‘A Cooling Breeze to the Midriff’
‘That’s your title right there – A Cooling Breeze to the Midriff’, was the instant email response from Publicity Officer Ed when I offered to write one of these articles, and as usual he was spot-on. Not just because I’d told him it’s what I most remember about the mesh-panelled Bolton School running vests of the mid-1980s, but because the photo I’d sent him brings back so many memories. And yes, that is one J.R.Walsh in the middle as team captain. Not that we were a very good cross-country team; it was more of a football school. But it’s where my running story started, and I’m glad it did.
Bolton School, Boys’ Division (there was a separate school for the girls) was (and is) a fine institution with strong traditions, one of which was the annual inter-house cross-country race – participation compulsory. Usually I would finish around 15 th or 16 th out of the 130 or so boys in the year. Not bad, but that all changed in the fifth form, when I stopped playing football, at which I was OK but not great, and starting running every week instead.
I must have got fitter and faster, because 200 yards into that year’s race I was amazed to find myself leading the field. I remember thinking, as we turned out of the school gates onto Chorley New Road, ‘If I carry on like this, I’m going to win’, and that’s exactly what happened. I won the race in the following two years as well - titanic battles on both occasions with my friend and rival Chris Bannister. The truth is that Chris was a better runner than me. He used to beat me every week in Saturday morning fixtures against Bury Grammar, Cheadle Hulme or Manchester Grammar School. But I always raised my game once a year for the House cross-country, as it was the only race of which the non-runners (i.e. 98% of the school) took any notice.
I stopped doing sport completely at university. Without the routine of Mr Gottard (Master in charge of cross-country, and a man to whom I owe a lot) geeing us up for training or driving us in the decrepit school bus to the next Saturday fixture, it never really occurred to me to get involved in the University athletics scene. Looking back, that is a real regret, as there was time to do it and, I’m sure, great facilities to enjoy, but I let it pass me by.
Fast-forward 14 years to 2001 and my friends Rachel and Colin were running the London Marathon. That set me thinking – not that I should run a marathon too, but more ‘Hmmm – I used to be a runner. If Rachel and Colin can do the marathon, perhaps I could do some running again’.
I remember going to Run and Become in Westminster and telling the very helpful staff that I wanted some running shoes, not for anything serious, just for running around the local park.
For a while that’s what I did – running around Wimbledon Park and sometimes doing what I considered a ‘long run’ with a loop past the All-England Club. It must have been about 3 miles in total.
I moved to Letchworth in 2004 and continued running solo. After a while I read something about the Standalone 10k and thought that would be a good challenge, but it was still some months away, so I looked around and entered the Flitwick 10k – my first race since school. I remember getting to about 7k and thinking ‘Wow – I’m going to finish this!’. It was the furthest I had ever run and I was pretty pleased with the achievement.
I ran Standalone later than year, then Flitwick again, then a work colleague talked me into the Watford Half-marathon and then I did Grunty Fen Half and then Watford again and then – well you all know how where this leads. Sure enough, a few years after telling the Run and Become lady that I just wanted to run around the park, I found myself lining up on the Champs Élysées for the start of the 2008 Paris Marathon. As I hobbled back to the hotel in the post-race drizzle, a concerned-looking van driver wound down his window: ‘Monsieur – vous avez fini le Marathon?’ ‘Oui’, I grinned / grimaced back - ‘J’ai fini le Marathon’. ‘Bravo, Monsieur! Bravo!’ he shouted as he drove off. Wow – I was a marathon runner.
A few months earlier I had plucked up the courage to go along to North Herts Road Runners, after a year or more of stalking on the Club’s Forum. I immediately wished I had joined earlier, as everyone was so friendly and positive. After a year’s interruption when living and working in Leeds, I started to get more involved, turning out regularly for training and races. NHRR had become part of my life.
I completed two more marathons – Barcelona in 2009 and London in 2010 - and was pretty happy to get my time down to 3.08.26, but by then I had proved to myself that I was better at the shorter races – especially cross-country, so that is where I have focused my running. I’ve clocked up plenty of 5ks (17.39 PB), 10ks (37.26), Midweek League and XC races for the Club. Highlights have included running in the National Cross-country Championships – an epic event that I’m glad I’ve done three times - and being part of teams that have won the County XC Champs and the National Masters 10k title. None of this would have been possible without the brilliant coaching and encouragement we get at NHRR.
There have even been some individual successes, such as winning the Swavesey 5-mile race, though all the serious runners were doing the accompanying half-marathon the same day. Another small-scale success that I particularly enjoyed was winning the Isles of Scilly 10k in 2008 and being interviewed on Radio Scilly – one of the UK’s smallest radio stations. It was startling to hear my post-race comments being replayed over the PA system in the Co-Op the next day.
The most rewarding things I have done in running have involved sharing my own enthusiasm with other people and seeing them get joy and satisfaction from their own efforts. NHRR is really good at this and we see it in spades at the events we organise. Away from running I am a very keen birder and our annual Bird Run, where a sizeable group of us jog around Oughtonhead Common and take in the local birdlife, has become an offbeat but enjoyable fixture in our Club calendar. I’m still trying to work out whether it’s my pointing out of the local wildlife or Astrid’s post-run home-baking that is the main attraction.
I’ve even managed to make a 5k social run an ‘official’ part of the pensions conference I help to organise in my day-job and it’s great to see how many delegates turn out for it. Men and women in suits come up to me throughout the year and ask ‘James – is the run on again at this year’s
conference?’. Of course it is! Every conference should have one!
Undoubtedly the best thing I have done with NHRR was helping to lead a Beginners Group through the ‘Couch-to-5k’ programme. It was uplifting to see so many people get so much satisfaction from becoming fitter and healthier through running with NHRR. Many of them are now stalwarts of our Club. It’s something we should definitely repeat when the time is right. (No doubt someone on the Committee will collar me about it when they read this….)
Anyway, back to the running story. By 2015 I was pretty heavily involved in the Club, but even so I was surprised when our President, Richard Harbon, asked whether I would consider becoming Chairman. I wasn’t even on the Committee, so I guess they must have been pretty desperate! I did two years in the role – a lot of hard work but hugely rewarding, capped off by us winning the Club of the Year title in the Comet Sports Awards. It’s been fantastic to see the Club go on to flourish even more under Astrid’s brilliant leadership.
I have been pleased to serve for a couple of years as Publicity Secretary and to help on the Race Committee, though I have stepped back a little over the last year due to work demands.
As for my own running, I’ve had quite a lot of niggly injuries over the last 3 or 4 years and haven’t been able to run at anything like the level I would like. There have been too many races where I have been taking photos rather than running. I’ve had to accept that I am a bit older, a little slower and certainly more injury-prone, but I still love being involved with NHRR. It’s the most positive and ‘can do’ organisation I’ve ever known.
Our Club is a fantastic force for good in the local community, whether it's raising money for charity, putting on superb events or helping people get fitter and healthier. We can all be very proud to be members of North Herts Road Runners. I certainly am.
One last comment on that 1980s school running kit, and again it’s from Ed’s emails: ‘Those vests are cool’. Really? I’m not so sure about that. Perhaps he was joking, but who cares? It’s where my running story started, and it’s been a good one for me.