Saturday, 5 October 2019

Not quite finished yet!

AFTER a lengthy absence from the blogosphere, the Clapped-out Runner is back! 

This blog first appeared seven years ago as ‘Diary of a Clapped-Out Runner’, its title a sort of tongue-in-cheek, self-deprecating reference to the fact my times were getting slower as the years slipped by, and I was finding myself nearer the back than the front end of races.  

But at least back then I was still running and racing regularly . . . nowadays, it must be said, that ‘Clapped-Out’ adjective has got dangerously close to being the absolute truth! 

Various chronic running-related injuries, a series of ever-diminishing Parkrun times, and a collection of running shoes that mainly gathers dust . . .  these things have recently rudely suggested I might like to quietly quit and do something else in the name of leisure and fitness. 

But no. That hasn’t happened yet. In fact, I’ve even adopted the mantra “It’s better to wear out than rust out!”  Stopping altogether after 37 years of running would surely invite overworked joints and sinews to seize up altogether; better to keep them moving, even if they do squeak, crack and complain!

Our new dog Arthur mentioned the other day he quite fancied a go at Parkrun - so there’s another reason for me to keep the running going. Can’t let him do the damn thing on his own.

Yep, my running mojo has evidently not quite vanished yet . . . and there was further encouragement recently when Runner’s World magazine published a set of statistics that somehow persuaded me I’m not quite as slow these days as I thought I was.

These stats were “average finish times” of the entire UK running population in 2019. How on earth they managed to calculate them I have no idea, but I’m in no mood to argue. They have made an old man very happy, for they suggest that even in my current state of sporting decline I can still go quicker than Mr and Mrs Average (as long as I can remain fit enough to actually reach a finish-line!).

UK race participation has become far more popular in the past 10 years (up by 164%), meaning the demography is totally different in 2019. There are far more runners out there whose main motivation is to enjoy a sociable means of staying fit and healthy, regardless of their age, size or sporting background. Running is no longer a niche sport for eccentric, serious-faced skinny chaps who smell of liniment and whose idea of nirvana is a place in the county cross-country team.

Newbies are everywhere - and very welcome they are too - which explains why average finish-times are getting slower these days. Of course this is good news for us veterans who need modest target times as we cope with Mother Nature’s efforts to slow us down.

Runner’s World reckons the average nationwide finish time for a 5k is currently 33:54 (men 29:08 and women 38:12). For the 10k it is 58:08 (men 53:38 and women 63:18). For the half-marathon it is 2:02:43 (men 1:55:26 and women 2:11:57. For the marathon it is 4:23:27 for men and 5:00:39 for women.  
 (* Views expressed in this blog are purely my own and not necessarily those of the two long-established East Anglian running clubs I am privileged to have Life Membership of).     

Monday, 16 November 2015

60 runs aged 60 at 60 venues! 'Project Sydney' is all set to go

* Sydney Wooderson
RECENTLY I heard of a fellow writer called Dan Wilson, usually a sensible sort of chap, who suddenly announced on his 37th birthday he was setting off on a quest to witness live performances of all 37 of Shakespeare's plays during his year aged 37.

Dan’s quirky little challenge reminded me I had my own landmark birthday coming up this month (it's my 60th, since you ask) - and perhaps I really ought to acknowledge it by doing something similarly daft.

Thus the idea of ‘Project Sydney’ was born here at the desk of your Clapped-Out Runner.
The news was greeted with a sigh from my long-suffering spouse, but I have assured her this ‘birthday challenge’ is no frivolous waste of time and energy, for the main thrust of Project Sydney is actually work related. It will contribute in a pretty significant way to the research and writing of a book that was already being planned anyway. That’s the case for the defence, m’lud!

The said book will be the sixth in my series on champion runners of yesteryear. It will focus on the life and career of one Sydney Wooderson (see picture), a small, shy office worker in NHS glasses who became an unlikely national hero either side of World War 2. The papers called him ‘The Mighty Atom’ and his fame spread well beyond the limits of the sporting world. He became a world-class miler and cross-country runner but these days he is all but forgotten.

In his war-interrupted career, Sydney ran approximately 260 races at less than 100 different venues. The vast majority of these were in the south-east of England. For the purposes of the book I’ll be needing plenty of data and background colour about these races.
And that’s where the big birthday challenge comes in:

To mark my year as a 60-year-old, I’ll be aiming to seek out 60 of the venues where Sydney raced and then follow in his footsteps by running all or part of the courses at which he competed. A few months ago I achieved a long-standing previous challenge (to clock up 1,000 races), so this new quest is just what my ageing and creaky limbs needs as winter heads our way!
* Project Sydney on the drawing board . . . 
 or on the pinboard, actually
Incidentally I’ve decided that wearing baggy shorts, plimsolls and pebbled rimmed glasses on these runs – just like Sydney would have - is probably a step too far. Mind you, if anyone out there happens to be able and willing to loan me one of Sydney’s original Blackheath Harriers running vests, I’d probably make an exception for that!

Many of the race venues graced by Sydney between 1929 and 1951 won’t be easy to locate, of course. Some of the cinder running tracks will have been built on, and some of the cross-country courses will be tricky to pin down. But that’s all part of the challenge.
Locating and running at 60 venues during the year commencing November 23 demands I complete an average of one Sydney run every six days or so. This should supplement my current meagre training mileage rather well. And the incentive to keep the thing going will be this BLOG, which will be updated here once a week, reporting on Project Sydney’s latest developments.

So there you have it. Project Sydney starts next week and involves a book, a blog and a birthday challenge.
If it goes well, there’ll be a double benefit  . . . . it will help keep my mileage and fitness levels up while doing the research, and, secondly, it might generate some pre-publication interest to help produce a few extra sales when the book  comes out!

Thursday, 20 August 2015

Violet and Paula - England's gift to the marathon world!

THE two greatest female marathon icons of all time are both English. Not a lot of people know that!

Everybody acknowledges world record holder Paula Radcliffe’s place at the top of the pile, of course, but very few people have heard of the feisty South London woman who I believe is right up there alongside her.

Between the two world wars, Violet Piercy (pictured) became the very first woman to run a marathon – a feat not repeated by anyone of her sex for almost 40 years!  

Over the years the details of Violet’s remarkable story remained sketchy and vague, so it was welcome news when a group of distinguished athletics historians of my acquaintance recently put their heads together to research her life and times. The facts that emerged from their efforts were even more strange and fascinating than expected.

It seems Violet had a number of natural talents ahead of her time, one of which was a gift for public relations. Over a period of around 12 years she gained much publicity for her various runs and became well known across the land and beyond. She was widely regarded as an eccentric and feisty character, who seems to have spent much of her time pursuing court action against people who upset her.

Women’s athletics had first been recognised and regulated in the UK in 1920, but the rulebook deemed distance running was unsuitable and possibly even dangerous for females. It was thought the strain would adversely affect child-bearing ability, so the maximum distance for a women’s race was set at 1,000 metres.
This was all tosh and piffle according to Violet. Aged 31 she boldly marched down to the London Olympiades club and signed up as a member - although still had to do her training alone. To demonstrate to the world that women could be good at sport and endurance events, she decided to run a solo marathon along the Windsor to London route.
To the amazement of onlookers, she set off at 4.20pm on Saturday 2nd October 1926 from near Windsor Castle. She made good steady progress early on, reaching Hounslow well before 6. After this suburban traffic slowed her down and she finally finished outside Battersea Town Hall around 8pm. Her time was recorded at 3 hrs 40 mins.

She told reporters: “I did it because I wanted to show the Americans what we can do and to prove Englishwomen are some good after all!”  Presumably this was a reference to the recent efforts of Americans Gertrude Ederle and Amelia Corson, who had stunned the people of Britain and France by successfully swimming the Channel.

Although cross-Channel swimming became popular in subsequent years, women’s distance running certainly didn’t. And the reaction to Violet’s great feat was mixed, to say the least. The Westminster Gazette wrote: “It must be hoped that no other girl will be so foolish as to imitate her.” All Sports Weekly were equally firm: “The marathon should be cut out by the women.”

Violet scoffed at all this and appeared on BBC radio telling listeners that doing athletics would help produce a race of women “capable of and suited to motherhood” because the sport was based on rhythm, co-ordinated movement and clean living.

Over the next few years she completed a series of remarkable runs, including three more marathons, but the 1939-45 War seems to have ended this and she quickly sank into obscurity. It’s now been confirmed she lived in the Streatham area in the 1940s and 1950s, but after that the trail went cold.

Thirty-seven years after Violet’s pioneering first marathon, a second woman (American Merry Lepper) completed 26 miles, and shortly afterwards Dale Greig was the second British woman to take the plunge and chalked up a time of 3:27:45. It is sad to think both these women had probably never heard of Violet Piercy. And nobody in the media was able (or interested enough) to track down Violet to ask her about Greig and Lepper following in her footsteps at long last.

If that was sad, the story has an even sadder ending. The newly-gathered evidence suggests that an elderly woman of no fixed address who died in a London hospital in April 1972 was the once-famous Violet Piercy. She had suffered a brain haemorrhage, hypertension and chronic kidney-related infection. The death certificate mistakenly gave her surname as Pearson, which ruled out any chance of her being immediately recognised as the former celebrity runner.

Violet languished in obscurity for something like 70 years but recent developments have changed all that  . . . . there’s now a clip of her running on-line at the British Pathe archive, she has an entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and the well-known novelist Peter Lovesey has written at length about her in Track Stats magazine.
Violet Piercy, marathon icon - at long last – we salute you!   

* Rob Hadgraft's books on running legends of yesteryear are available via Amazon in paperback or e-book via the link . See also

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

1,000th race almost in the bag!

Where it all started . . . .
AND lo, the milestone looms large at the side of my well-trodden road. One thousand races! 
Hard to believe my very first race was almost 34 years ago. This weekend in Suffolk I’m due to hit four figures - 12,300 days and 999 races later.

It’s appropriate I should make appearance number 1,000 at Sunday’s Ipswich JAFFA Ekiden Relays, because I was based in Suffolk all those years ago when this recreational habit first took its firm grip on legs, lungs and sinew.

The legacy of 1,000 races is what physios call ‘wear-and-tear damage’ to my right knee, but on the positive side there's been an amazing range of adventures and experiences. Visits to town, cities and country paths I would never have otherwise trod, and encounters with countless characters I’d never have otherwise met.

It all began in the summer of 1981 when Norman Harris’ articles in the Sunday Times raised the idea of a crack at that paper’s National Fun Run in Hyde Park, London. A huge UK running boom was taking root at the time, and I was one of those sucked in. Aged 25, nearly married, and playing football for pub teams, but I evidently had some energy to spare.

The park was packed, the sun reflected brightly off the bald pate of race starter Duncan Goodhew and things went pretty well. I even had an extra spring in the step because Luton Town beat local rivals Watford 4-1 the previous day! As a complete novice I was quite happy to have run six-minute-miles and fancied more of this action. 

In hindsight it’s clear I was well and truly hooked that day. Five days later, an old desk diary reveals, I ran ten miles down the A12 from Colchester to Tiptree. I can’t recall what prompted that odd idea, but it was certainly the type of unwise novice enthusiasm that nowadays would make me wince!

A few weeks later I joined colleagues from the East Anglian Daily Times to complete a 26-mile jaunt from Felixstowe to Raydon, to raise money for a young local woman widowed after an accident. Our combined running experience was very nearly nil, I seem to recall – an ill-prepared, incorrectly-dressed rabble (particularly in the footwear department), but we made it.

The first Ipswich Marathon came along soon after that, and as sports editor of the Suffolk Mercury Series at the time, I felt obliged to give it a go. A vastly over-ambitious target of three hours was missed by about 20 minutes – but the seeds were sown and before long I decided to join the local experts at the Ipswich JAFFA club.

JAFFA had some impressive old ‘uns in their ranks, Frank Copping for example, inspirational figures who gave off the idea that here was a sport you could enjoy throughout life, not just in your youth. I remember interviewing Frank about his late-blossoming running career, marvelling at his energy and commitment at the grand old age of 63. Now, here I am, just four years younger than that. Good grief.

One thing I soon learned was that races far shorter than marathons were the best thing for me. Mind you, I ran half-a-dozen London Marathons, because once upon a time journalists could get automatic entry by merely promising to publicise the event. We all love a freebie don’t we?   

My 1,000 races since 1981 means I’ve averaged one race every 12 days over the period of 34 years. I know of several people nowadays who compete more often than that (especially now the weekly Parkrun phenomenon is with us). So maybe four-figure tallies are more common than one might think?I suspect many modern runners don’t even bother to keep count like I do. Running logs are perhaps a bit ‘old school’?  

* Rob Hadgraft’s published books are available in paperback and as e-books from Amazon.
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