I have mentioned in a past blog the joys of cross-country running at Roundhay School. I can’t say that it was ever something I looked forward to. As a teenage smoker, I am sure that that didn’t help, but it was an integral part of the winter sport timetable. The boys could be split into three groups: runners, non-runners and those who should never attempt it. At least I was in the non-runner group and could manage a shuffle most of the way around, apart from the stop-off in Roundhay Park gorge to have a fag. I have mentioned how teachers like IRKS would set us off and then stand on the steps by Roundhay Mansion, a pint and a fag in hand. Oh, what examples they set!
Some of my friends were truly good runners, but even they struggled to keep up with the stampede across the Soldiers’ Field that happened after we were set off. It always made me laugh to see the unfit collapse with stitches, lack of breath and energy long before they reached the top of Hill Sixty. Those with any sense set their own pace and soon left the lemmings behind. I assume that those at the front knew where they were going, but I was just happy to follow their lead, much further back. On competition days it was more organised and a member of staff would stand on the Ring Road and direct us off along the other side of the road as we headed towards Shadwell, usually Joe Wareham. Health and safety would nowadays have some concern about streams of runners crossing such a busy and fast road, but then it was survival of the fittest, a la Darwin. Winners got medals, but I never challenged anyone for one of those and was happy to get a decent place for Kelvin House.
After leaving Roundhay in 1973, running, or jogging as it was called then, became a fad in the USA and entered the UK. Running the streets made businesses such as Nike, Adidas, Puma and countless others fortunes. Just out of interest, Adidas was owned by German brothers, Adi and Rudy Dasler, but they fell out in 1947 and Rudy left and formed Puma. Jogging, much like aerobics, became the fitness activities to be seen to do. Apart from the footwear, there was also the clothing to go with it and I hate to think how much I have spent on sportsgear over the years.
In 1981, I had a job in Wakefield, teaching at Lawefield Middle School, 9 to 13 year olds. It was quite a large school at the time and had a young staff. A group of us used to play badminton in the gym one evening a week and later go for a drink in a local pub. Whilst on one of these sessions, another teacher, Steve H, saw some leaflets at the bar for the Wakefield Half Marathon in 1982. The event was about six months or so off. He brought a handful back to us, with the round of drinks and handed them out. “I challenge you all to do it,” he said. We had probably had at least two pints at this point and so without really thinking too much about it, we all said yes and pocketed the leaflets and entry forms.
At this time, I had been recently married and we had just bought a new house on Pinders Heath, opposite Pinderfields Hospital. At the end of our short cul-de-sac were fields that led down to the River Calder and there were some lovely footpaths and bridleways. There were also vast areas of strawberry fields. This was the ‘pick your own’ time and in season the area was busy. The day after getting the entry form, I filled it in and posted it, and the cheque, off. I thought I’d better give running a go. I had stopped smoking when my first son was on the way, so I hadn’t been stopped long. I hadn’t run since Roundhay School days, but I had played badminton, soccer and tennis, so I thought I was reasonably fit and should be OK. I only had a pair of squash/badminton shoes, but I assumed that they would be fine. I set off, ran down to the footpath and headed along the hedge-lined track. I knew not to go too fast and just took it steady. It was all downhill so I enjoyed the trip to the river. There were the ruins of houses at the bottom. The houses were demolished, but the gardens were still there lining the roads, overgrown, but clearly showed the remains of past endeavours. Roses, apple trees, shrubs of all kinds were now overgrown with brambles and waist-high grass. It was delightful, until I turned to head back up towards home. Things were much more challenging and I got quite a sweat on, but managed to get back without stopping. Success, I thought, but I realised I had run for about fifteen minutes and thirteen miles was a much greater distance. I knew the answer was repeated running and so I would go out after work or at weekends regularly. The hardest step for a runner is the first one and getting out the door could see all sorts of excuses, but to my own credit, I never once missed. After about two weeks, I started to improve and it did get easier, but then I started getting very sore shins. I had read a few running magazines by this point and the adverts and articles championed having good running shoes. The problem was, these were an expense we could do without. We used to shop at Rothwell and there was a small sports shop and in the window I saw a pair of running shoes, Inter was the make. They were cheap, but had thick soles very different from my thin-soled pumps. I managed to convince my wife of the need for them and so in I went in and came out with the said shoes.
They made a real difference and within a few days the pain had gone and I actually started to enjoy running. I even got some of my old Leeds’ friends to start running and John, from the band and others became runners and would come over and we would run along Aberford Road past Stanley and Bottom Boat until we got to the M62 roundabout, turned around and retraced our steps all the way back. John and I decided that we should do a race in preparation for the Wakefield Half Marathon and we entered the Escafeld Veterans A.C. Younger’s Kestrel Lager Half Marathon. Now, I have no idea why we chose a half marathon in preparation for a half marathon rather than a shorter race, but we did, and it was a relatively small event on country roads. The day came and we lined up with the other, many very capable runners, and when the starting gun went off we followed the pack. I can’t remember the time we did it in, but we stayed together and just paced ourselves. I remember we finished without walking, which was our aim and the finish line couldn’t have come sooner. We didn’t get a medal, but a cloth badge, which I still have.
Needless to say, this didn’t put us off and the day of the Wakefield Half Marathon was approaching. The badminton players had all backed out by this point and I was the only one of us to do it. It was a large event and hundreds if not thousands did it. I remember we passed Sandal Castle on the route and it was quite hilly, but again I finished it, got a medal and my love of running was cemented. What I liked was the peace, the countryside, the lack of competition with anyone other than yourself. I will come back to running in another tale later, but running became a real compulsion. Despite what people think, it never becomes easy, as the fitter you get the harder you push yourself. The challenge is always on for longer distances, faster times and scenic runs.
The next big challenge became full marathons, but in 1986 I moved the family to work in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea. I wanted excitement and the job running a small International School of around eighty children was one that my wife and I wanted. We had one son at the time and knew very little about the country we would be part of for three years. We arrived after a thirty-eight hour journey from Heathrow, exhausted and culture shocked, but it was the start of three exciting, wonderful and sometimes dangerous years. Originally, we should have been living on the school grounds, but the house wasn’t fit, so we were housed on a mission hospital, Kudjip. The missionaries were mainly American, but there were one or two Australians and one English lady. They made us very welcome, despite our not sharing their religious beliefs, and I was invited to run with a couple of doctors and a male nurse. We would set out in the early morning, about 6.30am, when it was light and we would run off the campus, along dirt tracks through the rain forest and up into the foothills.
We had done the run once or twice and nothing had happened until one morning we headed off. The air was cool, as we were five thousand feet above sea level, which made running much harder. There was a bit of mist and the forest was coming alive with bird calls and frogs. One of them sounded just like a chain saw. Anyway, as we started the climb up into the hills we passed a grass hut. They were grass huts with woven walls and thatched roofs. As we passed, six men staggered out with beer bottles in their hands. They were unsteady on their feet and in the other hand they carried axes. Now, this wasn’t unusual in PNG. Most men and many women carried axes or machetes. They were used as tools as well as weapons for protection.
The men were startled by us and we quickly passed them. We were a little concerned, as we knew we would have to return the same way, but no one said anything. We reached the limit of our course and turned and headed back downhill. The area was deserted, and as we approached the hut we were a little edgy and as the hut came in sight, even more so, as the six men were arranged in a line across the road. They were still bleary-eyed from drinking all night and unsteady, but they clearly were waiting for us. I was unsure what to do, but the others were experienced and had lived here for some time. The doctor in front greeted the six, waved and smiled. The response from our prospective ‘rascals’ was to immediately smile back and wave to us. It appeared to be a reflex action and this, with the fact that we were dressed in running shorts and t-shirts and clearly weren’t carrying anything of value, prompted them to part and allow us to run through. It was with great relief that we arrived back at the hospital, but it put us off early-morning runs.
I didn’t give up though, as after six months I moved onto another mission, CLTC, which was an agricultural and religious college. This was a vast campus and I used to run on the grounds with a New Zealand vet. He was so fit that it put me to shame. He wanted me to run with him, but he would sprint off and then run back and off again. This did nothing at all for my ego, and to crown it all, I found him doing push-ups when I finally caught up with him. My excuse was that I wasn’t used to the altitude, but it was feeble. He was just so much better.
After three years, I returned to England and continued to run in Yorkshire. I did the Leeds Marathon, Humber Bridge Marathon, Bolton Marathon and Manchester Marathon. I tried to get on the London one, but was never selected.
I continued running here in Western Australia and have done a number of runs in Perth, but now I mostly run on the treadmill at the gym. I still do half an hour running each morning, which keeps me fit and is great for getting rid of stress.