The older you get the faster time moves away from you, and I just can't believe that the first Hastings Half Marathon took place a quarter of a century ago, although a quick glance at my waistline tells me that time has moved on!
Whilst I had won many races before, and was by then a regular member of the Great Britain Team, winning Hastings was something which perhaps gave me that little bit more credibility with local people than I had otherwise enjoyed, after all, the reality is that if you're not involved in a sport, then you can't really be expected to know who's doing what and how good or bad they are at it, so seeing the "local boy" come in first, perhaps made a few people realise that actually, I wasn't that bad at running after all.
Although I had been giving some "expert advice" to Eric and his team on the finer points relating to half marathons, my main interest was in running it and, hopefully winning. At the time, whilst we knew it was going to be a big race, I don't think anyone could have foreseen just how big it was to become, and how important a fixture it now is in the Great Britain racing calender, from small seeds great potatoes grow (a reference to Eric's former fame in the world of potatoes!).
Whilst it's normal to get nervous before a race, I can still recall the state I was in when we lined-up for the start, whilst the field was not of the quality at the front that it is these days, there were some very good athletes taking part, most notably one of my good college friends, Kevin Johnston, a fellow international and winner of the Glasgow marathon, who had travelled all the way down from Newcastle for the express purpose of beating me.
So far as the race went, whilst I did break away from the field just before the top of Queensway, unlike other races where you can start to relax and get into a pattern, because this one was so important for me, I was never really able to "lean back and enjoy it", and I just continued to press hard all the way to the line, but I did enjoy the final two hundred yards (yes I was still working in imperial measures those days) and remember running down the right hand side of the road and saying hello to my wife Lesley and patting my daughter Sophie on the head on my way to the finish.
The race got some good coverage, thousands of local people took part, either running or supporting and its foundations were well and truly set. Clearly there were a lot of people who, having watched the event, then decided that they wanted to take part next time, because the entries for the second year shot-up, and I think gave the organisers a real taste of what they had let themselves in for, but it also signalled the arrival of a very important annual event for the area.
I guess the second year will perhaps be remembered not for the fact that I won it, but because my finish time was 0ne hour, six minutes and six seconds. I have to say that the significance of this didn't really dawn on me until I saw an article in the next days' Daily Telegraph headed "1066 and all that". I have been asked since then "did I slow down or speed-up just to get that time", the answer is quite clear, when you've just run thirteen miles around one of the toughest half marathon courses there is, your only thought is about getting across the line and trying to get rid of the pain which seems to be in every joint and muscle you've got, and many you didn't know you had-yes, it hurts just as much at the front of the field as it does
Whilst I took part in the race a few more times, unfortunately a very bad injury in 1986 put an end to my serious running career, but, I don't think that I've missed a race yet and have not felt, as a spectator, immense pleasure at this wonderful event.
So what has happened to it in these intervening 20 plus years, well quite obviously the standard at the front has become truly world class, mainly through the emergence in the late eighties and nineties of the brilliant African runners, who, together with some of our own great athletes (Paul Davis-Hale, Eammon Martin) have taken the course record to a time which in 1985 I just did not believe was possible. But the emergence of the African phenomenon, also seems to have marked the decline in the standard and quality of British distance running. In the 80's, Great Britain boasted the best marathon runners around, we held the world record, won Olympic bronze medal and could claim to have won virtually every major marathon race in the world, our best athletes of today, though, would have struggled to gain a minor international vest in those days, indeed it was only a few years ago that Paula Radcliff (OK the best female distance runner of all-time) was ranked as the third fastest marathon runner in the UK. I am most certainly not knocking our current batch, and in Dan Robinson and one or two of the new distance athletes, we have a real potential beginning to emerge, but clearly the depth is just not there anymore and one has to wonder why, when events like Hastings still attract thousands of competitors and should be part of a programme designed to foster our own 2012 Olympic Champion.
Indeed, despite the decline in standards at the top of the UK distance scene, the Hastings half marathon continues to go from strength to strength and as well as attracting a range of top class international athletes, has still managed to retain its "local feel", and it is really great to watch the thousands of local people running each year and most importantly raising many thousands of pounds for good causes. A running race that only serves to satisfy the needs of athletes, cannot be compared with one that does that, but which also raises funds and the aspirations of so many people, young and old.
As an athlete, you are totally focussed on winning, little if any thought goes into just what has to be done to promote a major event like Hastings, it is a massive undertaking and made even harder these days by our stringent health and safety rules. Whilst the winners of the half marathon are the people who run it and those who watch it, the heroes are the people who, behind the scenes, and on the day, ensure that everything that has to be done is done, that everything is in its' place, that every athlete is being cared for and that the disruption to those who have no interest in this foot race is kept to an absolute minimum. The team which Eric Hardwick has grown around him is quite simply superb, and includes many who were there from the start in 1985, they deserve huge thanks for all they do for
So far as the future is concerned, whilst my mind says that I ought to get my pumps out and start training again, sadly my legs tell me otherwise and so I will continue to spectate each year, and I genuinely look forward to the day when another local boy crosses the line first. One thing I do know for sure though, is that this race, which has affected the lives of so many people, will continue to provide the "agony and ecstasy" for our local long distance runners for many years to come, it is an integral part of our area and an important element of distance running in the UK, long may it stay that way!
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