Alan Turing the Runner

Alan Turing running

There seems to be only one photograph of Alan Turing running. In it he appears to be finishing an event — perhaps his club’s 3-mile championship —  passing the finish post in first, but his form looks terrible. His arms are held high and awkwardly, and his right leg seems to whip out to one side. Indeed, an article in the British magazine TrackStats commented that Turing’s running action was “apparently very strained and cumbersome…”

Still, Turing must have had terrific natural endurance and a fierce competitive instinct. He began running seriously only in his mid-thirties, and with less than two years experience, ran a marathon in 2:46:03 and was mentioned as one of the few men with a shot at representing England in the 1948 London Olympics. (If 2:46 doesn’t seem very impressive, it might help to remember that the winning time in the 1948 Olympic Marathon was 2:34:52, and Great Britain’s second runner ran 3:09.)

Turing, as the recent movie “The Imitation Game” reminds us, was one of the heroes of the British war effort in the 1940s. He is credited as the man most responsible for breaking the Nazis’ unbreakable “Enigma” encryption system. He is also considered one of the founders of modern computer science, and his thought experiment concerning machine intelligence has been immortalized as “The Turing Test.”

And, surprisingly, he was a good runner. He was a runner who, like many others, came to the sport rather late. According to an article by Pat Butcher, he did not compete as an undergraduate at Cambridge, preferring to row. But after winning his fellowship to King’s College, he began running with more purpose. He is said to have often run a route from Cambridge to Ely and back, a distance of 50 kilometers.

After the war, he was adopted by a local running club, the Walton AC. J. F. Harding, the secretary of the club at the time, recalled encountering Turing for the first time:

“We heard him rather than saw him. He made a terrible grunting noise when he was running, but before we could say anything to him, he was past us like a shot out of a gun. A couple of nights later we caught up with him long enough for me to ask who he ran for. When he said nobody, we invited him to join Walton. He did, and immediately became our best runner… I asked him one day why he punished himself so much in training. He told me ‘I have such a stressful job that the only way I can get it out of my mind is by running hard; it’s the only way I can get some release.'”

I feel like I have known runners like that — runners who hammer all the time. Their form isn’t always pretty, but they grind out mile after fast mile.

Apparently Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays Turing in the film, trained himself to run long distances in order to be credible during the running scenes. While I haven’t seen the movie yet, I have watched the trailer, and — I can’t believe I’m writing this — Cumberbatch actually looks like he has pretty good running form. I’m a little relieved that he wasn’t able to imitate Turing’s “strained and cumbersome” technique, or his grunting.

I remember in 1996 that Derek Jacobi played Turing in a made-for-TV movie called “Breaking the Code.” Although a fine actor, Jacobi was entirely unconvincing as a runner, and the one scene that had him running spoiled the movie for me. But then, I’m sensitive about things like that.

Turing continued to run for his club, competing in track races, cross country races, and road races. The last race he ever ran for the Walton AC was the London-to-Brighton Relay in April 1950, in which one of his teammates was Chris Chataway, who would gain fame a few years later as a pacemaker for Roger Bannister when the latter ran the first sub-four-minute mile.

Turing lived to hear about Bannister’s feat, but one month and one day after the historic race at the Iffley Road track, Turing was dead at age 41.

About Jon Waldron

Running and Racing have been important parts of my life for as long as I can remember. I ran Track and Cross Country at Amherst HS, back in the day, and am proud to have been training and competing with the Cambridge Sports Union (CSU) for more than thirty years. If my bones hold out, I hope to continue for another thirty. Sixteen years ago, I began coaching, first as an Asst. Coach at Newton North HS in Newton, MA, and for the past ten years, as Head Track and Cross Country Coach at Concord Academy in Concord, Massachusetts. I've been writing about running for almost as long as I've been running, dating back to high school, when I would write meet summaries for the Amherst Record for about $0.33 per column inch. I've been blogging about running since 2005, and began blogging at "the runner eclectic" in 2014. Until recently I also had a day job, working full-time as a Technical Product Manager for Nuance Communications, based in Burlington, MA. But I am now on what might turn out to be a permanent sabbatical. Thank you for reading my blog, and please consider leaving a comment.
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