Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Those First Few Tentative Steps….

* THE ROAD TO RUIN . . . Ipswich journalists Steve Everest, David Green,
Rob Hadgraft and Max Stocker recover at the roadside 30 years ago.

ON A SUITABLE day later this month I will raise a glass of fizz (preferably something a little stronger than Gatorade) to celebrate exactly 30 years as a runner.
A few minutes’ research in Ye Olde Clapped-Out Runner’s archives this week has confirmed that the spring of 1982 was when it all began. April of that year was when running began to get ‘serious’ for me. I was in my mid-twenties, about to get married, and starting to lose enthusiasm for Sunday morning football.   
Yes, April 1982 must have been when I metamorphosed from a relatively normal human being into a committed runner, because it was then I started recording times and distances in a training log. This alarming new habit provoked considerable mickey-taking from my nearest and dearest of that era (‘anal’ and ‘retentive’ were two words I recall being used), but I weathered the storm and still scribble away in the same log book 30 years later.
In my defence, back then I was training and working as a sub-editor, so being meticulous and accurate was a professional requirement!  And, anyway, had I not committed all the facts and figures to paper over the years, how would I be able to write about it now? OK, don’t answer that.
That spring of ’82, while Mrs Thatch was busy sinking the Belgrano, also heralded an important development for any beginner, the day when I swapped thin-soled football trainers for proper running shoes (cheap Hi-Tecs to start with!). It must have also been when I unconsciously took the dangerous path of disrupting the life of my fiancée by regularly disappearing for a run when maybe I should have been sitting down for meals, or putting up new shelves, or whatever else non-runners get up to.
So what exactly turns a young man’s head and steers him towards a lifetime of running? Hard to pinpoint exactly, but I do recall, a few months earlier, basking in the triumph of winning a drunken race across a sportsfield with half a dozen fellow journalists from the Ipswich Evening Star.
We were young and foolish with energy to burn after a hard day’s work at the subs’ table - but quite how alcohol became involved I cannot be certain. Vague memories of a talented cartoonist called Allan Drummond glugging red wine to combat pre-race nerves come to mind however. Anyway, I was declared to have won the said race “by a nose” and that sweet taste of victory may well have sown the relevant seeds. It mattered not that the occasion was tainted by the presence of artificial stimulants (although none in my system, I hasten to add). 
Entry into the huge and colourful Sunday Times Fun Run event in Hyde Park soon followed. The running and fitness boom in Britain was only just beginning which meant sensible training advice was not easy to come by. Hence I spent the build-up sprinting uphill towards Ipswich’s Christchurch Park, gasping to a stop after exactly a mile and then hammering back down again. As a training programme it lacked a certain finesse, but it got me round Hyde Park in a decent time and also led to the next challenge, which again involved fellow local journos . . . this time a midwinter 10-mile run across the Suffolk countryside.
It was a cold Sunday morning and few among us had ever run more than a mile or two in one go, yet somehow we reached our destination and even raised a few quid for the SOS Suffolk Scanner Appeal into the bargain. Our ring-leader, a certain Max Stocker, lived in the Raydon area, and the success of this ‘rag, tag and bobtail’ run set tongues wagging in his local pub. Flushed with a sense of achievement, not to mention Abbott ale, it was here Max decided 10 miles was nowhere near enough, and came up with the idea of us tackling the full marathon distance. The plan was to raise more money, this time for the widow of a pub regular who’d recently been killed in an accident at work. I’d never set foot in that pub before, but somehow I was roped in again.
Still relatively clueless about marathon training and protocol, we had around 10 weeks to prepare. I wince now as I read how I embarked upon this challenge by running an average of once a week over that period, none of the excursions longer than eight miles. The carefree optimism of youth!
My memories of travelling by train to Felixstowe for the early morning start soon after dawn are misty. Literally. There was fog and frost in the air, it was deadly quiet and the world and his wife were still in bed. Ours was not a properly organised event, simply a case of meeting the other 20 lunatics and getting on with it. No starting pistol, no St.John Ambulance, no drinks stations, no route markers, nothing.
Accompanied only by a small bottle of orange drink, I hopped off the train but found the vicinity of the station deserted. There was no choice but to set off on this 26-mile ordeal all alone along the slippery, icy roads. I had only a rough idea of which direction to go, and my only concession to the strong possibility of becoming stranded, injured or lost was a couple of 10p pieces for use in (unvandalised) phone kiosks that might be along the route.
Instinctively aware of the need not to run too quickly too early, I somehow reached Ipswich with body and mind intact. Here it was ‘half-time’ and so a couple of slices of orange were swallowed at a brief pit-stop involving assistance from parents and fiancée, and then the second-half kicked off.  The so-called ‘finish-line’ was the front door of the pub in Raydon, a village that is, predictably, not clearly signposted from the centre of Ipswich. (“Just head towards Hadleigh, you’ll find it…”).
It’s all a blur now, but posterity records I did the entire journey in four hours and there were apparently no ill-effects. I must have been exhausted, however, for I do recall turning down an evening in the cosy Chequers bar, instead requesting a lift home in order to soak in a hot bath. There was no ‘Eureka’ moment that day, but with hindsight it must have been the occasion when I decided distance running was for me. Thirty years on, I’ve totted up nearly 30,000 miles and 900 races, so that somewhat loosely-organised marathon couldn’t have hurt too much.
As a postscript, it came to my attention much later that among the motley crew of 21 who traversed Suffolk that cold day was a quiet, unassuming middle-aged fellow who had years earlier been one of the top runners in Europe. Roy Beckett, by then aged 54, quietly ran his 26 miles in 2 hours and 50 minutes that day, just a couple of years after major heart surgery.
Modest Roy didn’t crave acclaim for what he achieved, and few of us were even aware of this once-famous athlete in our presence. Shortly after the war Roy had run with distinction for Great Britain and on one celebrated occasion sent a record White City crowd wild by winning the national three-miles crown in 14:02 by the width of a vest in a sensational duel with Chris Chataway. A year later, Roy was expected to represent GB at the Helsinki Olympics but shocked the sporting world by quitting serious competition, stating that the level of commitment and pressure simply didn’t appeal to him. As well as his heart operation, Roy would later have knee replacement surgery before his death in 2003 of lung cancer at the age of 75.
Following all these strange adventures in the wintry Suffolk lanes, my commitment to running gathered pace in the late spring of 1982. I launched the afore-mentioned training log, purchased proper kit, and even ran the Colchester Half-marathon on the morning of my wedding that summer (It seemed a good idea at the time, a way of keeping occupied on the morning of a nerve-wracking event!).
Little did I know that all this was not temporary madness, but the start of something far more permanent . . .

*** Check out Rob Hadgraft’s published books on running at

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