Friday, 21 October 2016

The Brighton adventures of Walter and Sydney

AND so to Preston Park, a substantial 63-acre chunk of recreational space on the edge of trendy Brighton. It’s a place that nowadays hosts the hugely popular Brighton Marathon, but in past decades witnessed the exploits of the most famous track runners and cyclists in the land.

A cinder running track was first laid here more than 100 years ago, sitting rather uncomfortably inside the banked velodrome track which is still there today. British mile legend Sydney Wooderson raced here just once – in the summer of 1937 aged 22 - and put on a memorable and powerful display that belied his tender years and lightweight frame.

My year-long ‘challenge’ to visit and run at 60 of Sydney’s racing venues - in advance of publishing a book about him - took me to Brighton via various places he also passed through late in his running career during annual London-Brighton Relays. Handcross, Hickstead (pic below), Hassocks and Patcham all witnessed his pattering feet on separate occasions as he dutifully swept through these places ‘transporting the baton’ for Blackheath Harriers.

His selfless efforts on behalf of his beloved black-clad London club were admirable, but never was his talent more evident than when he regally cruised around the Preston Park track on Saturday 26 June 1937. On that day he won the Southern AAA championship mile ‘as he pleased’, to coin a phrase of the day.

Clocking laps of 64.5, 64.5 and 65 seconds, he looked in great shape tucked in behind the labouring leaders. Then, 350 yards from the end he suddenly produced that famous 'kick' and surged clear apparently effortlessly, putting in a final lap of 60.6 to win by 10-yards in 4:14.6. It was the best mile by a Brit since his own native record at Chelmsford a year earlier (4:10.8).

The experts reckoned it was only a matter of time before Sydney would set a world mile record – something no British-born runner had done since Walter George 50 years earlier, back when Victoria was on the throne.

W.G.George, a lively character who confessed to liking “a cigar, a drink and a spree” between training runs, had strong links with Brighton himself, having run here and worked as a junior dispensing chemist in the town.

Walter and Sydney were both great milers, but it was there the similarity ended. While Sydney was small, bespectacled, introverted and a diligent city office worker, Walter was a tall, handsome fellow who loved his celebrity status and occasionally strayed into the type of trouble that didn’t befit an athlete of international status. By way of example, here’s just one of many tales about Walter I included in my biography of him, published several years ago:

“One typical episode involved a drunken midnight foot-race along Regent Street in Central London with some pals. Ignoring a bobby’s advice to go home to bed, Walter then trekked through the night to meet a lady-friend in another part of London. This was followed by a hectic morning’s shopping and a lavish lunch in the West End before our hero then bowled merrily into the Lillie Bridge stadium to casually smash a world record!”

I think it’s fair to say Sydney’s build-up to big races tended to be a little more circumspect than Walter’s . . . .

* BEER and BRINE – The Making of Walter George, Athletics’ First Superstar (Author: Rob Hadgraft, Publisher: Desert Island Books; Illustrated 256-page hardback, or as e-book). Available via Amazon - - or direct from the author).

Thursday, 6 October 2016

Mob matches on the Common - very democratic affairs!

* Runners and dogs get thirsty on Wimbledon Common . . .
FOUR Sydney Wooderson race venues ticked off in one hit. And the territory in between covered on foot too. That’s more like it!

One of the aims of my 60th birthday challenge was to knock off some extra training miles, so it was good to be able to park the car for several hours and tread in Sydney’s footsteps through park, heath and woods at Petersham, Wimbledon Common, Roehampton and Putney – all in one long sun-drenched slog on foot.

My research for the book tells me Sydney competed a total of seven times at these four places – club-level events with no particular historical significance. Most interesting of the bunch was a South of Thames cross-country championship that was fixed up during wartime on Wimbledon Common.

* The Dysart Arms opposite Richmond Park - a runners' landmark.
* Into the trees off Putney Heath - an unhappy hunting ground for Sydney.
* Sydney pictured at Petersham in Jan 1940.
The race took place on Saturday 10 February 1940, with Northern Europe in the grip of intensely cold weather. It was five months into the war and people were going about their lives as best they could in the trying circumstances. Hostilities didn’t prevent plenty of sport that weekend, The Times covering football between teams representing The Army and The Empire, a number of rugby fixtures, boxing, rowing, and greyhound racing. And over in SW London, Sydney Wooderson and 98 other runners toed the start-line on Wimbledon Common for the South of the Thames contest.

It was a demanding five-mile route from Belgrave Harriers HQ and 13 men never made it to the finish. Frank Close of Surrey AC took the title, cruising home comfortably after pulling away from Sydney and the others in the first mile. Sydney was not at his fittest and happy to just enjoy the trip, coming in 16th, some 90 seconds behind the winner.

A year later Sydney would return to the same venue and place fifth in another five-miler, this time a contest between his club Blackheath and hosts Belgrave. Once again he was 90 seconds down on the victor, Tom Carter of Belgrave, who looked in a class of his own.

Towards the end of the war in January 1944 a short distance away on the common, close to Roehampton, Blackheath took on the runners of the London Fire Force, Thames Valley and host club Tyrian AC in a 4.5-mile cross-country contest. Sydney, by now in better racing shape, won this ‘mob match’ by a clear 17 seconds.

He’d sampled ‘mob match’ action earlier in the war, running from the popular Dysart Arms, home of Ranelagh Harriers, a spot beautifully positioned near the Thames in Petersham, on the western fringes of Richmond Park. Ranelagh, Orion and South London combined to form a team to take on Blackheath, but Sydney won this 1940 contest handsomely, prompting chatter in the sporting press over whether he might soon forsake track racing altogether and concentrate on becoming a success at cross-country.

Once the war was over Sydney did indeed quit serious track action (after one fabulous ‘farewell’ year) and turned his attentions to cross-country running. In Christmas week of 1946 he returned to the Dysart to help Blackheath to a comfortable victory over Ranelagh on a course of approaching 8 miles. John Poole of the host club won by a good distance, but the rest of the first ten home were all ‘Heathens’ – including a tie for second place between Sydney and teammates Choat, Reynolds and Keepex, who deliberately finished together.

Elsewhere in this fine sector of London, I discovered that Sydney’s only two races in the Putney area came very early in his career and were not happy experiences. As a 17-year-old competing for Sutton Valence in the Ranelagh Public Schools Cup in March 1932, he engineered himself a good position near the front of the pack, but lost all realistic chances of victory when falling and cutting his foot quite badly, continuing on but having to settle for sixth place. Then, in diabolical weather in December 1934 he wore the Blackheath colours in the annual Pelling Ratcliff Cup contest from Putney Heath. He could only manage 37th place on a day when conditions were so bad that the linen numbers on the runners’ vests curled up and became obscured thanks to “all the glutinous substances” that were flying around!

Those Putney races were enough to put a small chap wearing glasses off cross-country for life you’d think - but our Sydney was made of sterner stuff!

* PROJECT SYDNEY is more than just my forthcoming book about the forgotten British champion Sydney Wooderson. It also incorporates my 60th birthday ‘challenge’ – which was to visit and 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 should also help keep me fit and assist with research!

* * NOTE: What is a MOB MATCH? Well, it’s a very ‘democratic’ running event between clubs, the method of scoring meaning virtually every runner – regardless of ability – has the chance to score points. You start by counting the number of runners on each side then take three off the smaller number. For example, if Blackheath had a turnout of 44 runners and Ranelagh 50, then the first 41 home from each club would score. The team with the lower score was the winner (first place counts 1 point, 2nd is 2 etc). So the result is not normally known until the last few tail-enders finish. It’s been going for more than 100 years and still happens here in the 21st century – the idea being invented by Ranelagh and Blackheath for their 1907 annual contest. This became established as the standard scoring method for all mob matches worldwide.

Friday, 23 September 2016

When brothers finish together . . . not just a Brownlee thing!

* The sports fields at Charterhouse.

THE crowded roads of the Surrey commuter belt can be unforgiving when you possess scant knowledge of local shortcuts or traffic hot-spots. Locating race venues around here that were once graced by athletics’ forgotten hero Sydney Wooderson proved a tall order.

However, I managed to find five of them in one trip, an exhausting rigmarole which keeps me ticking along nicely towards the 60 I pledged to visit in 2016. It’s all in the name of research, you see, and also part of my 60th birthday challenge!*

Of course, the original idea was to don running shoes and have a training run at all these venues, take a few photos and collect material for my next book. But, for logistical reasons, I confess the running part has recently been a little curtailed. As my ‘Old Grey Training Log’ will testify, those runs have lately been measured in metres rather than miles. 

But the overall challenge remains alive and well, and here in the affluent Surrey/ Hampshire/ Berkshire triangle I was able to put a tick against venues numbering 29 to 33 on the list of 60. 

Exiting Guildford Cricket Club (see previous blog), I dashed down to the Godalming district to call at famous independent school Charterhouse. The alma mater of my former Sports Editor, this seat of learning was founded in 1611 on the site of a monastery - and the bucolic surroundings still radiate a sense of calm and contemplation even today! 

Sydney raced here three times in his career, all cross-country challenge races involving his club Blackheath Harriers and the school team. In a November 1942 fixture, halfway through the war, Sydney and his younger brother Stanley roared home side by side to claim joint-first in 31 minutes over a course of five miles-plus. Their nearest challenger was schoolboy Trollope, who finished 20 seconds adrift. The Wooderson brothers didn’t finish in any distress, so I’ll refrain from any comparison with last week’s triathlon drama involving the Brownlee boys!

Four years later Sydney ran alone to win the same fixture in a course record of 29:11. Then in December 1947 there was a repeat of the tied first place, but this time involving Sydney and club colleague Humphrey Nunns (29:47).
* The Garrison track at Aldershot.
Out of the school gates and I was off to Aldershot where Sydney took part in the Army track and field championships of 1945 at the Garrison ground beside Queens Road – an impressive venue still very much in use today. Sydney had ended the war serving as a corporal in the REME, but since summer 1944 had suffered from rheumatic fever which led to four months in hospital, where he was warned he’d probably never run again.

But after war ended in May 1945 he proved the doubters wrong and by the time of these Army champs in July felt fully fit again. Despite a stiff breeze he thrilled the assembled spectators at Aldershot, flying home to win the invitation mile in 4:14.8, by a huge margin of 16 seconds. It was an Army all-time record, and his fastest mile in more than a year.
* The RMA at Sandhurst - scene of the 1949 Southern XC champs.
My next port of call was Camberley, home of the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst. In these days of high security it was tough getting a glimpse of the Oak Grove Stadium facilities and surroundings, where Sydney competed several times, both on the track and then over the fields near the end of his celebrated career.

He came here on a chilly February day to run the 1949 Southern Cross-country Championships for the very last time. He was by now 34 and had long since given up track, but still enjoyed helping his club over the country. In a tough 10-mile contest within the grounds of Sandhurst, he came a modest 16th in a time of 57:57, around two-and-a-half minutes behind winner Alec Olney (Thames Valley).  Not one of his better days, but he was still the leading runner from Blackheath, who were grateful he had turned out.

Directly from here it was over to Ascot racecourse, the venue of another Southern Cross-country championships, this in 1947, at which Sydney fared a little better, coming home fifth, a minute or so behind winner Len Herbert of Belgrave. Sydney was smaller and lighter than the majority and his nimble footwork was well suited to the frozen ground on this icy cold day. The wind was bitter and there was further heavy snowfall during proceedings. It wasn’t a day for hanging around, and although he was his usual quiet and polite self, Sydney must have been irritated when the start of the main race was delayed. It was all because the chief official was desperate to get a photo of superstar Sydney but couldn’t locate the photographer for several minutes!
* The racecourse at Ascot Heath - scene of the 1947 Southern XC champs.
 Across Ascot Heath, scene of many a notable horse race meeting, regally patronised and otherwise, Sydney and teammate Monshall ran steadily together throughout the 10-mile contest, well established in the top 15 in a field of nearly 300 runners. With less than a mile to go, Sydney told his teammate he thought he could make up few places, and promptly accelerated away. He passed at least seven men with a wonderful turn of speed to thrill the frozen crowd at the finish-line. It was well worth the effort, for it pushed Blackheath into third place in a fierce team event involving 30 clubs.

 * PROJECT SYDNEY is more than just my forthcoming book about the forgotten British champion Sydney Wooderson. It also incorporates my 60th birthday ‘challenge’ – which was to visit and 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. Conveniently, it should also help keep me fit and assist with research for the book!   

Thursday, 8 September 2016

Lovelock left stunned as teenager Sydney comes of age

* Sydney Wooderson (No.38) pips Jack Lovelock (24) at the post.
ON a scorching Saturday afternoon in the summer of 1934, around 5,000 people eagerly squeezed into the Guildford cricket ground, many only there to see one man - world record miler Jack Lovelock.

To their delight, this 12th staging of the Southern AAA championships would live long in the memory - not because of the run by Kiwi legend Lovelock, but because Britain discovered a new superstar of its own. Step forward a small, bespectacled teenager called Sydney Wooderson!

More than eight decades later, I stopped off at the Woodbridge Road ground as part of my current tour of 60 of Sydney’s race venues (see * below). As I jogged around I tried to imagine how nervous and inhibited the young Sydney must have felt all those years ago, arriving here for the biggest race of his life thus far, and seeing the size of the expectant crowd. 

Sydney had emerged as a real talent just three weeks earlier when he won the Kent county mile title at Belvedere. However, the talent on show here in Guildford was a whole new world for this mild-mannered little runner from South London. Before the mile race his chances of doing well were boosted when the news broke that 27-year-old Olympian and Welshman Reg Thomas would not be defending his title. However, this good news was countered by the controversial decision to allow 28 men to run the mile final. In addition to the stifling heat, this was going to be one crowded race!
* Guildford cricket ground in 2016.

The grass track was in good condition but with such a big field it proved a slow start. By halfway (two laps in 2:07.4), L.R.Pearce had settled in front with 22-year-old Aubrey Reeve tight on his heels. At the bell Jerry Cornes took the lead with Lovelock close behind him. Reeve was content to stay third until the top bend when he surged to the front with 200 yards to go, and opened a winning lead. It was the race of his life and he came home in 4:14.8, beating his personal best by more than six seconds. 

Lovelock, looking rather stunned, had worked hard to chase Reeve down the home straight but couldn’t get there. As he approached the line and it became clear he was a beaten man, there was an even bigger shock in store as Sydney finished with an incredible burst and flew past to narrowly take second place right on the line. He and Lovelock were both given a time of 4:15.2, a personal best for Sydney by an astonishing 12.2 seconds.

The crowd was buzzing for ages after this thriller, and subsequent track and field events felt anti-climactic. The pressmen in attendance frantically compiled reports hailing the dramatic arrival of these two great new hopes for Britain in the mile, Reeve and youngster Wooderson. 

In 2008 the personal journals of Jack Lovelock were published in New Zealand in book form by David Colquhoun, and these provide a fascinating insight into how Lovelock reacted to his shock defeat. Runners are notorious for finding all sorts of reasons to explain poor performance, and the 24-year-old charismatic Lovelock was no exception. He cited the fact that before the race he’d had a tiring week of exams at Oxford University, where he was studying medicine on a Rhodes scholarship.

He wrote: “[The week] left me very tired indeed. I had reckoned that a 4:19 would be good enough to win judging on current form, and was amazed to find two comparitively unknown milers doing around 4.15. The day was scorching hot with no appreciable wind and the track really good fast grass. 

* All quiet in 2016 . . . Guildford Cricket Ground.
 “At the bell [Cornes] went into the lead moving very fast and powerfully. I followed on his heels but 220 from home he slackened and Reeve passed us. I foolishly let him go, thinking Jerry would respond and not wanting to be forced wide by Jerry on the bend. But Jerry had had enough, a fact which I realised only when Reeve had a 12-yard lead on me. Then I did move out and around Jerry but it was too late and not only did I fail to make up the last three yards, but tailed off so much that I was myself caught by Wooderson on the tape.”

Lovelock, not surprisingly, seemed embarrassed at being beaten in a high-profile race by two relative unknowns, thanks at least partly to his tactical gaffe. It was a big wake-up call for the popular Kiwi and a breakthrough race Sydney Wooderson would never forget.
Interviewed in old age, Sydney would look back and name Guildford as one of the best six performances of his glorious 20-year career. 

* PROJECT SYDNEY is more than just my forthcoming book about the forgotten British champion Sydney Wooderson. It also incorporates my 60th birthday ‘challenge’ – which was to visit and 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. Conveniently, it should also help keep me fit and assist with research for the book!