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.

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