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