Monday, 24 May 2021



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 

different route.


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 winner at Boston in recent years could expect to receive $150,000 in prize
 money, plus bonuses and expenses. In his day, Hill received a medal, a
 laurel wreath and a bowl of stew. His airfare wasn’t even paid, the money 
came from a fund set up by the Road Runners Club (an organisation  I’m proud
 to say I’ve been a member of for 45 years.)


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.


A well worn Midleton AC singlet manufactured by Ron Hill.

When Ron ran Ballycotton 10 he and his wife were guests  of honour
 at Midleton AC's after race dinner in Water Rock House where 
a presentation was made to him on behalf of the club.
Read more about this amazing runner here 
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