As the Observer celebrates its 125th anniversary, Martha Kelner talks to one of Accrington’s most famous sons, Ron Hill ...
RON Hill has just returned from his morning jog, a three and a half mile round trip from his home in Hyde downhill, skirting a disused railway line, and back again.
He runs the same route regularly, but this morning was special. It is December 20, and his "streak" of consecutive daily runs has entered its 48th year.
"Today was particularly enjoyable because the rain had washed all the ice away," said 74-year-old Hill, arguably Britain’s greatest ever marathon runner.
"There were a couple of dog walkers who passed and smiled at me but otherwise it was very quiet and peaceful.
"I try to vary the course I run but I do this one pretty often.
"It’s downhill for a mile to warm you up, flat for a little bit, then it really gets going. It suits me nicely."
It is the 17,155th time Hill has strapped on his running shoes and gone out, come rain – which this corner of Manchester is famed for – or shine, and run for at least a mile.
He travels at a more leisurely pace now than when he became the second man ever to complete a sub 2 hour 10 minute marathon, almost 40-years-ago. Or on the 29 occasions he broke the 2hr 20min barrier.
The debate about Hill’s status as Britain’s greatest ever marathon runner surrounds his Olympic record.
Despite winning gold medals at the European Championships and the Commonwealth Game, his two Olympic marathons – in Tokyo in 1964 and Munich 1972 – were disappointing.
Crowds of workmates lined the streets of Manchester to send a briefcase-carrying Hill off to Tokyo, Japan, only to watch on TV two-weeks later as he faded into 19th place.
That below-par performance prompted the very first run in his remarkable "streak" on December 20, 1964.
"I had returned from Tokyo in October and had a very bad time out there, running one of my worst ever marathons," he said. "So I promised myself I was going to get my act together and run twice every day and once on a Sunday.
"I started the day after and have never missed a run.
"I didn’t really set out with the aim of running every day but I suppose it has become a bit of a habit and I would hate to have to stop."
The routine continues at times when even his motivation to get out of bed is impressive.
Like when his car slammed head-on into another on the Woodhead Pass going into Yorkshire and he spent the night in hospital with a broken sternum.
He had already banked his run that morning and was discharged in time to fit in a jog the next evening, sneaking out of the house as his wife May was out doing a weekly shop.
A knee injury picked up on holiday in American recently caused Hill some discomfort but wasn’t of enough consequence to threaten his running pattern.
"I knew I had to keep moving, I find jogging to be a form of rehabilitation," he said.
"After a mile or two the pain goes away, I find. I’m sure a doctor would advise me to see a physiotherapist who would tell me to rest it completely for over a week.
"But this running has worked for so long I don’t see any reason to change."
Hill still runs for Clayton-Le-Moor Harriers, the club he joined as a teenager, living in a two-up, two-down in Accrington with his mum and railway worker dad.
"The club is a bit far away from where I live now," said Hill.
"But it has become a flag of convenience because I first joined in 1953. I still run for them now and did a run at Whitworth recently which had 38-finishers. There was lots of mud and I wasn’t that happy because lots of people beat me."
Hill was coming towards the end of his career as Britain was embarking on a golden era of distance runners, including Brendan Foster and Ian Stewart.
Although he thinks Paula Radcliffe could get a medal at the London Olympics "if she can reach her peak at the right time," he acknowledges the heightened level of competition hailing from further shores.
"The British runners are definitely up against it," said Hill. "The high altitude natives from Ethiopia and Kenya have a distinct advantage because they perform so much better when they come down to sea level.
"Even the great Haile Gebrselassie said it was an advantage. Mo Farah (the 5,000m and 10,000m runner who has been training for the Olympics is Oregon, USA) seems to have done well after high altitude training but it is very, very difficult for amateur runners to do that.
"I couldn’t have done it because, when I wasn’t running, I was working the whole time."
Which makes his accomplishments even greater.
RON HILL TIMELINE
- 25 September, 1938 – Born in Accrington.
- 20 December, 1964 – returns from finishing 19th in Tokyo Olympic marathon and 18th in 10,000m. Begins his running "streak" which has just entered its 48th year.
- 1966 – English cross-country champion
- 1968 – Olympics in Mexico and finished seventh in 10,000m. English cross country champion again. Breaks 10-mile world record at British AAA Championships in Leicester in 47:02. Also world best for 20 miles with 1.36.28 at Pembroke 20-mile race.
- 1969 – European Championship gold medal in Marathon at Athens in 2.16.48 on original Marathon-Athens course
- 20 April, 1970 – Wins Boston Marathon in record time of 2.10:30; first Britain to win the American marathon
- 23 July, 1970 – Wins marathon gold at the Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh in 2.09.28 and becomes the first man to break 2hr 10 barrier.
- 9 September, 1970 – Sets up Ron Hill Sports clothing company which continues to trade, although Hill sold his stake in the company.
- 1971: Order of British Empire for ‘services to athletics’
- 1972 – Competes in Munich Olympic Games, finished sixth
- 15 April, 1996 – Completes 115th and final marathon – the Boston Centenary Marathon.
- 22 December, 2007 – Celebrated clocking up 150,000 miles with a lap of Accrington Stanley’s pitch ahead of their Christmas clash with Shrewsbury.
- 2008: Achieved goal of racing in 100 countries before his 70th birthday
- 25 September 2011 – Celebrates 73rd birthday with 5k road race in Littleborough.