them take on other runners and make good on their assertions.
Records of these contests go as far back as 1690, but, in the mid-19th century they stirred public imagination and interest. A British promoter and former runner, George Martin, brought four runners to the U.S. in 1861, and in New York State, he encountered Deerfoot, a local challenger who nearly defeated one of his stars. Internet history records only one of Deerfoot’s races before then, a five-mile completed in 25 minutes at the Erie Fair in 1856, when he was 26. He won $50.
Martin, who must have known talent, invited Deerfoot to England to race the prominent “pedestrianists” of the day. Over the next 20 months, Deerfoot ran 130 events in 87 weeks—or a competition every four or five days. He lost his first race and his last, but between the two, he never lost.
Some stories describe Deerfoot as humble and reserved, but photographs and accounts of the day show him bare-chested and wearing only a breechcloth and a feather in his headband. They also describe him unleashing loud war-whoops during his runs and sometimes scuffling with spectators before and after races. Running spikes were available then, but Deerfoot turned them down in favor of moccasins.
And his running style was unconventional. Two runners who held the records for running 10 miles in the 1750s had died shortly afterward, and distance running in Europe had become a contest of conservation and control. Deerfoot changed that. Peter Lovesey quotes a news story about Martin’s 1861 tour:
The difference between the gaits of the white and the red man was very marked, the former going with an easy cat-like step, and the latter with the peculiar “lope” and side-swing of shoulder and head that any prairie traveler has remarked among the runners of the western tribes.
Deerfoot’s form, however was only part of a do or die approach. He threw frequent surges into his races, daring the British runners to match pace. Once in the lead, he sometimes slowed enough to allow them to regain contact and then threw in another burst to put them away.
Some of the information I’ve found says that Deerfoot never trained, that the secret to his triumphant tour was that he raced into shape, but I’m skeptical. We find some strange comfort in calling athletes—especially non-white athletes—”naturals,” but Deerfoot’s records are too formidable to arise from running every Monday night.
In 1863, Deerfoot ran 11 miles 790 yards in one hour in January, then 11 miles 880 yards in 59:44 in February. He might have had a new one-hour record at that point, but, since the bet was over running 10.5 miles under an hour, he let the last 16 seconds go. When you consider what conditions might have been like at that time of year, these performances are remarkable, but his most astounding race came in April, against William Lang. With a 100 yard handicap, Lang held Deerfoot off for a full ten miles, when Deerfoot finally pulled even at 51:26, the fastest ten mile time at that point. At the end of an hour, Lang beat Deerfoot by half a yard, but Deerfoot’s race, measuring 100 yards longer than Lang’s, was 11 miles, 970 yards, a new one-hour record. That run marked his last race in England.
Though two professional runners in the 1890s reputedly broke Deerfoot’s one hour record, the first time a runner broke it officially was 41 years later in 1904 when Alf Shrub—using a strategy very like Deerfoot’s—ran 167 yards further.
I don’t mean to denigrate Haile Gebrselassie. He is one of my running heroes, notwithstanding his withdrawal from the Berlin marathon that Ethiopian Patrick Makau won last weekend in a new record 2:03:38, but when you consider the improvement in equipment, in running surfaces, and in training methods, Deerfoot is certainly the finest distance runner this country has produced and perhaps one of the finest in history.
Deerfoot died in 1897, and, searching the web, I could only find record of one race during all that time—one in Cleveland in 1869 when Deerfoot, then 39, defeated a visiting British pedestrianist in a five-mile race. Despite giving the rest of the field a quarter mile lead, he won in 24:15, 45 seconds faster than his first recorded race when he was 26.
As any runner knows, you can’t do that without training.
While baseball fans debate the best pitcher and football fans argue over the top ten wide receivers, I will quietly hold onto Deerfoot, my backwater great. If you are interested in learning more, a book by Rob Hadgraft, Deerfoot: Athletics’ Noble Savage can tell you more. In the meantime, it’s consoling to think his legend trickles through the web, assuring him a measure of the immortality he deserves.