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Blast from the pastFeaturesMelting potHow corncobs helped Victorian runners – and might help the 21st century athlete

How corncobs helped Victorian runners – and might help the 21st century athlete

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By Paul Marshall

30 July 2010

With Mo Farah and Chris Thompson’s successes this week at the European athletics championships in Spain, Britain has renewed its affair with distance running. And while Paula Radcliffe won’t be there as the marathons unfold on the streets of Barcelona this weekend, she does hope to be back in time for the London Olympics of 2012.

By that time, another British distance runner – the nation’s No1 ultra-marathon competitor, William Sichel – hopes to have made a further contribution to the sport, not just with more wins on his CV, but by popularising a new running aid he has been testing and developing: running batons.

As any elite sportsman will testify, advances in technology often help to enhance performance, whether through the application of sports science and new discoveries about physiology and nutrition, or through breakthroughs in the design and manufacture of new clothing and other kit.

Yet the running batons under trial by Sichel are far from new – in fact they date back to Victorian times, when they were pioneered by one of the stars of “pedestrianism” as it was known, which was the rock n’ roll athletic discipline of its age. It drew tens of thousands of paying customers to watch men compete for massive purses in endurance races that lasted up to a week each. This website carried a feature about the world’s greatest walker, Edward Payson Weston, in March, linked here.

It was one of Weston’s major sporting rivals, Daniel O’Leary, who pioneered the use of batons, except he used corncobs. Between 1874 and 1878, O’Leary, an Irish-American, amazed the world of professional pedestrianism with a string of gutsy winning performances over 500 miles and more.

And the world champion always carried a pair of corncobs in his hands because, he claimed, they helped with his balance as well as absorbing the sweat in his hands. After one memorable win against Weston in 1877 (depicted in the accompanying picture), O’Leary went onto to become a trainer, swearing by the corncobs as aids to walking and running.

One of the beneficiaries of O’Leary’s help – and of the corncobs – was the pioneering black athlete, Frank Hart, and with their help, he went on to secure a world record 565 miles in six days, at Madison Square Garden, New York, in 1880.

I raised the subject of the batons and their historical success in conversation last year with William Sichel, who subsequently thought it worth exploring whether a modern-day version of the corncobs might help in his own running. He made a prototype baton and began testing.

The theory was that by getting into the habit of intermittent squeezing of the batons, one effect might be to stimulate the pumping of blood through the system. The simple clenching and unclenching of the hands can do this, so why shouldn’t, to whatever small effect, the squeezing of a baton? We’d find out. But there would prove to be other advantages, psychological or otherwise, in terms of balance and focus.

In a 150-minute “steady road run in harsh conditions” on the 22 March this year, Sichel held a pair of his (now trademark) five-inch, light, firm, squeezable “hand batons” for the first time. His verdict? “They helped my hands, arms and shoulders stay relaxed and made me more aware of my upper body state of tension.”

He subsequently took the batons to Athens, Greece, where he used them throughout a non-stop seven-day race in which he eventually finished second, setting new records in the process. Photos of him using the batons during the Athens race can be seen in reports at the time carried on this website here and here.

Sichel now believes that these aids could possibly enhance performance in a range of sports. “My verdict on the hand batons after Athens was great – I used them on every one of the 800 laps,” he said. “They helped with relaxation, focus, and balance, by making me aware of my arm/hand position.

“What I called ‘second heart squeezing’ was also helpful, whereby periodically squeezing the batons I can keep my arm and shoulder muscles loose and activate the ‘second heart’ principle. I also found them helpful as a psychological prop, as a handy aid to wipe my eyes and face, and they also mop up sweat in the palms of the hands.

“The other observation was that as they also help and enhance posture. They can also help to relieve pressure on the heart and lungs. As regards communication, my crew stuck paper stickers on the batons with race information, ie temperature, my fluid intake, distance covered etc. I also found that simply holding them for long periods acted as a form of psychological comforter.”

While William Sichel was running with his batons in Greece, I tested them on a beach in Northumberland. Holding them as I walked briskly along, I found they helped improve posture (thus helping breathing), improve balance and significantly improve concentration and focus. As I scrambled over rock pools, my balance seemed to be significantly improved.

Anyone involved in a discipline involving balance might benefit from baton use: runners, walkers, treadmill users, trampoliners, dancers, those who do yoga. William Sichel’s website carries updates on his training, races and research, and any party interested in the development of the batons can also contact him by email.

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