Tuesday, 19 January 2016

The XC show must go on - whatever the weather!

THERE was a time when snow and ice were NOT regarded with horror by organisers and runners of cross-country races. Before the 1947 English National champs, for example, nobody fretted about health and safety protocol – they simply bunked off work and set off for the Hertfordshire venue a day early!

Winter 1946-7 was the harshest in living memory and Britain shivered under a blanket of snow for weeks. Post-war austerity and rationing made matters even worse. But all this misery only fuelled the determination of runners to go ahead with their regular weekend fun. The show must go on, whatever the weather.

The start of the 1947 National XC at Apsley.

Ten slippery miles of hills, snow, ice and slush awaited the 300 brave souls who beat snow drifts and treacherous roads to get to that 1947 race at Apsley, near Hemel Hempstead. But getting there was the hardest part, not the run itself! Of the 50 teams signed up, 17 of them failed to make it through the snow. Some – including the crack Tipton squad – did reach the venue intact but were too late to take part.

A good number of the missing men were star runners of that era. This opened things up for unsung heroes to make a name for themselves.  After all, the first ten would automatically represent England in the international champs in Paris later on. Many in the sport believed normal rules shouldn’t apply because of all the absentees at Apsley, but the magazine ‘Athletics’ said runners who got stranded en route only had themselves to blame as there had been frequent warnings about roads being impassable.

Sydney Wooderson (No.41) among the leaders.
European 5,000 metres champion and famous miler Sydney Wooderson was one of those who did make it to Apsley, and his all-black Blackheath kit contrasted sharply with the sparkling snowy surroundings. Sydney was now 32, his best track days behind him, but he loved cross-country and still relished club events. The race – four laps of 2.5 miles – started and ended in lower Shendish Park, close to Apsley Mills and the Grand Union Canal. This setting represented the 7th of 60 race venues that make up my 2016 ‘Project Sydney’ (see * below).

Reading AC’s Bertie Robertson was in a class of his own, forging a big lead on the first lap, eventually coming home in 59 mins 18 secs, some 300 yards clear of Blaydon’s Matt Smith. Little Wooderson – his spectacles misted up and his black vest shimmering with frost – was seventh. A total of 276 men made it over the finish line.

The sleep-deprived Northern champions Sutton Harriers were the real stars of the day though. They had motored down to Apsley agonisingly slowly through the night, grabbing a couple of hour's sleep in the Shendish Park changing rooms just before the race’s scheduled start. They sprang from their makeshift beds when called, and roared to a highly commendable team victory.

(Possibly) The hut where Sutton bedded down before the race!
I mentioned this story on social media last week and it struck a chord with many runners who recalled the ‘good old days’ when races were rarely, if ever, cancelled due to bad weather.

Michael Fuller (Hercules Wimbledon) told me: “No way would it be allowed to take place these days. Imagine the horror if somebody fell over!” 

Vic Maughn (Herne Hill) added: “From a tough, hilly snow-covered course in 1947, to the present day where at world level it’s run on almost bowling green conditions with fake hills and the occasional log to jump over just to make it slightly harder! No wonder most present day athletes can't match or come close to what was done in the past.”

Meanwhile, runner Gary Rush from Ontario helpfully pointed out that the snow at Apsley in 1947 would have represented “a mere dusting” for any Canadian runners!

The 1947 race route past Shendish House, pictured in 2016.
* 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!


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