DECEMBER 2021: Graham Ashdown has been a member of Brighton & Hove AC since the 1960s… well, actually Brighton AC as it was known until 1966. He was one of the first runners I met when I moved to Brighton and joined the club myself in 1996, and he is now the club’s president.
Sadly, I did not know Graham back when he was one of the club’s fastest runners. (His best marathon, 2hrs31.) Shortly after I came to know Graham, he was forced to stop running, as a result of Dystonia.
Despite recently turning 80 years of age, he remains a tireless supporter of Brighton & Hove AC, and you’ll still find him regularly working on the gate at Withdean Stadium.
How did you first get into running, Graham?
It was back in the 1960s. The only running I did up until then was to keep fit for football. I played on the left wing for Hamsey FC, near Lewes. In 1962, the club collapsed, and I didn’t really play much football after that. Then, in August 1963, I met someone who was a member of Brighton AC. I started training with them, although there were no proper, structured sessions back then. In fact, the only runner who I recall following structured sessions was Hugh Foord who, five years earlier, had competed in the Commonwealth Games in Cardiff. So, various club members, like Roy Taylor and Chris Newman, would take it in turns to lead our sessions.
We would always race on Saturdays back then. No race officials wanted to work on Sundays!
On Sunday mornings, a group of us would regularly meet up at Withdean and head out for a run in the countryside.
What was your best distance?
I wouldn’t say I ever had a best distance. I just loved my running and enjoyed all distances – apart from 100m! In fact, I didn’t race on the track at all. Track races were always in the summer months, whereas for me, it was more a winter thing. In the summer, I used to love swimming, sunbathing and going for jaunts on my bike. All my racing was from September through to March.
What was your best performance / the highlight of your running days?
That would definitely be in 1991, when I won the Sussex Veteran Cross Country Champs. It was particularly special for me because I had been trying to win it for 10 years. The first year that I ran as a vet, 1981, I came third, and I was always in the top few finishers. In 1990, I held a good lead, most of the race, then relaxed too much in the final mile; I was caught by Peter Standen (former Brighton AC runner, now Hastings AC), who beat me by no more than a shirt width. So, of course, when I won in ’91, I felt elated!
Over the years, you must have seen heaps of changes in the sport, which have had quite an impact on performance?
To be honest, I’ve never really been too interested in technology. I’ve just enjoyed my running. I never kept a training log or recorded my race times. Shoes have obviously changed a fair bit. The ones we used to run in were fairly flat – like plimsolls. I got on well with them, and actually it took me a long time to get used to the thicker soles.
What do you recall of when you first began to suffer from Dystonia, and how has it impacted your running?
It was in 1993 that I first had problems, although it would take a further five years to get a diagnosis.
I was running in a South of the Thames race and not feeling at all well. I was bent at the stomach, and my right leg was more rotating than moving back and forth. I had no idea what was going on, and I subsequently eased back on my running. I was still fit, though, so didn’t stop completely. And I remember when I was training on the track shortly after that, Barry Hawkins, one of my club mates, commented on my running form, saying I was unusually bent over.
I saw numerous consultants over the next five years, then it was in 1998 that a neurologist told me he knew exactly what was wrong. I had a rare type of Dystonia. And there was no known cause and no cure.
My best running years had been in my 40s and 50s and, since my diagnosis, I decided I would put back into the sport what I could, having had a great time running over a period of 30 years. I became Brighton & Hove AC’s president in 1996, and held that role for a couple of years, which was the maximum stint you would do back then. A number of others have done it since, and I’ve been back doing it again for several years now. I’ve also been president, for a couple of years, of the South of the Thames Cross Country Association.
I still enjoy working on the gate at Withdean every Tuesday evening and most Thursdays. And I’ve done lots of officiating at races, although not recently; in fact, unfortunately it’s not an option, post-80.
How did you celebrate your 80th birthday, Graham?
My wife, Margaret, organised a lovely surprise for me. I had no idea she had anything planned. She had sent me out to do a bit of shopping at Asda, and when I got home there was a houseful of people there. I was overwhelmed.
And we have another celebration coming up. 3rd April will be our 55th wedding anniversary. We actually met through running – in the summer of 1965. Malcolm Inns (the former Brighton AC club secretary) had arranged a trip to Innsbruck. We were supposed to be going there for a race, although the organisation of it had fallen apart when we got there, such that it ended up being a holiday. We played cards and drank beer, and generally had a good time. There were three of us guys, and we met three Irish girls there – one of them Margaret!
Having married in 1967, we went on to have 3 children. I’m very happy!
Graham, thanks for sharing some of your story with us. Congratulations on recently turning 80, and I’m sure there are many people out there who would like to thank you for all that you’ve put back into running, and particularly for the support you’ve given and continue to give to Brighton & Hove AC.
By Mike Bannister