Friday, 19 August 2016

The tour continues . . . . Sydney gets a taste of northern exposure

* Sydney in his pomp - and Worsley fields as they are now.

SOON after athletics had settled back into near normality after the Second World War, the sport’s big-wigs made a ground-breaking decision regarding the Inter-Counties cross-country champs.

For the very first time the North of England was awarded the privilege of hosting this showpiece! Grange Farm at Worsley, on the outskirts of Manchester, was the chosen venue. To welcome those ‘southern softies’ the locals laid on plenty of rain and mud!

On Saturday 15 January 1949, after completing his working week in a central London office, Sydney Wooderson jumped on a special breakfast-time train from Euston, along with four colleagues from Blackheath Harriers and dozens of others representing other southern counties.

They were met at Manchester’s Piccadilly station by a fleet of buses which ferried them to Worsley Secondary Modern School. Here the runners were pleased to find what one Blackheath man called “Excellent changing and washing accommodation” – although he did follow up this compliment with a dig about the “traditional Manchester weather” as the rain continued to tip down!

I had to pore over several maps to locate the area they used for the race, before visiting this spot as part of my 2016 nationwide tour of Sydney Wooderson race venues*.

* The M60 blasts through where Sydney and pals once ran.

It was quite tricky trying to picture the scene at Grange Farm back in January 1949 as the weather on my visit was warm and dry and there was barely another person in sight as I scanned the horizon – merely the unrelenting buzz of traffic from the point nearby where the M60 and M602 motorways meet.

Although the Inter-Counties race had never been this far north until 1949, the last English National before the war had in fact been on this very course. Runners who recalled that race said conditions were appalling that day in 1939, but that ten years later things were even worse.

The Inter-Counties involved four laps of roughly 1.75 miles each to negotiate, slippery the whole way with countless areas of deep, thick mud. It was a severe test for everyone and the race developed into a rather uneventful slog. Men were strung out in a long procession, apparently more intent on survival than overtaking people ahead.

Although Sydney, the reigning national champion, was famously light on his feet, this was a course not even he could have enjoyed. One suspects his motivation on a day like this was not at its highest. His star was clearly on the wane by the beginning of 1949: he’d achieved virtually all he wanted to in running, and at the age of 34 a more settled life in the suburbs bringing up a family was beckoning.

A year earlier, in January 1948, he’d won the Kent cross-country title and a fortnight later was third in the Inter-Counties, but this time round he was fourth and seventh, respectively, in the equivalent races. He’d already retired from track racing by now, and many observers suspected he’d also be hanging up the cross-country spikes soon.

Home county Lancashire ran like men inspired at Worsley – their six scorers all among the first 20 past the post. They won the team prize comfortably, with Sydney’s Kent team back in fourth. Sydney himself clocked a time of 49 minutes dead for the seven-mile course, some 45 seconds behind winner Ron Williams (Lancs). Sydney had never featured at the front end of the race and the only real drama of the day came when Williams burst past Alec Olney (Middlesex) and Geoff Saunders (Lancs) in the final few yards to snatch victory.

On the long train journey back to London Sydney must have contemplated the fact that conditions had been so tough his average pace had been only seven-minutes-per-mile – almost certainly his slowest in any serious race since boyhood. Was a great career coming to an end?

* 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! 

* Still some green and pleasant spots 67 years later!

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