Google+ Running in Cork, Ireland: Guest Post: FIFTY YEARS AGO TODAY – WHEN RON HILL STRUCK GOLD... by John Walshe

Thursday, July 23, 2020



Fifty years ago this month the track and field events of the Commonwealth Games took place at the newly-built Meadowbank Stadium in Edinburgh. It had been the first time the Games had taken place in Scotland and they provided a feast of athletics, especially in the distance running events.

Amongst the large Irish contingent who travelled to Scotland and who marvelled at the superb performances witnessed at the Games were St Finbarr’s enthusiasts, Fergus O’Donovan, Flor O’Leary and Jack O’Leary.

Flor O'Leary and Fergus O'Donovan - who witnessed Ron Hill’s Edinburgh victory 50 years ago - pictured with the great man at John Buckley Sports during Ron's trip to the Ballycotton '10' in 2009.
Thursday July 23rd 1970 saw once such performance which still ranks amongst the all-time great championship victories when Ron Hill took the marathon title in a time of 2:09:28. At that point, it was the second fastest marathon in history, behind Derek Clayton’s 2:08:34 set the previous year in Antwerp.  

Ron Hill had been a dominant force over all surfaces since the early 1960s and although having competed in both the 1962 European Championships and 1964 Tokyo Olympics, he had failed to perform to his own high standards. Part of his problem may have been his relentless racing schedule and high training mileage which led to burnout when it mattered most.

An example of his obsession with races was a hectic treble over the Easter weekend of 1965. On Good Friday – despite running in bare feet after forgetting his racing shoes – he won the Salford 7½ road race in a course record of 35:01. The following day, in cold wind and rain, he was 100 yards behind the leader at the summit of the classic Rivington Pike fell race but descended rapidly to win in 17:08. Two days later, on Easter Monday, he travelled across to Yorkshire where in high winds, hail, sleet and snow showers, he added another first at the Beverley Marathon in a time of 2:26:33.

By 1968, after including specified rest periods into his demanding schedule, Hill was finally perfecting the art of peaking. At that October’s high altitude Mexico Olympics, he claimed a brilliant seventh place in the 10,000m. A few weeks later, on a cold November Saturday, he set a world best of 46:44 for 10 miles on the track, improving on his previous time of 47:02.2.

Then came a purple period which saw him win the European Marathon in Athens (2:16:48) in September 1969, followed by victory at Boston (2:10:30) in April 1970 and then, three months later, came the crowning glory of his career in Edinburgh.

In that Boston victory - a course record by three minutes - on a wet, cold and windy day Hill was attired in just a string vest, minimalist Freedom Shorts (which he designed himself) and a pair of Reebok shoes. He didn’t even wear a watch, not that it would have been of any benefit as Boston back then didn’t have actual distance markers at each mile.

Compared to the $150,000 in prize money, plus bonuses and expenses, the winner in Boston now receives, all Hill got was a medal, a laurel wreath and a bowl of stew. “My airfare wasn’t even paid,” he recalled at the time, “the money for the flight came from a fund set up by the Road Runners Club, just ordinary runners putting in their few shillings.”

After a short break, he then began his build-up to Edinburgh which consisted of 100 to 140 miles a week for the 10 weeks. Unusually, the race was on a Thursday and in his acclaimed and incredibly detailed autobiography ‘The Long Hard Road’, Hill states: “The night before I went to bed at 10pm, read a book until 11pm, then slept well. I got up at 8am. Looked through the curtains, it was raining. I got my kit and tracksuit on and ran two miles.”

By the time of the race start at 3.50pm, the rain was starting to clear with the corresponding rise in temperature. As the 30 runners lined up on track, Hill recalled: “There was no time to dwell on the effort ahead. It was like the start of a 1500m track race, no leisurely jog which sometimes precedes the serious part of a marathon but a fast drive for the inside lane of the track.”  

Derek Clayton, representing Australia, immediately set a fast pace, along with Jerome Drayton from Canada. The time at five miles was 23:31 and shortly after, not surprisingly, Clayton was dropped. Around eight miles, Hill decided to make his effort and slowly began to pull away. Ten miles was called in 47:45. “That wasn’t bad, I felt all right but I didn’t look back.”

As he turned for home on the out-back-course, Hill was able to gauge the extent of his lead. “Drayton looked fairly close; I gave him the thumbs-up as we went past and said ‘Keep it going, Jerry’. Now I knew the real race was ahead.”

The roads had now dried, the clouds were breaking and summer sun was shining through. Fifteen miles came up in 72:18 and shortly after 17 miles, Hill took his first sponge. The time at 20 miles was still phenomenally fast, 1:37:30, but as Hill said: “It didn’t frighten me, I’d been there before, faster in fact with my 1:36:28 Pembroke ‘20’. There was a feed station at 20½ miles, I ran straight past; I took nothing, my eyes down, searching the road ahead.”

He took a plastic cup of water after 23 miles and poured it over his head. “There were crowds of people about now but I don’t remember hearing them, my concentration was so intense on moving my limbs and getting myself to the finish.” Finally, came the relief of the soft red track and the packed stadium with just a full lap to run.

“There was such a loud cheer that I looked around a couple of times to make sure that I was still safe, then on the back straight I risked a couple of waves at the crowd; down the home straight and on to the tape with my fist raised high.”

The time of 2:09:28 gave him a winning margin of two minutes and 36 seconds over defending champion Jim Alder. Fifty years later, it still places Hill in the top dozen on the British all-time list.

Special 50th anniversary T-shirt

Many years later, Derek Clayton’s world record time was brought into question with doubts raised about the accuracy of the Antwerp course, with Hill claiming that his time that day in Edinburgh was the real world best.

This year, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of both the Boston and Commonwealth victories, Mike Deegan, owner of the Yorkshire Runner store and a business partner of Hill’s in the 1980s, produced a limited edition of two commemorative T-shirts.

The logo on the Edinburgh T-shirt shows the classic pose of Hill crossing the finish line in a packed Meadowbank Stadium, number 108 pinned to his string vest, and underneath ‘World record 2:09:28’.

Beyond doubt, it aptly sums up Ron Hill’s perfect day of days.  

Q&A session with Ron Hill from UKFast in 2016...

A list of John Walshes previous guest posts can be viewed HERE

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