I can now confirm that the launch date for my book ‘All of Nothing at All: the life of Billy Bland‘ is Thu 20 Aug. I hope you are dying to know what is in the book. But here I want to tell you of some things that are NOT in it, and why.
As I was doing the research for this book, there was a lot of stuff that I accumulated that had no chance of being used – but I filed it anyway. Other material was interesting but off topic. And there were some good images that I chose not to use.
There may have even been something that was potentially libelous, perhaps not surprising as there are some quite outspoken characters in the world of fell running.
One thing I spent quite a lot of time research was rewilding, and in particular the Wild Ennerdale project, whose vision is:
to allow the evolution of Ennerdale as a wild valley for the benefit of people, relying more on natural processes to shape its landscape and ecology
They were thinking of introducing pine martens to the area. We did have a fairly long discussion about it but in the end only a short piece about how Billy somewhat surprised me by not being fully in favour of some of the Wild Ennerdale work.
Another aspect that I thought would be included was an analysis of Billy’s training diaries. At one interview Billy said he had got them them somewhere. When he did find them and he showed me a typical example they were a little disappointing (especially compared the detail shown in diaries of Kenny Stuart and John Wild [and Billy’s nephew Gavin], for instance). There was just a note numbers of miles run each, including weekly cumulative totals. Days often included details of horse racing events too! The image below (which is not in the book) is a summary at the back of one diary, that lists races competed in, with position and a few words in comment – eg Moffat, got lost after 5th checkpoint should of won – and on the opposite page a list of his race finish positions for the 1979, 1980 and 1981 seasons (with 7, 10 and 10 wins respectively).
There were some little snippets that I found interesting that didn’t make it to the final manuscript. For instance, there is a listed building across the field at the bottom of Billy’s garden. It is at Grade II level and is a folly bridge by a footpath. It is a “narrow single-span humped-back bridge”, according to its listing. I also was surprised when Billy and I appeared at the Keswick Mountain Festival in the Theatre by The Lake, when he told me that he had not been in that theatre before.
There was actually a whole chapter taken out of the manuscript right at the end of the writing of the book. I had this idea of trying to get Billy into a lab for physiological testing, as he is still mega fit through his cycling. The whole backstory of that, and some thoughts on ageing and declining lab test scores (such as VO2max) will be the subject of a separate blog, or an article somewhere (if I can get it published). In the end (it was going to be a Postscript chapter) it was taken out and I included a chapter on Kilian Jornet’s BGR record and his meetings and discussions with Billy.
There were several photos that I came upon that were not included in the final set. One that Billy showed me was a photo of Bonny (the horse he fell off as a child), with his uncle Nat bringing in a load of bracken for bedding. Then there was a picture of the Duke of Edinburgh on a visit to Honister Mine (where Billy worked) but not with Billy in the photo.
One photo that I really liked was another that Billy showed me. It is of sheep shearing at Nook Farm, Rosthwaite where Billy was born in 1947. Photo is from 1945 and is Billy’s uncle Nathan (on left) and dad (right). The quality of the photo wasn’t quite up to it being included, unfortunately. I was also uncertain of the copyright details of that photo.
One more, which just made me laugh. It was given to me by Tony Cresswell when I did his interview. He had been involved in Billy’s various BG efforts, and also when he and Billy appeared in a TV program called Survival of the Fittest. This one is of the two of them larking about at the awards presentation for that show, which is covered in detail in the book.
“I will not write it into the ground. I will not write the life out of it. I won’t do that.” This was advice that Maya Angelou offered about the writing process. She was talking in particular about the act of finishing a book. Unaware as I was of this quote at the time, I was uncertain as to when I had finished this book. As noted above, when I thought I had finished I STILL took some things out.
It is a difficult decision sometimes, but after three other books I am beginning to have a feel for what is fluff or inappropriate, or just not adding anything to the story. Having read the above, and hopefully/eventually the book itself, you will perhaps have got a feel for what a writer can go through on the path to telling their particular story.
Note: I wrote an earlier post called ‘When is a book finished’. This was all about the many tasks an author has to be doing, or be involved in, once the manuscript is finished, and before the book can come out.
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.]
Blogger Meanwood Rambler recently wrote an interesting piece about Victoria Wilkinson’s record breaking spree, and the (relative) stagnation in men’s fell race course records [Link to his blog post]. It prompted me to look back at the situation, and I decided to share my thoughts from my research for ‘It’s a hill, get over it’. The following is an extract from the relevant chapter in the book:
Record breakers and champions
“My whole feeling in terms of racing is that you have to be very bold. You sometimes have to be aggressive and gamble”
This chapter covers some of the male fell champions and the records they set. Mind you, analysing fastest times for fell races is a somewhat tricky area, as there is so much that can change, not least the conditions that an event is run in. Even more important is the fact that courses necessarily have to change, due often to access issues, or changes in start points due to facilities/parking etc.
Over time who have been the top record breakers? Three of them have been Billy Bland, John Wild and Kenny Stuart. In 1980 Billy Bland won his only British title and had a record breaking spree, which was followed by the next two champions over the next five years – John Wild and Kenny Stuart, who hold ten records between them still, with Bland holding two still.
However, these three record breakers have quite different racing profiles. Bland’s two records are both categorised as long and are both in the Lakes – Borrowdale at seventeen miles and Wasdale at twenty-one. Wild’s three are all short and in Northern England – Wrekin (5.5 miles), Rivington Pike (3.25 miles) and Burnsall (1.5 miles). Stuart by contrast has seven records, or which three are short, three are medium and one is long, and they are in Wales, Scotland and the Lakes. They are Wansfell (2.5 miles), Latrigg (3 miles), Eildon 2 Hills (3.5 miles), Skiddaw (9 miles), Snowdon and Ben Nevis (both 10 miles) and Ennerdale (23 miles).
Obviously records get beaten, and those above are ones that have held up. An interesting comparison is given by figures produced by a statistician in 1989. He counted the number of course records held at that time for all races in that year’s FRA calendar. The results are pretty startling. For the men, Colin Donnelly, who was in his triple British title winning spree at the time, had sixteen, to Kenny Stuart’s twelve and John Wild’s nine. For the women Carol Haigh, who never actually won the British title, had a staggering forty-three, to Angela Carson’s seventeen and Vanessa Brindle’s eleven.
However, many of the major races, for example Wasdale and Fairfield, have had significant changes to their courses. Sadly, when change like this happens the holders of the records for a previous course are then down-graded when a new record is subsequently set on a shorter or longer course. Who is to say that in some cases they wouldn’t still be the record holder if the change hadn’t happened? Having said that, there is a certain fascination in knowing who has set the fastest time for a course and in which year. The list of men’s records for the ‘classic’ courses (see Appendix 3) shows three that have lasted from 1977 – Langdale, Lantern Pike and Eldwick. For the women the oldest are four that date from 1984 – Ben Nevis, Pendleton, Saddleworth and Lantern Pike.
In the Sept/Oct 1990 issue of Up and Down magazine Neil Shuttleworth speculated on improving standards in an article entitled ‘The Record Has Stood …’. He noted that fell runners have only a once a year opportunity to break records, unlike track and marathon runners (when comparing records for the distance, not the particular marathon). Shuttleworth concluded that race conditions were probably the most important factor to consider, that is to say both the weather and the underfoot conditions. Popularity of events also has an effect, in that a more popular event will attract more, and better, runners and possibly increase the likelihood of records. Shuttleworth also felt that neither improved footwear or better diet were likely to have a significant effect, but that competition (i.e. intense rivalry between top athletes) was likely to be a big factor.
There are many instances where it can be shown that records were broken due to close rivalries, both in individual races and throughout seasons. One of the examples noted above is the Langdale record from 1977. It is held by Andy Styan, and when asked by Shuttleworth about it (in the article just quoted), he reckoned it was so fast for two reasons: good conditions and a very strong field. Styan commented:
Billy Bland, Alan McGee, Mike Short and myself pulled clear off Thunacar Knott, and the four of us pushed each all the way. Billy and I got away on the descents, and Alan and Mike would pull us back on the climbs until we got away off the Crinkles and held it over Blisco. I left Billy by the cattle grid and that was that.
Even so, these four all finished between 1 hr 55 mins 3 secs and 1 hr 56 mins 8 secs, and it was the first time four runners had finished inside two hours for the course.
Similarly, John Wild set a record of 12 mins 48 secs (by two seconds) for the Burnsall Classic in August 1983. Kenny Stuart was first to the top but was overtaken by a speedily descending Wild, who in Kenny’s view was “taking risks he just wasn’t prepared to take, including leapfrogging the wall”. Two weeks later at Ben Nevis they met again, and faced strong challenges from Sean Livesey and Jack Maitland. Strong winds and mist made for a difficult race. Maitland led Stuart to the summit, with Wild and Livesey close behind. Somehow Wild took the lead on the way down to the burn in heavy mist and had a lead of twenty seconds there, holding Stuart off by seventeen seconds at the end. Despite the foul weather these two, and third placed Livesey, beat Dave Cannon’s 1976 record, with Wild taking 1 min 20 secs off it. John Wild credited the record to Maitland’s pushing so hard on the ascent against a known climber such as Stuart.
My main conclusion was that it was the number of absolutely top quality athletes that there were running the fells in the 1980s, and the way they raced so hard against each other, that were the two main factors in these records being set, and still in many cases not yet beaten. This is explored further in ‘Running Hard: the story of a rivalry’, which tracks Kenny Stuart and John Wild’s careers, and their rivals, such as Billy Bland.
The table is a list of the course records* that are still held by those three brilliant runners.
Not forgetting, of course, Andy Styan’s Langdale record which has resisted all challenges, including Billy Bland’s (who came within 14 secs), since way back in 1977.
* according to the FRA race page for each race
It was great to be a guest at the International Snowdon Race this year (thanks RO Stephen Edwards for the invite), and watch the action at close hand, some 23 years after I had run in this iconic fell race.
We travelled up earlier in the week to spend some time in wonderful Snowdonia, staying at the Royal Goat Hotel in Beddgelert one night (a nostalgic visit to a hotel from childhood holidays with my parents), and with friends from Uni days another night. On the Friday we took a stroll up Snowdon, choosing one of the less frequented routes for a change of scenery.
On race day it started very wet and we parked up at the Royal Victoria Hotel and bumped in to first Kenny and Pauline Stuart, and then John and Anne Wild. We wandered down to the start area to get the vibe as the rain seemed to be gradually lessening. Getting in to a good roadside position we watched the runners come out of the start field and head off up past the start of the mountain railway, then the hotel and on to Victoria Terrace before hitting the lower slopes, expecting them to get as much of a view as we had on the day beforehand (none). Fancying a coffee and a bite we made for a cafe in Llanberis and came back for the finish of the race.
The youthful looking winner, Italy’s Davide Magnini, came down the last bit of road seeming to be still full of running, although he was over 4 minutes off Kenny Stuart’s course record. He was followed in by England’s Chris Farrell, Tom Adams and Chris Holdsworth (thus taking the team prize). Watching the race video later Magnini showed great style on both the ascent and the descent. His time to the summit (5 miles) was 42-47 (at a pace of 9:52 per mile), with just 23-55 for the descent, giving him a 1-06-42 finish time.
Not long after that, the first lady came in, who was Annie Conway (who was actually not representing one of the national teams, and came home in 1-20-15), followed by Scotland’s Louise Mercer, and England’s Katie White.
After the race we went to the Electric Mountain to set up for the post-race talk that I was doing with Kenny and John. I was worried we might only have a small crowd, but there must have been 60+ there when Stephen Edwards hot-footed it over from the prize giving to introduce us.
I talked for a while about John and Kenny’s achievements, before giving them the floor for some anecdotes. I then refereed a bunch of really interesting questions from the audience, before selling and signing a good few of my three books, including the latest Running Hard: the story of a rivalry (which details the ups and downs of John and Kenny’s lives and running careers).
Back to the Vic for the excellent buffet provided for us (and the elite athletes), before repairing to the garden for a few beers and some banter with John, Kenny and co. When we went to bed the action was just starting (was there a disco?), but we were fortunate to have a room way at the back of the hotel so were not disturbed.
In the morning we had breakfast with John and Anne, chatted with some stiff looking athletes, and headed for Joe Brown’s for a bit of retail therapy, before heading home, via an impromptu road-side swim in Llynnau Mymbyr as the sun was now showing itself.
But what was that ‘Think Spinks’ bit all about in the title (I imagine you thinking)? Well, my fitness isn’t what it was and I am having some issues with one of my knees just now, so was worried if the Snowdon summit bid was a good idea. We set off, me nervously, on the path which starts at the Rhyd Ddu railway station knowing the weather was ‘variable’. In order to try to get me over the nerves my wife (who has obviously read It’s a hill, get over it) suggested I just ‘Think Spinks’ and all would be fine. So, having no cold rice pudding to hand, I resolved to just try to be as determined in adversity as Nicky Spinks always seems to be. So, we plodded on at a steady pace, rarely stopping and soon moving into the clouds. Having memorised the map I was expecting a false summit before we reached the top, and when Moira asked if we had reached it yet I replied ‘no’. In the mist we had not seen it (just after where the Watkin path joins, which we also didn’t see) as the main path contours under it, and thus you don’t have to go over it. As we slogged up another seemingly interminable steep path I began to lose my faith in Nicky, and was heard to mumble ‘I am bored’.
But then there was a strange noise and large spaceship loomed up in the misty cloud above. Lo and behold, we were there, and we rushed past the café and up the steps to touch the summit (and have a photo). A coffee and a short respite was taken and then we set off down. After only a short while the clouds were clearing and we had some marvellous views, seeing the knolls, paths, crags that we had missed in the cloud as we ascended.
Reaching the bottom with very sore legs and a raging thirst we took more coffee in the marvellous independent Beddgelert café next to the Post Office (can you see a pattern developing here) before a brilliant swim from a layby alongside Llyn Dinas.
A great day, and a great weekend. A lot of mental energy was spent in that walk up Snowdon, and I am sure the positive Spinks thoughts had helped immensely.
As part of the 42nd International Snowdon Race I will be giving a talk, along with Kenny Stuart and John Wild, at the Electric Mountain. It is after the race at 3-30pm to 5pm on Saturday 15th July 2017. It is free to attend, with voluntary donations to Snowdon Giving.
Kenny, John and myself will all be sharing our fell running experiences, with particularly emphasis on the Snowdon race, which we have all competed in (OK, me rather less well than them, I will admit!).
There will be a Q&A session at the end of the talk, and a chance to purchase signed copies of all three of my books in the Fell Running Trilogy, all on offer at special prices for this event.
The London launch for ‘Running Hard’ was held at Middlesex University on Mon 20 Feb. Highlights of proceedings are available on 4 short videos. Will ‘Critical Friend’ Morris introduces me wittily in the first clip.
There are then two clips of me rambling through two readings from the book.
Finally an interesting Q&A session ensued, wandering off topic sometimes maybe, but seemed to be enjoyed by most (and certainly was by me).
Despite arriving late, John Wild then gave an informal chat to those present, and signing copies of the book for everyone, before some of us headed for The Greyhound to unwind.
A thoroughly enjoyable evening, which nicely complemented the Keswick launch two days beforehand. I am now off to consider what to write next! [Huge thanks to my friend Angus Macdonald for coming along to video the event, and for editing the resulting material]
All my books can be obtained from Amazon, and Running Hard and The Round can be found in all good book shops.
Here are a couple of short video clips from the Keswick book launch. The first is me reading a short extract from the book, describing the build-up to the last crucial race of the 1983 fell championship season.
In the second I am talking about and showing a clip of John Wild running at an IAC meeting at Crystal Palace in 1977, with some comments from John himself.
The third is winding up at the end of the event.
[Thanks to my friend Mike Cambray for shooting the videos on his iPhone]
I also showed a video clip from YouTube of Kenny Stuart running at the Kilnsey Crag fell race in 1980. It can be seen at this link. Definitely worth a look.
On Saturday 18th February we held the book launch for ‘Running Hard’ in the Greta Suite at the Skiddaw Hotel, Keswick. There was a crowd of over 50 in attendance, including some fell running royalty. We sold out of books (with thanks to Bookends shop in Keswick). The following is a sort of picture record of the event (huge thanks to my friend Mike Cambray for the photos).
NB: There may be a short video clip to add later
So, what exactly is the story of ‘Running Hard’. Well, it is subtitled: ‘the story of a rivalry’, and the main characters are running legends Kenny Stuart and John Wild. But it is more than a fell running book. They were both exceptional runners in other branches of athletics, both in cross country and road running (Kenny running a 2-11 marathon), and John also at steeplechase (being a Commonwealth Games finalist). The book also tells the parallel stories of the lives with their different backgrounds, and is informed by insights from their contemporaries, such as Billy Bland, Joss Naylor, Jack Maitland, Hugh Symonds, and Malcolm Patterson.
We had a very successful book launch for ‘Running Hard’ in the Skiddaw Hotel (Keswick) on Saturday, with over 50 in attendance and the books (from Bookends) being sold out.
If you are in, or near, North London on Monday 20th Feb, there is a second event at Middlesex University (in the Boardroom) from 6-7pm, with John Wild in attendance. Come along to hear some stories. No ticket required, entry is free – just rock up.
More photos and stories from both launch events shortly.