Friday, 28 October 2016

Cross-country at school - not always a miserable memory!

ALTHOUGH he made his name circling cinder tracks at high speed, Sydney Wooderson always harboured a deep love of traversing open countryside – either by way of long Sunday walks, or by entering cross-country races.

This love seems to have stemmed from his days attending Sutton Valence School in the inter-war years. The Kent school placed a strong emphasis on sport and regularly sent its boys into the fresh air for cross-country jaunts across the nearby beauty spots of the Weald of Kent. 

* Weald of Kent, viewed from Boughton Monchelsea churchyard.
A lifetime list of Sydney’s races shows that of his first 30 fixtures, all run as a teenager, at least half were cross-country races in this area. My year-long ‘challenge’ to visit and run at 60 of Sydney’s racing venues - in advance of publishing a book about him - took me out here, armed as usual with running shoes, notebook and camera.

The record shows that Sydney’s first four races were all in the colours of Sutton Valence with many of his opponents older than him. All four were won by his elder brother Alfred, the school’s star athlete. Sydney would eventually emerge from Alfred’s shadow in the spring of 1931, aged 16, when he narrowly won a steeplechase of five-and-a-half miles in a time of 32.29.

The biggest conurbation by far in this area is Maidstone, but it would be fully ten years later before Sydney competed in this county town of Kent. It would ultimately amount to five races here, three cross-country battles and two track contests.

Crossing a down-at-heel housing estate, neglected footpaths and barbed wire, I was eventually able to locate the place where he made his Maidstone debut in wartime 1941 – the grass track used by the county’s Police HQ. Representing a combined Army/RAF team, Sydney anchored a medley relay against a Police & Medical Services team. He looked in good shape following recent injury troubles as he set off first over 880 yards, handing the baton to teammate Harold Wickerson and leaving his team well placed. They ultimately won by 20 yards and and the overall event by a big points margin.

* The site of the former track at the Maidstone police HQ grounds.
Sydney's first return to this track came five years later, at the Kent county champs of June 1946. No longer specialising at half-mile and mile, Sydney tested himself in the three miles event and became county top dog by clocking 14:59.2. It was the first county champs since war began nearly seven years earlier, but for Sydney it was more significant as an indicator of good things to come at longer distances.

Next for me was to locate the scene of Sydney’s various heroics in the Gillingham and Chatham area. Back in 1937 he’d made his bow at Gillingham’s United Services Sports ground, successfully defending his county mile title in hot sunshine and on a badly disintegrating cinder track. A relatively modest time of 4:30.8 was all it took to lift the crown, and his well-known electric burst of speed was only required for a brief surge in the second lap in order to establish a good position.

Just a week earlier he’d thrilled a big crowd at the White City, winning the Kinnaird Trophy mile in 4:17.1, but on that occasion conditions were better and the opposition stronger. Despite this, in some quarters of the press disappointment was expressed that Sydney had “only” managed 4.30 at Gillingham. If he was miffed by such criticism, he characteristically didn’t display it publicly, and it was left to the editor of his club’s newsletter to castigate the moaners.

* The old United Services Sports ground at Gillingham.
If any spectators at Gillingham were disappointed by his low-key cruise to victory they only had to wait another year, for the 1938 Southern championships were held at the same ground, and Sydney powered to a brilliant victory in the half-mile (1.56.4) beating title-holder Arthur Collyer into second place. 

Overcoming a gusty wind and poor track conditions, Sydney brushed off an episode of jostling to grab the lead less than 200 yards from home. Checking the progress of the chasing Collyer all the while, he nevertheless flew across the line some eight yards clear as the crowd roared its approval. It was a sensational demonstration of his superiority.

* Sydney Wooderson book on the way; My other biographies on Jim Peters, Arthur Newton, Alf Shrubb, Walter George, 'Deerfoot' and more, all available via Amazon.  Click this link: 

Friday, 21 October 2016

The Brighton adventures of Walter and Sydney

AND so to Preston Park, a substantial 63-acre chunk of recreational space on the edge of trendy Brighton. It’s a place that nowadays hosts the hugely popular Brighton Marathon, but in past decades witnessed the exploits of the most famous track runners and cyclists in the land.

A cinder running track was first laid here more than 100 years ago, sitting rather uncomfortably inside the banked velodrome track which is still there today. British mile legend Sydney Wooderson raced here just once – in the summer of 1937 aged 22 - and put on a memorable and powerful display that belied his tender years and lightweight frame.

My year-long ‘challenge’ to visit and run at 60 of Sydney’s racing venues - in advance of publishing a book about him - took me to Brighton via various places he also passed through late in his running career during annual London-Brighton Relays. Handcross, Hickstead (pic below), Hassocks and Patcham all witnessed his pattering feet on separate occasions as he dutifully swept through these places ‘transporting the baton’ for Blackheath Harriers.

His selfless efforts on behalf of his beloved black-clad London club were admirable, but never was his talent more evident than when he regally cruised around the Preston Park track on Saturday 26 June 1937. On that day he won the Southern AAA championship mile ‘as he pleased’, to coin a phrase of the day.

Clocking laps of 64.5, 64.5 and 65 seconds, he looked in great shape tucked in behind the labouring leaders. Then, 350 yards from the end he suddenly produced that famous 'kick' and surged clear apparently effortlessly, putting in a final lap of 60.6 to win by 10-yards in 4:14.6. It was the best mile by a Brit since his own native record at Chelmsford a year earlier (4:10.8).

The experts reckoned it was only a matter of time before Sydney would set a world mile record – something no British-born runner had done since Walter George 50 years earlier, back when Victoria was on the throne.

W.G.George, a lively character who confessed to liking “a cigar, a drink and a spree” between training runs, had strong links with Brighton himself, having run here and worked as a junior dispensing chemist in the town.

Walter and Sydney were both great milers, but it was there the similarity ended. While Sydney was small, bespectacled, introverted and a diligent city office worker, Walter was a tall, handsome fellow who loved his celebrity status and occasionally strayed into the type of trouble that didn’t befit an athlete of international status. By way of example, here’s just one of many tales about Walter I included in my biography of him, published several years ago:

“One typical episode involved a drunken midnight foot-race along Regent Street in Central London with some pals. Ignoring a bobby’s advice to go home to bed, Walter then trekked through the night to meet a lady-friend in another part of London. This was followed by a hectic morning’s shopping and a lavish lunch in the West End before our hero then bowled merrily into the Lillie Bridge stadium to casually smash a world record!”

I think it’s fair to say Sydney’s build-up to big races tended to be a little more circumspect than Walter’s . . . .

* BEER and BRINE – The Making of Walter George, Athletics’ First Superstar (Author: Rob Hadgraft, Publisher: Desert Island Books; Illustrated 256-page hardback, or as e-book). Available via Amazon - - or direct from the author).

Thursday, 6 October 2016

Mob matches on the Common - very democratic affairs!

* Runners and dogs get thirsty on Wimbledon Common . . .
FOUR Sydney Wooderson race venues ticked off in one hit. And the territory in between covered on foot too. That’s more like it!

One of the aims of my 60th birthday challenge was to knock off some extra training miles, so it was good to be able to park the car for several hours and tread in Sydney’s footsteps through park, heath and woods at Petersham, Wimbledon Common, Roehampton and Putney – all in one long sun-drenched slog on foot.

My research for the book tells me Sydney competed a total of seven times at these four places – club-level events with no particular historical significance. Most interesting of the bunch was a South of Thames cross-country championship that was fixed up during wartime on Wimbledon Common.

* The Dysart Arms opposite Richmond Park - a runners' landmark.
* Into the trees off Putney Heath - an unhappy hunting ground for Sydney.
* Sydney pictured at Petersham in Jan 1940.
The race took place on Saturday 10 February 1940, with Northern Europe in the grip of intensely cold weather. It was five months into the war and people were going about their lives as best they could in the trying circumstances. Hostilities didn’t prevent plenty of sport that weekend, The Times covering football between teams representing The Army and The Empire, a number of rugby fixtures, boxing, rowing, and greyhound racing. And over in SW London, Sydney Wooderson and 98 other runners toed the start-line on Wimbledon Common for the South of the Thames contest.

It was a demanding five-mile route from Belgrave Harriers HQ and 13 men never made it to the finish. Frank Close of Surrey AC took the title, cruising home comfortably after pulling away from Sydney and the others in the first mile. Sydney was not at his fittest and happy to just enjoy the trip, coming in 16th, some 90 seconds behind the winner.

A year later Sydney would return to the same venue and place fifth in another five-miler, this time a contest between his club Blackheath and hosts Belgrave. Once again he was 90 seconds down on the victor, Tom Carter of Belgrave, who looked in a class of his own.

Towards the end of the war in January 1944 a short distance away on the common, close to Roehampton, Blackheath took on the runners of the London Fire Force, Thames Valley and host club Tyrian AC in a 4.5-mile cross-country contest. Sydney, by now in better racing shape, won this ‘mob match’ by a clear 17 seconds.

He’d sampled ‘mob match’ action earlier in the war, running from the popular Dysart Arms, home of Ranelagh Harriers, a spot beautifully positioned near the Thames in Petersham, on the western fringes of Richmond Park. Ranelagh, Orion and South London combined to form a team to take on Blackheath, but Sydney won this 1940 contest handsomely, prompting chatter in the sporting press over whether he might soon forsake track racing altogether and concentrate on becoming a success at cross-country.

Once the war was over Sydney did indeed quit serious track action (after one fabulous ‘farewell’ year) and turned his attentions to cross-country running. In Christmas week of 1946 he returned to the Dysart to help Blackheath to a comfortable victory over Ranelagh on a course of approaching 8 miles. John Poole of the host club won by a good distance, but the rest of the first ten home were all ‘Heathens’ – including a tie for second place between Sydney and teammates Choat, Reynolds and Keepex, who deliberately finished together.

Elsewhere in this fine sector of London, I discovered that Sydney’s only two races in the Putney area came very early in his career and were not happy experiences. As a 17-year-old competing for Sutton Valence in the Ranelagh Public Schools Cup in March 1932, he engineered himself a good position near the front of the pack, but lost all realistic chances of victory when falling and cutting his foot quite badly, continuing on but having to settle for sixth place. Then, in diabolical weather in December 1934 he wore the Blackheath colours in the annual Pelling Ratcliff Cup contest from Putney Heath. He could only manage 37th place on a day when conditions were so bad that the linen numbers on the runners’ vests curled up and became obscured thanks to “all the glutinous substances” that were flying around!

Those Putney races were enough to put a small chap wearing glasses off cross-country for life you’d think - but our Sydney was made of sterner stuff!

* 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, which, conveniently should also help keep me fit and assist with research!

* * NOTE: What is a MOB MATCH? Well, it’s a very ‘democratic’ running event between clubs, the method of scoring meaning virtually every runner – regardless of ability – has the chance to score points. You start by counting the number of runners on each side then take three off the smaller number. For example, if Blackheath had a turnout of 44 runners and Ranelagh 50, then the first 41 home from each club would score. The team with the lower score was the winner (first place counts 1 point, 2nd is 2 etc). So the result is not normally known until the last few tail-enders finish. It’s been going for more than 100 years and still happens here in the 21st century – the idea being invented by Ranelagh and Blackheath for their 1907 annual contest. This became established as the standard scoring method for all mob matches worldwide.