Tuesday, 19 January 2016

The XC show must go on - whatever the weather!

THERE was a time when snow and ice were NOT regarded with horror by organisers and runners of cross-country races. Before the 1947 English National champs, for example, nobody fretted about health and safety protocol – they simply bunked off work and set off for the Hertfordshire venue a day early!

Winter 1946-7 was the harshest in living memory and Britain shivered under a blanket of snow for weeks. Post-war austerity and rationing made matters even worse. But all this misery only fuelled the determination of runners to go ahead with their regular weekend fun. The show must go on, whatever the weather.

The start of the 1947 National XC at Apsley.

Ten slippery miles of hills, snow, ice and slush awaited the 300 brave souls who beat snow drifts and treacherous roads to get to that 1947 race at Apsley, near Hemel Hempstead. But getting there was the hardest part, not the run itself! Of the 50 teams signed up, 17 of them failed to make it through the snow. Some – including the crack Tipton squad – did reach the venue intact but were too late to take part.

A good number of the missing men were star runners of that era. This opened things up for unsung heroes to make a name for themselves.  After all, the first ten would automatically represent England in the international champs in Paris later on. Many in the sport believed normal rules shouldn’t apply because of all the absentees at Apsley, but the magazine ‘Athletics’ said runners who got stranded en route only had themselves to blame as there had been frequent warnings about roads being impassable.


Sydney Wooderson (No.41) among the leaders.
European 5,000 metres champion and famous miler Sydney Wooderson was one of those who did make it to Apsley, and his all-black Blackheath kit contrasted sharply with the sparkling snowy surroundings. Sydney was now 32, his best track days behind him, but he loved cross-country and still relished club events. The race – four laps of 2.5 miles – started and ended in lower Shendish Park, close to Apsley Mills and the Grand Union Canal. This setting represented the 7th of 60 race venues that make up my 2016 ‘Project Sydney’ (see * below).

Reading AC’s Bertie Robertson was in a class of his own, forging a big lead on the first lap, eventually coming home in 59 mins 18 secs, some 300 yards clear of Blaydon’s Matt Smith. Little Wooderson – his spectacles misted up and his black vest shimmering with frost – was seventh. A total of 276 men made it over the finish line.

The sleep-deprived Northern champions Sutton Harriers were the real stars of the day though. They had motored down to Apsley agonisingly slowly through the night, grabbing a couple of hour's sleep in the Shendish Park changing rooms just before the race’s scheduled start. They sprang from their makeshift beds when called, and roared to a highly commendable team victory.

(Possibly) The hut where Sutton bedded down before the race!
I mentioned this story on social media last week and it struck a chord with many runners who recalled the ‘good old days’ when races were rarely, if ever, cancelled due to bad weather.

Michael Fuller (Hercules Wimbledon) told me: “No way would it be allowed to take place these days. Imagine the horror if somebody fell over!” 

Vic Maughn (Herne Hill) added: “From a tough, hilly snow-covered course in 1947, to the present day where at world level it’s run on almost bowling green conditions with fake hills and the occasional log to jump over just to make it slightly harder! No wonder most present day athletes can't match or come close to what was done in the past.”

Meanwhile, runner Gary Rush from Ontario helpfully pointed out that the snow at Apsley in 1947 would have represented “a mere dusting” for any Canadian runners!

The 1947 race route past Shendish House, pictured in 2016.
* Project Sydney’ is more than just a book about the running career of forgotten British hero Sydney Wooderson. It also incorporates my 60th birthday ‘challenge’ which is to run at 60 of the places where Sydney raced during his remarkable career - all to be done while I am 60!  This blog records the progress of that challenge which, conveniently, will not only help keep me fit, but assist greatly with the research for the book!

www.robhadgraft.com

Friday, 8 January 2016

A quick siesta and then a crack at Sydney and the Heathens!


* Felsted 2016 . . . a view little changed from Sydney's day?
FELSTED School in Essex.  Possibly the only school in the country where the daily timetable demanded pupils go to bed at lunchtime for a 30-minute nap!  This was the case in the 1930s and 1940s anyway, while the school was being run by charismatic and controversial headmaster Julian Bickersteth.
Designed to improve boys’ health and well-being, the Felsted ‘siesta’ must have had an interesting effect on their cross-country team when they faced afternoon races against the might of Sydney Wooderson and his Blackheath Harriers team at the school either side of the second world war.

When the young men of Felsted raced the experienced older ‘Heathens’ it was always a lively affair, attracting loud enthusiasm from boys watching in the school grounds in this normally quiet and refined corner of mid-Essex. On my visit the quietude was punctuated only by the odd passing car or smiley person on a bicycle. This was the sixth of the 60 race venues that make up Project Sydney (see * below) and I suspect it will prove to be one of the least-changed locations since Sydney’s heyday.
* Roomy shorts were the order of the day for Sydney
His debut at Felsted in November 1937 generated high excitement among the pupils, who were told Sydney had only recently smashed the world mile record in a track race in London. A somewhat high-pitched hero’s welcome to Essex was guaranteed. Sydney duly won the 5.25-mile cross-country contest in 31 mins 30 secs, comfortably ahead of his teammate and brother Stanley, the nearest challenger.

Two years later, after the outbreak of war, the school was given only 10 days’ notice to pack up and move out when the Army requisitioned it to become the HQ for Eastern Region Defence. Five years later normality was restored and before very long Blackheath and national hero Sydney were back to pose another cross-country challenge for the boys in December 1947.
The ‘Heathens’ arrived in the area by Great Eastern Railway and took taxis to the school. The afternoon’s race was over soft ground but a freshening wind kept the rain away. After the usual fast start, things settled down and Sydney cruised into the lead after a mile, gradually lengthening his advantage and coming home in 31:10, almost three minutes clear of the rest to smash the course record.

Teammate Busby lost a shoe early on, but hobbled gamely all the way round, eventually coming home barefoot to great cheers despite finishing last by a big margin.
The excited young onlookers received news of progress of the race via a cleverly-arranged network of boys out on the course and a loudspeaker at the finish line. The commentary spared nobody’s blushes and there was great hilarity when the school’s last finisher came home to the announcement that was probably in that position because he was a victim of nicotine poisoning!

* Project Sydney’ is more than just a book about the running career of forgotten British hero Sydney Wooderson. It also incorporates my 60th birthday ‘challenge’ which is to run at 60 of the places where Sydney raced during his remarkable career - all to be done while I am 60!  This blog records the progress of that challenge which, conveniently, will not only help keep me fit, but assist greatly with the research for the book!
www.robhadgraft.com

* A runners' view heading away from the school in 2016