Master = Class?

Recently at Bellahouston Park, Glasgow, I managed to struggle round what used to be called the Veterans’ Cross-Country National. 18 so-called races in a row for me – my very last ‘sequence’ – if I can make it to 21 (assuming I live to 60) then I can retire happy.  Only now the odd collection of male competitors – greying hounds, limping oddballs, slapheads, stout fellows and semi-cripples – are called ‘Masters’.

Most of the females – ‘Mistresses’? – predictably look a good deal better.  I doubt whether I was ever a master.  A fairly good English teacher, a fairly good runner but hardly a master anything.  The word suggests expertise and superiority, and is sadly ironic when related to the short-striding gasping slo-mo scuttling around which is the best nearly all old runners can manage nowadays.  George ‘Superman’ Sim of Moray Road Runners is a notable exception.  The rest don’t even get the respect due to elders and worsers.

Still, light-limbed George Sim can only have been racing for twenty years, tops. During every one of the last forty years I have raced at least one National championship – either Cross-country (Scottish Schoolboys, National or Vets) or the late lamented Edinburgh to Glasgow Relay.  Not to mention track and road, including the sixty or so marathons.  No wonder that the legs are too battered to train enough. Mel Edwards is about to clock up his official hundred thousandth mile; I must be close to that myself. Fraser Clyne probably ran a lot more and Don Ritchie twice as much but they’re struggling too.  It happens – get over it. Better to wear out than not to try. And think of the memories.

The focus of this article is meant to be Cross-Country. However I must mention the Road Relay.  For me the most important race of the year used to be the Scottish Marathon; and now it is the Masters Cross-Country.  But the most intense, dramatic, depressing or wonderful race was the E to G, which I was lucky to run thirty times. Sadly, police and officials have put an end to it.  Nevertheless the Six-Stager continues and there are other relays.   Every runner ought to take part in them, to relish the nervous responsibility, total commitment and relief involved in doing your best for your friends.   Tactics are simple: flat-out all the way; never give up; and don’t drop the baton.  Distance running is an individual sport but relay-racing fosters genuine team spirit.

Cross-Country, by contrast, can be tortuous and ridiculous – and unglamorous. Courses can be long, short, fast, slow, hilly, flat, muddy, dry, golf course or ploughed field.  Like the venues for ‘my’ Vets Nationals: Clydebank, Aberdeen (twice), Dumfries, Linlithgow, Troon (three times), St Andrews, Hawick (twice), Elgin, Edinburgh, Cumnock, Glasgow (twice), Forres and Cupar. Not many tourist magnets there. Even the Capital City venue was in the ‘run very fast!’ badlands of Craigmillar; and in Glasgow, Bellahouston Park is near Ibrox …..

My very first championship was the Scottish Schools, in 1965 at Dalziel High near Motherwell, probably on the notoriously marshy Cleland estate. This was a two-lap, mud-and-snotters affair. Steady jogging round the golf course and up the Broad Hill in Aberdeen was hardly specific preparation. As I passed a schoolmate just into the final circuit, he was singing ‘This Could Be The Last Time’ (a Rolling Stones hit at the time). I was happy to finish 19th, improved to 9th the next year (my old friend Innis Mitchell won) and went off to Aberdeen University to start training properly.

A famous venue was Hamilton Racecourse, where the National was held so often. I ran the Junior five miles there in 1967 and 1968. The course was heavy, flat and relentless – not made easier by thousands of hoofprints and steeplechase barriers held up by sharp iron stanchions and strands of barbed wire. No Health and Safety regulations then. However we enjoyed watching the Seniors running their event. In 1968 I remember Lachie Stewart battling with Alistair Blamire, who led Edinburgh University to a one-point team victory over a strong Aberdeen AAC team, including Mel Edwards, Bill Ewing, Peter Stewart (brother of Ian), ex-champion Alastair Wood, Steve Taylor and Joe Clare. These lads all finished in the top twenty.

My first Senior championship was in 1969 on Duddingston Golf Course near Edinburgh – Dick Wedlock’s first victory. I think I might have been 49th. A great day out that year was when we drove down to see the International Cross-Country championships taking place over a very hilly course at Clydebank.  These featured real stars – Gaston Roelants, the Belgian Olympic Steeplechase Champion, Dick Taylor of England (a 200 miles per week man), European 5000m silver medallist Mike Tagg and the most talented and infuriating Scot of them all – Ian McCafferty, who outsprinted Tagg for bronze. Dave Bedford won the Junior race by a long way.

After university I moved to Glasgow and joined Victoria Park. I was running at least 70 miles a week and training much harder. Consequently I managed 19th in the 1972 National at Currie –  McCafferty outkicking Jim Alder (over a section of ploughed field!) to win.  And so the years rolled by – I never managed better than 13th, although I was quite often in the top twenty. But we ran on sunlit springy turf, floundered through downpours on horrendous mud and slipped and tumbled on snow and ice. Only Foot-and-Mouth has ever caused cancellation of races – and never the National, to my memory.  At least I was twice in a winning team – Edinburgh Southern Harriers – and, as captain, even collected the trophy at Irvine in 1980.

Who were the very best Scottish Cross-Country runners over that period? Apart from those already mentioned – Andy McKean, Allister Hutton, Jim Brown and expecially Nat Muir. Others had their days – for example John Robson, Tommy Murray and Fraser Clyne.  And Anglo-Scot Ian Stewart actually won the World Championships back in 1975.  Three years after that, the event came to Bellahouston Park – and I watched Irish mudlark John Treacy ( who later won a silver medal in the 1984 Olympic Marathon) somehow streaking away from a Russian over deep bog, to record his second successive victory.

In my last few years as Senior, I kept an eye on whether any of the runners in front in the National were the same age or older than me. I was glad to note that advancing age, injury, or perhaps a desire to behave in a more dignified adult way, led to retirement for most of my speedy contemporaries. Eventually I turned 40 and travelled down with Mel Edwards, Graham Milne and Roddie McFarquhar to take on an over-distance Danny Wilmoth course at Clydebank for the National Veterans Championship. That was the day it rained at the start, snowed during the second lap and we all ran the third lap wearing snow bunnets! I managed to win from Archie Duncan, with Graham third. Mel and Roddie were first and second M45 and Aberdeen A.A.C. won the team race. With shocking and uncharacteristic bad taste, Roddie commented on the way home that the last team to do that much damage at Clydebank had been the Luftwaffe.

Scottish Veteran Athletics is a little world apart and a lot of fun. I realise now that the speedy M40 ‘youngsters’ are admired but considered to be novices. They have yet to encounter the reality of knackered legs (constant niggles and regular injuries), shrinking lungs and the inability to sustain serious training.   Yet we all come to realise that we are very lucky to be jogging at all and retaining some fitness and that, if we get round the occasional race and see our old friends/rivals, then we ought to appreciate it greatly. The mid-stage vets, like myself, certainly enjoy the fact that we’re not quite finished yet and see the amazing oldsters as role models. When I first joined the Scottish Veteran Harriers I was fascinated to meet world record holders from M60 upwards – and some of them are still breaking records at M90! Emmet Farrell, Davie Morrison and Gordon Porteous are phenomenal – and I understand now how fast these age-related times are. As well as the three musketeers, we have had older runners like Tom O’Reilly, Andy Brown, Willie Marshall, John Linaker and the late Andy Forbes. Some of these were champions in their youth, others as veterans but strong personalities and redoubtable competitors to a man.

Who have been the best Scottish male veterans of my acquaintance? We have had World Champions or record holders like Bill Stoddart, Donald Macgregor and the late Alastair Wood. Certainly Bill won most Scottish championships; with Brian Kirkwood, the most successful of current competitors, still accumulating titles rapidly. Other notable names, as well as those above, include: Allan Adams (who seemed indestructible in his prime); Brian Emmerson and Ian Elliot (the Teviotdale fliers); Ed Stewart (the Cambuslang Czech); Fraser Clyne and Keith Varney (Metro Massif); Ian Stewart (from Carnegie – not Birchfield); Dougie Gemmell; Brian Gardner; Gerry Gaffney: and Archie Jenkins (my favourite ‘Bear’). George Meredith was last heard of winning a World Championship medal as an indoor rower; Tommy Murray – probably the fastest of them all – may be making a comeback; and Colin Donnelly (Downhill Racer) continues to amaze. As for ‘old guys’ who beat me all too often – Pete Cartwright, George Mitchell and the irrepressible Bobby ‘Forever’ Young. What a fine varied bunch of lads – and there are many more, not quite as ‘fast’. Apologies to aggrieved omissions!

A bonus for those who do well in their age-groups at the ‘Masters’ National is an invitation to run for Scotland in the annual five nations championship (Scotland versus England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Eire). Most people share the doubtful delights of a marathon bus-trip from Glasgow to hard-working Davie Fairweather’s judicious choice of hotel – usually remote from the race course. A major benefit is that you get to know vets from all over Scotland – including the ‘girls’. My experience of running has been male-dominated and, before becoming a vet, I had little chance to become acquainted with female runners – the races were at completely different places for a start. So it has been a real pleasure to chat to Scottish team-mates and to watch their International race, which takes place before ours. Particularly since I am outpaced by some women nowadays, I can appreciate their speed and determination. Over the years I have been impressed by athletes like Sandra Branney, Janette Stevenson, Trudi Thomson, Lynn Harding, Sonia Armitage and Sue Ridley. The post-race meal and presentation has been much livelier because of friendly banter between men and women of the five nations – I particularly remember selling my short story book about running to the Northern Irish girls (including my ex-clubmate Moira O’Boyle) who really love to party. As a keen member of CAMRAR (The Campaign for Real Ale for Runners) I have also had a lot of fun, after the race of course, seeking out the best pubs and beers to celebrate success or recover from defeat, with the likes of Archie, Bobby, Mick McGeoch of Wales, Jimmy Bell of England and any other thirsty runner. And next morning we all enjoy the hungover, sore-legs jog before the biggest breakfast in the world.

Easily the best performance of my seventeen years as a veteran runner was in 1992 when I was newly 45, in the Five Nations Veterans International Cross-Country in Belfast. Managing to peak perfectly, I won the age-group by no less than 59 seconds, leaving the current British M45 champ and the World M45 champ well behind. The Scots won the team race too. Perhaps on that day only, I really could consider myself a ‘Master’.

By Colin Youngson

Metro Aberdeen AC and SVHC