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It’s a lovely day and Ron Hill and I are going running. This is day three of my training for the Berlin marathon next month. For Hill, it’s day 17,725. He’s not training for any particular marathon; he’s done 115 of them. Plus, he is 74. However, Hill has not missed a single day of running (defined as any distance over a mile) since December 1964. He calls this his “Streak”. Even when he had knee surgery, he ran, albeit on crutches. For Hill, it is never a question of “Will I go running?” but “When will I go running?”
Hill was the first man officially to break the two hours and 10 minutes time-barrier for a marathon, clocking 2.09 to take gold at the 1970 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh. Black-and-white photographs show him leading the field to the finish line, a tiny figure in a string vest. He was the first British man to win the Boston marathon, also in 1970, with a course record (2.10). Twenty-six years later, aged 57, he ran his final marathon, again in Boston, in 3.12. He has won 18 other marathons.
Professionally, Hill is a textile chemist who devised running clothes in the stretchy, wicking fabric we now all use for running (the Ronhill range of running gear is named for him). Before Hill, runners toiled in sweaty cotton shorts. “They would wear out in about six weeks. I was working with synthetic yarns which are much, much tougher and don’t hold on to moisture. So we started making running clothes in nylon, and then polyester. And jackets with reflective tape, because I was running home from work in the winter and wanted to stay safe.”
He usually runs first thing in the morning. He is punctilious about a log and thinks all runners should keep one. “Say you want to run three times a week: identify the days when that will happen; don’t allow them to be blank. The diary becomes your discipline.”
And you won’t catch Hill in headphones. “I tried running with a radio, once. It got in the way.” Or toting water bottles. “In Athens, 1969 [the European Championships, where he took gold in 2.16], the tarmac was melting. Beforehand, I had half a teaspoon of salt in concentrated orange cordial. And a pint of diluted orange squash. That was my fuel. If you’re out there for a fair while, have a little bit – but not a whole lot.”
He doesn’t bother with all the other stuff, either. “In my last marathon, I had one of those gels halfway and waited for the energy surge. All I got was sticky fingers.” With that, we are off, down a leafy disused railway line. “Thank Beeching for that,” says Hill drily.
He was born in 1938 in Accrington, Lancashire – a frail, slight child in a working-class family.
He remembers walking to school in iron-shod, wooden-soled clogs. “We would make sparks by scuffing our clogs against the cobbles,” he says.
We are trotting along quite comfortably, on the way to Werneth Low Country Park in Hyde, Greater Manchester. Hill thinks we should do a bit of speed work. “I did some in Skiathos recently, before a 10k in Manchester. I improved my time from 55.56 to 52.14.”
Hill has two regimes, aimed at building fitness; the incorporation of sprinting helps make leisurely pace of a marathon seem easy. The first intersperses a 70-second sprint, 50 seconds normal and a 70-second sprint between five-minute bouts of easy running.
The second regime is this: run slowly, counting each left stride from one to 10. Then sprint for 10 left paces. Go back to the slower pace and repeat the sequence, adding five steps to the count each time, up to 30. Then work back down to 10 in five-pace increments. Next week, go up to 40, and so on, up to 65.
I ask about style. This proves to be a short conversation. “Forget style. If you are covering the ground, that’s the important thing. If you have run a lot of miles, you are running as efficiently as you can. You can’t change your running style.” Arms? Irrelevant. Head position? Ditto. Breathing? “Just do it naturally.”
He did once attempt to change the way he ran. “I tried to become a forefoot runner. But I have pictures of me running on a wet cinder track in White City, in bare feet. And the pictures show that I was definitely going to hit the track with my heel. When you’re tired, you revert to your own style anyway.”
Tips? When you reach the 20-mile marker, try smiling. “It helps you relax. There is no point getting uptight with six miles to go.” And focus on continuing. “In Edinburgh, I almost got an ulcer in that last six miles from the worry of whether I could keep going or not.”
In training, he might chat to a running pal, or think about work projects. This was how he had his clothing brainwave. Hill still works at Ronhill, which alongside Hilly (another of his labels), is now part of OSC (the Outdoor and Sports Company). They are no longer for the hard core only but are sold on the high street. Is he pleased we’re all runners now, charging around in Ronhill capri pants and Hilly socks? Yes, but he bewails sluggishness in the British marathon elite.
“There are all these aids and magazines. But at the 2012 Olympics, the first British man was home in 2.16.50.” That’s seven minutes slower than Hill, more than 40 years ago. “So it seems as if the information isn’t doing any good. People aren’t thinking for themselves. They’re taking shortcuts, or their lifestyle is wrong.”
As we puff up an almost vertical slope, which Hill ensures that he runs at least once a week, he gives me a final mantra. “Leave no stone unturned in your quest to be the best that you can. Don’t end up thinking ‘if only I had done a bit more training’. I look back and I have no regrets. At the end of the day, the more you run, the better you will be.”
How does he think I will do? “Looking at you, you should be able to run 3.30 in Berlin.” Wish I’d never asked.
We crest the hill at Windy Harbour, and take in a spectacular view of Greater Manchester. Are we going to coast down for hot showers? Not likely. “I only wash once a week,” says Hill. “It’s not necessary to wash every day. You are washing all the body oils away! I haven’t got the time to have a flipping shower!”
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