Tuesday, 8 April 2008

50 mile walking races

Well done to everyone who competed in the Sara Killey memorial races on Sunday.

I didn't see the race but it seemed to be pretty competitive at the front between Mark Hempsall and Jock Waddington and their time was 46 seconds faster than Steve Partington's time from last year. Very good going considering the horrible weather.

It was good to see the results available on the evening of the walk so it would appear to a good investment by the Fire Services to invest in the Manxtimingsolutions.com technology.

I have to admit that despite being a fan of long distance walking, particularly the Parish Walk, I get frightened of the road safety aspects of the events.

When I came into the sport in the mid 1970s there were two long distance walks of just over 50 miles. The big one was the London to Brighton, using the roads that were used for so many sporting challenges, and the other was the Manchester to Blackpool.

The Manchester to Blackpool was the only one that I ever did and that was in 1978 when I was based in Manchchester with BRS for 6 months (my work experience during a Business Studies degree) but I was working in Preston for six weeks. It is somewhat embarrassing to admit that (along with several other walkers) it was in Preston that I missed a turn and had to walk back a couple of hundred yards.

But events were so much more laid back in those days. There were virtually no marshals as we set off from the centre of Manchester and walked through Bolton town centre - can you imagine doing that now even with marshals?

Although it was low key event in those days (apart from the inevitable "stick" that you got from people on the course who only saw race walking once a year) its origins were high profile.

The winner of the walk received the News of the World Trophy and it was presented by the Mayor of Blackpool at a civic reception at the Winter Gardens. I'm not sure when the walk was first held (probably in the early part of the 20th century) but it was at a time when you were fortunate if you could afford a holiday in Blackpool. If you did, it was a long journey on the train. So the thought of tough guys actually walking the whole way at the start of the Wakes Week must have created a lot of media interest. I believe that it would have been back page national news in the sponsor's paper and that thousands would have welcomed the walkers in Blackpool.

The event was the last of the big open road walks to go (in the last 10 years I think) to be replaced by a 50 mile walk around a park in Blackpool.

The London to Brighton went earlier despite a move to country roads. I don't think it ever recovered from the event that I (and many others) dread - a fatal accident involving a competitor.

For many years the walking season would start in November with 7 mile races (especially in the South of England). The National 10 miles were held in March and they would be preceded by area and county championships (the 10 miles incorporated the the inter counties champs).

April and May would see the same round of events for 20km and June would be the 20 miles at area and national level (replaced by 30km and 35km races later).

The distances would be extended again in July for the National 50km. the fields would get smaller as the distances got longer. The walkers would race frequently and the nationals would also be broken by the Leicester Mercury 20 Miles and the Bradford 50km on May Bank Holiday weekend and the aforesaid Manchester to Blackpool in June.

After the Nationals, many a walker's family would be taken for their holiday to somewhere like Hastings (38 miles Hastings to Brighton walk early August), Isle of Man (TT course walk in late August) or to London for the London to Brighton on the first Saturday in September.

The 100 mile walk would be held at the end of July (I think) and old fashioned courses such as the Leicester to Skegness were used every other year. London to Brighton and back had been used in the really old days. Nowadays, of course, these sort of courses are all on traffic free (or virtually traffic free) courses.

It was only in 1980 that a 100km walk was introduced and this moved long distance walking towards shorter multi lap courses. If I told you that they were held on the M42 you might not believe that walking was safer in those days! I walked on that motorway on the second year and live to tell the tale. The motorway development ran out of funds and parts of it were left unused for several years before the funds were found to finish it - lovely surface with no camber!

To conclude, however, having seen the way walking has moved off roads in the UK (also fewer walkers - chicken or egg?) I really do question whether it is realistic to increase the number of long road races in the Isle of Man from two back up to the three that there used to be. They are all extremely dangerous however well marshalled they are.

Despite these reservations I have nothing but admiration for those who completed the course (or even parts of it) and the reports I have heard are of a very well organised event.

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