Long-running running champs
A week or so ago the World Masters Mountain Running Champs were held in Puglia, Italy. There was a UK winner in one of the age group events that subsequently has got very little publicity. This is not unusual, as he is a runner that often goes under the radar, yet is an outstanding example of someone running at the very highest level throughout his long career. I am talking about Colin Donnelly, who won the v60 category at those WMRA Masters Champs [image above].
Donnelly won by just over a minute in a time of 33-10 on a course described (by the organisers) as one that was, ‘a tough technical track and made a true test of mountain running ability’. [There were two other UK winners: Adam Osborne in the M40 category, and Geoffrey Howard in the M70s, plus there should be an honorable mention for Ben Mounsey, who was second v35]
Colin Donnelly has been winning races since he was 20 years old. At that tender age he won the Ben Nevis race, at his first attempt. So, he has had a winning career spanning 40 years (as he has just moved into the v60 category). Is that unusual for fell runners?
I was prompted to look back at some of the other top fell runners that I have written about and to see how long they were winners for, and also at what sort of age they retired (or stopped being competitive at). Taking Billy Bland first, he won his first race at 17 years old and his last when he was 50, giving him 33 years of winning. His career had been winding down actually from the age of 45. His nephew Gavin Bland also won his first race when he was 17/18 and his last (at a Champs race in Northern Ireland) when he was 42, giving him 24 years of being a winner. Again though, he had some fallow years in there where he certainly didn’t win any races.
Kenny Stuart and John Wild are another two of the very best fell runners that I have looked at the careers of. But they are both slightly different as the fells were not their surface of choice for their full careers. Nevertheless, it is intriguing to see that they both had relatively short careers, compared to Colin, Billy and Gavin.
John Wild won his first serious race when he was just starting his RAF career, a services cross country when he was 17. His last win was also an RAF race when he was just 31 years old, a span of 14 years. As to the fells he won races from 1977 (Worcestershire Beacon) to 1985 (the Offas Dyke race), a mere 8 years. After the amazing tussle with Kenny Stuart in the 1983 season, John Wild came off the fells, tried for a good marathon and his running career never really hit the heights again.
Kenny Stuart’s first win on the fells was as a 17 year old, in a pro race in 1974. His last fell race win was probably Butter Crag at the end of the 1985 season, as he abruptly came off the fells to go marathoning in 1986. His last significant win was the Houston marathon in 1989, giving him a 15 year winning career. His fell winning span was 11 years, including his time racing in the pros.
This random selection of athletes is chosen just to offer a base line for assessing Donnelly’s achievement.
What it highlights is that Colin has kept his enthusiasm, and fitness, over a remarkably long time. When I interviewed him recently he explained the background to that continued enthusiasm:
Running is about the experience, the wind in your hair and the different seasons. A few years ago, I had a serious cartilage injury and I thought that was the end of running. I got it operated on and I have now come back. Doing mountain biking while injured kept me about 80% fit. I have gone back to cycling a lot now. I live in a town and don’t like running tarmac, so I cycle out a few miles and go for a run and cycle back. I probably cycle every day and run every day. Someone asked if I HAD to run every day. I don’t have to, but I like to.
He also added that it is about deeper things than just running. It is for his mental health as much as anything else. ‘Thinking time’, as he puts it. He also added his thoughts on still being competitive through the age groups, which turned out to prescient:
Going for the v40 or v50, they are new challenges mind. You must accept you were right up there, but that is finished. I am eligible for the v60 category at the World Mountain Running Trophy, so I think I will have a wee crack at that and see if I can do something here.
If you want to read more about this very interesting character I have written a longish piece on him, which is being published in two parts in The Fellrunner magazine. The first part appeared in the Spring 2019 issue [extract to right], and the second part is in the issue that is just about to come out. When that has been published I will post the full article [as a download] on this blog, as the editor had to cut quite a bit out due to its length.
Meanwhile, marvel at Colin Donnelly’s achievement in being a World Champion in his sport. If you want to share any examples of similar longevity in running performance then feel free to do so via the comments for this blog post.
If you want to read more about John Wild and Kenny Stuart then I can do no more than point you to my book Running Hard: the story of a rivalry, which covers their parallel careers in depth. The book was described by Steve Birkinshaw (author of There is No Map in Hell): ‘This meticulously researched book is a compelling and fascinating account of their lives, and their rivalry and friendship.’
[Maybe I’ll write a book about Billy Bland next, or Colin Donnelly.]