Rossendale Free Press
Royal gong for Harriers hero
APOPULAR athletics coach who was a founding member of his local running club in the mid-1960s has ‘medalled’ in the New Year’s Honours.
Graham Wright was a schoolboy athlete when Rossendale Harriers were formed with just a handful of members, and after turning 70 last April, still spurs the club on as chairman.
His service to the sport and to his local community, as a coach, mentor and race organiser at borough, county and national levels, has been richly rewarded with a British Empire Medal (BEM).
Former fell running specialist Graham, who still runs occasionally as well as competing in cyclocross with Rossendale Road Club, has seen thousands of runners come and go during his time at the Marl Pits-based club, which is now around 400-strong.
He said: “We are a good community club and the Harriers are a big thing in Rossendale. Always one of the best things I do is coaching many junior under-18s. That’s involved probably thousands of children through the years that I’ve coached from the age of eight up to 18.
“You don’t do these things for awards and recognition; you enjoy doing it. I’ve been a runner myself for many years. I was a pretty good fell runner - mainly at the longer distance events. It’s good to be able to put something back into the sport and it’s nice to realise that’s appreciated. Social media has been amazing.” Graham was 17 when the Harriers were first formed in 1967 and has served on the club committee in various positions, including some 25 years now as chairman.
At that time Marl Pits in Rawtenstall was just a pavilion building, and athletics clubs were a relatively novel concept. The council wanted a club to make use of the new facility that had been built, and local school teachers interested in running athletics groups got their heads together.
“You would go for a run and you would be the only one out there,” Graham recalled.
“Eddie Roberts was responsible for forming the club. He was my teacher at Fearns school. He had the vision to get everyone together to form the club. I was only 17 but one of the original members. He mentored me at school as a runner. We started off with half a dozen or so young people.
“We have had some fantastic members through the years. International athletes - David Lewis was probably our best ever runner. He won the national cross country championships three times and ran on the track for Great Britain.” Graham has been integral to the development of junior sections within the Harriers, and has also enjoyed mentoring other coaches. He says that being a northern club, fell running on and around Rossendale’s hills is a massive part of club life, and he has organised hundreds of events in his time. The Harriers were also one of four clubs to set up the Red Rose cross country league.
“It’s a good friendly atmosphere and there’s competition for all age groups right up from under-9s to over-70s, especially with the cross country racing,” he said.
“Especially for young people, you realise that it’s important for the mental health as well as the physical health of kids to get their exercise. You try to keep that going. It’s quite a commitment, but I just love what I’m doing. We have some fantastic kids - junior athletes who are all keen and enthusiastic. It’s freezing cold, it’s dark and we might get 20 kids turn up on a cold, winter night.”
Graham, whose nickname is ‘Lefty’ because of his surname, admits that 50 years of running have taken a toll on the joints, but now rides to keeps in shape, and won his age group category at the Live in Hope cyclocross series last month.
Graham, from Waterfoot, said he was grateful to his wife Valerie for her backing - and they are both looking forward to a Royal invitation to the Palace whenever it is safe for them to host events.
“Without her help and support I wouldn’t have been able to do what I’ve done through the years,” he said.
“She’s helped out at club races and marshalling, and club functions, and helped me organise, as well as the support she’s given me when I’ve not been [around]. You could be gone for a full weekend and there is lots and lots of admin time. That’s an important part of the support she has given me.” Members and friends have posted congratulations to Graham in reply to a tweet by Rossendale Harriers announcing the award.
And The Fell Runners Association Facebook page also offered their “massive congratulations”, saying: “Graham’s contribution to junior fell running and the FRA has been huge and this honour is richly deserved.”