In 2001, British ultrarunner Eleanor Robinson (formerly Eleanor Adams) was inducted into the International Association of Ultrarunners Hall of Fame. She was asked to choose the top ten performances of her career. The New York 6 Day Race was number six on her list.
Here is an edited version of Eleanor’s account of the New York 6 Day Race which was published in the IAU Newsletter March 2001.
“I had run my first Six Day Race the previous year in Nottingham where I had set a world best performance but had had to walk much of the final two days suffering from shin-splints. I was determined to get the national and world records no matter what cost to myself, but was not amused when the race director told me that he had been speaking with Fred Lebow from the New York Road Runners Club who had offered me an invitation to his Six Day Race the following year if I beat the existing world record. My response was a very terse, ‘Do you really mean that my prize for winning this race is to go out and do it all over again?‘
“Some time later when the pain had eased but the joy of achievement was still high, I began my preparations for New York. I was hooked by the challenge of Six Day racing and knew that I would have to strengthen my leg muscles in particular and the best way to do this, I reasoned, was to take part in as many ultras as I could. Hence the formidable list of ultras that I took part in during 1984. So it was that I was much better prepared, though full of trepidation, for this, my second attempt.
“Looking through the list of competitors in that race it must have been the greatest collection of multi-day runners ever and I don’t say that lightly. Over thirty of the world’s very best were present. The race took place on Randalls Island with the Sri Chimnoy organisation providing excellent lap recording and medical provision. The food, tent accommodation and, most importantly, the weather were not so good.
“It was incredibly hot and impossible to sleep in the tents during the day. It was essential to utilise the cooler nights to get some good mileage and so vital to try and rest during the hottest part of the day. My favoured tactic was to lead from the start and to try and get enough of a gap to be able to come back from a rest period and still be in front. With Lorna Richey (USA) and Donna Hudson (USA) in the field this was difficult and both had good back-up teams. Lorna had Mary Hanudel who was so inspired by this race that she had a go herself a month later and subsequently broke the record I set at New York. Donna’s handler was Jim Shapiro whose book detailing his run across America is on my bookshelf. They gave me a hard time but I thrived on the close competition and learned very quickly the tactical nature of track racing.
“Day 3 saw some of us desperate for some sleep take our mattresses to a shady corridor behind the Stand, only to be violently woken by what we thought was gunshots. We had completely forgotten that it was Independence Day and some youths had spotted us and decided that we were an excellent target for their fire-crackers! We did have a super view of the official fireworks display later on that evening high in the sky over the track. We also had to contend with an awful electrical storm.
“Yiannis Kouros and I continued through it with lightning arcing between us, scary but testimony to our determination to achieve our goals. We were both on course for the world records. Lorna finished one place and five miles behind me. It had been a very tough and close race throughout. To finish as first lady in what must be the world’s greatest ever Six Day Race surpassed my wildest dreams. Six day racing turned out to be my forte and though I would run much further than I did in New York, this turned out to be my closest and most difficult victory.”
The New York 6 Day Race was organised by the New York Road Runners with Fred Lebow as race director. It was held twice, in 1983 and again in 1984. It took place on the athletics track at the Downing Stadium on Randall’s Island in New York City. In 1984, the race took place from 3rd to 9th July.
Fred Lebow invited the world’s top ultrarunners to participate, including Yiannis Kouros (Greece) and Eleanor Adams. 31 runners competed – 25 men and six women. The other five female competitors were: Lorna Richey, Donna Hudson, Kim Cavanagh, Sue Medaglia and Marcy Schwam.
Adams and Kouros had started ultrarunning at around the same time (1981/82) and each had already made their mark with top class international performances and multiple world bests. They had competed in the inaugural Spartathlon in 1983 finishing first man and first (and only) woman. Kouros and Adams had finished first man and first woman at the Vienna 3-day stage race in April 1984.
Eleanor Adams did not disappoint. She set a world best distance in New York. In her first six day race, the Nottingham 6 Day Race in July/August 1983, Adams had finished first woman with 410 miles. In New York she ran 462 miles, 278 yards (744 km), beating the previous world best by 39 miles. Later that year she went on to improve on this, and became the first woman to break 500 miles (800 km) in a six day race at Colac, Australia.
Adams was a prolific racer, taking part in over 20 races in the first half of 1984, including cross country races, road races ranging from 4.5 miles to marathons, and ultras. The ultras were:
- Milton Keynes 24-Hour Indoor Race in February – 1st woman – eight world indoor records
- Mountauban 48-Hour Race, France, in March – 1st woman – three world records
- Vienna 3-Day Stage Race, Austria, in April – 1st woman
She had competed in the Stockport, London and Derby marathons in April, May and June, finishing in under 3 hours in all three races and taking first place in Stockport and Derby.
Read about the other races that Eleanor Robinson chose as her top ten performances:
Westfield Sydney to Melbourne 1983
Colac 6 Day Race 1984
The first Badwater ultra race 1987
Melbourne 24 Hour Track Race 1989
1990 IAU International 24 Hour Championships Milton Keynes
IAU 100km World Championships 1990 & 1991
Telecom Tasmania Run 1994
Nanango 1000 Mile Track Race 1998
Yiannis Kouros’s victory has been much written about, as he became the first man to break a six-day record set by British professional pedestrian, George Littlewood in 1888. Littlewood completed 623 miles and 320 yards at Madison Square Garden in New York City. With a renewed interest in six-day races in the 1980s, there was considerable speculation as to whether this record could be broken. Kouros broke the record and extended it to 635 miles (1022 km), finishing 54 miles ahead of Ramon Zabalo of France.
There’s a Greek documentary on Youtube about Yiannis Kouros’s race. It includes a short clip of Kouros and Adams sitting next to each other, being announced as winners and having crowns of olive leaves placed on their heads by Fred Lebow. It is evident that Kouros already had star status and attracted a lot of admirers. The Greek diaspora in New York was keen to support a fellow Greek. It’s hard to say if Adams attracted the same support, but the US TV news clips included at the end of the documentary give good coverage of her win.
Interviews with Eleanor Robinson, June 2018 and May 2019.
A History of Multi-Day Racing in the 1980s, Malcolm Campbell, IAU Newsletter 1988, reproduced on the Sri Chinmoy Races website.
Yiannis Kouros – Greek Greatness, Davy Crockett, ultrarunninghistory.com
The History of the 6 Day Race, Andy Milroy, 2008, planetultramarathon website.
Downing Stadium photograph from Wikimedia Commons, copyright 2006 – Robert S. Anthony, Stadium Circle Features. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license.