Monday, 25 April 2016

Record bid foiled by a track with a 'hill' on the back straight!

* Kodak of Harrow in 2016 - the former sports field in the foreground.
WAR was on the horizon, the July weather was a big disappointment, and Sydney Wooderson well beaten in a race on a dodgy track. Not a weekend to remember for our hero when he visited the Harrow area in summer 1939.

The annual Kodak Sports were staged on the photographic company’s sportsfields beside their huge factory which in those days dominated the NW London skyline just down the road from Harrow and Wealdstone train station.

I visited the site on my year-long tour of Sydney Wooderson race venues (see * below) and was confronted by an industrial wasteland. Kodak has been slowly downsizing over recent years and the massive site is being redeveloped. The factory and its recreational area flourished for much of the 20th century but in the new digital world Kodak is apparently no longer the big player it once was in these parts. As each day goes by the sportsfields and old clubhouses disappear bit by bit as the workmen get busy.

Sydney came here with a host of other top London runners on Saturday 22 July 1939, his name pencilled down for the 1,000 yards handicap race. The gossip suggested he would be attempting to set a new British record at this distance.

The weather was dull for the time of year, overcast with precious little sunshine. In his black Blackheath running kit, Sydney set off from the scratch mark at precisely 2.30pm, his nine opponents all given starts of up to 50 yards.

Sydney was of course world mile record-holder at this point, and the handicapper’s adjustments looked like they might conjure up a close finish. A good crowd had gathered and Sydney was, as usual, the centre of attention before, during and after the race.

But the chances of this gathering witnessing a new record were distinctly unlikely in Sydney’s eyes, for he’d become aware the long back straight of the track was actually uphill – its top bend some six feet higher than the lower bend! Although this ‘hazard’ was the same for all ten men, it wouldn’t be much help in the battle with the clock.

The pace looked hot in the opening quarter-mile and just before two laps were completed Sydney was close to overhauling the Watford Harrier Arthur Collyer, who had started 10 yards ahead of him. But Collyer responded well to the ‘Mighty Atom’ breathing down his neck and held him off.

By this time Eddie Sears of Essex Beagles (25-yard start) had a good lead and any chance of catching him disappeared when it became clear on the final lap that Sydney was either unable, or unwilling, to throw in his customary late sprint. Sears clocked a finish of 2:11.1, Collyer 2:13.9 and Sydney - having run the entire 1,000 yards - a slightly disappointing 2:14.5. He’d fallen well short of the GB record of 2:11.2 set by Cyril Ellis (Birchfield Harriers) at Stamford Bridge ten years earlier.

* Sydney found himself starting all alone off scratch . . . . 
It’s highly likely that Sydney’s natural reticence and gentlemanly conduct will have prevented him from complaining about the dodgy track - but at least the unusual undulations gave this race something to remember it by!

An injury four days later would mean this was Sydney’s final weekend of competitive running before war was declared with Germany. As a 25-year-old just short of his prime, the war would rob him of Olympic glory and even greater fame.

    * ‘Project Sydney’ is more than just my forthcoming book about the running career of forgotten British hero Sydney Wooderson. It also incorporates my 60th birthday ‘challenge’ - to visit and 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. Conveniently, it will help keep me fit as well as assist with the research for the book!

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Desperately Seeking Sydney ..... at the Ponders End fete!

The Ponders End AC track as it is today - finish-line just to the left as you go in!

EVEN Adolf Hitler and his Luftwaffe couldn’t stop the Ponders End annual Fete & Gala taking place in a leafy corner of NE London in the summer of 1940.

And that was good news for runners and sports fans. For amid the coconut shies and home-baked cake stalls, a regular highlight of the big day would be the programme of races put on by Ponders End Athletics Club.

Since the 1920s the club had used a cinder track in Durant’s Park in Enfield for training and racing. So whenever the park’s annual Fete & Gala came along, the club gave the big crowds some races to watch. Many of southern England’s best runners would grab a slice of the action.

In July 1940 the war had been underway for almost a year, but the fete organisers saw no reason to cancel their popular event and there was general approval when the go-ahead was announced. The first Nazi daylight raids in Britain began that very same week, a prelude to what became known as The Blitz later on. By the end of that summer more than 1,000 British civilians had been killed by bombings, sparking Churchill’s War Cabinet to give Bomber Command the order to attack Berlin.
While all this was brewing, Fete & Gala chairman Charlie Baker – a colourful character who once worked in a circus himself - stuck two metaphorical fingers up at Hitler, saying the show must go on, and assembled a massive programme of track and field athletics.

As start-time approached on Saturday July 6, however, the rain bucketed down to such an extent the whole thing was put in jeopardy. Luckily the weather improved just in time and athletes and public headed for Durant’s Park in big numbers.
One of the top attractions was Sydney Wooderson, world mile record holder and Britain’s favourite running hero. Sydney was available to participate having recently quit the London Auxiliary Fire Service after a row with his boss over taking time off for running engagements. Being seriously short-sighted, Sydney didn’t qualify for regular duty with the Army, RAF or Navy - but he was keen to help the war effort and a week or two after the Ponders End races would join the home-based Army Pioneer Corps.

Since he’d quit the fire service in May, Sydney had kept his fitness level high, and the Ponders End races represented his eleventh athletics meeting in just seven weeks. He signed up for two inter-county races that day, winning the half-mile (880 yards) comfortably in 1:56.4, and the mile untroubled in 4:30, wearing the colours of Kent.
My own recent visit to Durant’s Park saw another venue ticked off on my tour of Sydney Wooderson race venues (see * below).

Sydney . . . not the prettiest, but a hero nonetheless

The now-hidden cinder track peeps through!
The site within the park of the now-defunct Ponders End AC cinder track was easy to find even though it’s been disused for years. It is covered in rough grass now, although I stumbled across a small hole where evidence of the old cinders could be seen. I did my customary run in Sydney’s footsteps, coming down the former six-lane home straight somewhat slower than he would have done. This was partly due to persistent virus I’ve carried around of late!
* ‘Project Sydney’ is more than just my forthcoming book about the running career of forgotten British hero Sydney Wooderson. It also incorporates my 60th birthday ‘challenge’ - to visit and 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. Conveniently, it will not only help keep me fit, but assist with the research for the book!