Story 9: Inter-City


“Now remember, young Kevin. This is a TEAM race – the most important one in Scottish Athletics. You’ve seven people relying on YOU. So hang on to the group until the hill after Barnton roundabout. Then give it everything you’ve left. One hundred per cent all the way to the line – EYEBALLS OUT!”

“Okay, Alan – I promise I’ll do my best.”

“I’m sure you will. You’ve got the talent and the guts. Right – two minutes to go. I’ll take your tracksuit. Best of luck – I’ll be watching!”

Obviously nervous but resolute, nineteen year-old Kevin Carmichael, stripped to vest, shorts and road racing shoes, edged through the crowd and up to the white start line. His tall fragile figure mingled with twenty other restless athletes who stretched, strode to and fro, or jogged in circles outside the ornate gates of Fettes College, Edinburgh, at 10.30 a.m. on a chilly November Sunday.

A whistle blew and a serious-faced official called each runner to the mark, in alphabetical order according to the clubs they represented. Each man was handed a light metal baton. One, decorated with dark blue ribbon, was presented more ceremoniously to a tanned athlete wearing the dark blue vest with a white thistle of Dundee Kingsway, last year’s victors. Enclosed in this baton was a message from the Lord Provost of Edinburgh to this counterpart in Glasgow.

Shouts of encouragement rang out as the runners leaned forward, poised for flight, while the starter raised his gun. It fired – and freeze frame became fast forward as 21 determined men launched into sprinting action.

Spectators too rushed away, urgently diving into cars, starting and departing. This was the fiftieth annual running of the Edinburgh to Glasgow Road Relay, climax of the winter season.

Still clutching Kevin’s tracksuit, Alan Simpson regained control of his breath as he guided the Volvo smoothly up the long drag of Craigleith Road before parking a hundred metres from the junction with Queensferry Road. He emerged from the car and gazed back downhill at the familiar scene. Alan was 39 years old and this was his twentieth E to G. Once again he had squeezed into the team for his favourite race. He intended not only to try his hardest on the eighth and final section, but also to savour bitter-sweet nostalgia and relish the traditional suspense and surprises of an old-fashioned yet wonderful event.

After only a mile, one of the principal, even Oscar-winning stars of this long-running saga, was producing a commanding performance. A calm but stern athlete in the colours of Edinburgh Breweries AC had established a lead of fifty yards and was steadily cruising away up the incline. The top-class experience and stamina of Bill Grimson, the Scot with the Newcastle accent, was clearly superior. A panting group of five pursued him in vain. Alan was delighted to see Kevin was one of them, sheltering from the headwind behind a taller opponent. “Good lad! Just stay there!” Alan yelled, adding to his companions, “Will you look at that. The top six are clear already.”

A knowledgeable onlooker like Alan was not surprised that, although the best twenty-one clubs in the land had been invited, only half a dozen could compete for the medals. Few teams possessed the strength in depth essential for success in an eight-man relay. Just one weaker runner, stroke of bad luck, misjudgement or failure of nerve would lead to defeat. Only ‘good men and true’ would do for this trial.

During the next twenty minutes the Volvo containing half the North Select squad – Brian Mackay (Leg Seven), Alastair Taylor (Six), Jim Alexander (Five) and Alan – kept in sight the straggling procession of runners. They forced their way over two further tiring hills and then accelerated down to Barnton, turning left for Maybury and the Glasgow Road. Although Grimson’s stocky yet long-striding legs stretched his lead remorselessly, the second group was still intact as it reached the last mile of the five and a half mile stage. Following instructions, Kevin surged into second place and pushed hard up a steep hill to an overgrown roundabout. Surely it would be downhill to the finish from there? Swinging past the foliage he glimpsed the road ahead – and his spirits sagged. The hill continued climbing for another two hundred yards! A wave of weariness slowed his speed and his nearest rivals plodded dourly past him.

With 800 metres to go, the route swooped down to the main road. Concentrating fiercely, Kevin accelerated and his resilient limbs managed to pull back lost ground. After a last desperate sprint, he handed over still sixth but only thirty yards behind second place (although a full minute down on Grimson). Gasping helplessly he was led away by Alan who gave him his tracksuit, and enthused, “Great run, Junior! Could be a medal chance today. Right – into the Volvo. Jim’s switching to the Cavalier.”

Alan hauled the protesting but fast-recovering novice along the congested pavement to the cars. Jim congratulated Kevin briefly before driving off to deliver Charlie Middleton (Leg 3) and Gordon Bruce (4) to their change-over points.

Leading positions after Stage One were 1) Edinburgh Breweries Athletic Club 2) Govan Harriers 3) Partick AC 4) Falkirk Fliers 5) Borders AC 6) North Select.

As he adjusted his seatbelt, Alan remarked to Brian, “Did you spot that Cross Country Federation guy in the striped blazer nicking the fancy baton from the Dundee runner? His team-mate sneaked off ten yards too early with an ordinary one. They give the special one to the leader at the start of Leg Eight. Clearly can’t trust the Pony Express to deliver the mail to the Wild West!”

Cautiously he manoeuvred the Volvo into the outside lane, avoiding both traffic and tail-end runners. “Feeling better, hero?” he inquired, glancing over his shoulder.

“Much,” replied Kevin, sprawling deliciously exhausted in the back seat.

“Your stage was like a normal race,” Alan continued, “But not it’s each man against the elements. Determination, intelligence, self-motivation – a relay runner needs the lot.”

“What’s this bit like anyway?” asked Kevin.

“Six miles straight and flat until the last uphill mile. It’s for track athletes – a lot of fast guys on this one. Ian Stewart holds the record – and he won gold medals at 5000 metres, as well as the World Cross Country Championships. Before your time, of course.”

As they eased past the backmarkers, Kevin felt pride (that his stint had left so many teams behind) and a prickling of tension. How well was Tony Harris doing for the North Select?

An accurate countdown from 21st (and last) as maintained. Some well known but strained faces were identified by Alan (whose knowledge, Kevin thought, was vast to the point of boredom). The older man insisted that the younger one learned who was who. (“There’s old Iain Stoddart, the marathoner – stride like a metronome and that sardonic little racing grimace.”) The front seat passenger’s window stayed open so that a variety of cheerful or mildly insulting comments could be hurled at athletes.

Alan, Kevin, Brian and Alastair were surprised to see, in ninth position and limping heavily, a Partick competitor who turned out to be Gerry McGrath. Hysterical ‘supporters’ were screaming advice (and several unsympathetic curses) at the poor fellow, who seemed in considerable pain. Later it became clear that, after moving into second place in the first half mile, he had developed a stress fracture! Gerry handed over nineteenth. Kevin, when he heard the story, said that he hoped those who had abused Gerry as a quitter later apologised and praised his courage in continuing. Nevertheless his team, one of the favourites, was out of the quest for success.

Tony Harris too had a tale of misfortune to tell but, luckily for the North Select, lost no more than twenty seconds. He had tucked into the second-placed bunch (of four runners) and they had worked together into the headwind to halve the gap to the lone Edinburgh man. Unexpectedly, due to roadworks, they had to cross a pedestrian overpass. Descending the final flight of steps, the Borders lad had caught Tony’s heel and down he had crashed. Fortunately the clumsy one was a gentleman and helped Tony up. However he was shaken out of his usual smooth style and failed to keep up when his rival spurted back to the windbreak created by the Govan and Falkirk men. Grey-faced, Tony eventually managed to pass the baton to Charlie Middleton and then, completely spent, sagged over the bonnet of a parked car.

Shortly afterwards the Dundee Thistle athlete, similarly knackered, staggered over the line. His team had no chance of repeating the previous year’s win, since ‘flu had affected four key runners. Nevertheless he had given his all. Consequently he seemed shocked when, with the rapidity of a ferret, a stunted sharp-eyed official pounced and started haranguing him. Apparently the ‘crime’ he had committed was reducing the size of the unwieldy numbers pinned to front and back of his club vest.

“Tampering with race numbers is contrary to rule fifteen!” snapped the irate one, “Dundee may be disqualified for this!”

Open-mouthed, the runner observed his attacker. His face was flushed because of flat-out exertion; but this was quickly replaced by the redder glow of absolute fury. Normally a mild character, but now evidently inflamed by injustice, he suffered an instantaneous personality change, swearing and ranting at the officious one, prodding him repeatedly in the chest. Sensibly the runt backed down, perhaps realising that he had been too hasty and that his health depended on immediate retreat. Thus soothed, Mr Hyde of Dundee reverted to Dr Jekyll – and the drama fizzled out.

Looking out of the rear window as Alan drove away from Broxburn Town Baths, the start of Stage Three, Kevin observed the bald heads and gnarled legs of most of the runners clustering round the baton exchange area. These were the older veterans. Kevin admired their enthusiasm but smiled at their unathletic appearance. He knew that this was the shortest stage (4.7 miles) and assumed that many clubs put their slowest man on it.

Yet the first couple of miles were an undulating switchback, testing for even the most youthful of competitors. Alan parked the Volvo about two hundred yards ahead of the leader. Edinburgh Breweries AC was still well clear. If anything their representative had stretched his lead – but he seemed in some distress, breathing very heavily, his features twisted. “Started too fast – he’s in oxygen debt,” Alan muttered, “That’s young Lothian, a superb 1500m prospect but this will seem a long way to him.”

They cheered on Charlie, whose powerful straight-backed style looked impressive. He had almost caught the Falkirk so-called ‘flier’. Alan, Kevin, Alastair and Brian set off again. They overtook the Govan runner as the road curved sharp left – and there was the Edinburgh man standing, hands on hips, on the pavement! Frantic supporters were shouting at him and he was responding vehemently.

“That’s it, he’s cracked up!” grunted Brian unsympathetically, “Look – he’s just chucked the baton over the fence. It’s in someone’s front garden!”

“Great,” added Alastair with callous pleasure, “They’re going to have to convince him to pick it up himself. If anyone else does, the team’ll be disqualified.”

Kevin, being much the same age as Jimmy Lothian, was less hard-hearted but couldn’t repress a grin as Charlie passed by in third position. It turned out later that Jimmy had felt isolated, overtired and depressed. A sense of futility and reluctance to continue hurting himself had led to the breakdown. Eventually, after much pleading, cajoling and threatening, he was persuaded to rejoin the race, but handed over in nineteenth place! Truly, Kevin thought, the Edinburgh to Glasgow was a passionate and unpredictable event.

Govan fans were visibly ecstatic. Their man seemed inspired by Edinburgh’s demise. Over the final two miles of the leg, he extended the lead to forty-five seconds. Then he produced a sprint and positively zoomed in to the changeover point. His blurred vision tried to focus during the final strenuous yards. There were the timekeepers, spectators and other runners. Where the hell was his team-mate? In disbelief he overshot then raced back to the line. No sign of the right face – but there was Alec who was meant to do the last stage! Exhaustion and frustration combined as he turned the air blue with unquotable curses and bent the baton by bouncing it violently off the tarmac.

“Get yir tracksuit aff, Alec!” he bawled, “Ye’ll jist hafti rin this yin. We’ll sort oot the officials and that wee nyaff McGregor la’er!”

At this moment, the absent relay runner appeared, plainly panic-stricken, grabbed the baton and, probably deafened by obscenities, scampered off – in fourth place, having lost ninety seconds. Tragically, from a Govan viewpoint at least, it transpired that he had not expected his comrade so soon and had been relieving himself in a field. Naturally the champion swearer soon simmered down and admitted to shame at his outburst. Friends agree, however, that he had been provoked beyond endurance.

Positions at the beginning of Stage Four were: Borders fifteen seconds up on North, with Falkirk third and Govan fourth.

Yet by the time that the Volvo moved past, Gordon Bruce was leading! For the first 800 metres the enthusiastic but unmistakably naïve Borders lad had done his utmost to run right away from the opposition. Like a runaway train, inter-city, he had careered down a slope to the Bathgate roundabout and, blind to the signals of a marshall, made tracks straight onwards. Urgent shouting brought him to his senses and, looking sick as he realised his mistake, he had ploughed across rough ground to the correct junction. By now, Gordon was twenty yards in front, instead of a hundred behind.

With anguish on his face, the Borders man charged into the headwind and tried to make amends. Sensibly, Gordon ‘sat’ behind and conserved energy because almost five miles remained to the baton exchange in Armadale. With two miles to go, he sensed his rival was wilting and burst decisively away from him. Gordon could see the clock tower which he had to reach before he could give his body the joy of stopping and the rest it craved. But the icy wind, sleet-laden now, was a bitter enemy and this road led only upwards. With a mile left, he suffered a ‘stitch’ but refused to slow, concentrating on ‘belly-breathing’ until the pain lessened. At last the haven of the line and the anxious yet welcome face of Jim Alexander who snatched the baton and darted up the High Street. North led by twenty-five seconds from Borders, with Govan closing up again in third and Falkirk fourth.

Soon Tony helped Gordon into the Cavalier. As they drove on, Charlie insisted on blowing the North Select bugle at every available Southern rival. Poor Jim, however, was struggling. Keen to impress, he had run the first mile too fast. The headwind sapped his energy and heavy snow froze on his spectacles. It was a real blizzard and Jim began to wish he was wearing more than vest and shorts – gloves, hat and thermal underwear were required. The frozen baton began to stick to his rigid fingers. When the Borders man surged past, Jim was shocked, but alert enough to keep close behind.

Within 400 metres he began to feel much better. He felt warmer and more relaxed now that his burly challenger was shielding him from the elements. Shortly afterwards he decided to share the work and battled into the gale for a couple of minutes before sheltering once more. These tactics ensured that the Govan man, who lacked a running companion on this exposed five and a half mile stage, began to lose ground to the other pair. Eventually, Jim let the Borders guy lead for four minutes and, sure he must be tired, injected a hundred yards sprint which created a vital gap. By the time the ‘Hunter’s Rest’ pub loomed through the white-out, the North Select was ten seconds up on Borders AC with Govan Harriers a minute down. With three stages to go, these clubs seemed to be assured of medals. But which of them would win gold?

Luckily, Alastair Taylor made the changeover, but only just. It wasn’t Alan’s fault. He had dropped Alastair off at the pub half an hour early. But on E to G day, the ‘Hunter’s Rest’ was always packed with runners past and present and Alastair wasted time chatting before completing his warm-up, stretching and visiting the loo. Then he jogged about near the start, gazing back nervously, trying to spot the first oncoming runner. Would it be Jim? Agitation elicited a second call of nature. There was a queue, and when Alastair exited once more he was surprised to see his team-mate nearing the finish! Rapidly ripping off his tracksuit, Alastair had seconds to check his shoelaces before it was time to take the baton and go.

Undoubtedly he would have to take care. This was the longest stage (seven miles) with many of the best athletes on it. The snowstorm was petering out but the weather was still chilling and blustery. A fast yet cautious start was essential. Fast enough to stay clear; cautious enough to avoid blowing up and ruining his team’s chances.

Alastair paced himself perfectly. Although the Borders AC man ‘bust a gut’ trying to close up, he failed and had to drop back and run more economically. Alastair’s team-mates were nearby, cheering their man on, timing the gap and then forging ahead in the cars to report progress. There was no need for Alastair to look back. Although he was racing at his maximum speed, he knew exactly what was happening and felt strong and in control. There was no real need for his headband – he was hardly sweating. Yard by precious yard he increased North’s slender lead. Passing under a railway bridge, he knew there were three miles left, an insignificant distance for a well-trained runner.

Then, with a mile to go to the Airdrie War Memorial and the exchange, he tripped and almost fell! A lace was loose and he regretted his own carelessness. Quickly he calculated the odds, before deciding not to stop and tie it tighter. With an exaggerated knee-lift and stride length, his tall rangy body tensed to correct possible disaster, Alastair managed to negotiate the final section but was extremely relieved to pass on the responsibility with the baton to Brian Mackay. The Northern Scot, inter-city express, had to pass only one station before the run-in to the terminus. With continued luck, it might arrive on time!

Brian had been given a twenty second lead over Borders AC. Govan Harriers’ man on Leg Six – a ‘track fairy’ – had obviously not enjoyed the experience, and slipped back to the fifty second mark. Falkirk, having finally found a genuine flier (who set the fastest time on the stage) seemed galled to discover that their Stage Seven guy was keeping warm in a car instead of shivering on the start line eager to take over. Thirty hard-won seconds were lost as the poor chap wrenched off his ‘sweats’, leaped out of the vehicle and shot off like an electric hare.

This was the action that Alan Simpson couldn’t watch – he was already at the start of the last stage. Tony, Charlie and co. did manage to snatch a glimpse of the leaders. However the Cavalier was ordered to depart and its occupants were unfairly accused by an over-zealous official of driving too close to the runners and ‘pacing’. Brian kept calm and exploited his flexibility and good 1500m speed on the mainly downhill five and a half mile leg.

Neither Borders nor Govan could make an impression. In fact the North Select lead was slowly increasing.

Meanwhile on the outskirts of Glasgow, Kevin, who was to collect Alan’s warm-up gear, expected to watch a casually confident campaigner prepare for victory. No way! Alan was a very worried man. Previous experience counted for nothing, at least before he started running. Kevin observed Alan’s behaviour with concern, noting the furrowed brow, silent withdrawn concentration (so unusual in an old blabbermouth) and neurotic attention to the stretching of hamstrings and the testing of shoelaces. The youngster could not perceive Alan’s feelings of nausea and weakness, or appreciate how important the near-veteran considered personally ensuring team success.

Central Belt teams traditionally won the Edinburgh to Glasgow Relay. North Select had never achieved victory. Alan felt that, if he ‘blew’ this opportunity, he might be required to walk home to Inverness. There the sarcastic tongues of the stars of yesteryear might justifiably tear him into small pieces, thus saving him the bother of committing hara-kiri!

Alan exchanged curt nods of acknowledgement with his two main rivals, Big Paddy Graham of Borders AC and the fast-improving Govan Harrier Paul Daly. Unusually the changeover area was in a little side street below and parallel to the main road. The first warning anyone had of the incoming runners was when there was a screech of brakes, a rush of feet, and Charlie Middleton’s red hair and freckled face appeared above the grassy bank near the line. “Alan!” he yelled, “Brian’s almost here. He’s about thirty seconds in front of Borders with Govan another twenty behind. Go for it!” – and the North bugle’s ‘war-cry’ emphasised his message.

All at once the athletes were called to the line, an official handed Alan the special baton, and Brian, in a state of controlled stress, came loping round the corner, touched Alan’s outstretched hand and the final drama began.

Sprint down the street, swerve right out onto the main road Alexandra Parade and settle into racing stride. Calm the breathing, check the knee-lift, grip the baton safely and CONCENTRATE. Work hard but don’t overdo it. Keep a little in hand in case someone gets too close. Don’t look round. The lads will tell you what’s happening behind.

Fear hastens the hunted fox but his hope lies in stamina and intelligence. The hounds are eager to catch him but keenness may be their undoing. Alan’s previous relay experience was invaluable. His nervousness gone now, he refused to panic but began to enjoy the challenge. Life took on an intensity which made racing worthwhile.

Spectators however thought that Alan’s lead was in danger. Young Daly rocketed away and overtook Paddy Graham after a mile and a half of this five mile stint. The unfortunate Irishman, struggling to hang on to his rival’s pace, damaged an old Achilles tendon injury and was reduced to an agonising hobble. Paul continued his meteoric progress until at halfway he was only twenty seconds behind.

Alan was well aware of his predicament. The North cars passed him several times but encouragement (“That’s fine – keep going like that”) changed to warning (“Push it, man. He’s catching you!”) He noticed the strain on his team-mates’ faces as they stared back at his pursuer. Naturally, Govan Harriers’ supporters, never sensitive introverts, became excited and loudly confident. Their triumphant bawling was clearly intended to unsettle Alan as well as to motivate Paul. An example was “At’s MAGIC, Paul! Ye’re almost there. Ye’ve GOAT him – he’s DEID!”

Then, just as insecurity began to grip his mind, Alan was rescued by two major hills. He had always been strong when tackling these and this time his thin body scudded up them with total determination. Paul’s initial impetus was just beginning to slow, and a few significant yards were added to the gap between the pair. With a mile to go, Alan passed Jim and Charlie, who were jogging in to the finish. Their relief was obvious and Alan started to savour victory while maintaining the pressure on his fading rival. Charlie blew his bugle joyfully.

A steep downslope, turn right and only 800m to go. As he ran through a set of traffic lights (which showed red), Alan was grateful for the presence of a policeman who had halted vehicles just in time. There would have been no question of stopping – Alan would have sprinted straight across, ‘jay-running’ flat out. Relay runners are utterly single-minded. Surprisingly there are few accidents. Perhaps drivers recognise dementia when they see it.

Marshalls guided him left, right and right again. As he rounded the corner into George Square, Alan saw the finish banner only yards away. One last effort – and the tape was snapped. Exultantly, Alan tossed the baton aloft – North had won! Govan Harriers were forty seconds down, with Falkirk a distant third. Borders AC limped in sixth.

Much later, as he relaxed by the fire in a pub well up the A9, Alan asked Kevin, “Well, how did you enjoy your first experience of old-style athletics?”

The youngster eyed his ‘gold’ medal as it glinted in the firelight. “It was great – I particularly liked the sentimental way they let an old guy win it.”

“Cheeky boy. I could hardly throw the race away after all the work you lads put in.”

“We had the luck, though.”

“You always need that. Well, let’s drink a toast. To the E to G – may it provide triumphs and disasters, tears (and beers) for many years to come!”

In unison, the North Select drank deeply. And then Alan added, “Now, who’s going to drive the Volvo instead of me? I’m afraid my eyesight’s going all fuzzy. Who else wants another pint?”