Google+ Running in Cork, Ireland: Guest Post: RON HILL – A PERSONAL TRIBUTE John Walshe

Monday, May 24, 2021


RON  HILL – A PERSONAL TRIBUTE ...By John Walshe (23/05/2021)

It has been said that you should never try to meet your heroes “lest they be found to have feet of clay.” One thing that can be safely said of Ron Hill, who passed away on Sunday at the age of 82, is that he certainly hadn’t, either metaphorically or literally, feet of clay. 

For any runner getting started in this great sport back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Ron Hill was the man. His many achievements on road, track and cross-country were the stuff of legends. For those of us lucky enough to have both copies of his acclaimed autobiography The Long Hard Road (even though now dog-eared and falling apart), no extra motivation was required to head out on the roads on a dark winter’s night.

There can’t be many runners anywhere who haven’t at some stage worn a piece of clothing without the RonHill or Hilly logo. A couple of years after commencing running, I purchased a pair of his famous Freedom Shorts which he posted along with a signed brochure.

Having obtained his autograph, I hopefully looked forward to the day when I would meet the man in person. In the late 1980s, through a friendship with Brian McKenna who supplied the Ballycotton ‘10’ T-shirts, I competed in a number of North of England races. As Brian belonged to the same Clayton-le-Moors club as Ron, surely he would be at some event we attended, but it was not to be.

On a September day in 1996, I took the bus from Manchester Airport to Stockport and on to the town of Hyde where the Ron Hill Sports store was based. Calling in to the shop around mid-day hoping to see the famous face behind the counter, the helpful staff informed me that unusually he hadn’t been in that morning. Purchasing some small souvenir of my visit, I caught the next bus back.

While on the top deck, admiring the lush Cheshire countryside, I suddenly spotted the unmistakably figure of Ron Hill gently trotting along the pavement. Getting off at the next stop I waited (and wondered what would I say) but he didn’t appear, no doubt his schedule that day taking him on a different route.

Two years later, we finally met. Andy O’Sullivan, a Waterford-born policeman who would receive an MBE for his fund-raising running events, had organised the first of what would become an annual Ron Hill Birthday race. Held from the Falcon Inn in the town of Littleborough near Rochdale, it was only a one-mile race in honour of Ron’s 60th, but it was enough just to be there.

One ambition had been realised; another remained unfilled. Ten years later, with the Birthday Race having now been increased to 5km, a return trip was made to Littleborough and an invitation extended to Ron Hill to come and run the Ballycotton ‘10’ the following March. 

And so on the Friday night before the 2009 10-miler, I waited anxiously before the arrival gates at Cork Airport opened to reveal Ron and his wife May pushing their laden trolley. The following day, bringing both from one hotel to another, a brief detour had to be made to the nearest town with an off-licence to insure that Ron was stocked up with his usual pre-race nightcap of a few cans of beer.

During the visit he also related that for around 50 years both he and May had maintained a weekly tradition of a Thursday night meal of fish and chips. This was no doubt a throwback to Ron’s original hero, Alf Tupper, The Tough of the Track fictional comic character from the same working-class Northern background who took on and beat the world’s best runners.

He may have run 46:44 for 10 miles on the track during his prime, but that day in Ballycotton Ron Hill had to be happy with his second place in the M70 category, his time of 85:41 well behind Tadhg Twomey of Metro-St Brigids who recorded 74:24.

Hill’s accomplishments and contribution to running in so many ways have been well documented but it’s no harm just recalling one of his greatest triumphs, the Boston Marathon of 1970. On a wet, cold and windy day and attired in just a string vest, minimalist shorts (which he designed himself) and a pair of thin Reebok shoes, he knocked over three minutes from the course record with his 2:10:30.

He didn’t even wear a watch - not that it would have been of any benefit as Boston at the time didn’t even have actual markers at each mile – but he was shocked when he learned the finish time, the first Briton to win Boston.

The winner at Boston in recent years could expect to receive $150,000 in prize money, plus bonuses and expenses. In his day, Hill received a medal, a laurel wreath and a bowl of stew. His airfare wasn’t even paid, the money came from a fund set up by the Road Runners Club (an organisation I’m proud to say I’ve been a member of for 45 years.)

The morning after Ballycotton, I accompanied Ron on a three-mile run along part of what is now the increasingly popular Ballycotton Cliff Walk, taking in the fresh sea air before making our way up through the fields and back down the hill to the village where both of us had been part of the record 2,400 crowd the day before.

Although living no more than a five-minute jog from that Cliff Walk, surprisingly I haven’t run along there since. So some evening this week I’ll don a Ron Hill shirt and retrace those steps I trod with a true and unique running legend and hero all of those 12 years ago.

And maybe afterwards I’ll partake of a feed of fish ‘n’ chips in honour of both The Tough of the Track and the real King of the Road, Dr Ron Hill, MBE, R.I.P.


B said...

Going to run a few miles everyday till the day of his funeral to honour a great man.

Anonymous said...

Great read, thanks

Anonymous said...

Lovely tribute - and a good excuse for us all to have some fish & chips.