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!   

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