Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Feeling quite at home among those fleet-footed deer!

HE may have been an international superstar when it came to four-lap track races in summer, but Sydney Wooderson was always keen to help his club out in those gruelling cross-country slogs on winter Saturdays.

Barely three months after smashing the world mile record on the cinders of Motspur Park in August 1937 (4 mins 6.4 secs) our hero took to the muddy fields of south-east England for a very different kind of challenge, with little thought of personal glory.

Twenty-three-year-old Sydney had dabbled in cross-country before, but mainly at school and in low-key matches for Blackheath Harriers. But now, after winning a couple of relatively minor races at the end of 1937, he agreed to wear the Heathens colours for the first time in a major XC contest.
The occasion was the annual Kent County Championships, a highly prestigious affair being staged this year in the 1,000-acre medieval deer park surrounding Knole House in Sevenoaks. His admirers often said Sydney was so light and fleet-footed that he ran “like a startled deer”, so this setting would mean he was perfectly at home!

Nearly 80 years later, I found myself in Knole Park this week on a mild and dry Boxing Day morning, one of at least a dozen runners roaming the paths and grasslands to shake off seasonal excesses. This was the fifth of the 60 race venues that make up Project Sydney (see * below).
The 'Hole in the Wall'
To run in the footsteps of ‘The Mighty Atom’, my first task was to find a landmark known locally as The Hole in the Wall, which marked the point where he and his fellow runners had to gather on Saturday 8 January back in 1938 for the start of their two-lap contest. First home after seven seriously undulating miles would be able to call themselves champion of Kent for a year.

I found the spot easily enough after directions from a local runner, but it seems my predecessors from Blackheath Harriers 77 years ago did not! Drenched by rain, they missed the start of the junior race as a consequence, and the official who wrote up the report for their newsletter was still in a grumpy mood about race arrangements when he put pen to paper some days later!
Sydney was of course by now a very famous fellow indeed by dint of his track heroics, but a race like this would pose all sorts of difficult and intriguing questions of his capabilities. However, he was well to the fore when the pack of seniors shot off down a wide valley at the start of lap one. An uphill stretch soon slowed them all down but a group of six established a good lead as the event unfolded.

My own finish line in Knole Park
was an abandoned boot!
Sydney’s natural speed and nimble style saw him cope with apparent ease and stay at or near the front for mile after mile. As the finish got closer on lap two he found himself locked in battle with just one opponent, Hodges of Gravesend. Undaunted by the continuous rain which had kept spectators to a minimum, the pair raced hard from the top of the golf course steeply downhill at breakneck speed. They swept round a bend and Sydney won a terrific battle for the tape by a mere two seconds to take his first major title over the country.

He was a modest and unassuming chap, but had he needed bringing down to earth, the job would have been done when the weary finishers were promptly directed out of the park to Sevenoaks swimming baths, where the allocated changing area was the cold, tiled floor of an empty pool!

* '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!

Sydney and his pals sped off down here in a massive group at breakneck speed,
but on  Boxing Day 2015 there was just one pink-clad lady runner to be seen. 

Monday, 21 December 2015

Floating over lumps and bumps at Chelmsford to smash a record

* Down here he flew, the GB record in his sights . . .

* The bespectacled 'People's hero'

ONE thing always bugged me during the eight-year stint I lived in Chelmsford: It concerned a stretch of the A1060 just around the corner from us, known locally as ‘Bundick’s Hill’. Although I know zilch about the Bundick person immortalised in this way, I became convinced it would be far more appropriate to have this location named ‘Wooderson Hill’.

This bit of road swoops past Admiral’s Park and Tower Gardens to the west of the city, right next to the spot where ‘people’s hero’ Sydney Wooderson broke the British mile record on a summer’s afternoon many decades ago – against all the odds.

Bespectacled Sydney’s historic run of 4 mins.10.8 secs sent shock-waves through the sporting world, and enthralled 5,000 locals on the afternoon of Saturday 20 June, 1936. Nearly 80 years later the venue this week became the fourth of the 60 I am visiting as part of Project Sydney*.

What made his record so unlikely was the nature of the place. This was no springy, sheltered, perfectly flat neoprene running track. Oh no. Sydney had to run four laps of a cricket pitch, complete with misshapen bends, slopes and dips, and travelled outside the boundary ropes, meaning the grass was inferior to that of the cricket field itself.

The occasion was the 14th annual Southern Counties AAA championships, hosted for the first time by Chelmsford AC and friends, despite the fact they had no proper cinder running track to offer the elite athletes in attendance. Great local interest and good weather saw programmes sell out completely, and a crowd tightly packed under the parkland trees enjoyed plenty of drama - including pole vaulter Vanall coming a real cropper when his pole spectacularly snapped.

Earlier, officials and journalists had strolled up Rainsford Road to the ground from the railway station, their conversation centred on Wooderson’s rumoured attempt on the record. This had been leaked to Fleet Street the previous day. The Sporting Chronicle correspondent ‘Ubiquitous’ was one of many who thought Sydney had no chance of running under 4:12 on this imperfect track.

The start of the Mile was held up in comedy fashion when latecomer Hodges of Southgate suddenly hove into view and pleaded loudly to be allowed to get changed and compete. This was granted and 21 men lined up, one quitting early after being spiked. Henderson (Polytechnic) took off fast, pursued by Sydney, and a gap opened up. Sydney ran the first lap in 60.2 seconds and hit halfway in 2:04.4. Pacemaker Henderson then dropped back and Sydney surged into a lead which slowly increased. He was 30 yards ahead at the start of the last lap (3:08), looking smooth and untroubled. He came home to loud roars 50 yards to the good, famous names Thomas (RAF), Pell (Herne Hill) and Cornes (Achilles) trailing in his wake.

It was a new British amateur record, 1.2 seconds inside the 4:12 set by New Zealand ace Jack Lovelock in Oxford four years earlier. Lovelock was here, but to the surprise of many had quietly opted to run the half-mile instead, in which he was beaten.

One correspondent wrote in awe of what he’d seen: “The graceful ease with which this marvellous run was accomplished; the utter absence of any symptom of distress –during its performance or subsequently – and the manner in which Wooderson sailed away from such magnificent previous champions, left an ineffaceable memory.”  

The run booked his place for the forthcoming Berlin Olympics, and this would prove the second of a ten-year stint as undisputed mile champion of Britain.

* 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!

Friday, 11 December 2015

The day they nearly throttled one of the posh boys!

Stamford Bridge . . .  as it looked this week

ON an almost daily basis, matchday or not, football fans from near and far with rucksacks and ill-fitting jeans wander the concourse that encircles the Stamford Bridge stadium, agog at the ostentatious display of wealth and glamour that is Chelsea FC in 2015. There’s a megastore, a museum, restaurants and a luxury hotel to gawp at.

When little Sydney Wooderson travelled with his teenage chums to race inside this stadium in 1931 things were very, very different. The 12-acre site had nothing to amuse or entertain tourists, indeed it was imposing enough to generate waves of fear and nervous tension in those about to perform here. The magnificent gloom of the huge Brompton Cemetery, right next door, won’t have helped in this regard.

This famous corner of West London was the third of my 60 running venues being visited as part of Project Sydney (see * below).

The Stamford Bridge of Sydney’s youth was used for athletics and greyhound racing as well as football. He came here aged 16 to run competitively for the very first time outside a school environment, representing Sutton Valence in the Mile race at the Public School Athletic Championships of April 1931.

Heading into central London to compete against the best boys from other Public Schools was a big deal, and there was added pressure on Sydney. Just three weeks earlier he’d emerged as a real star in the making by winning the school sports' 100 yards, 440 yards, 880 yards and Mile to be named outstanding athlete at his school. He was now well and truly out of the shadow of his elder brother, another fine runner.

But the posh boys from other parts of Britain proved tougher nuts to crack at the Stamford Bridge gathering. Most oozed with the confidence that comes with a privileged upbringing and most looked physically far superior to the likes of Sydney. 

Take Lord John Hope, for example. This lanky figure, two years older than Sydney, roared to a spectacular record-breaking win in the half-mile, cheered on by fellow Etonians among the big crowd. This was a man who would later become a Major in the Scots Guards and Cabinet Minister in Harold MacMillan’s government.

Sydney was among the younger and less experienced runners and it showed when he tackled his mile heat on the heavy cinder track. Reports say he ran “an ill-judged race” and was lucky to qualify for the final thanks to a desperate late sprint to come second behind Tony Leach of Oundle. 

In the final the following day a bitterly cold wind and heavy rain made life miserable out on the track, and although Sydney battled hard he could only manage sixth, Samuel of Watford Grammar winning in 4 mins 37.4. But better days would follow for Sydney at Stamford Bridge. 

A year later he returned for the 1932 Public School champs, finding once again the occasion was marred by heavy rain. By now he’d joined Blackheath Harriers and with a further year’s experience under his belt was shaping into an obvious running star of the future. 

In his heat he qualified for the final by coming second to Sullivan of Shrewsbury with a minimum of fuss. Next day he produced his trademark finishing burst on the home straight but narrowly failed to catch Sullivan again, missing out by barely 12 inches to take the silver medal.

It was a fine effort, but gained him little media attention as most reporters were concentrating on the fact that the championships were the first anywhere to try “an ingenious new invention” – a starting gate for sprint races.

But the new equipment, devised by eminent Cambridge Professor Henry Rottenburg, was hastily withdrawn after just two attempts – on one of which a runner from Oundle false-started and got his neck tangled in tape, nearly throttling himself!

Sydney won the Public Schools mile at the third attempt . . .

For Sydney and the Professor it was a case of back to the drawing board. Sydney would never race again at Stamford Bridge, but in the 1933 Public Schools championships – his third and last – he would get the victory he craved. 

After an intense battle at the White City Stadium with Dennis Pell (Chatham House), and despite a last-lap stumble, Sydney won in a meeting record of 4:29.8 - a world-class time for an 18-year-old. He was hoisted shoulder-high by jubilant schoolmates and it was clear that in this scrawny, bespectacled lad Britain had found a potential world champion.

* 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!

* See also www.robhadgraft.com

Friday, 4 December 2015

'Project Sydney' (2/60): Wartime heartbreak comes to Camberwell

Sydney Wooderson.
ACCORDING to Sir John Betjeman it was “a strangely beautiful place”, a relatively unspoiled haven tucked away in a quiet corner of busy South East London.
The poet was referring to a little Victorian urban park and its adjacent Camberwell streets, the place Sydney Wooderson was born in 1914 to the second wife of a successful fruit and veg merchant.

But the attractions of Myatts Fields Park, which so enchanted Betjeman, were denied Sydney in early childhood. He was born in a smart eight-room Victorian villa exactly 200 yards from the main gates of the park, just a week or two after the start of the 1914-18 Great War. But sadly for him and other local youngsters the park closed after being requisitioned to help the war effort. It became an annexe to the First London General Hospital which was hastily created at the former St Gabriel’s College which loomed tall over the western end of the park. The park accommodated the soaring number of British casualties returning from battle, those men in need of urgent surgery placed in beds that were crammed inside newly-erected wooden huts. Night-duty nurses slept in other huts in the park.
Sydney's Camberwell birthplace.
Many soldiers breathed their last in this little park, and the sombre atmosphere would be heightened on overcast days by the dramatic and brooding presence of the enormous hospital building, formerly a happy place when occupied by carefree college students.

During my visit this week on stage two of ‘Project Sydney’ (see * below) the gates were welcomingly open and the well-kept paths lent themselves nicely to running a few laps of the park. I passed a handsome bandstand, The Little Cat cafĂ© incongruously blasting out Latin American music, and some thoughtful council gardeners doing a fine impression of Monty Don as they discussed design plans.
Sydney was seven years old by the time the park was able to re-open in 1921 for its original use. As he lived so close by, it’s reasonably safe to assume it was here he did the very first running of a life that would be defined by his achievements in the sport. It wouldn’t be long, however, before he’d be packed off out of the capital to the fee-paying public boarding school at Sutton Valence, 50 miles away in deepest Kent.

No doubt he left the family home in nearby Baldwin Crescent with heavy heart. Of considerable comfort would have been the fact elder brother Alfred was already a prominent Sutton Valence pupil, performing well on the sports fields and thus a perfect role model for the shy, quiet, but energetic younger brother.
The family unit had recently comprised his elder half-siblings Violet, Rhoda and George, his brothers Alfred and Stanley, parents George senior and Jeanette Emma, and a domestic servant called Elizabeth Shields.   George, whose fruit and veg business was evidently thriving, had married Sydney’s mum not long after his first wife Caroline died aged just 37 in 1909.  

Their impressive bay-fronted villa (Monteagle House) was part of a well-to-do neighbourhood. In 2015 little has changed in that respect, for I note it is currently undergoing renovations having been purchased not long ago for a price approaching £1 million. And next door to the former Wooderson home is a house once occupied by acclaimed writer Dame Muriel Spark, in which she wrote her first eight novels.

* 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!
Details of other books: www.robhadgraft.com

Friday, 27 November 2015

Serene corner of old England where it all started for Sydney

VEILED by a thin mist, the silence is eerily invaded by the distant sound of the school clock striking 11.

* The only sound was the tolling of the school bell . . .
The glistening playing fields stretch almost as far as the eye can see, but are completely deserted save for a groundsman pottering quietly beside a far-off hedge. Mid-morning on a Thursday is clearly not games time at Sutton Valence, a fee-paying boarding school here in deepest Kent.

Ahead of me sits a fenced-off eight-lane running track, its brick-red synthetic surface and silver kerbing harshly incongruous in this verdant corner of old England. The effect is exaggerated by the strange but irrefutable fact that the track has been built on sloping land. How many runners must have cursed that uphill back straight in the closing laps of a 5 or 10k race?

The track and its attached facilities may be modern, but the rest of the surroundings appears little changed since these fields were the proving ground of a quiet, serious, bespectacled boy destined to become perhaps the mostly unlikely sporting hero this nation has ever seen.

Sydney Wooderson attended Sutton Valence School from 1926 and 1933, where he was largely overshadowed by the prowess of elder brother Alfred, an accomplished runner. For years Alfred was the undisputed star of school sports, but focus began to shift to his little brother on the day Alfred ran 4:49 to smash the school mile record, but only a few yards behind in third place was the tiny figure of Sydney.        

Sydney learned how to race the quarter-mile, half-mile and mile on these Sutton Valence fields, and was introduced to the rugged pleasures of cross country here too. Now that I’ve embarked on the task of writing a book about him, it’s only right I should pitch up and have a run over these field myself.
‘Project Sydney’ is more than just a book, however, it also incorporates my 60th birthday ‘challenge’ which was to run at 60 of the places where Sydney raced during his remarkable career - all to be done while I am 60. This blog will record the progress of the challenge, and the whole thing will not only help keep me fit, but assist with research for the book.

Some of the 60 venues I aim to visit are still used for running, but a number simply won’t exist any more. I fully expect to find cases where they have ‘paved paradise and put up a parking lot’. But that’s not the case today.
Later in the day I must head west from this serene spot to hunker down among the Bromley Central Library archives, where boxes of historical material relating to Sydney’s club Blackheath Harriers await my perusal. So a refreshing run on these fields is a welcome precursor to all that.

As a schoolboy Sydney (pictured) could run a mile in around 4:30 on this very grass, but my little jaunt doesn’t quite match that today. But, of course, I’m not here to emulate his speed but to chalk up the first of my 60 ‘Sydney runs’ of the coming year. ‘Project Sydney’ is safely underway.  
       * PROJECT SYDNEY: It’s a book, a blog and a birthday challenge! Venue 1 of 60 was Sutton Valence School playing fields in Kent, run by S.C.Wooderson during the period 1926-1933 and occasionally later on too.

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 http://amzn.to/1C2BjUK . See also www.robhadgraft.com

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.
 Use this link: http://amzn.to/1C2BjUK