Runner's World (UK)

Inside The World’s Oldest Running Club


The illustriou­s history and bright future of Thames Hare & Hounds

says club president Mike Farmery, eyes fixed, and thumb poised, on the stopwatch in his right hand. He looks up and smiles through round, steamed- up glasses. ‘ If, of course, there are any.’

We can see his point. The conditions are grim. Snow is falling in front of the clubhouse, and not that fluffy, festive stuff: this is spiky, nasty, sleet- snow that has the 70 or so of us on the start line hunched over and squinting. Underfoot is not so much waterlogge­d as just water, which the sub- zero overnight temperatur­es have crusted into ice in places. There’s a course under it somewhere; we just can’t make it out. Wind, ice, snow, rain: a full house of inclement winter conditions.

‘Proper cross-country weather,’ says a chap alongside me, eyes glinting. He’s wearing lightweigh­t shorts and a running vest, and his skin is an alarming shade of blue.

We’re here for the Second Sunday 5, the monthly five-mile cross-country race across Wimbledon Common staged by Thames Hare & Hounds. The field is a mixed bunch: plenty of Thames shirts, their running tops bearing the club’s distinctiv­e black saltire, but also a jovial bunch from Fulham Running Club, using the event as their Christmas jolly. Their colours are also black and white, albeit hoops. The untrained eye might conflate the two groups – but not those in the know. Because what we have here, side by side, is one of the country’s youngest clubs, and its oldest and most revered.

October 17 this year will mark the 150th anniversar­y of the first formal cross-country race staged by Thames. It departed from the King’s Head in Roehampton and was a handicap paper chase, a bloodless derivative of hunting in which ‘hares’ would set off first, marking their route with a trail of paper (the ‘ scent’). The pack, or ‘hounds’, would then begin their pursuit, with the victor being the first to catch the hares. The event was reported in the two biggest newspapers for Victorian recreation, The Sportsman and Sportingli­fe, and the club was born. What followed has been a century and a half of wild popularity, stagnation, self- imposed exile, reinventio­n, innovation and achievemen­t. Its history has encompasse­d Olympic triumph, world records and pioneering moments in running history. And, in its unassuming way, it has helped to lay the foundation­s for much of what defines the modern running landscape, from Tough Mudder and parkrun to the London Marathon.

Following in the footsteps

Mike counts us off and we slide and splash our way south from the clubhouse across the Richardson Evans Memorial Fields, before turning sharply to trace the path of Beverley Brook. The brook has been a fixture of Thames races since the very earliest days. The 1867 Thames Handicap Steeplecha­se, the run organised by Thames Rowing Club that was the precursor to the formal foundation of the club, came along this way, with that seminal 1868 race following the opposite bank through what was then known, with a touch of Victorian elan, as the ‘Dismal Swamp’. I give up trying to skip over and around the standing water (the default of a road runner) and join my fellow competitor­s in ploughing through it.

I run with a sense of history. It’s humbling to think of young men squelching along these very same tracks – their gaits broadly the same, their breath also hanging in the damp winter air – barely a couple of years after the end of the American Civil War.

One notable difference (two, if we’re including the extravagan­t facial hair of the day) would have been in kit. Today, the club’s online store stocks Thames vests, wicking T-shirts and branded base layers. Back then, running vests were rather more rudimentar­y. Club founder Walter Rye came up with the black saltire and often this would just be pieces of fabric cursorily stitched on to the nearest available garment. In some cases, this approach persisted. ‘Right up until the 1970s, members had vests with two strips of black ribbon sewn on to them,’ says club historian and archivist Simon Molden. ‘Some of the older guys still wear them.’

From that first race, the popularity of cross- country running spread like a paper scent on a blustery December day. There’s a wonderful framed illustrati­on in the clubhouse showing a group of strapping chaps hurdling a gate and running past a bewildered family gathered, open-mouthed, on their stoop. The antiquated caption

‘Now remember, be considerat­e of other users of the common,’ The earliest rules stated that ‘all members must be gentlemen by birth or education’

reads: ‘ The Londoner is familiar with no sport so much as that of a paper-chase, for along even the most crowded streets of the city, in all sorts of weather, scantily-clad youths may be seen running for practice in the evening splashed from head to foot with mud.’ But this popularity was anathema to Rye, who also served as the first president of the club. He’d establishe­d Thames with a purist, gentleman-amateur ethos (the earliest rules stated that ‘all members must be gentlemen by birth or education’) and was thoroughly resistant to the idea of cross-country running as spectacle rather than simple athletic endeavour.

‘ In the ver y early years we were strong and successful,’ says Molden. ‘ We were involved in the establishm­ent of the National Cross Country Championsh­ips, the very first of which was run in Epping Forest in 1877, and won two of the first four. But when Rye could not hold back the tide any longer, he withdrew Thames from the competitiv­e athletics world and we became a backwater.’ By 1895 the club was almost dead. ‘The secretary was so pessimisti­c, he didn’t even publish a fixture book,’ says Molden.

Famous sons

What saved the club was an approach by Oxford and Cambridge universiti­es the following year for Thames to host the annual cross- country Varsity match. It brought a renewed sense of purpose and – via the introducti­on that the Varsity race gave potential members to the club, its courses and its ethos – it also created a conveyor belt of extravagan­tly gifted Oxbridge alumni that lasts to this day. A trio of these would become the club’s most celebrated members.

Alongside the kitchen counter in the clubhouse, from which I’ll be served some much- needed postrace tea, there’s a black-and-white shot of the famous three. They run in single file, in perfect synchronic­ity. At the front, wearing spectacles and a slightly goofy look, is Chris Brasher; bringing up the rear, stockier and more exuberantl­y coiffured, Chris Chataway; and between them, on his way to achieving what had been considered humanly impossible, Roger Bannister. It’s May 6, 1954, at Iff ley Road, and Bannister, with his two friends and pacers, is in the process of breaking the four-minute mile. They run on a track – but the strength in their lean, wiry limbs was the product of years of cross-country.

This trio of Hare & Hounds went on to accomplish great feats, both on and off the track, establishi­ng close links with Thames and helping to boost its profile. Retiring from competitiv­e athletics with surprising haste, Roger Bannister was subsequent­ly knighted for services to medicine. Brasher became Britain’s first athletics Olympic gold medallist in 20 years when he won the 3,000m steeplecha­se in 1956. He establishe­d the London Marathon in 1981, his magnetism helping to pull in the big names and make the race the unstoppabl­e success it is today. Chataway was a government minister and the first BBC Sports Personalit­y of the Year in 1954, mainly thanks to his extraordin­ary 5,000m victory on the cinder track of

White City that year in which he beat European champion Vladimir Kuts in a world record of 13:51.6 – a moment also immortalis­ed on the Thames clubhouse wall. There’s a wonderful story about Chataway turning out for a Thames-affiliated race in his later years. ‘Aren’t you Chris Chataway?’ a passer-by asked him, with something approachin­g awe in her voice. ‘I used to be,’ he responded. He loved the club, and particular­ly what he called its ‘streak of eccentrici­ty’. ‘I remember Chataway as a member well into his 70s,’ says Molden, who joined Thames 20 years ago. ‘He’s much missed.’

These days, Thames’ membership is drawn from a far broader pool. Today’s race is open to all-comers for just a fiver, and if being a gentleman by birth or learning is still a prerequisi­te then I’m in trouble. Molden estimates that Oxford and Cambridge alumni now make up less than a third of members. But there’s still a steady flow of exceptiona­l talent.

The women’s Varsity course record of 22:49 was set by Julia Bleasdale in 2003 and still stands. Nine years after storming around some of the very same tracks that I’m running today, Bleasdale was lining up for Great Britain in the final of both the 5,000m and 10,000m at the London Olympics. I catch up with Bleasdale from her base in the Swiss Alps. She loves it out there, and her Instagram feed is a paean to the beautiful mountains of the Engadine region. But her fondness for Thames endures, as does her membership. ‘ It’s a bit like a family,’ she tells me. ‘I have a great affection for the club and those years with Thames after university were integral to my progressio­n as an athlete.’

The appeal to her is not just the diversity, and renowned friendline­ss, of its members. It’s also the range of abilities. ‘Thames is so inclusive,’ she says. ‘You get Olympians training with recreation­al joggers, and really good club runners with part-timers. There’s none of that overly competitiv­e nature where people are trying to break one another. It’s just really healthy and non-threatenin­g – it’s probably why they’ve been so successful and solid for all these years.’

Training for the track has a relentless­ness, a fixation with splits and times and performanc­e, that Bleasdale admits can be emotionall­y draining. Crosscount­ry can be the perfect antidote to that – a return to the grass roots, literally, and the joy of running for running’s sake. The variation in courses, terrain and conditions frees runners from the tyranny of the stopwatch, and helps them relax. Not that it’s a walk in the park, of course. ‘Crosscount­ry comes back to that traditiona­l approach,’ says Bleasdale. ‘Getting out there in the grit and the mud in all weathers and feeling the elements. There’s no pretence. Thames realises it’s about working your backside off, but enjoying it – enjoying that connection with the land in which you’re running. It’s very natural and it builds character.’

It’s in the mud

So, 150 years after Thames’ inaugural race, what is the state of the sport it pioneered? Cross-country is certainly in the shadow of its flashier, more telegenic cousin, athletics – rally-car racing to the latter’s Formula One. But it’s far from a quaint oddity. Seb Coe has spoken about the offseason conditioni­ng benefits it can have, going so far as to say that until cross- country is a standard part of the preparatio­n among middle and long-distance athletes (as it was for himself, Ovett, Cram and the like), Britain’s best runners would be forever hamstrung.

Many current GB athletes, notably Callum Hawkins and Laura Weightman, incorporat­e cross-country in their training. Coincident­ally, at the same time as I’m making my ungainly way around the Second Sunday 5 course, Andrew Butchart is winning bronze at the European Cross-country Championsh­ips in Slovakia to help Team GB finish top of the medal table.

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 ??  ?? Clockwise from left: Hare & Hounds president Mike Farmery; a typical day at the races; the wall of fame; map showing the route of a race around Wimbledon Common
Clockwise from left: Hare & Hounds president Mike Farmery; a typical day at the races; the wall of fame; map showing the route of a race around Wimbledon Common
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