Sunday, 12 January 2014

Over the Orwell Bridge in 1982 - and under it in 2014!

1982's Orwell Bridge half-marathon
A BRAND new 8k cross-country course was unveiled in glorious winter sunshine on Sunday in the shadow of that spectacular edifice on Ipswich’s southern outskirts, the Orwell Bridge.

And as the long line of brightly-coloured runners snaked underneath Europe’s biggest stretch of pre-stressed concrete, I found myself experiencing a sudden dose of déjà vu.

For as I settled into my usual mid-pack position, it suddenly dawned on me this was the first time I’d run in this neck of the woods in more than 31 years!  Back in November 1982 - along with 1,054 others – I’d run over the Orwell Bridge in a half-marathon staged specifically to mark the bridge’s completion.

At that point it hadn’t yet opened to traffic and there was great excitement over this truly amazing feat of engineering that had taken the previous three years to build.  Measuring the course prior to the half-marathon was apparently quite an adventure - David Smith of JAFFA had to climb on scaffolding as the bridge was unfinished then and didn’t quite meet in the middle!

But all was ready on race-day and the pounding of 2,100 running feet certainly gave it a good testing. It was a very cold and very hilly task for all of us, but thankfully the wind was fairly light and nobody was blown into the river below as far as I can recall.

Your correspondent
crosses the bridge in '82
 My employers back then, the Ipswich Evening Star newspaper, sponsored the race and I was still very much a beginner to the sport – still raw enough to be making serious clothing errors (as the picture here proves!).  It was my very first ‘proper’ road race and a group of us from the office were really only taking part for a laugh.   

But it must have been a positive experience, for here I am 31 years later, complete with strapped-up arthritic knee and 27,000 miles on the clock, still chalking up two or three races per month and unable to kick the habit.

Over 1,000 participants at a half-marathon wasn’t particularly unusual in the 1980s, and Suffolk Police reckoned an even higher figure lined the hard shoulder to watch the race. There was traffic chaos in the area and race-starter the Mayor of Ipswich was among those trapped, which delayed proceedings considerably.

The exuberance of youth helped me gallop over the 13.1 miles of virgin dual carriageway in 90 minutes exactly. We went from the Nacton interchange, over the 1,200 metre bridge, to the A12 link and back again. I recall being quite pleased with my time, especially given the fact I was only running once a week at the time, mainly to keep fit for football.  Up ahead we all gazed in wonder at lanky Andy Girling who cruised to victory in 66 minutes.

Nine-hundred-and-fifty races and three decades later, I was back this weekend and wondering how many other Orwell Bridge Half-Marathon Veterans were running in the cross-country contest alongside me. I reckon there must have been one or two, and possibly a few more among the Ipswich JAFFA officials organising the event.

JAFFA have certainly come up trumps with this new course for the annual 53-12 League fixture they always stage. The response to their choice of venue was a record-sized field, I am told. 

And max respect to the Suffolk Food Hall for welcoming hordes of muddy runners onto their premises for the important pre- and post-race activities. 

Back in 1982, the concept of a food hall – a sort of delicatessen sited in the countryside – would have been quite alien to us all. The delicacies on sale this Sunday were rarely, if ever, seen in Suffolk in 1982, I can tell you.  It was bread and dripping back then, plus the odd turnip from a nearby field if we were lucky (Apologies - I think I may have imagined that last bit. Blame post-run tiredness – I am 58 you know).

Runners gather near the bridge again . . . January 2014

* Rob Hadgraft's books on runners of yesteryear now available as e-books for Kindle at £4.99 each. (Via Amazon or