By Bob Phillips
9th August 2017
In isolation and autonomy: the marathon ambition of a computer genius, Alan Turing
Which British athlete has made the greatest contribution to society in the course of his life’s work ? It’s an interesting subject for debate, and there are some notable candidates who spring to mind: Lord Noel-Baker, Olympic 1500 metres silver-medallist in 1920, later awarded the Nobel Peace Prize; Eric Liddell, the 1924 400 metres champion, and a missionary who died for his beliefs; Lord Burghley, the 400 metres hurdles champion in 1928, who became a leading figure in the Olympic movement. Others have been surgeons, soldiers, politicians of great repute. Who of them, though, has left a legacy of Worldwide significance to match that of Alan Turing ?
Turing has been described as “the founder of computer science, the originator of the dominant technology of the late 20th Century” and also as “a fine athlete of almost Olympic standard”. The first of these statements is unquestionably justified; the second, it has to be said, is at best a matter of opinion. Turing was the author of a paper which inspired the creation of the programmable computer, and he produced the first “electronic brain machine”. He also played a major role in the secret wartime work which led to the breaking of Germany’s Enigma military code system. As a long-distance runner, he had a brief and noteworthy career which might have led to greater things but fell short of the higher levels. His life was tumultuous and ultimately tragic as he died at the age of 42 after taking a bite of an apple soaked in potassium cyanide.
Alan Mathison Turing was born in Paddington, in London, on 23 June 1912, the younger of two brothers. His father, Julius Turing, was a tax officer in the Indian Civil Service, and he and his wife returned to India, leaving one-year-old Alan and his brother in the care of friends. The two boys spent their childhood in a series of foster homes until their father retired from work and the parents returned home to England in 1926. Alan Turing had shown early signs of precocity – even budding genius – by teaching himself to read in three weeks, and he was studying the works of Albert Einstein at the age of 12, though throughout his school life he was never to come to terms with the discipline of classroom learning, and this was reflected in his poor examination results.
He was sent to the public school, Sherborne, and immediately attracted widespread attention on his first day by riding his bicycle 60 miles to school because all public transport had been halted by the General Strike. He was to demonstrate exceptional physical ability throughout his earlier life, as in later years it was said by one of his biographers, Andrew Hodges, that Turing “would amaze his colleagues by running to scientific meetings, beating the travellers by public transport”. However, it was not to be until after World War II that he took up serious competitive athletics.
From Sherborne he had gone up to King’s College, Cambridge, in 1931 and despite his earlier educational failings his outstanding ability as a mathematician led to him being made a Fellow of the college in 1935. He spent some time at Princeton University, in the USA, in 1937-38, earning his Ph.D there, and it is interesting to speculate that because of his interest in running he might have been among the spectators at a Princeton “Mile of the Century” on 19 June 1937 when the leading American middle-distance men staged a race which surely would have won his admiration – Archie San Romani 4:07.2, Don Lash 4:07.2, Glenn Cunningham 4:07.4, beating the Olympic 1500 metres champion of 1932, Luigi Beccali, of Italy. Cunningham had set the existing World record of 4:06.7 at Princeton in 1934.
Turing returned to Cambridge University, and then with the advent of war he went to the Bletchley Park code-breaking centre to join an eccentric group of gifted academics who had been described as “Colonel Ridley’s shooting party” to keep their true identity secret from local residents. Almost 70 years later the names of Bletchley Park and of Turing were revived in print in support of a public campaign to restore the decaying buildings, and 97 academics and scientists signed a letter to “The Independent” newspaper in July of 2008 calling for the site to become a centre of national computing.
Writing in “The Independent” newspaper, Ben Macintyre made particular reference to Turing after describing one of his colleagues who worked in his pyjamas and smoked a large pipe into which by mistake he sometimes attempted to stuff his lunchtime sandwiches: “Still more remarkable was Alan Turing, the mathematician and logician who developed the electro-magnetic bombe used to decipher Enigma messages. Shabbily dressed, notoriously absent-minded, Turing was a homosexual, a marathon runner, a loner and a genius. He cycled round in a gas mask because of his allergies and chained his tea-cup to a radiator to deter thieves”.
The 2014 award-winning film, “The Imitation Game”, in which Benedict Cumberbatch played the role of Alan Turing, seems to be a fair representation of the work which Turing did at Bletchley, though the one brief sequence of him out on a training run is none too realistic. No attempt was made by the Norwegian-born director of the film, Morten Tyldum, or the actor, Benedict Cumberbatch, to reproduce Turing’s clumsy running action, and it is rather unlikely that Turing would have indulged in flat-out sprints as part of his training. His breathing was also strained and loud – and must have frightened the wits out of passing pedestrians on his night-time runs.
From November 1942 to March 1943 Turing was back in the USA on a top-level liaison mission concerned with breaking the German code system, and in the latter year he contributed to the construction of the “Colossus”, which was the first large-scale electronic calculator but had the capacity for only one kind of code-breaking process and was not a computer in the modern sense.
Even so, Alan Stripp, one of the codebreakers at Bletchley Park, who died in 2009 at the age of 84, once recalled that the German Enigma ciphering machine had 159 million million million possible combinations, which Colossus helped to sort through. What was also of inestimable long-term significance was that in 1945 Turing emerged with the first detailed design for an electronic computer in the full modern meaning of the term, known as the ACE (automatic computing engine). From then until 1948 he worked at the National Physical Laboratory at Teddington, in Middlesex, on development of the ACE.
In May of 1948 he became deputy director of the computing laboratory at Manchester University where a working computer was set up that same year, and he bought a house in Wilmslow, in Cheshire. His homosexuality was to lead to his prosecution by the police in 1952, and though he subsequently made no attempt to hide his inclinations, and in conversation made light of his trial and his sentencing to hormone treatment, it is believed that his experiences led to his committing suicide at his home on 7 June 1954.
The start of his distance-running career in 1946
It was while working at Teddington that he had been invited to join the nearby Walton Athletic Club, and the first mention of his name in the British monthly magazine, “Athletics” (which was to become “Athletics Weekly” in later years), was in August 1946 when he won the club’s three miles track title in 15:37.8. This performance hardly compared in any way with the record-breaking time of 13:53.2 which had been set by Sydney Wooderson a month before at the AAA Championships, but the 20th fastest time by a Briton that year was 15:17.0 and so Turing’s performance as an unlikely 34-year-old novice was one to be remarked upon. He was actually worth better, as was demonstrated on 31 August, at a meeting at the famed Motspur Park track on London’s outskirts where Sydney Wooderson had set prewar World records. Turing won a three miles handicap race organised by Wooderson’s club, Blackheath Harriers. With a start of 360 yards, he beat by inches a useful runner named Monty Hillier, of Oxford City AC (off 180 yards), in a time of 14:20.6, which was equivalent to around 15:20 for the full distance.
This was followed by a series of commendable cross-country runs for his club, as follows: 26 October, 3rd v Thames Valley Harriers and Woodford Green AC at Cranford, only six seconds behind Alec Olney (TVH), who was to become an Olympic 5000 metres runner two years later. 2 November, 2nd v Epsom & Ewell Harriers, the Guards Depot and Wigmore Harriers, 24 seconds behind a Welsh cross-country international, J.J. Andrews (Wigmore Harriers). 9 November, 17th of 209 starters, South of the Thames inter-team race at Nonsuch Park, Cheam, and first scorer for his club, 1min 2sec behind Bill Lucas (Belgrave Harriers), also an Olympic 5000 metres runner in 1948. 21 December, 7th v Surrey AC at Kingston, 30 seconds behind Stan Belton (Southern cross-country champion in 1936) and Geoff Iden (to be an Olympic marathon runner in 1952), both of Surrey AC. Later that month Turing was sent to the USA again with government colleagues, sailing on the “Queen Elizabeth”, and presumably on arrival dispensing his unrivalled computer knowledge to American counterparts thoughout his stay.
Clearly, Turing was already of some public repute as a result of his computing research because “Athletics” magazine saw fit to publish a paragraph in one of their issues that year drawing attention to the fact that the Walton AC member was the same Dr Turing who was “largely responsible for the so called Electronic Brain Machine”. During 1947 he ventured into longer distances. In March he was 69th of 228 finishers in a snowbound 10-mile National cross-country championships at Apsley, in Buckinghamshire, for which because the weather 17 of the 50 entered teams failed to complete their road or rail journey in time for the start..
In April Turing was 4th in a 10 miles road race promoted by his club in a time of 54:43 behind an RAF officer and prewar British 5000 metres international, Peter Dainty, who won in 52:10, and almost a minute ahead of Stan Jones, of Polytechnic Harriers, who was to gain Olympic marathon selection the next year. In May Turing was 3rd in the Kent 20 miles road race at Chislehurst in 2:06:18, though more than four minutes behind the winner, Ron Manley, of Woodford Green AC.
In a letter to a friend in that same month of May to arrange a sailing holiday, Turing wrote, “The last year or two I have taken to running a lot. This is a form of compensation for not having been good at games at school. The application at present is that I have a Marathon race on 23 August and do not want to upset my training by sailing in August or late July”. The sailing holiday was arranged for September instead, and it was an interesting and intrepid choice of priorities by Turing at a relatively late age for an athlete of limited experience. Marathon-running in Britain in those immediate post-war years was an esoteric affair, and in 1946, for example, there were only six such events throughout Britain, including the championships of Northern Ireland and Scotland, for both of which entry was restricted.
Almost without exception, the distance was regarded as the exclusive property of grizzled veterans. Squire Yarrow won the 1946 AAA marathon eight days short of his 41st birthday. Donald McNab Robertson, 2nd in the AAA race and the title-winner five times between 1933 and 1939, also turned 41 during 1946. Tom Richards, in 3rd place, was 36. Stan Jones, 4th, was a comparative youngster, aged only 31. Most durable of all was Duncan McLeod Wright, 5th, who was to be 50 a couple of months later and had won the race in 1930 and 1931. Jack Holden, 39, and a future Empire and European champion, made his debut in the Midlands marathon in 1946, having won the International cross-country championship in 1933-34-35 and again in 1939.
The competitive opportunities for aspiring marathon-men in Britain were not only severely limited but sometimes chaotic. Stan Jones was interviewed for the British statistics and history journal, “Track Stats” at the age of 83 in 1998 and recalled of the 1946 AAA event: “It was the worst organised race I ever ran in. No drinks were provided. There were very few officials on the course, and at one point the race almost stopped as competitors asked the way”. Yarrow and McNab Robertson arrived at the White City Stadium, in London, where the race was completed as part of the Amateur Athletic Association Championships, to find that the steeplechase was in progress and they had to weave their way round the barriers to the finish !
All of these men were, of course, strict amateurs. McNab Robertson was a coach-work painter for Glasgow Transport Corporation who had been unable to accept selection for the 1932 Olympics because he could not afford the unpaid time off work. Richards had left his native Wales in 1936 to find employment as a nurse at a South London mental hospital. Jones was at a teachers’ training college, and required to attend a lecture on the morning of the 1946 AAA marathon. McLeod Wright had run his first marathon in 1923 and never exceeded seven miles in training but had placed 4th in the 1932 Olympics. Holden was the sports-field groundsman for a sausage-manufacturers but was described as a general labourer by his employers to avoid any querying of his amateur status by the athletics ruling body.
It can be reasonably assumed that all of Turing’s competitive activity early in 1947, fitted into his demanding academic work where and when he could, was designed by him – no doubt, mathematically and logically – as preparation for his marathon debut, though for some reason he brought this forward to 12 July in Rugby at a race enterprisingly promoted by the British Thomson Houston electrical engineering company. There he was a somewhat isolated 4th of 61 starters in 3:01:23 as the future Olympic silver-medallist, Tom Richards, of South London Harriers, won in 2:43:03 from Ron Manley (2:50:47) and Harry Dennis, of Thames Valley Harriers (2:55:10).
Having retained his Walton AC three miles track title in 15:51.8, Turing took part in the AAA marathon a fortnight later on that originally conceived target-date of 23 August at Loughborough and improved enormously to a time of 2:46:03 for 5th place. Again, he ended the race on his own. Jack Holden, of Tipton Harriers, who would also run in the Olympic marathon a year later, won in 2:33:20.2 from Richards (2:36:07) and the Scottish runners, Donald McNab Robertson (2:37:45.6) and J. Emmett Farrell (2:39:46.4). Behind Turing in 6th and 7th places were two wartime winners of the annual Polytechnic Harriers marathon which had been first held in 1909, Les Griffiths and Gerry Humphreys, but unfortunately the report in “Athletics” magazine was very brief and gave no details.
During the winter of 1947-48, while he was a Fellow at his old college, Turing ran cross-country for Cambridge University’s second team alongside a youthful future Olympic steeplechase champion, Chris Brasher. Turing was 7th in the South of the Thames inter-team cross-country event in November at Dartford, 40 seconds behind the National champion, Bertie Robertson, of Reading AC, and at the year’s end he was ranked in 9th place on his competitive record among Britain’s marathon runners by the Amateur Athletic Association and British Amateur Athletic Board team manager, Jack Crump, in his annual compilation. The list of Olympic “possibles” announced by the BAAB included only six for the marathon – Cecil Ballard (Surrey AC), Emmett Farrell, John Henning (Duncairn Nomads), Holden, Richards and McNab Robertson. Ballard had won the Polytechnic marathon and Henning was the Northern Ireland and All-Ireland champion.
In April of 1948 Turing finished almost nine minutes down on the winner of the Wigmore 15 miles road race, and his internet biography notes with what might be politely described as journalistic licence that “only injury prevented his serious consideration for the British team in the 1948 Olympic Games”. In fact, the selection process was simply based on the result of the combined AAA/Polytechnic race on 19 June in which Turing did not run and which was won by Holden in 2:36:44.6 from Tom Richards (2:38:03) and Stan Jones (2:40:49). Writing to a colleague a couple of days before the 1948 Olympics opened, Turing noted that “I have had something wrong with my leg for some months, so wasn’t able to run in any Marathon this season”.
A copy of the programme for the 1948 Poly shows that Turing was entered, and so he would surely have had serious Olympic aspirations at least until his untimely injury. This leaves us only with the inevitable conjecture that although his best time was more than five minutes slower than was good enough to win an Olympic place he might conceivably have made further significant improvement in only his second year of marathon-running had he been fully fit. His cumbersome running action may have caused his problems. At the Olympics Tom Richards was a brilliant 2nd to Delfo Cabrera, of Argentina, but Jack Holden dropped out with blistered feet and Stan Jones was the 30th and last finisher.
What Turing actually did in the way of long-distance training is not known, and certainly until the 1948 Olympics even the name of Emil Zátopek was unfamiliar outside his native Czechoslovakia, let alone his gargantuan training-schedules. Yet when Jack Holden had decided to take up the marathon in 1946 he had switched from running six miles twice a week to 20 miles every day from Monday to Friday. By contrast, 41-year-old John Henning, from Northern Ireland, who missed selection for the 1948 Olympics by only 10 seconds, ran no more than 45 miles a week in training, though he also did three walks of between 10 and 12 miles. Henning was a manual labourer by occupation who had taken up running as a half-miler in 1929, had retired in 1937, and had then made a comeback in 1945.
Turing had certainly made a study of distance-running in his customarily methodical manner because after his death in 1954 it was written of him by the Walton AC secretary, Peter Harding, that “Alan was regarded as an authority on training methods and other athletes sought his advice and apparently followed it with success”. One of these might well have been Chris Chataway, a future World record-holder at three miles and 5000 metres, who was a team-mate of Turing’s for Walton AC when the club placed 3rd in the Southampton-to-Bournemouth road relay on 8 April 1950. This was one of Turing’s very last races.
Chataway had attended the same public school as Turing, and fondly recalled his memories of his running as a 19-year-old National Service army officer in the late 1940s. In 2005, at the age of 70 in an interview for the journal, “Track Stats”, by the distinguished athletics historian, David Thurlow, Chataway said, “I would have a lot of very serious racing for the Army and Walton AC and my times came down a lot. I had nothing else to do during my National Service except run, and so I was very keen”. Whatever the extent of Turing’s tutelage, Chataway talked ruefully of also being allocated another coach by the AAA “who had ideas from the 19th Century, saying I should hold sticks in each hand and not run too much but walk a lot”..
What might this singular man, Alan Turing, described by one of his biographers, Andrew Hodges, as having “an isolated and autonomous mind”, have achieved as a runner, given the opportunity ? After all, there are few physical activities more demanding of isolation and autonomy than running an Olympic marathon.
Author’s footnote: Andrew Hodges’s biography, “Alan Turing: The Enigma”, was published by Vintage, Random House, London, in 1992, and “Turing – Pioneer of the Information Age”, by Jack Copeland, was published by the Oxford University Press in 2012. My thanks to Mr Hodges for providing valuable information for this article. Thanks also to Neil Shuttleworth who has compiled a detailed list of Turing’s races from 1946 to 1950. There is also an extensive Turing website at www.turing.org.uk.