Friday, 26 August 2016

The BBC legend who idolised Sydney and slept with his trophy!

* Sydney Wooderson won the first Manchester Mile, David Coleman the sixth.
NEARLY halfway through my tour of Sydney Wooderson race venues and the chance arose to visit Fallowfield Stadium in Manchester. It’s a spot steeped in sporting history, but there was no point in punching the name into the Satnav for it was demolished 40 years ago!

The old ground proudly staged top-class athletics and cycling for many years, as well as the 1893 FA Cup final. It stood on what is now University of Manchester land, sited between the huge hall of residence known as Owens Tower and the rather more attractive Firs Pavilion. 

In the summer of 1939 a landmark athletics promotion here at Fallowfield pulled in a big crowd who watched awestruck as Sydney Wooderson became the first man ever to run three quarter-mile laps in under three minutes. He set a world record of 2:59.5 in the process and confirmed his status as favourite for 1500 metres gold at the forthcoming 1940 Tokyo Olympics. Sadly war intervened a few months later and those Games never happened.

* Fallowfield Stadium in 1976, shortly before demolition.
It was a hot day for the three-quarter mile race and the Fallowfield track sparkled in pristine condition. The other four runners shot off at lightning pace, Sydney sheltering behind them in pre-arranged fashion. He completed 440 yards in 57.9 seconds, and on the middle lap moved into second place, passing the half-mile in two minutes exactly.

The pacemakers were doing a sterling job and halfway through the third and final lap Sydney lengthened his stride to surge past leader Kierans (Salford Harriers) in dramatic fashion. He came home with a 15-yard lead and, more importantly, beat his own world best by 1.34 seconds. The crowd went wild.

According to the Daily Telegraph: “It was one of the greatest efforts Wooderson has made in his career, and no man could have put more into his final running than he did after coming into the last bend.”  

* Sydney Wooderson turns on the style at Fallowfield in June 1940.
Sydney stayed overnight locally after the race and the following morning left for New York by ship from Liverpool, accompanied by his coach, the Olympian Albert Hill. Amid great fanfare he was off to tackle the best Stateside runners in the famous Princeton ‘Mile of the Century’ contest. The trip would take around five days and the only training he would manage on board would be gentle jogging on rubber matting laid on the promenade deck. 
Sydney would tackle a further four races over a five-year period at Fallowfield Stadium. His wartime return here in June 1943 would be to contest the inaugural ‘Manchester Mile’, which he also won in style. This race grew into a popular annual event and the 1949 winner would be 23-year-old David Coleman, a reporter on the Stockport Express and member of Stockport Harriers. Coleman, of course, later quit running through injury and went on to become a legendary BBC commentator. He was so overjoyed at emulating his sporting hero Sydney Wooderson at the Manchester Mile that he confessed to taking the trophy to bed with him afterwards!

The race was revived in 2014 and I was able to take part myself in the 2016 edition. It took place just an hour or two after my visit to nearby Fallowfield. Now that’s what I call good timing! It was a highly enjoyable evening’s racing, even though I’m now far too ancient to threaten my mile PB of 4 mins 46 secs. The track and conditions at Sportcity were superb, but when your PB is 25 years old you can be fairly sure it’s unbreakable!   
By coincidence, that mile PB was set exactly 25 years ago today (August 26, 1991), when my running ‘career’ was in its eighth year. A quarter of a century later, there’ll certainly be no more lifetime PBs to celebrate . . . so thank goodness somebody dreamed up the age-group system!

* PROJECT SYDNEY is more than just my forthcoming book about the forgotten British champion Sydney Wooderson. It also incorporates my 60th birthday ‘challenge’ – which was 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, the challenge should also help keep me fit and assist with research for the book! 

* Fallowfield track is long gone, but neigbouring Firs Pavilion remains in 2016.

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