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! 

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