Friday, 23 September 2016

When brothers finish together . . . not just a Brownlee thing!

* The sports fields at Charterhouse.

THE crowded roads of the Surrey commuter belt can be unforgiving when you possess scant knowledge of local shortcuts or traffic hot-spots. Locating race venues around here that were once graced by athletics’ forgotten hero Sydney Wooderson proved a tall order.

However, I managed to find five of them in one trip, an exhausting rigmarole which keeps me ticking along nicely towards the 60 I pledged to visit in 2016. It’s all in the name of research, you see, and also part of my 60th birthday challenge!*

Of course, the original idea was to don running shoes and have a training run at all these venues, take a few photos and collect material for my next book. But, for logistical reasons, I confess the running part has recently been a little curtailed. As my ‘Old Grey Training Log’ will testify, those runs have lately been measured in metres rather than miles. 

But the overall challenge remains alive and well, and here in the affluent Surrey/ Hampshire/ Berkshire triangle I was able to put a tick against venues numbering 29 to 33 on the list of 60. 

Exiting Guildford Cricket Club (see previous blog), I dashed down to the Godalming district to call at famous independent school Charterhouse. The alma mater of my former Sports Editor, this seat of learning was founded in 1611 on the site of a monastery - and the bucolic surroundings still radiate a sense of calm and contemplation even today! 

Sydney raced here three times in his career, all cross-country challenge races involving his club Blackheath Harriers and the school team. In a November 1942 fixture, halfway through the war, Sydney and his younger brother Stanley roared home side by side to claim joint-first in 31 minutes over a course of five miles-plus. Their nearest challenger was schoolboy Trollope, who finished 20 seconds adrift. The Wooderson brothers didn’t finish in any distress, so I’ll refrain from any comparison with last week’s triathlon drama involving the Brownlee boys!

Four years later Sydney ran alone to win the same fixture in a course record of 29:11. Then in December 1947 there was a repeat of the tied first place, but this time involving Sydney and club colleague Humphrey Nunns (29:47).
* The Garrison track at Aldershot.
Out of the school gates and I was off to Aldershot where Sydney took part in the Army track and field championships of 1945 at the Garrison ground beside Queens Road – an impressive venue still very much in use today. Sydney had ended the war serving as a corporal in the REME, but since summer 1944 had suffered from rheumatic fever which led to four months in hospital, where he was warned he’d probably never run again.

But after war ended in May 1945 he proved the doubters wrong and by the time of these Army champs in July felt fully fit again. Despite a stiff breeze he thrilled the assembled spectators at Aldershot, flying home to win the invitation mile in 4:14.8, by a huge margin of 16 seconds. It was an Army all-time record, and his fastest mile in more than a year.
* The RMA at Sandhurst - scene of the 1949 Southern XC champs.
My next port of call was Camberley, home of the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst. In these days of high security it was tough getting a glimpse of the Oak Grove Stadium facilities and surroundings, where Sydney competed several times, both on the track and then over the fields near the end of his celebrated career.

He came here on a chilly February day to run the 1949 Southern Cross-country Championships for the very last time. He was by now 34 and had long since given up track, but still enjoyed helping his club over the country. In a tough 10-mile contest within the grounds of Sandhurst, he came a modest 16th in a time of 57:57, around two-and-a-half minutes behind winner Alec Olney (Thames Valley).  Not one of his better days, but he was still the leading runner from Blackheath, who were grateful he had turned out.

Directly from here it was over to Ascot racecourse, the venue of another Southern Cross-country championships, this in 1947, at which Sydney fared a little better, coming home fifth, a minute or so behind winner Len Herbert of Belgrave. Sydney was smaller and lighter than the majority and his nimble footwork was well suited to the frozen ground on this icy cold day. The wind was bitter and there was further heavy snowfall during proceedings. It wasn’t a day for hanging around, and although he was his usual quiet and polite self, Sydney must have been irritated when the start of the main race was delayed. It was all because the chief official was desperate to get a photo of superstar Sydney but couldn’t locate the photographer for several minutes!
* The racecourse at Ascot Heath - scene of the 1947 Southern XC champs.
 Across Ascot Heath, scene of many a notable horse race meeting, regally patronised and otherwise, Sydney and teammate Monshall ran steadily together throughout the 10-mile contest, well established in the top 15 in a field of nearly 300 runners. With less than a mile to go, Sydney told his teammate he thought he could make up few places, and promptly accelerated away. He passed at least seven men with a wonderful turn of speed to thrill the frozen crowd at the finish-line. It was well worth the effort, for it pushed Blackheath into third place in a fierce team event involving 30 clubs.

 * 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, it should also help keep me fit and assist with research for the book!   

Thursday, 8 September 2016

Lovelock left stunned as teenager Sydney comes of age

* Sydney Wooderson (No.38) pips Jack Lovelock (24) at the post.
ON a scorching Saturday afternoon in the summer of 1934, around 5,000 people eagerly squeezed into the Guildford cricket ground, many only there to see one man - world record miler Jack Lovelock.

To their delight, this 12th staging of the Southern AAA championships would live long in the memory - not because of the run by Kiwi legend Lovelock, but because Britain discovered a new superstar of its own. Step forward a small, bespectacled teenager called Sydney Wooderson!

More than eight decades later, I stopped off at the Woodbridge Road ground as part of my current tour of 60 of Sydney’s race venues (see * below). As I jogged around I tried to imagine how nervous and inhibited the young Sydney must have felt all those years ago, arriving here for the biggest race of his life thus far, and seeing the size of the expectant crowd. 

Sydney had emerged as a real talent just three weeks earlier when he won the Kent county mile title at Belvedere. However, the talent on show here in Guildford was a whole new world for this mild-mannered little runner from South London. Before the mile race his chances of doing well were boosted when the news broke that 27-year-old Olympian and Welshman Reg Thomas would not be defending his title. However, this good news was countered by the controversial decision to allow 28 men to run the mile final. In addition to the stifling heat, this was going to be one crowded race!
* Guildford cricket ground in 2016.

The grass track was in good condition but with such a big field it proved a slow start. By halfway (two laps in 2:07.4), L.R.Pearce had settled in front with 22-year-old Aubrey Reeve tight on his heels. At the bell Jerry Cornes took the lead with Lovelock close behind him. Reeve was content to stay third until the top bend when he surged to the front with 200 yards to go, and opened a winning lead. It was the race of his life and he came home in 4:14.8, beating his personal best by more than six seconds. 

Lovelock, looking rather stunned, had worked hard to chase Reeve down the home straight but couldn’t get there. As he approached the line and it became clear he was a beaten man, there was an even bigger shock in store as Sydney finished with an incredible burst and flew past to narrowly take second place right on the line. He and Lovelock were both given a time of 4:15.2, a personal best for Sydney by an astonishing 12.2 seconds.

The crowd was buzzing for ages after this thriller, and subsequent track and field events felt anti-climactic. The pressmen in attendance frantically compiled reports hailing the dramatic arrival of these two great new hopes for Britain in the mile, Reeve and youngster Wooderson. 

In 2008 the personal journals of Jack Lovelock were published in New Zealand in book form by David Colquhoun, and these provide a fascinating insight into how Lovelock reacted to his shock defeat. Runners are notorious for finding all sorts of reasons to explain poor performance, and the 24-year-old charismatic Lovelock was no exception. He cited the fact that before the race he’d had a tiring week of exams at Oxford University, where he was studying medicine on a Rhodes scholarship.

He wrote: “[The week] left me very tired indeed. I had reckoned that a 4:19 would be good enough to win judging on current form, and was amazed to find two comparitively unknown milers doing around 4.15. The day was scorching hot with no appreciable wind and the track really good fast grass. 

* All quiet in 2016 . . . Guildford Cricket Ground.
 “At the bell [Cornes] went into the lead moving very fast and powerfully. I followed on his heels but 220 from home he slackened and Reeve passed us. I foolishly let him go, thinking Jerry would respond and not wanting to be forced wide by Jerry on the bend. But Jerry had had enough, a fact which I realised only when Reeve had a 12-yard lead on me. Then I did move out and around Jerry but it was too late and not only did I fail to make up the last three yards, but tailed off so much that I was myself caught by Wooderson on the tape.”

Lovelock, not surprisingly, seemed embarrassed at being beaten in a high-profile race by two relative unknowns, thanks at least partly to his tactical gaffe. It was a big wake-up call for the popular Kiwi and a breakthrough race Sydney Wooderson would never forget.
Interviewed in old age, Sydney would look back and name Guildford as one of the best six performances of his glorious 20-year career. 

* 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, it should also help keep me fit and assist with research for the book!