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. 

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