“Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” ― Haruki Murakami: What I Talk About When I Talk About Running
In life we make decisions every day. Sometimes these decisions turn out to be good ones. Sometimes they turn out to be not so good. And then there are those, which turn out to be amongst the best we ever made. I want to tell you about a decision I made in the summer of 1969, one that has had a profound affect on my life ever since.
It was a Tuesday evening when, as a nervous, skinny and quite timid 14 year old, I pedalled from home in Burnt Oak, North London to Copthall Stadium to have a track session with Shaftesbury Harriers (in 1986 it merged with Barnet Ladies and became Shaftesbury Barnet Harriers). Such was my naivety I thought I was going for a trial and that, an hour or so later, I would be told whether I had made the cut and could wear the black and white striped club vest.
Bryan Smith, who was taking the session, met me. He was very friendly and welcoming and explained what the session was going to be and introduced me to the other runners. And that was when my nervousness heightened about ten fold.
Until that time I had just enjoyed running and doing school cross-country or athletics on sports day. And I played football incessantly. Unfortunately I played with far more enthusiasm than talent and it continues to be a great disappointment that the England football manager, Sir Alf Ramsey, didn’t knock on my front door to tell my parents that Clifford had a rare talent and would one day captain the national team!!
So, I concentrated on running anywhere and everywhere and nailing my sporting colours to athletics, which I followed avidly through the pages of Athletics Weekly.
When Bryan introduced his wife, Joyce and Margaret Beacham, both internationals and members of Barnet Ladies, and Shaftesbury members, Julian Goater, Hugh Richards and Dave Bedford, I was pretty much in awe and star struck. I knew about these people. I read about them every week. They were superstars and me and the other young runners were running with them – or near them, as they were all a lot quicker than us.
David Bedford, OBE was an amazing runner. With his flowing black hair and Zapata moustache, red or odd socks and devil may care style, he blazed through the middle distance scene in the early seventies. He broke the world record for the 10,000 metres in Portsmouth, busted the British 3000 metre steeplechase record (he couldn’t jump for toffee but thought the record was weak so he went and bagged it). He also held the British record for the 5,000 metres. Post retirement he became race director for the London Marathon until 2012. Joyce Smith, MBE would graduate to long distance running after her track career and won the very first, and the second, London marathons.
After that first session at Copthall, I waited nervously for the verdict, still thinking that I was on a trial. Bryan came up to me and said these exact words, which I will never forget: “Well done Cliff. See you on Thursday?” I passed! Haha. I didn’t realise that everybody was welcome regardless of ability.
Bryan then gave me a piece of advice, which I have never forgotten and have passed on many times. He said, “Cliff you are not a sprinter. You will be a middle distance and long distance runner. So, you run with your arms too high. You are too tense. Drop them down like this. Now run with me with your arms by your side. Lift them up. Lift them up. Stop! That’s where your arms should be, nice and natural and relaxed.”
And so began my proper running career. I remember quite a few of the other runners from back then. The age categories were boys, youths, juniors and seniors. I think I joined as a boy but soon progressed to the youths.
The older runners probably never knew it but I looked up to them with huge respect and wanted to run like them. I especially remember a senior called Martin Grey and how he ran. He had an absolutely brilliant forefoot running style. They said that Fred Astaire didn’t walk into a room he glided in. I always thought that when I saw Martin run. He seemed to just glide across the ground. Heavy praise indeed and I also remember that he could run 50 to 51 minutes in a ten mile road race, which was pretty swift by any standard.
I was never more than a decent club runner. I crept under three hours for the marathon a few times in my twenties, which was OK. The photo at the top of this page is Cliffy aged about 25 running his first marathon in Kiel, North Germany. In those days (what am I saying, I still do it now!) I used to run too fast at the beginning of a race). I belonged to a German running club when I was stationed in Rendsburg. A runner I knew in another club was trying to bust 3 hours for the marathon but always missed it by just a few minutes. He suggested we run the Kiel one together. He knew I went off too fast normally and said that we could help each other but I had to do exactly what he said.
It was an out and back course and as we lined up the chap reminded me of our pact. The gun went and we were away. Every time I tried to bolt away he would reign me back in: “Langsamer Cliff, Langsamer. Slow down, slow down, Ruhe, ruhe, Calm, calm.” At 40 kilometres he asked me if I still felt strong. I told him I did. Then Los, los. Go, go!” I ran in at 2 hours 57 minutes and 45 seconds and he was a about a minute behind. We collapsed into each other’s arms exalted and ecstatically happy. Writing this, I am right back there.
I got back down to three and a half hours several years ago approaching 60, which I was very happy about. I think I might have run 60 minutes on one of the Shaftesbury 10 mile races in the 80s and 1 hour 20 on a half. Wouldn’t mind doing that today!!
But, the point is, I still run today and enjoy a resting pulse in the low 40s because of that first track session with Bryan. In the three years leading up to when I joined the army, I spent every waking moment looking forward to the next training session at Copthall and the races at the weekend. In the fourth year at senior school I won the 1500 metres at school sports day beating the star athlete and, until then, nobody knew, or could believe, that the skinny kid could run.
I remember being given lifts to meetings by one of the club officials, Harold Ashton, and meeting another official, Fred Henning, outside Hendon Central tube station when three of us youngsters would pile into his Morris Minor to be taken to a cross country event. On these journeys, and at track sessions or on pack runs, all you had to do was listen and have an enquiring mind. I didn’t realise then but I learnt so much from these times and it gave me such a good grounding for when I took the Queen’s shilling at Finchley Central Army recruiting office on my 17th birthday.
I was about 9 stone soaking wet back then and couldn’t do a single press up or pull up. But, because of my Shaftesbury pedigree, I could run all day long in boots and with kit on my back.
I never told him this but, during basic training in Surrey in 1971, Dave Bedford once saved me from a severe duffing up! We had a 16-man barrack room and, one night, a fellow recruit (a large, menacing individual) came into the room having enjoyed several ‘lemonades’ in the NAAFI. He honed in on the skinniest in the room – me – and loudly announced that I was in for some damage. But, before he could lay a finger on me, another recruit, ‘Dinger’ Bell, said, “Leave it, he knows Dave Bedford!” Drunk man stops and slurred, “You know Dave Bedford? Fair play.” He shook my hand, collapsed on his bed and didn’t wake up until morning with no memory of the night before! Thanks Dave!
I spent the next 14 years in various postings around the world. But I ran everywhere I served and I kept on running and keep on running because of Shaftesbury Harriers and people like Bryan Smith and the others I have mentioned and many more I haven’t.
Around 1991, I decided I would become a Channel swimmer. Bit of a departure for someone who only had a Bronze Certificate to his name (so, if any of you have a pool and need a drowning rubber brick rescued by a man dressed in striped pyjamas, I am that man).
Seven Channel attempts, and five years later, I finally achieved that dream. Today I give presentations on overcoming the fear of failure. I talk about those failed attempts and then about the successful swims and what I learnt in the process. But everything always comes back to that momentous decision I made aged 14.
In the years that followed me deciding to become a swimmer I still ran but not too often. Then, in 2007, I decided to dust off the memories and run and race again. I live in Kent and there are a lot of good clubs around here but there was only one club for me and I contacted Shaftesbury Barnet Harriers and signed up.
When I re-joined the club I was 53. I dug out all my old stats and remembered a piece of advice Martin Grey gave me in the 80s. He said that, once he reached vet status, every few years he recalibrated his expectations and set new targets. So I came up with PB2s – personal bests second time around. It was great fun to chase times and wear the Shaftesbury vest again, to buy the red hoody and put the window sticker on my car.
From 2007 until last year I ran twice a week with the gang at SRC (Sweatshop Running Community) in Maidstone. That shop has gone now but there is a Runners Need concession in the Cotswold Outdoor store next door and they have a run group too.
But, perhaps the nuttiest group of runners I have ever encountered are the Bacon Butty Brigade. They are a club, which isn’t a club, just a group of like-minded souls who do not take life seriously. There are no fees and, whether it’s a raft race, the World Custard Pie Throwing Championship or a quiz night, or a running race, success or, God forbid, a win is extremely frowned upon!! Yep, this disparate, eclectic group of ne’er-do-wells and miscreants are bang on off their heads. Even though I haven’t eaten meat since 1992 I was welcomed with open trotters and I proudly wear the pink running shirt (mine is doctored with bacon crossed out and replaced with ‘or egg’ with a fried egg superimposed over the pig!).
So, during these very challenging times, I have a message to all (Not sure who ‘all’ is or are. Could be one, none or lots of you but I’ll give you the message anyway). Back when I was a young lad, my mum and dad were my mentors and teachers but outside of the family home, and for those three years before I joined the army, I looked up to the coaches and senior athletes at Shaftesbury Harriers for inspiration and leadership. I soaked up their knowledge and made it mine.
It’s never too late to be inspired, never too late to make a dream a reality. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said: “Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”
Running has been by best ever friend and has seen me through lots of challenges and life and stuff. But it all started when I rode my 5-speed, drop handlebar bike to Copthall stadium and became a Shaftesbury Harrier.
Stay safe and take care.
Up the Stripes.