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).

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