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home > community > viewpoint > london calling: road running the old fashioned way in the queen's

London Calling: Road Running the Old Fashioned Way in the Queen's
So it was, on a recent trip to England, that I had the opportunity to immerse myself a bit in the British running scene, primarily by running a local ten mile road race, then a few days later meeting up and running with a local club, the Blackheath Harriers. For an American schooled in the ways of running in the USA, it was an interesting and educational experience.

London Calling: Road Running the Old Fashioned Way in the Queen's

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Compare a Race from Old England to One from New England

By Don Allison
Posted Monday, 24 March, 1997

So it was, on a recent trip to England, that I had the opportunity to immerse myself a bit in the British running scene, primarily by running a local ten mile road race, then a few days later meeting up and running with a local club, the Blackheath Harriers. For an American schooled in the ways of running in the USA, it was an interesting and educational experience. We may be moving toward a global community, but at least in terms of running, the countries of England and the United States are more than an ocean apart. In the paragraphs below, I'll relate my experience, shaded of course by an occasional observation and opinion.

The Sidcup 10

Much as the focus of marathoners in the Eastern USA is on Boston in the spring, a similar fever grips marathoners in Southwestern England. Their focus is on April's London Marathon, which has grown into one of the biggest road running extravaganzas in the world, with nearly 30,000 participants.

This being the case, it stands to reason that a crop of shorter prep races exist, much like in the states. As far as I was able to determine however, the actual number of available races in England is much smaller than that in the USA. In recent years many races have been discontinued in England, due to a public outcry against the use of open roads for this purpose. During my visit in mid-February, I was able to find only a handful of road events in Greater London, which rest assured is an absolutely huge area, containing hundreds of separate communities. One of those races was called the Sidcup Ten (mile), in that town south of London. A friendly E-mail from the race coordinator provided hope that this would be the typical British road race I was seeking. On a Sunday morning, my friend Mary Collins and I made our way to the race site, eager to see what it was all about.

Arriving at the school that was to host the event, things appeared fairly typical. A long line of cars sought parking in a small lot, causing a minor back-up. The arrangement inside the school was equally chaotic, as the small sign-up room was overrun by several hundred runners, completing entry forms, obtaining numbers, or simply chatting with friends. We paid our six pound post-entry fee (about nine dollars) and were directed to "changing rooms," which were simply empty school rooms. There were rest rooms, but nothing remotely resembling an American locker room. I was somewhat uneasy with the tight and rather dingy accommodations, but pleasantly surprised with the modest entry fee. Although the race services had been limited so far, I was optimistic the good stuff was coming along later.

Surveying the runners milling about and warming up before the race, several things were evident: one, this was a fit and fast looking group of runners; two, most all runners sported club colors; and three, this was a very poor choice of venue for a guy looking to socialize with members of the opposite sex. Women were in the distinct minority here. All told, this was shaping up as a no-nonsense ten miler. As I had not raced at a hard pace in almost three months, I was hoping for a more fun-loving kind of event, one in which I could run 6:30 pace or so and finish fairly high up in the field, thus placating my fragile ego. That was out completely out of the question here. Everyone looked ready to go hard from the gun, which is exactly what they did.

The course consisted of three laps around the town, a mixture of residential and commercial areas. Although rain had been forecast, it had not yet begun, although dark clouds and a stiff wind indicated it was imminent. The large number of runners who shot out ahead of me at the start was disconcerting, but I tried to turn the focus inward and establish a steady rhythm. The first problem was a lack of marking or time split at mile one. I was not totally surprised at this development, but found it difficult not to have that information available, to determine how I was really doing and refine my strategy. I assumed it to be about 6:05 or 6:10, but gee, I was working awfully hard to manage that pace. It was clear I would have to wait until the first lap was completed at 3.3 miles to calculate my pace.

Although we were running along the streets at first, we were eventually directed onto a narrow sidewalk by serious looking race officials in yellow bibs, each holding some sort of flag. The sidewalks were bumpy and uneven, made up of slabs of granite, about two feet by one foot. My poor running mechanics prefer a smooth stretch of asphalt, but the rough surface seemed not to be slowing the other runners. As we turned into the wind, I was feeling the effort, and relinquished about five or ten places. A stiff wind added to the degree of difficulty. Attempting to draft off runners directly ahead of me, I half expected to be disqualified by one of the officials. Although I completed the first of three loops in just under 21 minutes, my goal of 1:05 was looking bleak. At several points along the course, we encountered pedestrians on the narrow sidewalk. Turning around a sharp corner at one point, I almost bowled over a man out walking his dog. Automobiles pulling out of driveways added to the patchwork mix on the route.

Water was another small convenience we were mostly forced to do without. One card table had been set up at the start/finish area, but was so inconspicuous, I almost ran right by it before grabbing a cup from this self-service table. This was looking more and more like a Fresh Pond Saturday race by the minute. Thankfully, about halfway I began to perk up physically and managed to maintain the established pace, settling into a reasonable rhythm. Starting the final lap, I gained confidence, passing several slowing runners, determined to post a decent finishing time. I had not seen a single woman since the start; in a similar race back home, there would be several running this kind of pace. I slipped in just under 1:04 on the clock, 1:03:58 to be exact. Well, there was actually no finishing clock, but that is what the officials called out as I passed the line, drawn in chalk across the school driveway. Not a bad time for my first race of 1997, but one that I had to work way too hard to achieve. Mary cruised across the line at 1:14:30, one of the few, the proud, the women in British road races.

Now that the running had concluded, I was ready to enjoy the post-race festivities. We all converged on the small, cold, dank sign-up room again. A line of people indicated some food and drink was on offer. As we waited, I tried to chat it up with a few other runners, without coming across as the typical overbearing ugly American. My advances were met with typical English reserve however. Most seemed quite unimpressed that I had crossed the Atlantic to participate in the Sidcup 10. I did manage to engage some athletes in discussion about the Boston and London Marathons, but was disappointed, as I had hoped for a more lively dialogue.

As we reached the cafeteria, we learned we would be charged a price for tea, coffee, and sandwiches. Oh my! This was an alarming development for a spoiled American road racer, accustomed to a wide array of free offerings after a typical road race. The race director within me smiled however, as I found some degree of justice in having to pay for the post race goodies. Sometimes I wonder if runners in the states appreciate just how difficult it is to hustle food and drink sponsorship donations. Americans would whine and complain in outrage at having to pay for food after a race. That said, I began to reconsider my earlier assessment of the six pound race fee. I was beginning to wonder where all of the money was going.

My attention then turned to the results. Only the top 100 finishers (of about 400) were posted. Luckily I was among this group, having finished in 63rd place, 16th "vet," better known as masters runner in the USA. A national cross country team member from Ireland won the event in 49:55, a great time on such a tricky course and in windy conditions. Only two women appeared among the top hundred. Amazing. After a quick awards ceremony, everyone filed out of the school as if there were a fire drill in progress. Given the surroundings, I can't say that I blame them, but it was a disappointing end to my first English road race. Describing this race as low-key is an understatement. One race does not a country make, but I can only hope my next British road racing experience will be a friendlier one.

The Blackheath Harriers

Perhaps nowhere in the world is the athletic club system as well developed as it is in England. This applies not only to running, but other sports as well. For the recreational athlete, this nationwide network offers a wide array of social and competitive opportunities. There are running clubs in the USA, but these groups are rarely as much a part of the social fabric as they are in England. I was quite keen on meeting up with on of these groups during my visit, even more so after the disappointing race experience.

I had a club connection through Mary. The nanny of one of her friends was Margaret, a member of the Blackheath Harriers. We knew little of this group, other than that they ran on Wednesday evenings in Blackheath, (an area just south of Central London where the London Marathon starts) or so we thought.

I have to digress for a moment to talk about the dreadful state of vehicular traffic in and around Greater London. At almost all hours of the day, the many narrow roadways are packed with automobiles, buses, and motorbikes. Roundabouts, (rotaries) frequent roadwork, and hundreds of small town centers make getting around truly an ordeal. Major motorways around the city help, but only if one is traveling well outside the city, which is positively sprawling.

Mary and I had visited Brighton on the south coast during the day on Wednesday, with a plan to drive back into Blackheath for the club run at 6:30 p.m. As was the norm for my ten day visit, the weather that day was unsettled -- wet, wild, and very windy, which by the way only compounds driving difficulty. We had been given detailed directions, but realized only late in the game that the Blackheath Harriers run nowhere near Blackheath, but 10 miles south in Bromley. It looked hopeless as we were at a dead standstill at 6:00 p.m. and still several miles from our destination. Miraculously, we found the clubhouse at about 6:45 p.m.; thankfully Margaret and her husband John Baldwin were waiting for us there.

The clubhouse is owned outright by the Harriers, who have been in existence for 128 years. It contains men's and women's locker rooms, as well as a kitchen and large, comfortable dining room. On the walls hang momentos, photos and other memorabilia from the club's history. It is very impressive. The Blackheath Harriers are one of Britain's largest athletic clubs, with over 500 active members. They field teams at all kinds of events -- road races, cross country, track -- at all age levels from junior to veterans. Perhaps the most famous club member is Sydney Wooderson, who but for a few scant seconds and the turn of history, would have become known the world over. Wooderson was the world's premier miler in the late 1930s and 1940s. He missed out on the Olympics, as World War II canceled the games in 1940 and 1944. At a time when the world mile was edging ever closer to four minutes, Wooderson was one of those leading the charge. The closest he came was 4:06. Of course years later, in 1954, Roger Bannister ran 3:59.4 to become the first sub-four minute miler. Sydney is now in his eighties and lives in Devon in the South of England. He remains a Blackheath Harrier for life.

Neither Mary nor I were particularly eager to get out and run, what with the nasty weather conditions and nerve-wracking drive to find the club. Margaret and John were ready to go however, so we quickly changed and agreed to join them for a four miler. Neither John nor Margaret looked particularly striking in appearance; I guessed they were middle of the pack type runners. When I inquired as to the pace we might run, John offhandedly suggested "6:30 or so." I was not quite sure I heard correctly, but once out the door realized I had. The four of us moved out briskly from the start. I was impressed!

As the run went on, I talked more with John and learned that he had run "only two" marathons, but both of those had been completed in 2:33. At 59, he is still competing at a fairly high level. At the age of 45, he had won the world veterans (masters) 10 km road championships in a time of 31 minutes. It turns out Margaret was a runner of some renown herself. She had attended Florida State University on an athletic scholarship, and represented Scotland in several world cross country championships. With an 800 meter best of 2:02, she was on the 1972 Great Britain Olympic team and ran in Munich. Here we were, just out for a run with a couple of local club runners! You just never know whom you are going to meet when you show up at an English running club. These two were world class athletes, but could have not possibly been more gracious and unassuming. Had I not pried for information, something I seem to do quite well, both John had Margaret would have been more than happy to let the evening pass without mention of their achievements.

The four of zipped through four dark and hilly miles in about 28 minutes, and retreated to the warm, dry clubhouse. Something I found interesting was that although dozens of runners tuned up for this weekly run, there was no central organization, and most left and returned either on their own or in small groups. It was quite informal, somewhat at odds with the rich tradition of the Harriers. Although John was very friendly, I found a typical stiff British reserve in my attempts to engage others in conversation, (like I had a the race the previous Sunday). Tossing out jokes by the handful in order too break the ice, I felt like Jerry Seinfeld in a room full of IRS agents.

After a change and shower, We re-grouped upstairs for a nice pasta supper. The Harriers offer dinner each week, cooked, prepared, and served at 8:00 p.m. or so. Approximately 50 members were on hand this evening. At 9:00 on the dot, the sharp sound of a gavel commanded everyone's attention. The president of the Harriers proceeded to give something like a state of the club report. Club awards were distributed for certain performances, then he went on to detail the club's efforts at no less than six different race venues the previous weekend. When he started talking about a 17 year old running 1:51 for the half, I could only shake my head. Just when did everyone on this side of the Atlantic get so fast?

Unlike the USA, universities are not much part of an athlete's growth and development in Britain. Athletic scholarships are rare, recruiting unheard of. In order to get the proper level of coaching and support, a young British runner relies heavily on his local club even throughout his college years. Junior track and cross country competitions amongst the hundreds of British clubs carry much more significance than college meets for the most part. I mean, can you name a college in England, besides Cambridge or Oxford? Blackheath has a strong junior program, from grammar school aged youths on up. Many of these youngsters will run for Blackheath throughout their lives, even those who go on to attain success at the international level.

Many outstanding high school aged athletes in the UK are recruited by American colleges, but John felt this is not really in the best interest of the youngster. "They often do well while running in the states" he offers, adding "but once they return to England, their development often ends. Unless they are international caliber, they have to work a job all day. That makes it impossible to run during the day, when the weather is best. That means they have to run in the dark, when it's raining, windy and cold. Many don't stick with it." Indeed, for a Bostonian with more than a dozen indoor tracks in a ten mile radius, it was shocking to learn that the nearest indoor facility to London is in Birmingham, hundreds of miles distant!

The remainder of the evening was spent conversing about the sport on all levels. We engaged in one of the great British athletic debates -- who was the greater runner, Steve Ovett or Sebastain Coe? I learned more about the history of the club and Sydney Wooderson. I talked with a few of the 40 Blackheath runners who made the trek across the ocean for last year's 100th Boston Marathon. The BAA would be happy to know that praise for the event was universal. Said one marathoner, "Leave it to the Americans to attempt the impossible (running a marathon for 40,000 on a course that normally sees 8-10,000) and get away with it in style!" I had a nice conversation with Les Brown, another Blackheath Harrier. All he did was run 2:24 at Boston as a masters runner (1986). He reminisced about his treks to Boston in the late 1980s and how the sport has evolved. All too soon the night was slipping away and Mary and I were faced with an uninviting drive through Central London back to Harrow on the west side. It was cold and dark out, but inside the Blackheath Harriers clubhouse, the hot fires of athletic competition and camaraderie were burning bright.



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