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
o 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
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 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.