Dr Ron Hill : 'if only i'd..'

 

Author: Michael Crawley

‘I never wanted to reach a stage in my life where I would look back and say “If only I’d…” I was going to do it, and what I didn’t achieve wouldn’t be through lack of trying.’

Say you didn’t get out for a run today. You had a bit of a cold or a bit of soreness somewhere, or the day just got away from you and you didn’t quite fit it in. So you start tomorrow and decide to run every day, for at least a mile. If you wanted to break Ron Hill’s record for consecutive days of running, you would have to run every single day until August 2073. Your run streak would likely see ten Prime Ministers elected and replaced. It would definitely end in a world very different to the one in which it started.

During Ron’s competitive years, one run a day was enough only on a Sunday, and he often had to be creative to fit in his two daily sessions. Even his ‘rest’ periods involved twice-a-day running, although the runs were reduced to 2 miles at a time. If that meant running home after nine pints at the office Christmas party, then that’s what he would do, veering into hedgerows on his way. If it meant waiting until one minute past midnight to squeeze in a run before travelling (ensuring it was technically on a new day) then that’s what he would do. If it meant jogging for six minutes on the scorching hot tarmac of Karachi during his plane’s layover en route to the Tokyo Olympics then he would get his run in that way.

In the first volume of his autobiography, he describes staying in the Windsor hotel in London before travelling to the Mexico Olympics in 1968:

It was 11.30pm. when I checked into a shared room with Lynn Davies, Mike Bull and Andy Todd. I bet they thought I was a bit mad as I changed into my running gear, waited until just after midnight, just into Monday in fact, then went out for a 5-mile dark, leaf-fallen run round the perimeter of Hyde Park; my first session of the day. I got a pint bottle of milk off Bob, the porter, drank this, cleaned my teeth and was in bed for 1.15. At 8 o’clock, the same morning, I was out for a 9 mile run round Hyde Park; after that I could relax on my long journey, safe in the knowledge that my two daily sessions were complete. I’d run twice a day, with once on Sundays, ever since the Tokyo Olympics four years previously, without missing one run. I wasn’t going to start now.’

The two volumes of ‘The Long Hard Road,’ subtitled ‘Almost to the Top’ and ‘To the Peak and Beyond’ represent what Ron describes as ‘a small piece of history, a detailed account of a running career, an account it is unlikely any runner could emulate.’ There is nothing ‘small’ about this particular piece of history, though – the books total 828 pages. Ron’s was a career that could not be contained in a single volume. To read them is to be overwhelmed by the intensity of his approach to running and life.

Of 1962 he writes that ‘I became a fanatic for training and racing. In forty weeks I had 64 races, once competing as many as 4 times in one week.’ He kept up this intensity for many years, and the books are peppered with incredulous outbursts like, ‘I didn’t race for nine days!’ When he turned up at the Pendle Fell race in 1964 and heard that it was cancelled because of deep snow, he phoned the race organiser. ‘Look, Stan,’ he said. ‘You’d better get over here. Almost everyone has turned up and we want a race.’ Needless to say, the race went ahead, even though it required wading through deep snow drifts in places. His powers of recovery were nothing short of astonishing. He writes of the 1964 Poly Marathon, in which he ran under the old World Best with 2.14.12: ‘That marathon took some getting over. For three days I was stiff.’ Three days?!

When I spoke to Dave Bedford about Ron he noted that it was relatively normal to run 30-35 races a year in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Dave recalls often running 5 or 6 miles to a race, before competing and running home again. What is clear from Ron’s books though was that he was willing to turn out for the club even when he was seriously unfit or under the weather. Whilst he is remembered primarily for his marathon running today, to Bedford he was the ‘consummate cross country runner,’ and both he and another former Great Britain teammate Max Coleby recall the same race in particular, the National Cross Country in Sheffield in 1966.

The race came down to a battle between Ron and Mike Turner. Max was watching it after running the junior race himself. ‘I remember seeing them reappear out of the trees at the top of the course with about half a mile to go. The two of them were going absolutely hammer and tongs the whole way, flat out with their eyes shut. At the finish you couldn’t tell who’d won it.’ Dave Bedford was a little bit closer to the finish line. ‘He won it by the thickness – or rather the thinness – of his vest! By the thickness of his barrel chest!’

In his book, Ron describes the race as his proudest achievement in running. ‘I had won it!’ he writes. ‘I’d won it! The National! After so much time, today my luck was in.’ He describes another sprint finish at the National Cross country in his books, though, and it is equally instructive about who he was as a runner. After finishing a disastrous 82nd a few years later, running with a cold and a chest infection, he writes:

To look at another side of the race; one of the North Eastern runners told me later about a club mate, on the coach back home, talking about his big battle with Ron Hill in the National.’

This willingness to turn up and race, week in week out, regardless of his fitness, would have inspired a whole host of people who were able to say that they had their own battle with a Commonwealth and European Champion and World Record holder.

It is very clear from reading his books that Ron loved running with an intensity it would be almost impossible to match. His lyrical descriptions of running in the evenings following a summer job fruit picking with his wife May show a love for the simple act of going out for a run in the countryside:

'I had some wonderful runs along the quiet country roads through villages, old cottages with soft yellow stone and mellow orange brick, and hedgerows smelling fresh at this time of night.’


He writes of a jackdaw following him back to his tent every night, and there are vivid descriptions of the many family holidays that doubled as training camps. Running allowed Ron to see the world, and he made a pretty big dent in his ambition to run in every country on Earth. There is obvious glee in his description of his first international run, of streaking across France in a first-class carriage and staying in a luxury hotel. On their arrival, he and George Rhodes did a four mile run through the darkening streets of a French village. He writes, ‘I felt and had to say to him, “God, George, it’s good to be alive!’

After the race they had steak and wine for dinner, followed by crème de menthe. Then it was ‘a few beers, followed by a 12.30am run to finish off the night, and it was up at 7.15 the next day for a 4 mile run in the cold, early, ill-lit worker-crowded streets.’ I often felt exhausted just reading his books, which are full of descriptions like this. He would return home from a long haul flight and be straight out of the door for a second run of the day, before going on to describe the 100 mile week that followed his trip and the trip to yet another race the following weekend. His enthusiasm for running, for travel and for life is unrelenting.

This enthusiasm was paired with an intensity about training and racing that bordered on the obsessive at times. The first entry into his training log for 1969 was ‘Wed. Jan 1st. M: Ran to work – felt absolutely bloody shattered all the way – possibly due to lack of sleep and lack of inspiration.’ He writes that he was ‘weary all week but still put in 124 ½ miles.’ According to Coleby, ‘the basis of his thinking in everything he did was: right, you’ve got to be committed.’ He was an innovator, constantly thinking about ways of investigating ways to get faster and testing his hypotheses on himself.

Ron was one of the main people who popularised ‘the diet,’ which involved starving the body of carbohydrates a week out from a big race before re-introducing them a couple of days before. The idea was, Coleby says, ‘to bleed out all of the carbohydrate so that your body overcompensates.’ The theory was that having done this, you would end up with ‘more petrol in the tank.’ This all made sense in theory, but actually putting it into practice was a very delicate operation and one that Ron was very good at getting right. As Jim Alder recalled of the Commonwealth marathon in Edinburgh in 1970 (more on which shortly), ‘he came past me like a bloody rocket! Boy did that diet work for him.’

 

He was a trailblazer in terms of kit development too. ‘Before Ron Hill came along,’ Coleby says, ‘everyone ran round in the winter either in big flappy bottoms or shorts and froze to death. He was the first one to produce genuinely functional lightweight running bottoms.’ It was Ron who introduced string vests (a real innovation at the time) and who in 1974 came up with ‘a backless, halter-neck style’ which he wore in the Commonwealth Games in Christchurch in 1974 and which unfortunately failed to catch on.

His bloody-minded determination had its roots in a working-class upbringing. It is not to figures like Emil Zatopek that we owe gratitude for inspiring Ron, but to Gilbert Lawford Dalton, the writer of the Alf Tupper comic strip. Often travelling to a race straight from a night-shift in the factory, and fuelled on a diet of fish and chips, Tupper always ended up beating the public schoolboys in a desperate final sprint. Ron writes in his book of getting a special kick out of passing the American runner Tracy Smith in the Olympic 10,000m in Mexico, when he finished 6th. He had read about Smith being able to acclimatise for the altitude by visiting his father’s hunting lodge. ‘My dad lived in Blackpool,’ he writes, ‘and I couldn’t see much benefit in running around the top of Blackpool tower.’

The striking thing about Ron, though, which all of the people I spoke to were keen to emphasise, was that this intensity and meticulousness evaporated once the race was over. As Dave Bedford put it, ‘Ron was someone who took his running extremely seriously, but once the race was over that stopped immediately. He was a great competitor but also just a great guy.’ His books record almost as many details of the sing-alongs, and the quality of the post-race drinks, as they do about the races themselves. He made friends with a Tokyo businessman in a bar before the Olympics, visited his family home the next day, and made one of many friends for life. ‘A few members of the British team never left the Olympic village except to go to the Stadium’ he writes incredulously.

Jim Alder recalls his gregariousness, remembering a particular two-week trip to Puerto Rico. ‘This was an old-fashioned Catholic society’ he laughs, ‘but somehow Ron would get us invited into people’s homes. At one point I found him trying to teach a group of South Americans how to make coffee!’ He’s still making Dave Bedford laugh today when he recalls the story of his first international race in Antwerp when he was running on an England team with Ron. After two miles Dave had said, ‘if we put the boot in here we’ll get away.’ Ron told him to wait and then outkicked him at the end. Only years later did he lean over conspiratorially and say, ‘remember Antwerp, Dave? If you’d have gone when you said you’d have won!’

 

Max, Dave and Jim were unanimous in their judgement about Ron’s most impressive performance: the 1970 Commonwealth Games marathon in Edinburgh. To put that run into perspective, it is worth noting the rate of progression in the marathon at the time. In 1964 when Ron ran under the previous world best in the Poly marathon, Basil Heatley beat him, running 2.13.55. From that run to the Commonwealth marathon, the world best improved by four minutes and twenty-seven seconds in six years. Even with the introduction of ‘super shoes’ a comparable improvement has taken from 2002 to the present day.

The race in 1970 was a who’s-who of marathon running at the time, with no clear favourite, and it went out fast. ‘Look at the splits!’ Jim Alder exclaimed to me, fifty years on. ‘5 miles in 23.30, 61 at halfway! He was on for 2.02 and that was in 1970! But it just got hotter and hotter…’ As Max recalls it, ‘he didn’t just win, he destroyed them. They set off at a fair old lick, and it wasn’t just one person going mad, there was a bunch of them. And he just lurked behind and then destroyed them.’ He was moving ‘like a rocket’ when he went past Jim Alder. ‘He had a very short torso and long legs, and I swear his lungs went right through to his backbone’ Jim says.  

What is interesting from reading his book is the sheer amount of psychological drama that unfolded in the closing miles of what appeared a dominant and convincing victory.

‘Just before 22 miles my legs seemed to go dead. Suddenly I felt I had nothing there. I thought, “How the bloody hell am I going to get back?” I seemed to be running oh so slowly. If I got any worse I would stop. May and Steven and Graham, my mother and dad were waiting at the stadium, they had seen the intermediate times, they must think I’m going to win. How disappointed they will be if I fail now.’

Somehow, he held things together over the closing miles to run a remarkable 2.09.28, winning by over two and a half minutes. It is no surprise that his mind turned to his family when the pressure was on. As Max points out, ‘running was his life, completely. It’s how he earned his money, paid to bring up a family. Everything was running.’ There is probably no-one else of whom this statement could be more true. I think it’s safe to say that there is very little about his running life Ron would have looked back on and thought ‘if only I’d…’