Nobbut laiking: Ross Brewster

Date: Tuesday 29th May 2018

SATURDAY evening, about 9ish. The phone rang. It was my mate Dave. “Fancy a long run in the morning. Can you make it for half seven. Ron wants to go round Bass Lake and be back in time for a couple of pints before lunch.”

The “Ron” in our conversation just happened to be Ron Hill, the Commonwealth and European marathon champion, and probably the most famous runner of his day. Ron used to come up to the Lake District regularly, staying with friends while following his training regime, running every day of his life for 52 years and clocking up more than 160,000 miles.

We’d only just formed Keswick Athletic Club, and the entire membership at the time — four of us — turned out for that run with Ron. We managed to keep up for around six miles then he politely asked whether we would mind if he pushed on a bit, and lo and behold he was gone down the road in an instant. People turned out in cars and on bikes to follow Hill on his Sunday run, such was his fame in the early 70s.

Sadly he now has dementia. He can still recall all the times and dates of his great performances. It’s just that he sometimes loses count of his grandchildren and leaves his keys in the door.

I remember him turning up at local fell races, his car boot packed with gear to sell to fellow runners. He just liked taking part, though the prizes were paltry. Imagine Mo Farah having to supplement his earnings by flogging vests and trainers from a van parked near the finish of the Olympic 10,000 metres.

Hill, very much a maverick, was a supporter of our local club and became its president. It now has membership well into three figures. Ron’s wife May says she notices now that he’s gradually fading. He doesn’t see it that way and longs to run again.

Time is a cruel mistress, but typically Ron refuses to allow his dementia to defeat him. “I’m still me. I’m still here and, as far as I’m concerned, this race is far from run,” he said recently in an interview for the Dementia Revolution charity before the London Marathon.

I can hear him saying it. Ron Hill always went his own way — just a lot quicker than we ordinary club runners left puffing and panting in his wake.

THE BAREFOOT HERO

HOW quickly some of our heroes are forgotten. Back in the 1960s, when I took up fell running in earnest, I wrote a letter — does anyone write letters any more? — to one of the top athletes of the day, the celebrated barefoot runner Bruce Tulloh, seeking some advice on training for long distance events.

Long before the movie industry discovered Forrest Gump, Tulloh did a record-shattering run across the US in 1969 which overshadowed even his success in becoming European 5,000 metres champion seven years before.

Anyway, I received a reply a few weeks later in which Tulloh dealt courteously with my questions and advised me to start training in boots, his theory being that when you took part in a race with ordinary shoes your legs would feel lighter.

I met him a couple of times when he and Chris Brasher came up to take part in the Lake District Mountain Trials. He also presented me with a certificate for completing an 80-mile event which finished at Marlborough College where he taught biology — and I was able to thank him belatedly for his correspondence.

Tulloh, who died recently aged 82, without the fanfare his achievements merited, retired from competitive athletics in 1967 but continued taking on long distance challenges well into old age — he walked the Athens Marathon at 75 and, at 80, completed the 80 miles from Wiltshire to London for Age UK.

I recall watching Tulloh in early editions of Sportsnight and Grandstand on TV. He was known principally as the eccentric barefoot track runner, but it’s his 2,876-mile in 65 days slog from Los Angeles to New York, supported only by his wife, Sue, who drove a caravan for him to sleep in, that stands out in the realms of ultra-distance running.

In later years Bruce Tulloh drew on 60 years of competing and coaching, by writing for Runner’s World and Athletics Weekly. The man who was inspired to dedicate himself to running by the Czech long-distance runner Emil Zatopek was a theorist ahead of his time. But he always maintained that “running should be fun”.

Oh, and did the boots work? Sadly no. All I got was a calf muscle strain. I didn’t think it wise to tell Mr Tulloh that when he shook my hand and inquired if the advice had been helpful.

RUNNING OUT OF TIME

I APOLOGISE if the theme of this week’s column owes more to illness and death than life.

However a BBC reporter, covering the royal wedding at the weekend, perhaps unwittingly delivered a depressing put down to those of us who have passed retirement age.

The man from the Beeb was chatting to people who had hunkered down outside Windsor Castle for the long wait to catch a fleeting glimpse of Meghan and her dress. He made the point that Harry and Meghan’s nuptials would be the last chance those of a certain age would get to witness a royal wedding.

He was correct, of course. The royal grandchildren are mere nippers and, if Harry and Meghan are blessed with offspring, it will be the best part of 30 years before any of them tie the knot. Which will make me a little over the ton, should I limp on to an ever more arthritic old age.

The famous actor Sir Ian McKellen said recently that never a day goes by that he does not reflect on death. He’s 78 and still working, playing King Lear in the West End, one of theatre’s most arduous roles. But it does happen. No-one, even the richest, gets out of the play called life alive.

Sir Ian says Lear has particular resonance for him, a man of similar age looking back with regret and looking forward with some concern, an examination of what it is to get old. He said: “The reality is, people die. If you have two people my age talking to each other about illnesses and how they are feeling you talk about death. Most people spend their lives avoiding talking about it.”

I suspect most of us, in the autumn of our years, do think about our exit. Not in a morbid, depressing way. It’s as Sir Ian says, reality. We’re more worried about how we will go than about death itself. We simply don’t want an undignified and painful end to life, but we can also joke about it.

For my sins I live just across the road from where the local undertaker garages the hearse. Every time I see the funeral man, he’s giving it a polish and I could swear he’s doing a quick mental calculation, sizing me up for future reference.

Well, when my time comes, at least I know I’ll be borne away in the cleanest hearse in Cumbria.

WHAT’S IN A NAME?

ONE of my readers has expressed fascination with the title of my column and has written wondering about the provenance of “Nobbut Laiking”.

It came about when a pal, after a minor sporting fracas, turned to me all innocent-like and said: “What, ah’s nobbut laiking.” So when the column started, it seemed the perfect title. A bit of a lark, not too serious really.

However, trying to determine whether the spelling should be as per the column or “lakeing” is proving elusive. There are references in local literature to Lakers. But were they folk who lived close by the lakes, early tourists or maybe even the Lake poets?

Historian George Bott mentions in one of his books a comic opera by James Plumptre (1798), The Lakers, which unmercifully poked fun at a character called Miss Beccabunga Veronica, “a great botanist and picturesque traveller”.

Its satire, said George, was “about as subtle as red paint on a pillar-box”. It seems it was performed only once, at the Wordsworth Summer School in Grasmere in 1987, without music.

He’s already had a crack at the Maid of Buttermere and the Hired Man. So what about The Lakers, Melvyn? Sounds like the perfect vehicle for Lord Bragg’s prolific pen. That’s if he’s nobbut laiking like …