Monday, 8 February 2016

The ghost of a forgotten hero?

WAS this the ghost of Sydney Wooderson?
I spotted the elderly runner chugging slowly but surely across blustery Chingford Plain in splendid isolation on a bright but chilly afternoon. Perhaps he was reliving past glories here on the edge of Epping Forest, recalling colourful camaraderie and muddy battles of his running youth?

I did a double take. From 100 yards away he certainly looked like Sydney. But, hang on, this was surely no ghostly apparition . . . if Sydney was to pay a return visit to this mortal coil wouldn't he be far more likely to do a few paranormal circuits at the sites of his most famous races - say White City, or maybe Motspur Park?

Research for my book on Sydney is coming along well, with some prominent people proving very helpful. And my visit to Epping Forest – an excellent running area I get to all too rarely - meant another ‘Project Sydney’ venue ticked off the list of 60 that must be trod this year by my trainer-clad feet.

Our hero raced here, hosted by Orion Harriers AC, four times in his short but glorious war-interrupted career. In all four he was clad in the black vest of Blackheath Harriers, the last being a ‘mob match’ in 1950 that was his very last serious race, apart from a couple of relatively minor closed club affairs.
The most notable of his quartet of appearances came 18 months after the start of the 1939-1945 war - the Southern Counties Inter-team Championships, contested by a dozen clubs over 7.5 miles.

At that point it had proved a strange winter for runners from the London area. The 1940-41 cross-country season opened while the capital was being heavily bombed by the Nazis every night – but the show went on, despite reduced numbers and depleted teams.
One of Sydney’s clubmates reflected back on this: “It seemed improbable the season could be successful and yet a few people turned out regularly and despite the conditions some of the old winter enjoyment was experienced. There were, of course, servicemen visiting HQ on their leave glad to find that one of the old well-loved things [running] remained.”

This show of bulldog spirit among the running clubs led to plenty of races being staged at the start of 1941 and Sydney managed to get time off from his duties as a corporal in the Army’s Pioneer Corps to race in three of them as he built towards the season’s finale, the Southern champs at Chingford on Saturday March 22.
Races at this venue were adjacent to Orion HAC’s splendid and imposing HQ, the Royal Forest Hotel (still open today) and its neighbouring royal hunting lodge. Just a few weeks before the Southerns, 26-year-old Sydney had also run here, coming joint-first in a club ‘mob match’ with colleague Harry Thompson. Despite dreadful weather and a sea of mud underfoot, one of the keenest spectators that day was his dear old mum!

When Sydney ran here the threat came from something a bit bigger! 
On the big day the press hyped up the Southern race of 95 men as a confrontation between track mile champion Sydney and off-road ace Tom Carter (Belgrave), unbeaten in his last ten races over the country. But while these two contenders worried about each other, Eastleigh’s Reg Gosney would nip in to win by a few yards from Carter, Sydney breathing hard back in fifth. Local club Woodford Green proved top dogs in the team contest.
London was still being heavily bombed over this period, but that day’s racing provided a few hours’ pleasant distraction before the return to grim daily life.

* 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 with the research for the book!

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