JANUARY 2016: If you’re relatively new to the running scene in Brighton, you may be forgiven for not knowing the name Hugh Foord.
But you should know that, of the thousands of runners across the city over the years, there is no one else who has been around, running and competing, for as long as Hugh.
And in the 1950s he was competing at the highest level.
In 1958, he ran in the 10,000m at the Commonwealth Games in Cardiff. In the trials for the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, he had come 3rd, thus narrowly missing out on selection to compete. But to put times into context, Hugh’s 10,000m PB is 29:09; the previous Olympics (1952) was won in 29:08.
In 1979 (age 50) and again in 1980 (age 51), he was the over-50 10k World Champion on the road.
He was also Sussex Cross Country Champion in 8 separate seasons (more victories than anyone else in the 90-year history of the competition).
And now at the age of 86, he still runs 50 miles a week.
How on earth is someone who would have undoubtedly churned out pretty high training mileage around the middle of last century able to keep on going 60 years later?
I met up with Hugh, particularly keen to get his thoughts on how our sport has changed over the years, as well as to find out about his training sessions and characters met along the way.
Hugh, when did it all begin?
I was a very average runner, never good enough to run for the school. But that was because I was better over distances longer than we ran at school. When I was in the Boys Brigade, I met the then County Half-Mile Champion who wore a Brighton & County Harriers badge and thought “I want one of those badges”! (Brighton & County Harriers has subsequently had a number of name changes over the years, and is now Brighton & Hove Athletics Club.)
I was also doing speed skating on ice every night except Tuesdays. On Tuesday we had to wear figure skates, which I didn’t want to do… so I joined Brighton & County Harriers instead as that was their club night! That was in 1943 when I was 14… almost 73 years ago!
Back then, our track was on the grass inside of the cycle track at Brighton Velodrome. It wasn’t the standard 400m that we have today – there were three laps to a mile!
What was your best distance and can you give an example of a typical training session?
5000m and 10,000m were my best distances. I was probably slightly better at 10,000. I also competed in the road relays, and in the winter I did cross-country.
My main session for stamina and strength was 40 x 400m, with 200m jog recoveries in 2 minutes. I would run them in about 70 seconds, as that equated to 28 minutes for 6 miles. (Back then, most of the races were 6 miles rather than 10k, but you would allow 60 seconds for a fast last lap so as to produce a 29-minute 10k.)
What was your best performance / the highlight of your running career?
In terms of standard, my best performance was finishing 2nd in the International Cross-Country Championships in 1955. This was similar to the World Cross-Country Championships that we have today, albeit it was mostly European runners back then.
Although I was better at 10,000m than cross-country, when I competed in the Commonwealth Games I had a bad run – it was a hot day and I wasn’t good in the heat.
I understand Sir Roger Bannister, the first ever runner to break 4 minutes for a mile, is about the same age as yourself. I guess you would have met him? What do you recall of those times?
Yes, we were both competing at the same time. But he was just another one of the team. That’s how I saw them all.
In 1956, there was a GB vs Hungary match. On the plane to Hungary I was seated next to Chris Chataway who, two years earlier, had broken the 5000m world record.
When you see them on TV, they seem special. Then when you meet them they’re just ordinary people.
Over the years, you must have seen a plethora of changes in the sport, in areas such as shoe technology, nutrition awareness, athlete sponsorship, TV coverage of events, scientific studies & laboratory testing, and so on. What aspect of development do you think has had the most significant impact on performance? And how much faster could you have run with today’s knowledge, facilities and technology?
The biggest change has been in footwear and the tracks.
On the road, we wore Dunlop Green Flash. They were like plimsolls with thick soles – like tennis shoes.
White City, which was the equivalent of today’s Crystal Palace, was a cinder track. You needed ½” to ¾” spikes to get a good grip. There were no starting blocks for the sprinters; they used to have to dig a hole in the cinder using a trowel. Then when the first starting blocks came in, they had to be hammered in place with long nails.
I don’t know how much difference an all-weather track like we have nowadays would have made, but I suppose I might have run a fair bit faster if we’d had the grip of a modern track and better shoe technology.
What would you say is your secret to remaining injury free? How does your body cope with so much mileage?
Luck! Most runners by my age have dropped out due to knees and hips giving up, but I’ve not had that problem.
Back in the mid-eighties, after a 6-mile race around the roads from Withdean, I had a bit of knee trouble. I stopped running when I was warned that I’d get arthritis if I carried on. But after 6 months my knee felt fine walking about, so I started some easy running and built back up slowly over three or four months.
In 1987 I had a split disk in my back, which I had removed. I asked the surgeon when I could get back into running again and he said “I’ll leave that up to you”! So I started jogging two weeks after the operation, and after a further couple of weeks I ran in a 5-mile cross-country race.
I’ve always had the usual muscle stiffness and strains but I’ve just run through them. I think that’s ok as long as you don’t run hard, and it helps keep muscle tone.
At 86, do you still set yourself running goals? If so, what’s next?
I don’t race as often now. But I have the over-80 and over-85 records for Brighton & Hove parkrun, and I’d like to get the over-90 record.
When I’m 100, I’d like to do the New York Marathon.
And, although not a running goal, I recently heard that the oldest woman in the country is 113, so I’ve got to reach 114!
Hugh, you’re an absolute inspiration! Congratulations on all you’ve achieved in over seven decades of running. That really is quite remarkable! And best of luck with all the goals you’ve set yourself going forward!
By Mike Bannister