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.|
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!|
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.|