MARCH 2021: Roger Smith first joined RunBrighton at the age of 74, for our 2019/20 winter training, and returned for our 2020/21 winter training, which was of course hampered by lockdown. Having turned 75 last May, he has just signed up to run with us again this summer.
What are your earliest memories of running, Roger?
I first started running at grammar school in London in preference to playing football, which I detested. My stomping grounds were Hampstead Heath, Parliament Hill fields and many of the nearby open spaces and woods.
My summer sport was predominantly cricket, where I excelled as a pace bowler, and I was a leftie too to confuse the batsmen. With my lengthy run-up in matches and net practice, I clocked up a good few miles each week. I never considered myself a sprinter, though; my preference was always the longer distances.
I was nine when your namesake broke the 4-minute mile, and I think that had a great influence on me.
Has exercise always played an important part in your life?
I drifted out of running when married life, work and other interests and sports took precedence, but never lost interest in trying to maintain a good level of fitness through those years.
Cycling figured quite significantly early on, and then there was the joy of getting out into the countryside regularly for energetic walks in the hills and mountains, both here and in parts of Europe. I also played squash and badminton, for a bit of high-impact activity.
I was never wedded to the idea of using a gym, but by keeping active over the years I seem to have reached this stage of my life reasonably intact.
When was your interest in running reignited, and what prompted it?
Although I had always enjoyed watching athletics events on the TV, it was seeing the elite runners and the masses doing their stuff in the London Marathon every April that reawakened my enthusiasm. After several attempts, I was fortunate to get a ballot place in 2010, at the age of 65.
Within a short time of starting to prepare for London, I discovered I was really enjoying it.
I also discovered parkrun during that process. So, since then, over the past 10 years, I’ve used that coupled with other mid-distance events to continue to pursue and enjoy the buzz and excitement that running provides for me – especially when it’s warm and sunny!
How did you originally find out about RunBrighton and what made you decide to join?
You actually handed me one of your RunBrighton flyers after a parkrun, several years ago. It sounded fun, but I felt a bit wary about whether to join at my age, so it sat on my desk for a long time.
Having committed to try and run London again, in 2020, 10 years after the last appearance, I felt that the more structured, communal, group approach to training you offered would be better for me. I did it all on my own in 2010 and sometimes it was hard to remain sufficiently focussed, especially on long runs.
Roger, it’s great that you’ll be training with RunBrighton over the summer. What did you enjoy most about your first winter with us?
The community feeling made such a difference. There were occasions on the Sunday runs when it felt too hard, and previously I might have cut the run short. Having others in close proximity helped so much to pull me through those difficult moments.
There were also cold or damp days when I would probably have wimped out in the past. The feeling of achievement, having got home after making myself endure the elements with the others, made me realise it was a good decision to join RunBrighton.
So, I would like to say a big thank you to your helpers and other participants for making it all worthwhile. It enabled me to get round the Brighton Half, despite the weather, in virtually the same time as I did in Eastbourne 10 years earlier.
It was so disappointing that lockdown brought it all to a grinding halt soon after that, but I’m now looking forward to the spring/summer round of training.
How have you coped with the restrictions imposed on us, due to the Covid pandemic? I assume there was no wild party for your 75th birthday!
My wife passed away in 2006, and we had no family, so distancing myself from others was fairly straight forward. The loss of the usual round of weekly activities was frustrating of course, but I certainly haven’t been at a loss for new things to do. There were several projects that could be achieved here at home, despite the restrictions, and they have kept me pretty active through this difficult time.
Running locally last March/April was an extra joy with the lack of traffic. For several weeks, I was able to use the middle of the old A23 road rather than the rough pavement between Sayers Common and Albourne, with no risk of being mowed down.
The bash I had planned for the 75th was organised to occur at a place I visit for walking holidays in the mountains of Southern Spain, but was cancelled of course. I ended up having a picnic lunch and some wine on the top of Wolstonbury Hill on my own. Unbeknown to me, my neighbours had organised a socially-distanced, doorstep get-together for the evening, which was a nice surprise. 12 of them, plus myself, spaced out along our road… a little surreal, but fun.
I’m looking forward to catching up with most of the cancelled plans I had for 2020 later this year or in 2022.
Do you have any particularly memorable running or racing experiences?
There are many, but three in particular spring to mind.
I entered the school sports day, one mile event, when I was about 16. After two laps of the track, it was just me closely following the school champion of the previous two years. As we came round the final bend, I felt a surge of adrenaline and sprinted past him to the finish. A wonderful feeling! He wasn’t at all happy, as he was being tipped for greater things. Not sure if he ever did.
Up to the age of about 30, I would sometimes have an early morning run around the village. One fateful day, I collided with a woman walking her dog in a narrow pathway in the dark. It seemed to take an eternity to get out of the writhing, tangled heap of dog, lead and woman. I think that accelerated the gradual drift away I mentioned earlier.
And of course, passing Buckingham Palace and turning into the Mall to head for the finish line of the London Marathon, particularly for the first time, is a feeling unlikely to be surpassed. I have a wonderful photo of it as a keepsake.
What are your running goals now that we’re coming out of lockdown?
My main target event/challenge this year is the London Marathon and raising money for St Peter & St James Hospice in Chailey. It’s lost a little bit of resonance, as it was supposed to be in 2020 to coincide with a number of other milestones for me last year, but I’ll still be giving it my best shot.
Along the way, I’ll also be participating in the Brighton Half again this year.
Over the years, I’ve had friends who’ve received wonderful palliative treatment by the team at St P & St J. When, in 2005, my wife was told the cancer she had 16 years previously had returned, she too experienced their care and support through the last 18 months of her life.
My marathon in 2010 raised donations for a cancer charity that she vigorously supported. This time around, I’ve chosen the Hospice with a target of trying to reach at least £7000, which I’m told is roughly what it costs them to function for a day. My Virgin fundraising page has been carried forward from last year and would be grateful for any donations in support of this personal challenge I’ve set for myself.
How long have you been retired, what was your career and how do you spend your time now, when not running?
I don’t use the word retired. For me, that conjures up folk who are giving up on ‘life’ and spend much of their time watching daytime TV. Their choice, of course, but it’s not for me.
Because I had always enjoyed designing and making things, my younger person had planned to make a career in engineering research and development. Having finished studying for that, I then got side-tracked into a more commercial role that resulted in my heading up the buying teams in two engineering manufacturing companies, over the ensuing 40 years. Thankfully, both were in the forefront of technology and innovation, so there were always new and interesting challenges to keep me interested.
I stepped off the merry-go-round of employment in 2008. After Gill passed away, I took a long hard look at where I was and what I wanted to do. I had two 30+ members in my team who were ready and capable of stepping up, and the company was in great shape. So, I decided it was a good time to let eager, younger hands take it forward. My confidence in them wasn’t misplaced.
These days, I still do a lot of walking and am gradually working my way through the various long-distance routes in the UK, as well as tackling more rigorous terrains in parts of Europe. If I happen on any interesting wildlife along the way, then that just adds to the enjoyment.
I’m a volunteer, helping in the gardens at Wakehurst Place in Ardingly, and I also enjoy working on my own garden and allotment. It can be very creative.
I also play Bowls, both out and indoors, and have been fairly successful in competitions thus far. I go to a gym too, and include swimming sessions in my routines.
Music is a must in my life, whether it be listening or attempting to (privately) perform. When I stopped work, I bought a piano to resurrect a long, ignored, latent enjoyment from my youth. It’s great fun and very relaxing. My musical tastes range from Rock to the Classics and I’ve enjoyed many live performances by exponents across the spectrum. A recent highlight was standing almost at the front of the Albert Hall arena for the Proms Last night, in both 2018 and 2019. A wonderful experience for the end of the season!
There is more, and I could go on, but suffice to say I hope I never lose the ability to adapt or re-invent myself and continue to be able to make the best use of however many miles are left in my tank.
What advice would you give to others of a similar age, who might wish to get into running but feel daunted at the prospect?
Try parkrun! It’s an opportunity to get a different form of exercise, not a race. If that format had been available, 30 or more years ago, I might not have dropped out for so long.
Anyone at any age can start from scratch with parkrun, even if it’s initially just to walk. There are folk there to help you progress at a pace you feel comfortable with. The hill in Hove Park defeated me, the first 5K run I tried, but it got better.
Set small targets to try and achieve. One of mine was to aim to get past the finishing funnel at Hove Park on the first long circuit before being lapped by the front runners, present company included(!), as they headed for the finish.
Get a pair of proper running shoes from an expert supplier. It makes a world of difference having the right footwear, especially for age-matured feet.
Tell your doctor what you are planning to do. Mine gave me a thorough MOT without my asking. He now always seems to be pleased to see me, possibly because he knows I’m making the effort to keep myself fit and well.
Above all, be positive, enjoy and let it grow on you. It can eventually be very addictive, seeing how you compare with others in your own age group or even finishing ahead of folk who are half your age. Before you know it, you’ll be joining RunBrighton.
Great advice, Roger! It’s been really interesting to chat. It’s brilliant having you in the RunBrighton group, and I look forward to seeing you in a few weeks’ time for our regular Sunday runs. And good luck with your fundraising for St Peter & St James Hospice!
For full details of RunBrighton membership, check out www.runbrighton.com/membership/
By Mike Bannister