Gashead's Blog Wonders

27Apr/110

Running Round Tracks

I was an active lad, at Bristol Grammar School, when they weren't producing the future Darth Vadar they encouraged sport. I was quite big for my age when I was 13 then I stopped growing. But I had got the taste for running fast, not through a particularly fast pair of legs but through a stride length of around 8 feet which compared well to European 400M champion David Jenkins' stride of 9 feet and he was 6 inches taller than me.

At primary school I could beat the entire school single-handedly at British Bulldog, they didn't fancy a high speed knee in their faces and wisely stood aside. I was in a Scottish Country Dancing team when not captaining the Westbury Park Primary School football team. We would be invited to perform at garden fetes held by members of the Caledonian Society (Scottish club for the uninitiated), they liked a feel of the highland games, there was always a sprint and I always won in my kilt and dancing shoes. I worried the usual prize of a packet of sweets might prevent me from competing at a future Olympic Games as the rules on amateurism were strict.

In 1971 they blooded me in the Six Schools event at Marlborough College competing against them, Clifton College, Downside Abbey and a couple of other havens of homosexuality, bullying and sport. Quite what possessed the appropriately named gym master Mr Trott to put me in the senior boys 400M hurdles when I was 13 and everybody else was 17 or 18 and I couldn't hurdle was beyond me. But I was actually in the lead at the 8th hurdle with 2 more to negotiate. I finally got the grit out of my legs by the following morning and was berated for not finishing the race and gaining a point for the school. My mates thought it was a good effort and I enjoyed the pint one of the teachers bought me near Silbury Hill on the way home, I was 13 of course but I wasn't going to remind him of the obvious.


In 1972 the school put me in for the 400M in the Bristol Schools junior boys category. A heat and a final, I won both and for good measure kept warm with 6 rounds of the long jump and came second in that. Gloucestershire Schools, same events, same result. South-West of England Schools Championships a good heat, a frustrating long jump in which I came third but could have won without the 400M distraction then second in the 400M final. Second or maybe even third? You mean I wasn't the fastest kid on this block?

That July a coach full of kids headed off to Washington, County Durham with GLOS on the back of our tracksuits listening to Rock And Roll Part 2 by Gary Glitter on Radio 1 in constant rotation. A very kindly lady put me up for the three nights and on the day of the first race kindly provided me with a full English, not something you got in Scottish households like mine, that was for teatime or what the English call supper, dinner or some other stupid name for tea. I loved my running but was the nervous sort. I had thrown up discretely in the upstairs loo (even in those days it wasn't all whippets and outside toilets in The North) and left the house sweating, pale and thanking her for the nice breakfast.

The English Schools was an event of precision timing with more competitors than the Olympics with three age categories, two sexes and the full range of track and field events. I checked out the programme for my event, my name was printed correctly though the previous year's record of 51.0 by S.Ovett (Middlesex) was surely a typo. We had to be at the marshalling area, usually a cloakroom, 40 minutes before the race. We left 5 minutes before we had to be on the track racing, I was throwing up again on the headmaster's lawn 3 minutes before the race. Notwithstanding I made the second round but glory was not to be mine that year, nor in 1974 when I competed at Shrewsbury in the intermediate boys category being a mere second in Gloucestershire. Remind me never to get billeted out to a dairy farm again, where the milking machine kicked off at 4am and there was a great pub nearby that welcomed the horde of 14-18 year olds all looking big and old enough to buy many pints on the eve of their athletic displays. Sadly dairy farmers need an early night but they waited up for us, got jiggy and clothes had to be hastily rearranged on the sofa when we came back half an hour after last orders.

By 1975 things had changed. I really wasn't fast enough to get far in the senior boys 400M category, about 400M probably but not as fast as others. The coaches tried to persuade me to run 800M like S.Ovett (Middlesex) and that promising looking S.Coe who gave my mate Gary Parsons a great race at the previous year's Mason Trophy, oddly over 3000M. But the eight hundred looked too much like hard work, I would throw up before and after every single-lap race as well as an average three times in every training session, two laps and my teeth would rot away. The glories of David Hemery were still fresh in my mind from 7 years previously along with the sound of David Coleman's near certain laryngitis as Hemery won the 1968 Olmpic 400M Hurdles gold medal in 48.1.

And thus it came to pass that I had to run a lap with ten three foot high metal things in the way with sticks across the top. I had already beaten the Bristol Schools senior boys 110M Hurdles champion by letting out such a yell when I hit the 6th 3'6" hurdle that he was distracted and ran straight into the 8th one (apologies Chris Hayes). I fashioned an efficient method of running the 400M hurdles with a minimum of bother from the sticks though the inside lane was not a favourite as my technique tended to be ruined by the kerb. Bristol Schools glory by the length of the final straight, there were only three other kids in Bristol stupid enough to get suckered into this event and I appeared to be the only one familiar with the ten sticks and how to overcome them. Avon schools next up (following a local government rearrangement that appears to have bypassed Jessie J's publicists and the entire British music press), the heat was cancelled and the two of us put on a good show though I had to hang around for ages waiting for the other lad to finish and congratulate him on his performance. South West of England championships, another stunning victory despite the other two knowing some rudiments of hurdling technique, it was just the whole lap as well that seemed beyond them.

This was my church, this was where I healed my hurts. Even better we were usually on first so the groundsman had the previous evening to put out 8 lanes of hurdles for 2-3 competitors the following lunchtime. I could skip breakfast, do my race, eat a cheese sandwich and sunbathe before the final 4x400M relay event. For the English Schools the Avon county team was down to 40 from Gloucestershire's 60 and Millfield School, where they didn't seem to do any actual school work, just sport, was in our catchment area. But my epic victories proved I had the potential to make a final so I concentrated on hurdling technique rather than tedious A-levels and was selected.

Along the way we competed against the finest from the southern Midlands in the Mason Trophy at Warley. A proper "Tartan" track as well. But rather worryingly there was one boy, OK man, he was probably 17 like me or older, who seemed very professional. His dad was with him, he had amazing running shoes (my foot went through my good kangaroo skin ones triple-jumping) the most expensive track suit, a dead posh bag which contained NASA technology starting blocks. Starting blocks, for the 400M hurdles? Crikey, he nearly had me psyched out along with the four other competitors, yes this was the full Monty, six lanes of hurdles, six runners, the groundsman was pleased his hard work was not in vain

The race started and that was the last I saw of him and the other four until the finish. For Golden Boy I must have been Indiana Jones armed with a pistol against the fancy sword swisher, I beat him by a good four seconds and even waved to the rest of the team as I raced by on the final bend just like S.Ovett (Middlesex) used to do! This was it, my distance with added sticks to compensate for my declining relative speed to other boys my age.

The English Schools were again oop north in 1975, this time in Durham. The marshalling enclosure was full of some very big men with long legs, obviously there for the high jump...no, you're in the 400M hurdles as well you say? Oh, errr good luck. I didn't dare ask what their times were though obviously below 59.0 to qualify and probably 57.2 for the national standard most counties insisted on as a minimum. Golden Boy was nowhere to be seen, probably off skiing with dad in New Zealand laughing at the others in their C&A skiwear as he ploughed straight into a tree.

There were two semi-finals, all but one lane used in both, with the aim of the six places in the final despite there being seven lanes in my semi-final...oh, the podium can only fit six people, well I don't mind standing on the grass to get my certificate if it comes to it. I ran my semi, came third or fourth behind an ex-Harlem Globetrotter and somebody who probably ended up as a Hollywood double for Superman. I watched the second semi-final, drinking some juice. It looked fast, they looked big, well within their abilities. Ten minutes later the unofficial results came in...I WAS IN THE FINAL!!!!!

But soft. Groundsmen are not the most academic of people but they know their track markings, at least most of them do. One chap had been checking a set of hurdles near some tedious git who was probably the long-lost McWhirter triplet and happened to remark one set of hurdles was on the wrong spot, a 110M hurdles mark a foot or two away from the 400M markings. Moving hurdles is a fag but him and his mate had quickly moved them to the right spot before the second semi-final. But the McWhirter triplet had to establish himself as a man of probity and integrity. Not stopping even to note a couple of passing train numbers in his book he slipped his anorak back on and headed for the official tent. He had always wanted to get inside the official tent full of the manner of men he aspired to be, equipped with more than one stopwatch, a blazer, a non-specific old-something tie and white trousers contrasting with shiny shoes. He would show them, he could out-tedious the most tedious of people, his collection of locomotive numbers ran to entire bookshelves in his neatly arranged study that he kept locked safe from his wife and teenage children when he had his weekends at the end of the platform at Crewe.

Our manager disappeared then returned with an uncertain look on his face. He had been told one hurdle was off its mark by a few feet and some athletes had objected that their interrupted stride pattern was the reason they got to see the back of my shorts more than they wanted. Stride patterns were things I forgot about by the end of the back straight. The committee were deciding what to do. Oh well, early start tomorrow I suppose if the worst comes to the worst and I have the 4x100M heat to run right now.

Just before I was to run the decision came through, we would have to run our semi-final again, not tomorrow but two hours after the original race as the groundsmen couldn't put the hurdles out first thing tomorrow and the title contenders didn't want two races on the day of the final. Objections were lodged, then rejected. I ran the race again after a relaxing 4x100M heat, came 4th I think and my official time placed me seventh or eighth overall i.e. I WAS NOT IN THE FINAL!!!!! 

In those days I didn't swear, so no WTF here (apart from that one) but equally no LOL (whoops, ROTFLMAO not). My only hope was an outbreak of dysentery centred around the London Schools team or expulsion from school or something else that didn't happen. Still I had a good hard luck story to entertain young ladies on Thursday's Heavy Night at Tiffany's when I grew my babe-magnet Solzhenitsyn beard.

My last great day on the track was in the school sports in 1976. A tough afternoon but I beat the Bristol Schools 100M champion in his event.

Later, after many attempts at psyching me out, I beat the Bristol Schools 400M champion at 400M. I think they both let me win the 200M. I also won the triple jump, second in the long jump and my house team won the relay where I ran the first leg, less pesky baton changes and I knew bends!

By 1976 growth hormone was obviously rife in the British food chain, there were three rounds this time, I barely made the semi-final and finished a broken man. Before I left for university  (another blog post or ten or even a novel remarkably like my autobiography), wine women and song I ran a few British League and Midlands League races getting my best time down to 56.6, 25th in the Scottish rankings and having a lot of fun. In the British League I would normally be second string, Jim Dixon from RAF Cosworth ran for Bristol AC and he was tall, and he was a world record holder. It was actually a veteran's world record, fastest man in the 50-60 category and he was around 51 and got round the track in a time numerically similar to his age. However he wanted to keep running and if he felt a twinge in his body then I would get the nod and race the first string in his place. Even one point for last was something, I tended to get two or three points and often ran the senior men 4x400M relay just to keep me from getting fat as this was always last so I couldn't eat!

 

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