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!