Doug Fownes' Stories (1957-1987)
- Published: 11 Oct 2011
I recently read a book called 'Born to Run ' by Christopher McDougal, that expressed many of the tenets I feel about running. Two sentiments especially epitomized, I believe, the nature of the club, in the years that I ran between 1957 and the late 80's. -----
(1) The importance of racing against people is not to beat them but to be WITH THEM.
(2) That running should not be about prizes or making money, it should be FUN.
I hope that the following personal reminiscences will show that it was exactly like that.
I may have invoked poetic licence for some of the tales but they are all based on true events.
Doug. Fownes September 2009
I first met Ron Bentley (Snr) on the day I ran my first race for the club, in April 1957.I had been signed up as a member only 2 weeks before by John Peniket at Wednesbury Boys' High School ( I found out many years later, specifically for the race ).Not knowing Tipton very well in those days, having only been to the club H.Q. in Sedgley Road once, I arranged to cycle from my home near Walsall to Geoff. Wood's house and then to Tipton, where we would be driven to Oldbury for the annual Youths' road relay.
We were met by a stocky fellow who pushed us into an old black car, and drove frantically to Oldbury quite often on the wrong side of the road as he turned round to talk to us in the back of the car. To say that I didn't understand a word he said is an understatement, he spoke so quickly and in an accent I didn't recognize (despite living only 10 miles (16km) away) I thought he was a foreigner.
The adrenaline rush I had from the short journey must have worked because I ran O.K. and we won the race. The stocky fellow was very excited about this, and the journey back to the club was even scarier.
Over the next few decades, of course, I got to know Ron very well, learned his language, and found out that anything to do with Tipton Harriers, and especially winning, made him very excited indeed.
Much excitement ensued, of course, in 1969, at the National Cross Country Championships. My enduring memory of the race was after about a mile at the top of Hampstead Hill running in about 40-50th position, surrounded, it seemed, by green & white vests. Suddenly a voice boomed out " That's it Billy, we've won it : CALL IT OFF - CALL IT OFF '. We still had 8 miles (13km) to run but Ron was pretty confident. His confidence was justified, we won the National for the first time, and by a record points margin. – WHAT A DAY.
Later, at the presentation, a young man who ran for Birmingham University went up to collect his winner's medal for the Junior Championship. He was dressed outlandishly as all students were in the 60's, and with red bushy hair.
A loud voice was heard to declare ' Look at the state of him Billy, we wouldn't have anybody like that in our club'.
Five years later Andy Holden joined the club, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Andy, of course, was a fine runner. An Olympian, Great Britain steeplechaser, cross country international, with amazing versatility (From track to marathons) but his prowess with a glass of beer preceded his joining the club. His favourite party trick was drinking a pint whilst standing on his head, (Something that had to be seen to be believed). There was also a report in the 'Athletics Weekly' that during an Easter Festival of running on the Isle of Man he ran four races in four days, won three of them, and consumed 78 pints of beer. Andy, to my knowledge, never denied or confirmed the report, but his family was not amused.
The social scene at the club in those days was a very important part of the success that was achieved athletically. It was already an established ritual when I became a member that a formal Dinner Dance was held annually.
As the years went by, however, the format changed somewhat to more informal 'do's ', and one in particular called on Andy's special relationship with a pint glass.
The occasion was an evening wining and dining at the Queen Mary Ballroom in Dudley Zoo. There was a cabaret (a topless Hawaiian wedding impressed Tommy Brooks, I remember) and Ron Bentley tried to become a candidate for a hypnotist. This didn't come to pass as the guy spotted Ron as someone beyond putting to sleep!
The evening ended, however, with entertainment provided by Tipton Harriers. A beer drinking contest (what else?) between the club and Birmingham University students past & present.
The two teams lined up facing each other, and then each had to drink a pint of beer, put the glass on their head when they had finished, and then the next in line could start their pint.
The club team was going well and with only one drinker left we were easily winning. The club's last drinker was Jim Harvey, the last leg hero of the National 12 stage relay of 1972.
The Universities last drinker was, of course Andy Holden. Jim was three quarters of the way down his glass when Andy started and 2.3 seconds later Andy had won. ( I am not sure who timed the event, most people were reasonably intoxicated by then, but we did have some Grade 1 A.A.A. timekeepers in the room at the time.
The 'posh" do's at the club in the early days involved ballroom dancing. As some of the younger members didn't know a foxtrot from a " turkey trot', we decided to take dance lessons. For many weeks we turned up at the Conservative Club in Dudley (after training) and after much stumbling and grumbling we thought ourselves fairly competent dancers. (better than 'Stricltly" we were). Sadly, at the function following our lessons, and at all that followed, our racing instinct took over and the quickstep turned into a race round the ballroom. Needless to say the experts, Ron Bentley, Ken Rickhuss, Joe Gripton, and their partners soundly beat us.
In 1972 we held many functions, dances, concerts, suppers etc. to raise money for the ultra runners to go to South Africa to run the Comrades Marathon. They also trained very hard, and to help them in their preparation the rest of us used to run out to meet them on our Sunday morning run to give them moral support. They used to run for about 4-5 hours (having a bacon & egg breakfast at Kinver on the way) and knowing their approximate route we would meet up with them on their way back to the club. This tended to alleviate the boredom and arguments they had just talking to each other for so long. One warm Sunday morning we had arranged to join up with them at the pub at Greensforge, at the end of the "Mile Flat' near Wall Heath.
There was no sign of them--- and then we were aware of shouting and splashing from the back of the pub, and there they were swimming in the canal ! ' Oh,thereyouare " shouted Ron B. ' Wethoughtyou'dgotlost " They climbed out of the canal and ran back to the club with us as if it was the normal thing to do on a Sunday run. ( Was this the start of Triathlons ?)
The Sunday morning runs were legendary at the club. Tom Brooks told us that we should walk for about 2 hours like they did in his day, but the masochists of the modern era (1950's & 60's) were more inclined to start the week with a good long run to make inroads into the weekly mileage.
As Youths it was fairly gentle, 4 miles or so (6 km) round the Priory, but as Juniors it suddenly became much more serious, and painful. The ritual in the early 60's was to go 'Over the top." This was a run of 7 or 8 miles (11km) from the club, along the canals to City Rd. bridge, over the Birmingham New Road, up Bury Hill Park to the highest point on the Rowley Hills, Turners Hill (about 750 ft (230m) above sea level). We then crossed the golf course and climbed "The Titanic " a hill of epic proportions and suffering, At the top we scrambled down a precipice then retraced our steps back to the club, not forgetting the sprint to the club to commandeer the clean water in the bath. (Incidentally, this course was used for a Birmingham League race, organized by the club probably in 1960, crossing the New Road on the footbridge at Tividale. It was the only time I ever saw the big bath in use)
After a few years of the 'Titanic' some bright spark at the club said that he had read a book on coaching. (a dangerous thing to do even in those days) In it, he explained, was the dogma that the long run of the week should always be twice as far as the race for which you were training." If we are training for the National Cross Country championships over 9 miles through mud, we should be running 20 miles (32km) every Sunday" he explained. Thus was born the crazy Sunday runs that followed for many years. (I personally doubted the logic of the book, because I didn't know any marathon runners who ran 52 miles (83km) on Sunday)
We tried to be sensible about this change to our schedule, trying to increase the length of the runs gradually. It came to pass then that a course was mapped out through Dudley, onto the canals near Netherton reservoir and then winding our way back to the entrance to Netherton tunnel near to where the 'Dry Dock" pub is. One particular run round this course took place on a bleak winters day, snow and sleet in the air, and a bitter wind At Netherton tunnel the course climbed steeply up over the Rowley Hills (where else?) and rejoined the old Sunday
run. A few of the group said that they couldn't face the climb in the inclement weather, and decided to run through the tunnel, about one and a half miles, which re-appeared near to the club H.Q. I gave one look at the pinprick of light that was the other end of the tunnel and decided with the remainder of the group to risk the hard run over the top.
Hard it certainly was, but we reached the club safely, soaked in the bath for a while, and then took off to the Black Horse pub just up the road from the club as was the norm in those days.
Time passed without any sign of the other group, and eventually we left the pub to get home for our Sunday lunch, thinking that they had done the same. The full horror story unveiled on the Tuesday club night. It was dark in the tunnel at the best of times and made worse by the failing light it took over 3 hours for them to negotiate the mile and a half and then suffering from hypothermia stumbled to the club, which luckily had been left open. As far as I know no-one ever tried the 'short cut' again.
During the next 20 years or so the personnel present on Sunday mornings changed as new people arrived at the club. The courses also changed depending on the whim of the club captain or sometimes for sensible reasons like where the cross country championships were to be held that season. Fast National courses were prepared for with road or canal runs, muddy and hilly courses called for a slog over Baggeridge and Penn Common. One thing the Sunday runs had in common was that generally they were hard but great fun.
To relieve the boredom of running round the gloomy streets and canals of the Black Country we tended, on Sundays, to find some countryside. Hence our tendency to head out towards the greenery beyond Sedgley. The problem with running in that direction is that Sedgley is on a hill and we had to run over it on our return to the club. The hill from Baggeridge to Sedgley is also very steep and very long.
One Sunday morning we had really pushed the boat out, running about 23 miles (37km) through Wolverhampton on the canals, along the old railway to Himley, and through Baggeridge Park. The climb up to Sedgley was ahead, the only barrier to a pint or two in the club bar. We climbed through Gospel End, and a trotting pony and trap passed us. Mike Kearns picked up the pace and caught the pony. We followed. The driver of the trap whipped the pony, which raised its pace. Mike raised his pace. We followed. The whip fell again and once again the pony responded. Mike raised his pace. We couldn't. Looking up we watched as this continued until the bend at Lloyds Bank (the road, not the finance house) and into Gospel End Street where Mike and the pony disappeared from view. We staggered to the bend, looked up, and there 50 yards (50m) ahead refusing (or unable) to move was the pony, looking in deep distress. 50 yards further, at the top of the hill, was a cool looking Mike Kearns jogging on the spot, waiting for us.
During the summer, running 20 miles (32km) or so was a thirsty business. To that end the ultra runners had mapped out all the water taps in the vicinity of Himley, Penn, and all points west (that was what they were allegedly looking for at the pub where they were swimming). In the days before water bottles it was a boon to be able to get a drink at various places on the run.
There were taps in the churchyard at Penn, and at the pub on Penn Common (owned for a time by the brothers Hinks, who ran for the club). The most welcome, however, of all the water stops was the one at the top of the hill in Sedgley, where Mike Kearns raced the horse.
One really hot Sunday morning the group reached the top of the hill in various stages of distress. The heat had really taken its toll. We tottered into the cemetery, splashed water over ourselves, and took a very much-needed drink. We stood for a while waiting for everyone to refresh themselves and then made our way to the gate to continue our run. As we reached the road a group of ladies were approaching with flowers obviously going to the cemetery.
They looked up to see a group of cadaverous creatures with gaunt faces and staring eyes coming from the graves, and stood rooted to the spot, squealing.. "Nightmare on Gospel End Street" had just materialized.
The canals provided us with a reasonably pleasant way of beginning or ending our Sunday runs .As Bert Harbach used to say "It keeps you off the 'Oss Road' dow it". It could also be a disaster zone.
On one particular Sunday we set off along the Bradley loop on our way to explore the paths, farmyards, and irate golfers of Penn Common. Keith Rollason led us at a smart pace, much to the chagrin of the few who imbibed a little too much the night before. Grumbling quickly turned to merriment, however, as Keith ran through what looked like a new nicely laid part of the towpath and disappeared up to his knees into mud that had been dredged from the bottom of the canal. He sat on the edge of the canal and tried to wash it off, but, of course, mud from the bottom of the canal is waterproof. It also had a very pungent smell as it had lain there for probably 100 years, gathering up all the detritus of the factories that bordered that part of the canal. The rest of us skirted the offending quagmire and continued our run, Keith now at the back so that we were ahead of the smell. The mud dried out as we continued onto Penn Common (it must have been like running in plaster casts, but Keith carried on unperturbed). Keith had another good asset when we were running across the common. As in previous times the cattle on the farm scattered as we approached, (probably sensing his occupation, as he was a slaughter-man at Devis's butchers in Great Bridge) leaving us in peace to run through the fields.
It took Keith ages to scrape the mud from his legs, we wouldn't let him into the showers while we were there because of the smell when the mud cracked. We were certainly through a few drinks before he appeared in the clubhouse.
"I've found a new course" Brian Cole told us one Thursday night," We can try it on Sunday morning, if you like".
Always looking for a new challenge and a change of scenery, we arranged to meet Brian near his home and try out this new adventure. The group duly gathered at the club on the following Sunday, and we set off to meet Brian at the appointed place. He was wearing tracksuit bottoms. " Strange " we thought, " for a pleasantly warm day, perhaps his legs are sore"
The course was, indeed, extremely picturesque, winding along canal towpaths out in the countryside beyond Wombourne. The course then took a turn for the worst; the towpath became a huge nettle bed, which went on for a mile, or more. Our legs were stung from top to bottom. It took days to get rid of the stings; Keith Atkins' legs were bright red for a week (he said). We had found the reason for Brian's tracksuit bottoms, and it was our legs that were sore, not his.
Stings and Brian Cole appear to go hand in hand, as this tale will show.
We were with a group from the club one Thursday summers evening, running the canal course from the club that we normally followed if we were too idle to think of anywhere else to go.
It followed the Walsall Canal from Moxley to Albion Road Bridge in Greets Green, and then to Bloomfield Road in Tipton, either by the Telford canal (9 miles/14km) or the Brindley loop round Owen Street for the 10 miles (16km).
It was a gentle run, for a change. We had just passed Albion Road Bridge when Brian suddenly squawked and stopped.
"I think I've sthwallowed a bee" he said " ithts sthtung me"
I peered into his mouth and there on his tongue, growing by the second, was a bee sting.
" It'th enormouth" he spluttered.
I checked again. It was, indeed, a fair size lump.
"No, it's O.K." it's only a little pimple" I reassured him.
We carried on running, I, desperately looking for a piece of tube in case he stopped breathing, thinking of where the telephone boxes were (no mobiles in those days). He fortunately seemed to running comfortably, so we continued round the course to the club.
On arriving he dashed into the changing rooms, found the mirror, and inspected his tongue.
"Oh, I thought it was worse than that" he said, surprised.
I checked his tongue, and sure enough it had become a little pimple.
I don't think I ever told him how serious it might have been --- Until now.
The same 10 miles (16km) course was to be the scenario for another happening, also involving Brian Cole. (And a sting in the tail). This took place on a Tuesday evening run with the group from the club. Steve Emson had just returned from South Africa where he had spent some time at altitude. Of course the effects of altitude training were not as widely known then, so when Steve pushed the pace early in the run we thought it was going to be a regular Tuesday night burn-up. When after about three miles, or so, Steve, Brian, and myself had opened up a gap on the remainder of the group it suddenly became obvious that it was going to be a special training run. It proved to be so, because at 8 miles (13km) I was unable to hang on and watched helplessly as the other two pulled away. Steve carried on at the same pace and dropped Brian up the hill to Allen's, and virtually sprinted the last mile (1600m) to the club. I believe I ran just over 51 minutes, I'm sure Steve knew to a tenth of a second how fast he ran (A later story will explain) but I couldn't face asking him.
' It's like running at altitude' Bert Harbach used to say. He was speaking about a stretch of the canal that passed through Great Bridge on the course featured in the previous two stories. This part of the canal ran alongside Robinson's chemical works, and the air was completely unbreathable. Bob Cytlau hated it with a passion, and with eyes watering, he would say unspeakable things in his Gloucestershire brogue about the places where we took him on training runs from the club.
How bad it was became obvious to us one club night when we had Jonathan Such running with us. He was an industrial chemist (he emigrated to South Africa in later years) who identified by name, the many chemicals discharged from the factory, and every one of them was toxic!
'That's why the people living round here have different lungs to us' Bert claimed.
The canal towpaths have always been a training ground for the club, probably going back to the early years. They changed considerably in the years that I ran, with many of the branches being closed, and in later years, those that were left were improved beyond recognition.
From spring to autumn they made a welcome change to running on the roads, the surface was more congenial to bones and tendons, and of course, you had to learn how to run in a tightly packed group. Tactical awareness was quite often learned the hard way.
Picture the scene. The Tuesday nights gang on the canals. Everyone jockeying for position to run the last effort to Conygree Road bridge. On this particular occasion the situation was made worse by the repairs to City Road bridge in Tividale. To negotiate the scaffolding one had to swing out over the water, dodge a pole, and regain access to the towpath.
The leader of the group reached the bridge.
'Mind the pole' he shouted
'Mind the pole' shouted the second runner. This was repeated as each runner arrived at the obstacle.
'Mind the po------' SPLASH.
We turned to see a fountain of water erupting from the canal, and emerging from it a very sorry looking Tony Burkitt. Someone lent him a tee shirt and we continued to the club. One good thing that came out of the incident was that we never did the last effort to the club. (It's difficult to run fast and laugh at the same time)
Tony was banned from entering the bath until we had all finished; the water in the canals at that time was fairly repugnant.
The baths at the clubhouse in Sedgley Road were a wonderful facility. To soak in them after a hard training run was so therapeutic. (No wonder there were so few injuries at the time) There were two baths, sunk into the floor. The large one was about 15 or 16ft (5m) long by 7 or 8ft(2.5m) wide (I only saw it used once as it took too much water to fill on training days) and the small one was about 7 or 8ft(2.5m) square, and both about 4ft deep (1.2m).
One Tuesday night it was decided that an attempt would be made to break the club record for the number of people in the small bath. The rule was that everyone must be sitting on the bottom of the bath, and that the bath would be filled as usual. The attempt was made that particular night because there had been a good turnout for training, and there were a fair number of Youths present who would take up less room.
People climbed into the bath, gently lowered themselves into the water, and squeezed up to the person alongside to make as much room as possible for those yet to enter. This went on until there were 26 people sitting in the bath.
' One more to get the record' shouted Bert Harbach.
As it happened there was one person left. Roy Masters (always known as Ginger), a Youth at the time, was encouraged to climb in. There didn't seem to be enough room but Ginger was quite small and found a gap.
'Sit on the bottom' came the shout 'Everyone must sit on the bottom of the bath for ten seconds for the record'
Ginger sat on the bottom, but, of course, we had forgotten Archimedes principle and Ginger disappeared under the water, and was held there until the 10 seconds was counted.
Twenty-seven in the bath, what a record!
On reflection, though, I don't think there really was a record to be broken. It was just one of those crazy things that happened from time to time at the club.
Crazy things happening at the club after training? Without a doubt they did. There was the night when a group who had just returned from a run was enjoying the remedial warm water of the bath, and were greeted by Keith Rollason, who had just returned from work.
' Hello lads, I've brought you a present' he said, and threw a cow's eye into the bath.
It bobbed up and down a bit, looking at them, until they realized what it was.
The speed with which they evacuated the bath would have made Usain Bolt jealous. (If he had been around then, of course)
Keith worked strange hours at Devis' Butchers, occasionally making use of the club outside normal training times. He sometimes used the club on Mondays, which was taboo because it was ladies' night.
He sneaked in one Monday, went for a run, and decided to have a quick bath because he had plenty of time before the ladies were due to turn up.
Luxuriating in the warm water the time passed by. He heard the door in the main clubroom open and bump shut. He heard voices, female voices. He had left his towel in the main room. The water suddenly felt a lot colder as he desperately tried to work out a plan of action. Getting out of the bath and creeping to the door to check on his options he heard the voices coming towards him. The door opened and there was Tommy Brooks speaking in squeaky voices, holding a conversation with himself.
Tommy was the caretaker at the club at the time, and he had seen Keith go in and decided, as was his way, to have some fun.
I believe Keith used the club only at the proper time from then on.
Alan Whittle was always a gold mine of eccentricity. Although I raced against him when I was at school, he representing West Bromwich Grammar School, my first real memory of him was at the Staffs. Track championships at Aldersley Stadium in the Junior 880 yards (800m). Coming off the last bend just in front of Gordon Bentley, who was about to pass him, Alan gradually moved out from the first lane to the outside lane in an attempt to prevent Gordon from passing him. I cannot recall who actually won the race, but I do remember the calls of 'Disqualify him' booming out from Gordan's irate brother Ron.
Alan joined the club in 1960 from West Bromwich Harriers, and was a fine road and cross- country runner, always on the look out for a rule to bend. (He was famously spotted on film cutting the course in the National C.C. at Sheffield)
His outlandish dress sense of running kit was also a club talking point. He ran the county cross-country championships in odd shoes (One red, one blue) He went out training one rainy night dressed in a black plastic bin liner with arm and head holes cut out.
His favourite trick in the winter was to wrap his kit round the chimney of the stove in the office at the clubhouse. The smell was overpowering; in fact it was absolutely obnoxious.
The office was the domain of the then club secretary, Jim Bedford. We had always used the office for changing during the winter because the big room was too cold as it took a lot of heating. Jim decreed that the office would be out of bounds for changing, much to the chagrin of the runners, and especially to Alan, as he had to run in damp kit.
Shortly after this decree we arrived at the club to find that Jim Bedford's desk and chair had been placed in the bath, and no one could, or would, devise a way of removing it!
Jim was absolutely furious, but over the next few weeks the embargo was gradually lifted.
The culprits were never revealed, and the contents of this story should not be taken as any indication as to who may have been involved.
At about the same time that Alan Whittle joined the club another great character appeared. Ron Franklin came to work in the West Midlands from Newport in South Wales. Already a Welsh cross-country International (he also ran the Marathon in the 1958 Commonwealth Games) he brought a touch of class to the club.
He also brought other important doctrines to the club that was to be the mainstay of the success the club enjoyed in the ensuing years. He was the first person I had known who trained twice a day. He ran what we all thought to be crazy amounts of miles a week, and he was the first person to explain to us the connections of good diet to athletic achievement.
Many of these ideals stayed with us to the present day, they certainly transformed the nature of the training in the club to everyone's benefit.
I particularly remember one club night when he arrived too late to go with the group; he went off alone and got back after we had changed. He had the bath all to himself and took his evening meal of wheat-germ bread, tomatoes, fruit, and juice into the bath and ate it whilst having a soak.
When we went to the Manchester to Blackpool relay he was very reluctant to tuck into the bacon and eggs etc. that were provided at the hotel. His breakfast consisted of bran, wheat germ, and other strange looking concoctions that he smuggled into the dining room, and berated the rest of us for our dreadful addiction to a fry up.
Cars were very few and far between at the club in those days, only the rich and 'posh' had them (people like Ron Bentley, Ken Rickhuss and Joe Gripton). Most of us traveled to the club by bike or motor bike (Bert Harbach and Geoff Carless).
Ron Franklin had a car, but his was very special. It was a three-wheeled black Messerschmitt bubble car that resembled the cockpit of the airplane of the same name, but obviously without the wings and tail. It was also very small, made only for one person, and he parked it in the cycle shed at the side of the club. It was also very temperamental and noisy, and was the cause of much merriment.
Ron left the club when his job took him to London (he worked for the Gas Board) in 1964.His contribution to the club in that short time was immense. It was strange that when we met in subsequent years he had developed a strong Southern accent, as he had a wonderful Welsh lilt when he arrived at the club. We found out that, in fact, he was a Londoner by birth, and had been evacuated to South Wales during the war.
Ron, now in his 80's, still runs and his name crops up regularly in the Vet's magazines.
Transport, in its various guises, was an important issue in the early 60's, how would we get to races, and in what state of mind?
Quite often we would cycle to local races, I regularly cycled to Halesowen from Walsall to run in the West Midland track league, but the few cars that were available were always very welcome.
By modern standards there will appear to be a flouting of the rules of the road in the tales that will unfold. It is to be remembered, however, that there were no draconian drink-drive laws, seat belt rules, MOT's, or speed limits on the few motorways that existed, for the majority of the time that is covered by these stories.
The Melton Mowbray relay was a memorable race. We started going there in 1962 and continued to run there for many years in the Midland 6-stage relay and from 1976 in the Livingstone Relay. We changed at the Holwell steel works at Asfordby Hill, the course was very hilly, and the hottest water known to mankind fed the showers. Also in the part of the course that ran through Asfordby Hill village there grew elderberries with which Keith Atkins produced a very potent wine (as my son will testify).
I remember one journey to Melton in the early 60's very well. John Malpass had a very old Ford that had seen better days, but to get runners to races was the prime objective regardless of the antiquity of the transport. We set off in good time to get to the race early, and as we drove along a thumping sound seemed to be coming from the rear of the car. I pointed this out to John who claimed that it always did that, and there was nothing amiss. The noise appeared to get worse so we stopped and inspected the rear of the car. No problem could be spotted and we continued our journey and arrived at Asfordby with plenty of time to prepare for the race.
I mentioned the noise to Ron Bentley, who was a genius with things that moved, and he promptly removed the near side rear wheel of John's car to reveal a huge bubble of inner tube that had broken through the tyre wall. It was this that made the thump as it rubbed against the body of the car. It was decided to put the spare wheel on in place of the damaged tyre and after much effort the 'new' wheel was extricated from the boot. There was not one sign of a groove on the tyre; it was as smooth as an egg. It was, however, a better proposition to the one that had taken us to Melton, so it was duly fitted.
We finished 4th in the race (a good result at that time) and very satisfied with our performance we made our way home.
The bumping noise had stopped, although I was still apprehensive about the lack of tread on the tyre, but we made good time. The route to and from Melton was a devious business through Loughborough and Tamworth (no motorways then, although as I use it to get from the Midlands to Lincolnshire, where I now live, I know that it is still a devious route). Approaching Sutton there is a long straight stretch down a hill and then up the other side. John seemed intent on showing us how fast the Ford could really go and we sped down the hill at breakneck speed. (It was probably only about 45 mph (70km/h) but it seemed fast at the time). At the bottom of the hill there was a bus stop, with a bus stopped at it. John applied the brakes, nothing happened. John stamped on the brakes, nothing happened. The bus got nearer and nearer, the brakes started to bite, but surely we were going to hit it. Then just as we were feet away from disaster the bus pulled away from the bus stop and we were saved.
' Great car this, isn't it?' said John.
In 1960 we went to the inaugural running of the Blackpool relay, and surprised the Blackpool team, who were expected to win, and ourselves, by finishing first. The trophy was an enormous gold cup worth many thousands of pounds (it resided in a bank vault during its stay in Tipton) and the team members won gold medals.
Surprisingly the journey to and from Blackpool was almost as exciting as the race. Len Myerscough in his brand new Vauxhall Cresta (Bright pink and all chrome and fins) picked me up in Darlaston.
The first surprise was that Gordon Bentley was in the other car, as he wasn't in the original team. 'It's six to run, not five' Ron explained.
What followed on the journey was a constant diatribe between Bert Harbach and Len concerning the coldness of the car. Len assured everyone that it took the heater a little time to warm up, but by the time we got to the café at Knutsford in Cheshire it was apparent that it was not going to get any warmer. (We found out some time later that the car didn't actually have a heater, it just blew cold air)
After the race, and extremely pleased with our success we set off for home. The journey started off badly. Thick fog had descended and it appeared that the way back was to be fraught with a degree of danger.
Len, who was not the best of navigators, decided to follow the car containing Ron, Gordon and Ken Rickhuss. Creeping slowly across the Lancashire countryside we could just make out the rear lights of Ken's car. It suddenly turned left, and we followed, only to surprise the owner of the car in front who had pulled onto the drive of his house.
After a thirteen-point turn Len managed to get the car pointing in the right direction and by some miracle came up behind Ken's car.
We followed for some miles and then Ken turned sharp left into a drive. 'Here we go again' I thought. No. Ron had spotted a pub, and decided that a drink would calm the nerves. It seemed a pretty good idea to us all so we filed into what was a very classy establishment to us rough Black Country folk.
When we emerged from the pub some time later the fog had disappeared and the remainder of the journey passed peacefully. (I think so; most of us were asleep for much of it)
The following year we felt obliged to defend our title, and find a way of returning the trophy, so we journeyed once again to the seaside.
Because of a shortage of transport it was decided to hire a mini-bus. Bill Stokes, the assistant team manager, had a friend who knew a friend that could obtain this luxurious means of transporting the team to the race as long as Bill drove.
We duly met at the club very early in the morning (it took many hours to get to Blackpool then) loaded the cup, and arranged ourselves on the bench seats.
Jim Bedford, the club secretary, came wandering past the club.
'Hello, Jim, what are you doing here at this time in the morning?' we asked
'Hilda (his wife) has sent me out for a loaf of bread. Where are you going?' he replied
'Blackpool, to run the relay'
'I'll come with you' he said and climbed into the mini-bus.
The bus trundled away and we set off on the long journey. Weaving our way through the traffic in Stafford town centre Bob Bratt decided a call of nature was required, so the bus was parked in a convenient place and all of us but one (to guard the cup) took advantage of the opportunity.
Hurrying back to the bus as time was of the essence, everyone scrambled in and re-took their places. We pulled away and then there was a bang as the back doors of the bus flew open. Bill stopped the bus and we peered out of the back to see Jim sitting in the middle of Stafford High Street, unharmed, as befits the very good cross-country runner he was in his younger days, with a bemused look on his face.
The rest of the way was relatively incident free and we arrived in good time for the race.
Our heroics of the previous year were not to be repeated and we reluctantly returned the trophy, finishing third behind Blackpool A.C.
We arrived back at the club some ten hours after we had left and made our way home.
Jim Bedford never said anything about his wife's reaction to the ten hour wait for the loaf, I don't think he had brought it anyway, before he left on the bus for a day trip to Blackpool.
The means of transport was not the only consideration to be appraised when we went to races: especially if that race was the Wycombe road race.
High Wycombe being the centre of the furniture industry, unsurprisingly the race was known as the 'Furniture 5 ' (8km) and naturally the prizes were items of furniture ranging from wardrobes to coffee tables, with blankets, cushions, and bed sheets thrown in for good measure.
It was usual for the club to have a strong presence at the race, and the year to which this story refers was no exception. Allan Rushmer had high hopes of an individual placing, and with Brian Cole, Jim Wright, and myself also running, a team prize seemed to be reasonably secured.
It panned out better than we could have hoped for, with Allan winning the individual race and the team also gaining first prize.
My mind drifted, however, to the previous year when I had seen Dick Taylor and his brother Juan of Coventry Godiva Harriers struggling to fix their prizes (one of which was a wardrobe) to the top of a car.
We would have to be careful, I thought, with our choice of prizes so that they would fit into the few small vehicles in which we had traveled.
Care disappeared when we saw the array of prizes at the presentation and we came out to the car park with the prospect of taking home a rocking chair, two armchairs, and various other bits and pieces that we had won.
The various bits and pieces were stashed in the boot of one car. My daughter was squashed into Keith Atkin's car with her brother to open some space in my car, which left only three chairs to worry about.
My chair, fortunately, came to pieces, and after some deft work with a screwdriver was reduced to a bundle of wood and cushions.
Only two chairs were left to worry about.
My car was an Austin Maxi, ugly and cumbersome, but it was the first car to have 5 doors and a set of fold down seats. With the seats down we managed to get Brian Cole's chair into the back, but Brian and his wife Caroline who had traveled to the race with us had nowhere to sit. The problem was solved by wedging them into the extended boot of the car almost lying down inside the frame of the chair on the cushions from my chair.
Only one chair to worry about, the rocking chair.
Allan Rushmer, the proud owner of this prize, had gone to the race with Bert Harbach, with Jim Wright as navigator. Bert had a small Ford, too small for three and a chair, we thought, but after much pushing and twisting the chair gave up its struggle and nestled neatly into the car. Jim, however, was wedged in the back seat, Allan in the front passenger seat had a chair leg over his shoulder, and Bert had to change gear and apply the handbrake by pushing his arm through the frame of the chair.
We set off on our way home. There was a short stretch of motorway just outside Wycombe, (later to become the M40) and as the opportunities to drive on one were very rare that was the route we used to get to Oxford.
After a mile (1600m), however, Bert pulled onto the hard shoulder, stopped and ran to the passenger door. Fearing a grave situation I also pulled off the carriageway and stopped behind them.
Frantic activity was taking place by the open door of Bert's car. Bert was pulling Allan out with great difficulty, and then the pair of them turned and was struggling with Jim's arms and legs that were reluctant to emerge from the rocking chair.
We went over to help and as we arrived at the car, scared at what we would find Jim finally was extricated and thankfully walked around, although with great difficulty.
'What's happened' we asked.
'Oh, it's OK, Jim's just got a bit of cramp, that's all'.
Jim's face expressed that it was a bit more than a bit of cramp, but I suppose sharing a back seat with the rocking mechanism of a rocking chair is not an ideal way to travel 80 miles or so.
The rest of the journey passed uneventfully, we stopped at our usual place in Banbury, (The subject of other stories) and arrived home safely.
Another race that involved a little bit of lateral thinking was the Ridgeway Relay from Swindon to Reading in which we competed on five occasions between 1970-1978. It was a logistical nightmare. Not so much the transport of prizes (The trophy was a strange block of metal with three pointy bits sticking out of the top) but in the organization of the teams and their deliverance and removal from the changeovers.
There were ten stages (8 in later years) and apart from the first and last stages it was a cross-country course that followed the route of an old track called the Ridgway that crossed the Lambourn Downs in Wiltshire.
The problem was that the team selection did not depend so much on matching runners to the stages (Although we tried hard to put the best runners on the long stages) but on the availability of cars and drivers for each leg. While the race was making its way across country the cars had to hurry back on farm tracks and narrow lanes to the B4517 or A417 at the end of each stage with the runners that had finished. In the meantime other cars were delivering the next set of runners to the changeover one or two stages ahead.
The problem was magnified if there were two teams, which we often had. To make it more complicated two of the stages (one in the 8-stage version) were run by Youths, who, of course couldn't drive and ran short stages that gave us less time to juggle runners and drivers.
In practice it worked very well. We never failed to get runners to their appointed place (although it was a near thing on a few occasions) and as far as I am aware there are no runners still stranded on the Downs.
The club was reasonably successful at the race despite strong opposition from the likes of Portsmouth, Bristol and Aldershot, winning the race on two occasions (1970 & 1978) and placed second in 1977.
My personal recollections of the race was the feeling of abandonment at the start of a stage and seeing no-one at all for about five miles (8km). This was especially true of the third stage, which started by the Uffington White Horse and seemed to wander aimlessly for miles through rugged, desolate moorland.
In 1976 I ran the last leg, which started on the country but had about two miles (3km) of road to the finish. With about a mile (1600m) to go a car passed me. 'That car's like mine' I thought.
I spotted the number- plate. 'That car IS mine'
Panic set in; someone had stolen my car.
Realization came through to my race weary brain. Steve Walton was driving my car to the finish while I was running. No wonder the people in the car (My wife and children) were waving.
What do the Ridgeway Relay and the Birmingham C.C. League have in common? Apart from being cross-country races, that is.
Neither of them have a trophy that can be filled with beer.
The tradition of filling a cup shaped trophy with beer (plus other potent alcoholic stuff) started the day after the 1969 National C.C. Championships. The new clubhouse at Sedgley Road belonging to Tipton Sports & Social club had just opened following the demolition of our old headquarters and it provided us with a congenial atmosphere in which to celebrate.
In subsequent years the practice continued at Gospel Oak at first in the bar converted from the squash court, and then from the clubhouse erected in the car park. Sunday mornings after a championship win were fairly merry affairs, but having thought about it, most gatherings of the club members tended to be very happy occasions.
There always seemed to be a pub on the way home from races. They were pubs that we used frequently depending on the direction from which we were returning.
From the East we would stop at The Four Counties, a pub on the A453 at a village called No Man's Heath. (It was at the border of Staffordshire, Warwickshire, Derbyshire and Leicestershire). It was quite an up market place found, I believe by Ken Rickhuss, the then club captain, during his business trips around the country.
Coming from the North we stopped at Penkridge, on the A449 just south of Stafford. The attraction there was the landlord's two pretty daughters who had taken the eye of a club member.
Journeys from races in the South were generally broken by a visit to the 'Inn Within' in Banbury. This was a quaint place where the bar had another pub inside. It was a great favourite of my children as it had a covered terrace at the rear of the pub where they could sit. (A rare facility in the 70's) Memorably, on one of our visits Ron Bentley intervened in a confrontation and removed an undesirable from the premises. Ron's wife, Eva, was not best pleased.
As the motoring laws were changed over the years this practice of stopping on the way home was abandoned and we tended to gather closer to home.
Pubs always played a big part of the club's social side. Over the years Saturday night gatherings were enjoyed at many places, often a room would be taken over by Tipton Harriers all eager to expound on what went right (or wrong) that afternoon if we had been involved in a race.
One pub where that happened for many years was the Park Inn at Woodsetton. It became a magnet not only for Tipton runners but also for members of other clubs and especially for Birmingham University students, many of the latter becoming Tipton Harriers in the fullness of time.
When the club constitution was amended, probably in 1978, the position I held as assistant club secretary was abolished, and each section of the club had a secretary reporting back to Tom Talbot who had taken over from Jim Bedford as general secretary.
I now had the heady title of Cross-Country & Road Running Secretary, and the Park Inn became the unofficial office from which the business of that section was carried out.
Although I still attended the club committee meetings every month, the Park Inn was the place where a majority of the winter runners gathered every week and it made the logistics of organizing the section far easier.
It became the place where all the race entries were finalized (The National Cross-Country & Road Relays forms included) and the team selection committee sat in comfortable surroundings to deliberate on their judgments as to who and how the teams would be run.
It was here that the 'Little Blue Book' containing the relay results of many years was pored over, ostensibly to judge the form of team members, but also to see who had the ' bragging rights' over their clubmates that particular day. (Note; - Hopefully the relays recorded in the 'Little Blue Book' will be made available in the Centenary publications)
'Bragging rights' sprang to mind when I was asked in the Centenary Questionnaire who my main rivals were – (a) In the club and (b) From other clubs.
As I had raced against so many people, club members and others, it was a difficult task to name them all.
Therefore my answers were: -
(a) Anyone who ran in a green and white vest and
(b) Anyone who didn't run in a green and white vest.
Why do we run in green and white hoops? I hope the research into the clubs history comes up with the answer.
Over the years there has been very few clubs who run in our colours. In the 70's many changed to white with green trim because hoops were becoming very difficult to obtain.
The club was on the verge of following suit but the advances in textile technology due mainly through Ron Hill's company's expertise saved our tradition.
To my knowledge the only other club now who wear green and white hoops are Woodford Green, and this worked to Pete Boxley's advantage many years ago.
Pete used to run marathons and trained from time to time with the ultra-distance runners (Ron Bentley & Co.) They decided that as part of their preparation for the 56 miles (90km) of the London to Brighton race they would run the South London 30 (48km) Pete decided to go with them, although it was a bit farther than he had raced before.
Pete told the story of how, with still a fair few miles to go, he began to feel very tired and didn't think that he would be able to carry on to the finish.
Just then a bus passed him and stopped a few yards ahead. He jumped onto the platform at the rear of the bus (no doors on buses then) hung onto the pole and by a certain amount of good fortune was transported to a point fairly close to the finish.
In the changing rooms later, feeling very annoyed with himself for not finishing the race; Pete was sitting next to a Southern character that was muttering to himself and anyone who cared to listen.
' It was a disgrace, with a few miles to go I was catching a Woodford Green chap and you'll never know what he did, he got onto a bus.' he moaned.
' Never' said Pete, pushing his vest to the bottom of his bag, 'you can't believe the things that some folk get up to.'
Unusually the club had a mention in the News of the World's report of the London to Brighton relay in 1962.It recorded that Tipton Harriers and Woodford Green were so fascinated by each other's colours that they ran the whole length of the race, all 56 miles (90km), side by side. It was perfectly true, unlike many newspaper articles, but sadly for us they were 9th and we were 10th.
I ran in the London to Brighton relay on only three occasions, 1961, 1962 and 1964. It was a very prestigious race, basically the National road relay championships, and the clubs qualified by finishing in the first six in the area race, which in our case was the Manchester to Blackpool relay. Other clubs were invited to make up the 20 teams allowed to run.
It was a daunting experience, I found, to be involved in such an event.
In 1962 I ran stage 8, a tough five and half miles slog (9km). I boarded the coach that was taking me to the changeover and was greeted by baleful looks from those already sitting there. I was sure they were thinking ' who is this young character we don't know, and why is he running a long stage?'
It got worse. Onto the bus climbed Martin Hyman, British international, stage record holder, and one of the leading middle distance runners in the world.
He looked around the bus as if seeking any stiff opposition. We gazed back in awe.
Amazingly, he then proceeded to give us a detailed description of the stage, where the hills were and a few landmarks so that we could judge how far we had run.
What a wonderful person he was to give us novices such useful advice, and to allay our nerves because I realized that the baleful looks were, in fact, apprehension of the unknown.
Although we only ran three London to Brighton relays during my career they became steeped in the club's memory because of a quirk of fate.
Tony Phillips joined the club in the late 50's and shortly afterwards became the proud owner of a cine camera. One of the first shots that he ever recorded was one of Ron Bentley, wearing a long black coat, crossing Westminster Bridge just before the start of a London to Brighton relay.
This film, together with many others taken over the years, was shown annually after the club's A.G.M. to great acclaim and amusement. They certainly spiced up what had previously been a tedious affair over the years, and as the number of films increased every year, and we insisted that all of them be shown, drinking time was prolonged year by year.
Of course, the films were not devoted to the races we ran. A number of them involved clips of holidays in France which were the highlight of the year for a nefarious gang from the club which included Bert Harbach, Ray Thorpe, Eric Silk, and Roy Poultney to name but a few.
Tony Phillips was invited to join them, I am sure, because he had a nice new car, and a cine camera to record the mayhem.
As Tony was a learned college professor and a bit posh (he was known as Prince Phillip for many years) he always tried to take educational shots with his camera. His views of scenery and signposts were the talk of the club. The clips we liked best, though, at the A.G.M. were the ones taken when Bert stole the camera when Tony wasn't looking and Tony himself was the subject.
SCENE ONE: - A campsite on the French coast. Sand dunes mask the horizon.
Alongside a small tent a man in vest and pyjama bottoms kneels in front of a mirror about to shave.
The camera closes in on the kneeling man.
The kneeling man hears the whirring of the camera, turns, and sees Bert with the camera.
Tony says something to Bert and the film ends.
Before he brought the films to the club that year Tony showed them to his mother. When she saw that clip (no soundtrack, of course) and lip-read what Tony had said to Bert she exclaimed in a firm motherly voice 'ANTHONY'
Well that was Tony's version.
SCENE TWO: - The main street of a small French town not far from the dunes and a campsite.
Around the corner at the bottom of the street appears, one by one, a gaggle of scruffy, uncouth characters. Dressed in tatty tee shirts and shorts, with old trainers on their feet, they took on the appearance of ne'er do wells and vagabonds.
The camera remained focussed on the corner.
Following these ruffians at a discreet distance another person appeared. The camera is focussed on the man's face and then pans down.
He is immaculately dressed in collar and tie, with a splendid grey sports jacket.
The camera pans down. Below the jacket the dapper Englishman (he has to be, dressed like that) was wearing a pair of old green and white shorts, long white socks and a pair of running shoes.
Tony Phillips had taken France by storm.
Another strange fact that was reported from these trips was Tony's attraction to biting insects.
He insisted on taking a camp bed, despite the amount of room it occupied in the car, so that he was raised from the floor at night.
The rest of the rabble slept where they could, on the floor, sand, grass, anywhere that was faintly dry.
Remarkably, when they woke up next morning they were unscathed but Tony was covered in red lumps every day. The rabble claimed that it was his sensitive ' Blue blood' pedigree that was to blame but Tony always claimed that the insects were frightened of catching diseases from his holiday companions.
I only ventured abroad on two occasions with the club, both times to the European Clubs cross country championships. These were held in Arlon, a small town in Belgium in the Ardennes close to Luxembourg.
It was the coldest place I had ever been to; running was almost impossible.
The first time was in December 1969 after we had won the National earlier that year.
It was the first time I had been in an airplane and for me it was a great adventure. We flew to Brussels in a swish airliner (for those times) and then went on to Luxembourg.
We were taken aback when we were taken from the departure lounge at Brussels Airport down some steps and across the tarmac to a small plane that was parked away from prying eyes, it seemed.
Being invited to board this museum piece we climbed a few steps into the cabin. I sat next to Bill Carr and looking out of the window we were shocked to see a huge propeller spinning alongside us. We asked one of the cabin crew (stewardesses in 1969) what sort of plane it was.
'A Focke-Friendship' she replied.
' I think they had those in the war' I whispered to Bill.
'Doug, I think we are on borrowed time here' were Bill's comforting words.
Of course the flight was wonderful, as we circled Luxembourg ready to land we could see the lights of an office block that had been arranged to make a giant Christmas tree, a truly magical sight.
We were taken by cars to Arlon where we met up with the other members of the club who had traveled by car. (Only the team and manager were on expenses). In the hotel I practiced my command of the French language by conversing with the two year old son of the owner (his French was slightly better than mine) and went off to bed early (ish) as we had a race to run the following day.
Sadly our team, weakened by injury, finished a disappointing fourth although in the circumstances we felt that it was a good result.
We celebrated anyway, as was our tradition, first at the official banquet laid on by the organizers (Alan Whittle used his command of French to keep the wine flowing. – 'Plus vin ici, Monsieur le President'), and later at a club quaintly named ' Les Caves'.
Sadly the night ended a bit earlier than we intended as we were evicted following a fine display of bullfighting from Alan and John Malpass.
We then spent some time trying to find two of our younger members who were looking for the toilets. They took some re-assuring that the gents and ladies were one and the same place.
The next morning the team and officials were whisked to the wooden hut that was Luxembourg airport in 1969, whilst the rest of the club members climbed wearily into the cars for the long journey home.
Their departure, however, was delayed by the fact that the engine of Steve Walton's Hillman Imp had frozen solid after two days of standing in the bitter cold. English anti-freeze was not made for Arctic type weather. After the application of some carefully poured hot water the engine turned, and with some rally type driving just made the ferry back to Dover.
Steve's car soldiered on for a few more years but it was never the same again.
My second journey to Arlon was probably in 1979. We traveled by coach and ferry and we stayed at Luxembourg. The hotel was like something out of a Pink Panther movie with an old woman concierge sitting knitting in the foyer by the barred gates of the lift. She would have been at home, we thought, watching the guillotine falling In the French revolution.
It was still as cold as I remembered it from my first visit. The course was different and the organizers had bulldozed the snow from the 1000 metre lap to leave a surface of rock hard tufts of grass. What strange customs these Europeans have.
I ran in the open race, as I had not made the championship team. My endearing memory of the race was of the end of each lap (and there seemed to be more than there should have been) when we passed the refreshment tent and the smell of mulled wine was overpowering.
Needless to say, immediately after the race we joined our traveling supporters (they were not called WAGS then) in the tent and soothed our frozen, aching lungs with the said wine.
Paul Venmore, I believe, won the race and I made the first ten, so prizes were in the offing.
I won an encyclopedia (Petit Larousse en couleurs) which, as you have guessed, was all in French. Amazingly it is still used. It was very useful recently helping my granddaughter with her homework.
The star of the championship race for us was Bob Westwood who showed his true class by finishing 13th in a star studded field. The team again was depleted by injury and finished a disappointing 6th, no mean feat really when the other teams were basically their national squads. The English club system, it appeared, was a far cry from the continental view.
On the morning of the race we met Bob, who had slept for almost the whole journey to Luxembourg, walking with his dad round the city centre. They were peering into a shop window shaking their heads. 'Hey, lads my dad' s just worked out how much that bike in the window is in English money. It costs a thousand pounds!'
Bob and his dad continued their stroll shaking their heads in disbelief.
Bob was also to us the star at the presentation. The Porto team (Portugal, really) went up to collect their awards dressed immaculately in grey suits with green and white ties. Bob followed shortly afterwards wearing a black duffel coat and bobble hat. We Brits know how to dress in cold weather.
In the hotel the youngsters in our party had invented a new game. It was called ' Unsettle an old bat' They lay on the floor of the lift, pressed the button for the ground floor, and waited until it stopped alongside the knitting old lady. She would look up to see who emerged through the gate but no one was there. The lads, without being seen, would then press the button for the second floor and the lift would mysteriously rise out of sight.
This happened a few times until Mary Talbot spotted them and laid down the law, as she was wont to do, and we escaped being evicted from our lodgings.
Up early on the morning of our departure we filed into the dining room to find a wonderful continental breakfast spread out on the tables. We tucked in hurriedly as we were short of time to get to the ferry, and rushed out to the coach. I couldn't help noticing, though, as we left that we seemed to have devoured a great quantity of food in a very short space of time.
The answer revealed itself a short way into our journey. Pete Griffiths had swept the tables clean as he exited the dining room and had a great feast for the journey.
University is a great educator for the important things of life.
The trip was a great success, not athletically perhaps, but the friendship of the members who made the trip, both young and old, was a joy to behold.
Unfortunately one outcome of the trip was a great sadness to those who went. The coach driver had fallen foul of some continental regulations, which led to legal proceedings being taken against him.
When I joined the club in 1957 there were only about 15 active athletes, we struggled to get 12 runners for the Manchester to Blackpool relay, and basically everyone in the club could sit on the general committee. Transport was rarely a problem. Coach travel was restricted to the big races like the National C.C or the Manchester to Blackpool when the faithful band of supporters who came to watch increased our numbers.
By the late 70's / early 80's the membership of the club had increased considerably. The numbers in the club were such that for a lot of the races coaches or buses had to be hired.
Jim Dudley, whose daughter ran for the club, was a bus driver with West Midlands Transport. Through his good offices the club could hire buses at a very competitive rate and he would drive the bus to the races. This arrangement was a very attractive proposition for the club treasurer. However, as the buses were double-deckers, which normally plied their trade on the 245 Wednesbury to Dudley route, trips to places like Luton (for the National C.C) were not so attractive as far as comfort for the passengers was involved.
One trip in particular was truly memorable. This involved a journey to Colchester where the Ladies National Cross-Country championships were being held.
It took ages to get there. We seemed to crawl down the motorway at about 45-mph (70 km/hr) and when we crossed into Essex a ragged cheer was raised. It is a big county, though, and it was another bum numbing hour before we arrived at our destination.
The girls were dropped off at the university and the rest of us were taken to Colchester bus station where, thanks to a reciprocal arrangement between bus companies, a top up of essentials and a good wash were provided. (For the bus, not us)
Two things stand out in my recollection of the day.
Firstly, when a crowd of girls led by Sandra Bentley marched into the gent's toilet justifiably claiming in a loud voice
'The ladies is so crowded the race will be over before we get in, can we use yours?'
The men present, mainly runners, and having been in the same situation themselves, happily agreed to her protestations and the toilet became a unisex establishment.
My other memory is of the Junior girl's race, in which my daughter was competing. I went to the start with the team to make sure that they were in the right pen, and waiting for the start I gave them a pep talk on how to start and how to pace themselves. (I think I said slow and slower respectively).
The girls ran quite well considering, but after the race my daughter enlightened me with a startling fact.
In the next pen to where our team started there was a girl standing alone, who apparently listened to my talk.
She went on to win the race.
Should I have become a coach? On reflection, probably not. Athletes with talent will be good regardless of what they are told.
The journey back home (via Cambridge) seemed just as far as the outward route, it certainly took a few runs the following week to work the stiffness from my legs.
If the numbers traveling could be accommodated the club hired a coach. In the early years we used Kendrick's Transport (again a club contact ensured competitive rates) but in later years a company based in Sedgley was the preferred choice. (I will not name the company for reasons that will become clear as you read on) Again the treasurer was agreeable, as they were cheap and cheerful.
The coach that was always made available to us was very ancient and decrepit. We called it 'The African Queen' after the boat in the film of the same name.
This coach was used during the week to ferry the miners to Baggeridge colliery and consequently was covered in coal dust. This meant that fancy, new, or clean kit was never worn for the journey. (Nothing different to most journeys for many of us) It also had many windows that leaked profusely in the rain so the experienced traveler knew exactly where to sit. The diesel fumes, which swept in from beneath the floor through badly fitting inspection covers also governed seating choice. However, after the initial shock and a few trips the 'African Queen' became a dear friend.
During the journeys the driver ran a sweet shop from the front of the coach, which was a great attraction to the younger members. This caused some consternation to the older passengers as the bus swerved during transactions, caused mainly because the steering wheel moved a quarter of a revolution before the wheels responded.
We traveled to many races and track meetings in the 'African Queen' but one was spectacularly memorable.
We went to a track league cup meeting at Sheffield. We believe to this day that it was the farthest the bus had ever traveled in its life. The same was probably true for the driver.
They both decided to make the best of the opportunity and to show us what they could do.
When we chanced upon the M1 motorway north of Derby it was obvious that neither bus nor driver had ventured onto one before.
The slip road onto the motorway was a gentle descent and as we went down to join the motorway a beautiful new coach traveling on the motorway passed us. Our driver was up to the challenge. Foot flat down to the floorboards the 'African Queen' gathered speed, joined the motorway, and moved into the outside lane. The road continued to descend and we passed the other coach to great acclaim from our cheering passengers.
We reached the bottom of the hill. The motorway climbed steeply away in front of us. The driver was still up for the challenge, but sadly the ''African Queen' wasn't.
Shaking uncontrollably, with engine wheezing and producing more fumes than ever, she faltered and slowed down to a crawl. The other coach re-passed us and our driver then had to negotiate the old girl back to the inside lane where, in all honesty, she belonged.
Fortunately there was not too much traffic around and despite a few anxious moments with the uncooperative steering wheel we regained our rightful place and proceeded to Hillsborough Stadium at a stately 30 mph (50km/hr)
. I don't think the experience affected our performances too much, I believe we progressed to the next round of the cup.
Another memorable race to which we went by coach was the Sutton in Ashfield road relay in which we competed on 3 occasions from 1958-60. For the last of these visits, having entered four teams, we required a coach to transport us to north Nottinghamshire.
As was ever the way at the club we had to wait for people to turn up at the H.Q. to board the bus so, consequently, we were late setting off.
Having to pick others up en route it became obvious that we would be pressed for time to get to the start in time for the start.
At this point Bert Harbach and Ron Bentley took charge. They took it in turns to stand directly behind the driver shouting 'STOP LIFTING' as soon as he slowed down. The terrified man obeyed to the best of his ability but it was still going to be a tight call.
Plan 'B' was put into operation, as it was to be numerous times in the future, the first stage runners changed into their running kit on the coach. Thus, Ron, Geoff Carless, a very young Alan Richards, and myself were dumped at the start of the race to warm up as best we could while the rest of the teams went to the changing rooms.
Despite the lack of a warm up I think we all ran quite well, the 'A' team finished 3rd, and the journey home was conducted at a more leisurely pace, which was a great comfort for the driver, who incidentally was never called upon to drive for us again.
As we normally had a band of supporters, coach was also the preferred mode of transport to the Bristol-Weston-Bristol road relay. It was a well-established race when I joined the club but sadly, like many of the long relays, because of the increase in traffic it was deemed too dangerous to continue after 1967.
We always stopped at Tewksbury on the way to the race for a break and a cup of tea on what was then a long journey. (The distance is still the same but the traveling time involved was much longer without motorways).
One year, returning to the coach after our break, Ron and Gordon Bentley spotted that the nuts on the coach wheels were loose, and the driver was suitably harangued into remedying the situation. (I told you the Bentleys were good with things that moved)
Recalling the Bristol to Weston relay reminded me of another question in the Centenary Questionnaire.
What was the worst prize you have ever received?
In 1960 we were 5th in the Bristol to Weston relay and we won a big carton of cigarettes each. The Wills Tobacco Company sponsored the race so I suppose it should not have been a surprise. I do remember, though, that a few individuals did light up on the back seat of the coach on the way home.
Another strange prize came our way at the St. Albans cross country relay where we competed on 8 occasions between 1965 and 1972 winning the event 4 times.
In 1968 we finished 3rd behind Reading and Luton and were duly summoned to receive our prizes. Led by club captain Geoff. Wood we trooped up to the presentation party and were astounded by Geoff's outburst to the Mayor of St.Albans,
'What sort of a prize is this' he stormed ' to give to athletes'.
The rest of us shuffled forward shamefacedly to receive our cigarette lighters.
I really shouldn't have been surprised by Geoff's reaction. We had been at school together and became very good friends. He was a teacher of History, and in the best sense of the phrase ' one of the old school'. Believing that everything should be done properly and with a certain amount of dignity and proprietary it was little wonder that he was outspoken when things appeared wrong.
Many years after the St.Albans incident a Tuesday night training session was in progress.
Steve Emson was the proud owner of one of the new watches that had a stopwatch incorporated. It was the first one that anyone at the club had seen. Steve spent most of his runs looking at the watch and fiddling with the buttons. He would stop it every time we paused to cross the road or wait for the group to reform. Gone were the days when we would run for just over an hour. It would be 62 minutes and 34.2 seconds.
This Tuesday night we ran up to Sedgley from Coseley and then into Dudley, but instead of running up Burton Road into the town it was decided to have an effort along the Broadway and to the top of Castle Hill. It was a grueling route to take, with a switchback along the Broadway and the steep climb at the end, and after a short distance the group started to
spread out. Steve was with the leading pack, consulting his watch as he ran, when we became aware that someone from the chasing group had closed upon us.
'Emson, I don't need a watch to know how fast I'm running ' shouted a very irate Geoff. Wood, who with a loud 'HRRRUMPH' fell back to continue his run with the chasing pack.
During 1970 another teacher joined the cub. Tony Reavley came from London and as was usual with Black Country folk he was regarded as a stranger and was always known as 'The Southerner'. He was an accomplished runner on road and country and often ran in the club's A team (notably in the team that won the Tipton-Bridgnorth-Tipton relay in 1973). In the four years that he ran for the club he gained a reputation for eccentricity that endeared him to all.
After he first appeared we noticed that his normal apparel whether at races, at the club, or in the pub was a scruffy blue tracksuit top. Ron Bentley told Tony that he had a coat that would probably fit him and from the day it was handed over Tony wore it every time he was seen, even to go to school we were told.
The winter of 1973 was extremely cold. During that time Tony lived in a little wooden hut in
the Wyre Forest near to Bewdley. The icicles inside the hut every morning were getting longer
and longer. During his training runs through the woods he spotted a derelict caravan and
to supplement his heating he took wood back to his hut to burn. This saw him through the
worst of the weather but some months later he was surprised to get a visitor. No one had ever
called on him before but the chap wanted to know if he had seen anyone tow a caravan away
as he had lost one that was parked in the forest.
During his stay in the hut he fell foul of the law when a passing policeman spotted him shaving in a telephone box. It was a regular part of Tony's day to take the bulb from the phone box and plug in his electric shaver but he invented some plausible story which the constable swallowed (something about a power cut and an important meeting). The fact was that there was no electricity in the hut.
He was persuaded to forsake the hut and for the short time he remained in the Midlands he lodged with Alan Richards and his brother Cyril at their home near to the club.
Tony had a bit of a food fad. He was a bit like Ron Franklin in that way. (What is it about Londoners?) He would only eat bananas if they were black and, as they looked a bit off to Cyril they would get dumped into the bin. Tony would then spend ages rooting through the garbage sorting out the bananas, pulling them out and eating them.
He was also keen to dabble with ultra distance running and to this end spent many Sunday mornings with Ron Bentley and his merry crew. A terrific description of his escapades with the ultras was published in the commemorative issue of the' Whippet' of 1972, which hopefully will be made available in the centenary publications. It was written in the form of a script for a play, entitled 'Always on a Sunday' and despite Tony's wish for anonymity at the time he should be given due credit for what is a 'must read' insight into the ways of the Tipton Harriers long distance runner.
That the name of Bert Harbach has already appeared regularly in these stories will be no surprise to the people who knew him. He was a fantastic character with an amazing sense of humour and could turn any situation into a moment of fun.
When I joined the club Bert and Ken Rickhuss were the mainstays of the athletics side of the things. Both talented runners, they nurtured the youngsters around them, providing them with the basics of training and tactical awareness that was to make many of us part of the success that the club enjoyed in later years, exactly as Ken and Bert had planned.
Bert was a structural design engineer by trade who, I believe designed part of the stand at the new Aston Villa football ground. He was also responsible for the design of a bridge that spans the canal beneath the M5 motorway in Oldbury. He always claimed that he made the bridge a few inches taller than it should have been so that runners could comfortably pass beneath without the fear of bumping their heads. For obvious reasons it was always known as 'Bert's bridge' and was the start or finish of many efforts along that stretch of canal.
He amazed us all one Sunday morning in the clubhouse. There had been talk of removing the pillars in the function room to make it more 'dance friendly', but Bert said that it wouldn't work.
With a pencil in hand and using a beer mat as paper he worked out the loading moments of the roof and explained that if any pillar was missing the building would collapse. The 'improvements' were never carried out.
Although he was a wonderful runner he was very nervous and unsure of his ability. We were told as soon as we joined the club that we should never cheer him on during a race as this would upset his concentration, and woe betide anyone who passed him if he was designated leader of an effort during training!
However it was always Bert's sense of humour which came to the fore. Early remembrances of him took place at the aftermath of the Manchester to Blackpool relay.
He would march us down the promenade in military fashion, and then when the time was right he would bring us to a halt and get us to stare at a roof across the road while he pointed to it.
A crowd always gathered to see what was happening, and then Bert would get us to slink away and leave a multitude of folk peering up and asking each other what was going on.
On the Sunday following the race, after a run over the dunes and breakfast, we always went to Stanley Park (The venue many years later of Keith Rollason's victory in the Junior National cross-country Championships).
Here Bert would organize the annual battle between the pedal boats with water flying everywhere and no hiding behind the island or you were marooned there.
This was followed by a frantic game of crazy golf and after lunch Bert refereed the football match on the sands. The fact that Bert had very little idea of the rules of the game made it just that little bit better, what he didn't know he improvised in his own special way, very much like the Premiership refs of today!
I wrote earlier of John Malpass' Ford Popular in which we traveled to Melton. A short while after that journey the car was again pressed into service to take a small band of us to Bangor in north Wales. John didn't drive the car because he had to drive a Morris Oxford he had hired to carry the remainder of the team. Pete Boxley was given the unenviable task of piloting the Ford and Bert went with him as navigator because as he said he had been to Abersoch and knew where Wales was.
By good fortune I found myself in the Morris and following behind the Ford noticed that it appeared to producing a lot of smoke. 'It always does that' said John ' There's a pinhole in the exhaust'
'Pinhole' said Ken Rock 'It looks more like a cave to me'
Bert complained about the smoke during our tea stop at Shrewsbury but was persuaded that it would do him no harm but by the time we were passing through Corwen smoke was billowing from every aperture in the car. The car window opened and a white hanky of surrender waved. The car suddenly stopped in the middle of the town and Bert and the rest of the passengers threw themselves out into the fresh air.
Again we persuaded Bert to continue; claiming that it was like altitude training. He ran very well as it turned out, we won quite a few prizes and had a wonderful day.
(A full description of the day appeared in the Whippet shortly after under the title of 'Didn't we have a lovely time the day we went to Bangor' and this was reprinted in 1992- hopefully it will be available for the Centenary publications)
Ken Rock was another splendid character who ran for the club as a youth in the early 60's and as a senior from 1967.In the early 70's he regularly ran in the club's A team notably in the long relays. In 1973 at the Midland 12 stage he ran the 11th stage helping the club to victory, and the same year ran the 8th stage in the National 12 stage recording the 3rd fastest time for his leg with the team finishing a very close 2nd to Birchfield. He continued to race until 1981 until an accident brought an untimely end to his running career.
I always enjoyed taking Ken to races in my car. He would keep my children, who sat in the back seats with him, entertained by regaling them with wonderful stories of his exploits, especially in South Africa. His wonderful 'sing-song' Quarry Bank accent added a lot of magic to the tales, and not only were the kids enthralled: the driver and his wife listened intently also.
'Ah was a-running through the bush minding me own business when ah looked up an ah seen this big elephant on the path. Ah thought to me self ' Kenny yo'wn gorra dew sum a-running now'
Ken was also a great naturalist, what he didn't know about birds, animals, and plants were not worth knowing.
He occasionally took us on Sunday runs round the Million Dollar forest on the outskirts of Wombourne. To most of us the place appeared to be a maze, but Ken knew all the trails through the woods and mysteriously would guide us away from paths claiming the presence of traps. I used to think 'How does he know?'
One winter season we ran a cross-country race at Stourport. After the race we prepared for our customary cool down with a jog round the course and Ken asked us to wait a few seconds while he fetched something from his car. Thinking that he had gone for another pair of shoes we duly obliged, and were mystified when he re-appeared with a sack.
As we went round the lap he stopped from time to time to pick vegetables from the fields alongside the course. 'Didn't you notice these lads?' he commented ' They'll go nice with me pheasant for dinner tomorrow'.
Of course, had the word been coined then, he was a 'freegan'- probably the only one I have ever known.
Over the years the different types of people who have become members have enhanced the club in various ways. Some have brought world class running ability, many have given us tremendous loyalty, and others were always consistent performers. Quite a few possessed all of these qualities and together with the other runners who brought their own particular forte to the mix made the club the success it became.
Keith Boyden brought toughness, ruthlessness and the know-how of winning. He joined the club in 1968 just after his previous club, North Staffs. Harriers had won the National cross-country championship. He lived at Meir on the outskirts of Stoke and worked in the pottery industry, Often before he came to races he had spent a night at the kilns working in tremendous heat.
We always felt that the runners in the north of Staffordshire were a crazy crowd of hard men. Their cross-country courses epitomized their attitude to the sport and motivated by the likes of the legendary Roy Fowler it was little wonder that they had earned that reputation.
Keith, then, introduced the club to this nasty streak. The fact that within a short time of his being cleared to run for the club we won the National cross-country championships for the first time showed that it didn't take long for his presence to take effect.
When I was given the great honour to be club captain it was an instant decision to make Keith my vice-captain. We were like 'good cop, bad cop,' I quietly encouraging the lads and Keith shouting and swearing at them, especially at the start of races. I believe a lot of the team was so scared of him that they ran on pure adrenaline alone.
Keith ran for the club until the late 1970's, more often than not in the first team as befitted someone with his talent, always with passion and a great inspiration to all those around him.
Keith is the central character of a memorable Sunday morning training run. It must have been a season in the early 70's when the National cross-country was to be run on a fast course because the Sunday runs that year involved a 20 miles (32km) jaunt on the roads through Willenhall, Short Heath, Bloxwich and Walsall Wood. The run ended with a run round Walsall ring road and then another climb into Wednesbury before threading our way over the moonscape of smoking ash and furnace debris that was to be the site of the housing estate across Farmers Way in later years.
Keith's dad, Charlie, used to drive them down from Stoke and they always enjoyed a drink and a chat in the clubhouse after the run. Keith, however, always had to be back home at a specific time for Sunday lunch or, as Alan Richards used to say, it was in the dog.
As I have mentioned, getting to the club on time to set off for races was always a struggle for quite a lot of people. The same was true of club training sessions. It appears strange that the 'time of day' seemed irrelevant for a group of participants in a sport that is obsessed by time, but that was very much the case.
The first few Sunday mornings went off quite well. A pleasant run at an amiable pace followed by a beer or two and a chat that left Keith and Charlie ample time to return home for lunch.
The curse of the latecomers then set in. We set off 5 minutes late so to get back in time we ran 5 minutes quicker. Then it became 10 minutes. Then it was 15 minutes.
It culminated to ridiculous proportions when one fateful Sunday morning the 20 miles run became a race.
The group split up early on as Keith and Arthur Bradley took the pace along at a great rate of knots, and by the time we were running round the Walsall ring road the group was spread out over a mile or more. Running up the hill into Wednesbury I was following Allan Rushmer and Mick Orton. We were all running about 25 yards apart and so tired that we were unable to catch each other. Of Keith and Arthur there was no sign.
Allan, Mick and myself ran a minute or two over 2 hours for the 20 miles (32km). When we arrived at the club Keith had had a shower and was heading for the bar to have a drink with his dad, at exactly the same time as he always did. He must have run the 20 in 1 hour 52 minutes or so.
Just to get home in time for his lunch.
I don't remember running the course ever again. As I said, athletes are obsessed by time, and someone was sure to try to run the Walsall Wood 20 faster!
The courses we used for training, both from the old clubhouse in Sedgley Road and from Gospel Oak, generally fell into two categories, hard and absolute hell. I suppose looking back, in actual fact it wasn't the course so much that determined which one it was to be but the pace of the run and the personnel involved.
A few of the courses we used and some of the exploits that evolved have already been the subject of some tales and naturally they have evoked memories of other escapades.
As I have mentioned the canal towpaths have always been an escape from the noise and bustle of the roads during the lighter nights and at the weekend. Occasionally they were also the scenarios of a gentle, pleasant run. (Very occasionally).
One such run happened on a fine Sunday morning in the 1970's. A group of about 20 set off from the club and surprisingly no one was of a mind to push the pace. We had followed the route of Brindley's canal from Bloomfield Road, through Oldbury and Smethwick and were returning to the club on the Walsall canal through Great Bridge. At the time the bridge over the canal at Great Bridge was in a state of collapse and had been fortified by 4 large girders which cleared the towpath by about 4ft 6 inches (1.4m)
As was the custom when we approached the bridge the leaders would shout a warning to remind the group to duck as we went under the bridge. The ritual was repeated on this particular Sunday and everyone got through safely.
With only 2 miles (3km) to run and the prospect of a cold beer strong in our thoughts we were astonished to be hailed by a fellow on a narrow boat moored near the bridge.
'Hey, lads, we can't get the boat under the bridge; it's about an inch too high. If you climb on board it will lower the boat enough to get through.'
As the boat was at the bottom of a long flight of locks it appeared that the guy on the boat had worked out the best plan of action and his prayers were answered when 20 people turned up at the same time. My initial reaction was that he had enlisted a lost cause because none of us weighed more than ten and a half stones. However, we all climbed on board and spread out along the boat and it gradually inched its way through the bridge with much scraping of the roof. Emerging on the other side of the bridge the boat immediately entered a lock so we had to jump clear very quickly. We were then faced with running back under the bridge and in the excitement the warning wasn't given and John Young hit the last girder and went down like a shot deer. He lay dazed on the floor for a few moments, and despite our protests, claimed that he was fit to carry on running back to the club. He, of course, couldn't see the blood that was pouring out of his head and by the time we arrived at the club he was covered in blood from head to foot. Now John was a real tough guy, as one would expect from an ex S.A.S. soldier (surprisingly one of two we had in the club at the time) and was quite happy to have a shower and carry on regardless. However, swayed by our concern, he was persuaded that treatment was necessary and he was driven to hospital. Returning some time later sporting a bandage and about 10 stitches in his wound he insisted on a pint and a chat before going home.
John ran for the club between 1971 and 1977 and the last I heard of him, some years later, was an account of a trip he made to climb in the Andes. He apparently had fallen, broken his leg, and walked for four days to reach civilization to get treatment. No wonder a bump on the head running on the canals round Great Bridge couldn't faze him!
The story of the group who braved the journey through Netherton tunnel reminded me of the only other tunnel on the canal network around Tipton.
Coseley tunnel is at least fairly easy to run through. Alan Richards always believed that the only way to negotiate the quarter of a mile (400m) of darkness was to run as fast as possible. Like many others I was comfortable running at a reasonable speed through the tunnel but some members of the club found it a traumatic experience.
The route through the tunnel was a regular part of our runs, both at weekends and on club nights, as it was a convenient access to the Wolverhamton canal and the Bradley loop.
It was also an opportunity to hone our tactical skills. Running the towpaths with 20 or 30 others helps enormously with ones ability to be in the right place at the right time. It was invaluable for track races, especially the 2 miles (3000 metres) team race in the West Midland track league when up to 40 would compete.
The right place at the right time was a must when we approached Coseley tunnel from the Wolverhamton end of the canal. The last effort was always on the road from Bloomfield Road Bridge, about 400 yards (400m) from the exit of the tunnel, up the hill to the crossroads at Allen's.
The right place, as one entered the tunnel in order to have any chance of having a presence in the burn-up that was to come, was to be close to the leaders. It was even more of an advantage to be in front of the people who were traumatized by the prospect of running through the tunnel and tended to run extremely slowly. Of course, the runners who hated the tunnel and wanted to be in the mix for the effort also desperately tried to get to the front. The elbowing, pushing and gamesmanship that went on approaching the tunnel entrance can only be likened to a rugby scrum carried out at 5-minute mile pace.
As I lived only two miles (3km) from Coseley tunnel it was a route I used quite often when I ran from home. I regularly ran that way if there wasn't a race on Saturday and in later years as a veteran when races were held on Sundays. Very often I would arrange to meet someone from the club, as it is much more pleasant to have company on training runs.
It came to pass, therefore, that I met up with Jeff Taylor on the canals near Owen Street and we set off to run round the Bradley canal via the Coseley tunnel. Jeff, like me, was comfortable running through the tunnel so we were running at a decent pace when we entered into the gloom. Reaching the middle and in complete darkness my foot hit something and I fell like a sack onto the cobbles. A millisecond later Jeff landed on top of me.
' I thought you had vanished ' he said.
' I think I've hit a body' I wheezed, as Jeff's landing had emptied my lungs of air.
Jeff clambered up and went to investigate what had caused our fall. Someone had left a car tyre on the towpath, probably to discourage the kids who rode motor bikes along that stretch of canal.
Jeff threw the tyre into the canal and we cautiously made our way to the light at the far end of the tunnel. Checking our injuries I found that I had taken a fair bit of skin from my knees had bruised my shoulder and elbow, and the force of the impact had pushed my foot through the front of my shoe. Jeff, who of course had had a soft landing, was unscathed. We carried on with our run, much slower than we had planned and reached home with no more incidents.
Our exploits were the source of much amusement at the club during the following week, but later I often thought that our misadventure saved an intended victim from a much more serious outcome.
The experience never discouraged me from running through the tunnel, I continued to run that way at least once a week until I retired to Lincolnshire a few years ago.
As was often the case Bill Carr and the ultra runners were training for a big race. Bill had set his training schedule out and was running three times a day. To help with his final run of the day he enlisted some of us to run with him on various nights to keep him company. On club nights the group running from the club agreed to join him for his final 10 miles (16km) of the day.
We always ran the same course. Through Coseley, up Ivy House Lane, along the New Road, into Dudley via the Priory to Castle Hill, and then back to Great Bridge, Ocker Hill and to the club.
This went on for weeks, every Tuesday and Thursday, and as we were helping Bill the pace was always nice and gentle. One night Alan Richards commented ' I tell you what lads, we are like Zombies running round here like this every week.'
From that day the course was always known as 'The Zombie'
Even in later years when we went out that way and lengthened the course a bit, it was known as the 'Extended Zombie.'
At the time of this break from our normal club runs there had been a horrific kidnap and murder involving a local girl. The police were searching for the suspect who had been nicknamed 'The Black Panther' by the media.
As part of the police investigation every male in the locality was interviewed and in the course of time the police turned up at my house to ascertain my movements on certain specific days.
Most of the days of which they had a particular interest happened to be Wednesday and with the help of my diary I was able to give details of my whereabouts. Many of the dates coincided with club or Staffs meetings but then they threw in a Tuesday evening. I checked the diary and sure enough we had been running round the 'Zombie'. I explained that I was out running with a group from the club.
'Where do you run?' I was asked.
I gave them the rundown of the course we ran, and to my surprise the policeman said
'Oh you are one of that crowd that runs by the freight terminal at the bottom of Castle Hill at
6-45 every Tuesday and Thursday night'.
Being spotted by the police stake out whilst running the 'Zombie' was a cast iron alibi.
In 1957 when I became a member of the club and in the following 15 years, or so, our training runs from the club were round the familiar courses that had probably been used for many years.
The courses also had been given names that instantly identified exactly which route we would take. From the H.Q. in Sedgley Road there was the ''Cardiff' (about 3 miles (5km) via Castle Street Birmingham New Road, 5 Ways, - named apparently because the route was similar to a race the club ran at Cardiff and was used to prepare for the race).
The 'Hospital' was again about 3 miles( 5km) obviously past The Guest Hospital to Dudley and back to the club via Burnt Tree.
The 'Priory' course extended that course to the top of Castle Hill via the New Road and Priory Road. As we got older the courses became longer and extensions to the aforementioned routes through Sedgley and Coseley became standards in their own right.
In the opposite direction we often ran the 'Oldbury' circuit (into Oldbury town centre and then back along the New Road to Burnt Tree). A shorter version ('The Filter Beds' turning left at The Blue Ball pub and returning via Great Bridge) was also a great favourite.
These last two routes when run consecutively was the course that was used for the club 10 miles (16km) handicap.
When we moved to Gospel Oak in 1971 the courses we used for training were basically the same routes that we had used from the old H.Q. with the starting and finishing point moved across about 2 miles. (3km) (Hence the Zombie being a variation of the Priory runs)
I decided when I became club captain to move away occasionally from the traditional courses.
Variety tends to alleviate boredom and it is always good training practice to test oneself over unfamiliar terrain. We started to run out through Wednesbury, Stone Cross and West Bromwich. Also, unlike most of the runners in the club at the time, I was familiar with the roads around Darlaston, Walsall, and Willenhall near to where I had lived so it was in that direction that some of the club night runs would go. It had two advantages, it was fresh horizons and no one could push the pace too much because I was the only person who knew where we were. (I regularly changed the routes to keep that relevant)
I only met Jack Holden on one occasion. Surprisingly it was when I was 7 or 8 years old.
In the late 1940's Jack was in his prime and consequently was invited as the guest of honour at Darlaston carnival. These events were extremely popular in the period just after the war and hundreds of people turned up at the Rubery Owen sports field at Bentley for the occasion.
My father had worked with Jack at the Star Foundry in Bradley and so I was introduced to the 'great man' during the afternoon.
The thing that struck everyone who was there was that Jack had run all the way from Tipton to be present and more amazingly he was going to run all the way back.
Looking back at it now, of course Jack would run there, he would not turn down the opportunity of a good training run and a chance to meet the public all at the same time.
The strange thing is, though; when the Tuesday night run went round Walsall and Willenhall we were at one point only 300 yards (300m) away from where I met Jack Holden. We also had run all the way from Tipton and back and somehow it didn't seem quite so amazing.
Remembering the training routes that we used from the club brought to mind some of the courses we ran in races. Most people are familiar with the course at Sutton Park that is used for the road relays and it will always have special significance for me for the successes we had there. Tough though it is, it pales into 'not too bad' when compared to some of the courses we ran over the years.
We competed at Ironbridge in two races for quite a few years. The summer race of about 4 miles (7km) along the River Severn was a lovely course, fairly flat, and with a nice finish from the Iron Bridge to the park in the town.
The race held on New Years Day, the Golden Ball Gallop, was a different proposition altogether. It started on the hill above the town out towards Coalbrookdale, a long downhill for the first mile and a half. (2.5km) Then followed a stretch of about a mile along the river through the town and for the last half mile (800m) up a road to the finish at the Golden Ball pub that can only be described as running up a precipice.
My son claimed that one year he was running up the hill to the finish and was passed by a Scotsman in kilt and hob nailed boots who was walking. I don't doubt his story, fancy dress was often the kit of choice for the race, but I sometimes wonder how much he was effected by the sudden change in altitude and perhaps over celebrating the night before.
The day always finished with a pie and a pint in the pub, what a way to start the New Year.
Some of the cross-country courses we ran, however, still give me the shivers when I think about them. No parkland sprints in those days; bottomless mud, ploughed fields, (even in the National, memorably at Luton) and endless hills were the order of the day.
I have already referred to the courses that we ran in the north of Staffordshire as the epitome of the toughness of the characters that emanated from that part of the Midlands.
The course in that area that was used in my early years of running for the club was no exception. The course at Trentham Gardens was basically up and down. A flat start of about 300 yards (300m) followed by an extremely steep climb of one and a half miles (2.5km) through woods, a slide down a scree face into a quarry and a sprint back down a rough path to the end of the lap. Two laps for juniors and three for the seniors, of lung bursting, leg aching slog.
Quite often the situation was exacerbated by the weather. The changing rooms in the winter were colder than the outside. Roy Fowler, who was known by the caretaker of the pavilion, changed in a little office that was warmed by a paraffin heater. How we envied him, but were amazed that the place didn't explode with the fumes of ' wintergreen' that Roy always applied to his legs.
We ran a Birmingham League race at Trentham one season during a period of heavy snowfall. We were told that the course had been changed because of the snow at the top, and the quarry would not be included in the lap. Our hopes of an easier run were soon dashed. They just made the hill longer with another loop and cut steps into the snow so that we could reach a point about 30 feet (9m) below the summit that we always crossed.
The building of the M6 motorway through Staffordshire appeared to be good news for those of us who were becoming weary of the thought of the hill at Trentham. The route of the road was going through the quarry and the course had to be abandoned. (The hill can be seen from the motorway, going north on the right just before junction 15)
Our joy was short lived; our sadistic friends in north Staffordshire had found another course,
It is difficult to put in words the sheer horror of this new venue. I sometimes feel that my mind has blanked out some of the features of the course to protect my sanity.
I vaguely recall the start being at the Michelin sports ground. We then proceeded through a steel scrap yard that had been churned to a morass by forklift trucks. Beneath the surface of the morass there still remained girders and pieces of metal that played havoc with the spikes in ones shoes. Somehow we were then taken onto a canal towpath, 'That's good' I hear you say ' You are used to that'.
This, however, was a towpath unlike any that we ran in the environs of Tipton. Only a yard or two wide (1-2 m) in places and not very convenient for passing especially as it was just over half a mile from the start. With water on the left and a deep ditch on the right there was nowhere to go except in single file. Occasionally the path widened near the bridges, but they were so low it was impossible to use the space to any advantage. Of course the North Staffs runners, who were used to the terrain, started like sprinters and the rest of the field spent most of the races playing 'catch up'.
One Staffs. Championships I also tried to start fast and found myself running alongside Tony Johnson on the towpath. Tony ran for the club from 1965 to 1972 and was a policeman in the Staffs. Force and being used to the course had also started fast because he had a distinct advantage. He was difficult to pass as he was very tall and had a strange short striding style with arms held very high. Consequently his elbows were level with my head. Fearing that I would be knocked into the canal or the ditch by his flailing elbows I decided that my only opportunity to pass him would be at a bridge. Risking life and limb and clinging onto terra firma only by running on the line of bricks on the edge of the canal I managed to sneak past him whilst he was engaged negotiating his 6ft 7 (2m) frame under the bridge.
I digress. Back to the course. To leave the towpath it was necessary to drop into the ditch and scramble to the start of the track known as the infamous 'Cow Lane'
This was a long hill through cattle churned mud with rocks underneath. There were brambles and what I now know to be blackthorn ripping at your arms and legs.
At the top of this tortuous track was a fence and a stile. I have never been very comfortable with fences and the like, but I like to think that everyone struggled to negotiate this obstacle after such a hard climb.
All the height gained from Cow Lane was lost in a short jarring run downhill through rough grassland and with the end of the lap in sight the course revealed its coup de grace.
We had to wade through the River Trent.
Joyous news was received at the club. Michelin had moved their sports ground. Cow Lane was no more.
We should have known better. The new sports ground was alongside the A500 just a little way from the M6 motorway. At first sight it seemed impossible to construct a cross country course on such a small piece of land but there were some trees on the far side that may be useful to add a bit of interest to the flat playing fields.
The trees were more than a bit of interest; they concealed a cunningly placed hill that was incredibly steep and tortuous.
The start and finish of the lap on the playing fields wasn't exactly easy running. How on earth they played football and rugby on the surface of glutinous mud that made up the field I shall never know.
Having negotiated this quagmire and heading out towards the hill a new obstacle was encountered. A curious steel pipe supported on brickwork crossed the course. The pipe was too close to the ground to crawl under and too high to jump (for me, anyway). The only solution was to ungracefully slide over and hope for a good landing on the other side.
The hill loomed. Picking a way up the path to the top through tree roots and stones was bad enough; coming down the even steeper bank through the same terrain was a liability.
For one Staffs. Championships a rope was looped from tree to tree so that the ladies would have something to hang onto to aid their descent.
At the bottom of the hill where it joined the playing fields there was a deep ditch, more often than not filled with muddy water. We always remarked on it when doing our course reconnaissance and tried to remember the best way to negotiate the hazard. In one race, however, Keith Rollason came down the hill so fast that he had no time to deviate from his headlong charge and ended up in the ditch. Covered from head to foot in brown slime we feared that he might be disqualified for not showing club colours but referee, Ken Walklate, always ready to see the humorous side of the situation deemed that it was o.k. as he remembered Keith in green and white at the start.
This course was used for many years for both races and relays, but I believe new venues, still as tough, have been found at Newcastle Under Lyme, Leek, and Stafford. The runners of north Staffordshire always demand the ultimate test from their courses.
The Staffordshire cross country championships quite often used the courses in the north of the county, but occasionally came south to see what the namby- pamby West Midlanders could come up with. Strangely my first Staffs. Championships in 1958 were run at Worfield in Shropshire.
The club hosted the championships and many other races from Dartmouth school at Great Barr. This was a very tough course which, I believe, was very well received by the Stoke crowd (high praise indeed) as was the course at Dartmouth Park, West Bromwich which was used in later years.
Burton on Trent also hosted the championships, over two different courses, both very flat and boggy. The course used first was mainly farmland, and on our recce came upon a ploughed field with a marker pole at each corner and one in the middle. Not being able to see how we would negotiate all five markers we asked a marshall who also didn't know. Even after running three laps in the race I still didn't know. What I remember vividly, though, was following Tony Johnson (again) on the first lap and approaching a fence saw that a piece of sacking had been placed over the wires. Being too high to jump the obvious way through was to slide under holding the sack. Tony ducked down, but being very tall was a disadvantage and he slipped into a puddle, and held onto the fence to steady himself. Unfortunately he missed the sacking, touched the bare wire and received a shock. It was an electric fence.
Shaken though he was he continued to run and much to our delight finished the race.
Many of the cross-country courses we raced involved fences and gates. As I have indicated I was not very enamoured with them and was overjoyed when they ceased to be a regular feature. Geoff Wood was worse than I was. He hated them with a passion, and was naturally very vocal in his views. One race at Rugby was a fine example. Just after the start and approaching a five-barred gate I was aware of a commotion going on just in front of me. Reaching the gate I was amused to find Geoff straddling the gate unable to get his trailing leg to the other side. Every time he tried another runner would arrive and the gate would swing as it was climbed. In his frustration he was loudly protesting that either gates and fences should be banned or other runners should be more cooperative. Sadly his words were ignored.
As youngsters, as part of our introduction into the world of cross-country, the senior club members told us to follow the great runners like Basil Heatley and Roy Fowler on their recce of the course before the race. I was amazed at the attention to detail that they made. They checked the lie of the land at corners, found the best running line and the better surfaces to follow. They paid particular attention at gates and fences, trying a few approaches before leaving and in particular always climbed gates at the side where the hinges were!
Another hard course because it involved a long and steep hill was the one at Markeaton Park in Derby. It was used from time to time for the Inter Counties championships and in one of those races John Earlston used another useful ploy. Always remember where your supporters are on the course. Trying to look good as you pass a group you know works wonders as it relaxes you and gives them the opportunity to tell your rivals how well you are running.
John, however, used it for a different reason. I was following him up the hill when he suddenly stopped and asked Brian Cole to tie his shoe laces
All the reconnaissance in the world would have made no difference to me at the course we ran in the Midlands championships at Melton Mowbray.
Using the same venue as the relays (scalding hot showers included) the race took place at the Army Veterinary H.Q. Needless to say the fences were similar to those used for horse show jumping. They were enormous, 6 or 7-ft. (2 m) high and constructed with heavy logs. They were insurmountable as far as I was concerned. However being slight of build I was able to slide through the gaps and scramble underneath. On the first lap, though, one zealous official threatened me with disqualification if I continued with this practice. Worrying about he implications I approached the same fence on the second lap having already decided that I knew of no rules regarding the negotiation of obstacles. The official had gone, runners in general are slim characters and had all followed my route through the fence, most of them being more vocal in their objections to his interpretation of cross country regulations.
The mention of the showers at Melton brought to mind some of the changing facilities that we encountered at races and, indeed, at the club.
The showers at the club were a superb facility when we moved to Gospel Oak in 1971.
Sadly over the years financial constraints hindered their upkeep and they deteriorated somewhat. Always looking for humour in adversity I proclaimed to all who would believe me that the green slime on the walls of the showers was the panacea of all ills.
Scraped from the wall and applied to strains, pulled muscles and bruises it would bring almost instant relief. Rolled into balls and swallowed, preferably with Bank's mild, would cure coughs, colds, and numerous other ailments.
I hope no one tried it, certainly if anyone did, it was something they never admitted.
Before Aldersley Stadium became the venue for cross-country races held at Wolverhamton the course that was often used was at Goldthorn Park near what is now Colton Hills school on the edge of Penn Common. It was a tough course, very muddy in places, and with the obligatory gates that was the norm then.
The changing facilities were also very much in keeping with what was the normal practice in the early 60's. St. Lukes Infant school was a typical Victorian building, blue brick classrooms, a hall and a playground. We changed in the hall which had a coke stove in the middle, and naturally in the cold weather over 100 runners would attempt to change as near as possible to this meagre source of warmth.
This was not surprising, as the washing 'facilities' were a few tin baths filled with cold water that were scattered around the playground. If you were unlucky and returned to get changed after the first dozen or so had used the baths there was an inch (2.5 cm) of water lying on top of 1ft (30cm) of mud. There was never a jog round the course to warm down when we ran on that course; a sprint back to the school sufficed.
Many years later the Birmingham League races were often staged at Gloucester. The course was pan flat and consisted of a convoluted route around some football and rugby pitches. To add interest there was then a short section along a road (not good for spikes) and then a stretch through an allotment, before gaining access to the playing field through a hole in the fence.
It was on this course running alongside a rugby pitch that young Ron Bentley was tackled by an enthusiastic player who thought Ron was making a run for the try line. Shrugging him off in typical Bentley fashion Ron continued to run without breaking stride as if it was a regular occurrence in the middle of a race. The rugby player looked on bemused as another 100 or so other runners passed him by, all making a run for the try line.
Sorry, I was carried away with the course when I should be describing changing facilities.
They were terrible. A hut on the edge of the field, freezing cold and damp and in the absence of lights, pitch black. It was claimed that there were showers in there somewhere. They apparently dribbled tepid water, but in the dark we could never find them, or where we had left our clothes for that matter!
For obvious reasons the hut was known as 'The Black Hole'.
In real terms, however, 'The Black Hole' was luxury compared to the changing facilities that we enjoyed for the Cyclists v Harriers cross-country race that was held every year at Walsall Arboretum.
We changed in the bike sheds at Chuckery School with tarpaulins draped over the front to defend our modesty. There were no washing facilities at all but looking on the bright side, as it was fairly close to where I lived, I cycled there and I had somewhere to leave my bike.
It was a fantastic race though. Starting on the playing fields at the back of the Arboretum we crossed a canal (in earlier years through a cattle tunnel) and made our way towards Barr Beacon. To do this we had to cross the very busy Sutton Road (and on the way back) The 7 miles (11km) lap didn't quite reach the Beacon but turned back and passed through Birch Wood and Cuckoo's Nook to regain the canal towpath and back to the park.
I only ran the race on two occasions as the AAA banned it in the early 60's when the Cycling Federation allowed amateur cyclists to compete with the professionals and the body that ran athletics didn't want us tainted by money. (How times have changed) It also ended the wonderful track meetings at Halesowen on Bank Holidays that incorporated both track cycling and athletics.
The outcome of the Cyclists v Harriers always depended on how wet the summer had been.
If it was dry the runners had no chance but a good muddy course always tipped the balance against the cyclists.
The second time I raced it had been a fairly wet summer and the balance of power was evenly matched, I was first runner home in about 7th place.
The race unfolded in dramatic fashion. The runners could start much faster than the cyclists could but as soon as the cyclists got up to speed they poured past us and made their way to the exit from the playing fields. This, however, was a narrow plank bridge, just wide enough for one bike. The cyclists sprinted to reach the bridge first, only three of them crossed the stream on the planks the rest finished up in a heap of arms, legs, and metal in the water.
The runners arrived at the ditch. My one everlasting memory of the carnage was of Alan Whittle using the bikers as stepping-stones to reach the other side and in the process pushing them back into the slime.
The race progressed in a more orderly manner after that, we made ground on the rough and the cyclists whistled by on the roads and paths, many of them oozing blood from the cuts and grazes inflicted by the debacle at the stream.
The cyclists were absolutely crazy. I thought we were mad running some of the courses that we used but they were reckless to the point of madness. Despite that I witnessed one of the most amazing feats of skill in clearing a fence that I ever remember.
Coming down a steep hill through some woods two cyclists called to say that they were about to pass me (They were always very courteous about that, even telling us which side to expect them).
About half way down the hill was a fence. The leading cyclist jumped from his bike then threw the bike over the fence. He then jumped the fence, caught the bike before it fell, leaped into the saddle and was away. The second cyclist tried to do the same but his legs refused to obey and he fell in a heap entwined in the bike on the other side of the fence.
I clambered over the fence in my inimitable scramble and made my way to the finish, and then cycled home still covered in mud.
My final story, like the first, relates to the start of my running career, and also to an ending of a relationship with the Staffordshire County cross-country team in which I ran for many years.
I only ran twice at Arrowe Park in Birkenhead. The first time in 1958 was in the first National Cross-Country Championships I ever ran and the second time 23 years later in the last Inter Counties Cross Country that I ran.
I remember very little of either event, but what happened immediately after the race in 1958 had a big impact on my outlook to running and inspired me to continue in the sport.
The changing facilities were much in keeping with the era, an old school with classrooms hastily cleared to make room for the hundreds of runners that would be taking part.
As there were no washing facilities in the school the local Fire Brigade had provided huge rubber dinghies full of hot water that had been set up in the playground. Around the perimeter of the playground the firemen had fixed tarpaulins to the fence (shades of the Cyclists v Harriers) so that inquisitive young girls wouldn't see anything that they shouldn't.
(Incidentally, it didn't work, they were able to pull the screens to one side and take a peek.)
To say that my first experience of a National Championship was a revelation of unknown proportion would be an incredible understatement. As a 16-year-old, just out of school, it was the most amazing event I had ever witnessed. I had seen many of the great runners of the day compete in the senior event and as I made my way back to the changing rooms the seniors in the club insisted that everyone made use of the washing facilities.
'No mud allowed on the coach' they claimed.
Shortly afterwards, therefore, I was scurrying with a group from the club across the playground with just a towel as a covering listening to the hoots of the girls peeping through the gaps in the tarpaulin.
Dropping the towel with the others and probably flushed red with embarrassment I attempted to climb into the dinghy. Not an easy task as they were about 5-ft. (1.6 m) high. Scrambling up the side as best as I could I looked up and saw a hand appear.
'Hang on lad, I'll give you a pull up' a voice proclaimed.
The hand hauled me up and into the water. I turned to my rescuer to thank him and realised that I was sitting beside Derek Ibbotson.
In 1958 he was the golden boy of British athletics, having broken the world record for the mile (3-57.2) the previous year: and I was sitting next to him.
I think I decided there and then that if one of the greatest runners of the day could help a 16 year old boy and speak to him, then running was the sport to which I wanted to belong.
And so it was!