Everyone’s heard about Roger Bannister’s four-minute mile, but almost no one remembers a group of Oxford undergraduates running the length of the country from Land’s End to John O’Groats in 1957. Leo Aylen (New College, 1955) shares his memory of the event.
Summer term 1957. I was racing half miles regularly with Centipedes. A fortnight before the end of term a message somehow reached me from Tortoise headquarters: “You are next on the list. Would you like to run from Land’s End to John O’Groats immediately term ends?”
The back-story I gathered was that some Tortoises were long distance runners only, and did not run track. At the beginning of term they had wondered about what to do during the summer, and had decided to challenge Cambridge to a road race. Oxford was basking in Bannister glory, and we were much better than Cambridge. I seem to remember my cross-country race against Cambridge in which Cambridge scored no points at all. Anyhow Cambridge did not rise to the Tortoise challenge. The non-track-running Tortoises were sitting in front of a map. “Why don’t we run to Land’s End?” someone said. Once Land’s End is mentioned, the run challenge lengthened to Land’s End – John O’Groats.
By today’s standards, we were almost unbelievably amateur-shambolic. It is worth recalling the famous Oxford Mail photo of Bannister breasting the tape as he broke four minutes. Look at his left shoe digging quite a hole in the cinder path — for that is really all the Iffley Road track was then in May 1955. (We came up that October, me four days after finishing National Service.) Oxford middle distance was impressive, even apart from Bannister and Chataway who had both gone down. There was Derek Johnson, just about the best half-miler in the world and Olympic silver medallist; Don Smith, another half-miler and New Zealand international; and Boyd — was it Mike? — who ran the two miles for England. In the Iffley Road pavilion was one solitary, primitive, piece of weight equipment, never used as far as I could see. No physio, no medical back-up. No coaching that I saw. No team training. Not much in the way of shoes. I had a pair of spikes — the hugely long spikes in which we raced on cinder track at that time — and a pair of cross-country shoes. I couldn’t afford to buy shoes to run on road, so I ran to John O’Groats in gym shoes. The non-track-running Tortoises did have road shoes. But even those who had been training throughout the term got injured. Hence my invitation nearly at the last minute.
Land’s End to John O’ Groats is roughly 880 miles. We would run round the clock, and aim to take four days from Monday afternoon to Friday evening. Each of us eight would run eleven ten-mile stages, roughly equivalent to a marathon a day. We would pick up a pebble from the Land’s End shore, to be handed from runner to runner like a relay baton. At John O’Groats it would be dropped ceremonially into the sea. There would be four escort cars with a driver; two runners to a car. Number 1 would hand over to Number 2, and the car with Number 1 in it would meet Number 2, pick him up and drive 60 miles to the next leg. Once there, the runners would have something to eat, and try to sleep for a couple of hours. The driver would be responsible for waking us up in time to take over.
One problem was the very strict amateur rules. Most of us had very little money. We were not allowed to sponsor. As a result, firms were reluctant to give us much. Crosse and Blackwells provided some soup. Horlicks, bless them, provided some strange sweet biscuits which I have never seen before or since. Complan provided complan, a milk/energy supplement. But in those days we knew nothing about diet, and I certainly never ate any of the complan, which looked extremely uninviting. There must have been the odd tin of sardines. I was Number 2, and so in the first car. Nowall, our driver, was a friend of Jeremy Savile, the Tortoise captain. Nowall was actually at Cambridge, and had just come out of the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME). He had managed to borrow a Land Rover from Rover. So we were okay, and Nowall was a whizz at driving over rough ground.
Runners 3 & 4 in Car 2, and 5 & 6 in Car 3, were the reliable Tortoises who had trained all term on the roads. I had actually never run more than the seven and a half mile cross-country course, so for two weeks before the event I ran ten miles a day on roads, in a heat wave. Little did I know, but this weather was to continue into the event, precisely until we crossed the border into Scotland. No one had told us running in a heat wave means loss of salt. I would come back from a training run and drink pints of orange squash — and suffer diarrhoea. Luckily, before the actual off, we were told our first pint of orange squash must be salted.
Car 4 belonged to one of the runners — I think to Alastair Macbeth who organised the admin with Jeremy. Bob Knowles, who remains one of my closest friends, ran the whole way, but also drove. Bob, however, is the all-round athlete — excellent footballer, still plays good tennis. I have a suspicion Bob might have been able to run the course without much training. John Doney was also in Car 4, as a reserve who took over from my colleague Harold Burnett when Harold pulled out of the last stage through injury. Brian Sennitt was part of the team, but was taking the Dip Ed exam, and was only able to join us half way through. How the Car 4 schedule worked with the four runners I don’t understand.
Alastair’s father was an important consultant at the Radcliffe Hospital, and was himself interested in sports medicine. Medics had done a recent experiment with marines: they were made to work uninterruptedly for five days round the clock to see how they coped with sleep deprivation. Surprisingly, when they were let off, they only slept normal lengths of time, but dreamed much more than normal. In the last week of term, the Medical Council had got wind of us Groater lunatics, and thought we could be used as guinea pigs. We were instructed to take our pulses after running and then after a pause; to keep a diary of what we ate and drank; and various other things. We were to weigh ourselves, but the problem was that we only had one scales, so the weighing was confined to one escort car, not ours. I never heard whether our results were useful to the doctors.
One benefit of Stone Age running was that the AA were immensely helpful, providing us with maps of the routes on A6 sized pages stapled into little pads, so each of us could see the sort of landmarks we would be passing. Of course there were no motorways. After the run was known about, the truck drivers would hoot at us to encourage us on.
Jim Manning was the Sports Editor of the Sunday Dispatch. He had been a sprinter, and was therefore sympathetic to running lunatics. I only remember one hurried roadside face to face conversation with him, but he hosted the party at John O’Groats. His coverage ensured we had good publicity, and plenty of press coverage. Television film crews came. On probably the second day, I remember being filmed somewhere in the Midlands. By six in the evening we were near Warrington, and we’d been told we’d be on the 6.30 programme which followed the news. Harold Burnett, number one, who became a successful QC, told Nowall and myself we should knock on any house door and ask to watch television. Nowall and I followed Harold sheepishly. But the surprised owners let us in. I delight in saying that my first appearance on the telly was a film sequence of my legs pounding an undistinguished stretch of road.
One needs to remember: no mobile phones, no instant pictures. Actually we had very little idea of what was going on. Communication on the run was hurried messages passed as each car leap-frogged a pair of resting runners. We would receive messages such as “Car 3, they’re in a bad state.” Later we realised this news of morale failure was only because the Car 3 runners had managed to catch a bit of sleep, and had been woken up by Car 4 as it stopped to see how they were. Back to the start on the Monday afternoon. Somehow a message reached me to rendezvous at Queen’s, where Alastair would drive myself and John Doney down to Land’s End. Somehow or other we were all lifted in various cars to Land’s End. We all of us ran the first mile together.
It is necessary to re-emphasise our total lack of roadside marshals. What I remember will be very different from what others remember. Some moments for me remain lit up. My second stage was on Dartmoor, starting in darkness, running through dawn into a brilliant red sunrise. There was a road diversion and I was required to run two extra miles. It was like I was flying. As I came up the big hill from Okehampton to hand the pebble to Jeremy who was Number 3, I said “I can go on for ever.” Needless to say very foolishly optimistic.
A different memorable moment was at Gretna Green. The Scots border was also a weather change from heatwave to rain. Of course we had no tents. So it was a pleasure to discover a Dutch barn with hay (or straw?) on which we could sleep. Unfortunately the roof was rusted through, and had become completely porous: we were sprinkled with rain-drops the entire time we lay there.
I had had no training on roads apart from those two weeks at the end of the summer term. I was running in gym shoes. I started to get tendonitis, and once into Scotland running became more and more painful. The Achilles tendon — well, we did know that could be a disastrous injury, worse than breaking a leg. But we were all such innocents. In one cross-country Cuppers I put my foot in a hole, and had acute pain. I finished the course — that’s what we did in those days. But not in the front few, where I might have been. I assumed I had sprained my ankle, No doctors, no physio. Several weeks off racing. My season destroyed. Some time later I noticed part of my fibula was swollen, and did manage to find a doctor. “No worry” he said, laughing. “You broke it. That’s twice as thick as the rest of the bone; it won’t break there again.” Consultation concluded. Harold had pulled out of his eleventh stage. Idiot that I was, on the other hand, on my last ten miles, I aimed to break sixty minutes. After about six miles I had a shooting pain in my Achilles. An Escort Car was about to overtake me. “Sorry mates” I said. “You’re going to have to drive at less than ten miles an hour, in case I collapse.” I did finish. But I was hobbling incapably for the next forty-eight hours and more.
I have to confess my most vivid memory of Harold was that after the run, while staying the night in the John O’Groats pub, he asked if he could borrow my toothbrush. Well I’ve always felt you only use another person’s toothbrush if you are in love. I did let Harold have my toothbrush, but I never used it myself again.
Because no one knew whether we would be able to recover in time for following stages, we were told to take each stage very easily, ten miles in an hour and a quarter. We went faster than that, and usually did the stages in better than seventy minutes. Walter, in number four car, was definitely the best runner, and sometimes did his stage in an hour. I hardly knew any of the other runners (none were from New College). Somehow we were allotted to various cars on the way back. I remained with Nowall and the Land Rover. Walter came with us. I learnt he sang counter-tenor, and I liked him. We had a ‘beautiful’ night beside Loch Lomond persecuted by midges. Another night we were in the Lake District. Dusk was growing and it had started to rain. I was next to Nowall as he drove. We looked across the twilit slopes and gullies, and saw a concrete pill-box some way away up a hill. We both noted it simultaneously. Without further words, Nowall displayed his REME virtuosity — downhill, uphill, through ditches, over rocks — and we arrived at the pill-box. Nowall and I collected sleeping bags, and stumbled into the shelter, only to see Walter with his trousers down squatting in one corner. With a four-lettered yell we rushed at Walter, and shoved him out on to the moors, shorts flopping, before he could damage our dormitory.
Sorry Walter, that’s my most vivid memory of you, a cameo moment like Harold’s appropriation of my toothbrush. Sing me a Dowland aria!
Jeremy Savile met me early this century, and over a couple of pints, we came to the idea of a reunion dinner — in Bridgnorth, where Nowall’s home is, Nowall himself being unwell. Bridgnorth is nearer Scotland than London would be. Later we had a lunch in London at BAFTA where I’m a member. Jeremy Savile has now died, and Chris Day, one of our best runners, is unwell, living in the remote Highlands. I kept running till 2007, when I had to have a knee replacement, after which one is forbidden to run. Bob, whom I judged as our best all-round athlete, though not the fastest runner, does still jog a bit. But even he has slowed down.
Our pebble was not for dropping into the John O’Groats sea. Jim Manning took it. He planned to advertise its presence so as to encourage another team to take it back to Land’s End. Apparently, two years later, a Cambridge team did do the John O’Groats — Land’s End run, and broke our world record. I was told they did it in five mile stages, which, if correct would obviously make the faster time easier. Our time was about 105 hours.
This spring I was in Brecon, for a Friday night event. On the Saturday, my wife and I went to walk up Pen Y Fan on a surprising day of bright sunshine. At the bottom there is a car park and toilets. While my wife was in the toilet, I got into conversation with a girl in very snazzy running-gear. She told me she was going to run up Pen Y Fan, but also that she had just been in a running team which had broken the world record for Land’s End — John O’Groats. I had just time to tell her I was in the first team to hold that record. But then my wife came out of the toilet, and the chance for a chat vanished. When I told Bob, he reproached me for not getting more details from the girl. I’ve tried to find a reference to this recent run on the net, but couldn’t see anything about it.
We had television spots, and a good press, mostly in the Sunday Dispatch. But the idea we had made a world record — that never occurred to any of us.
Poet, author and film-maker Leo Aylen ran the ‘Groats in his second summer at Oxford, after taking Classics Mods. He describes his account here as ‘only incomplete and personal.’ If anyone else wants to share narratives of the event, email Oxford Today editor Richard.firstname.lastname@example.org/
Aylen’s most recent film Steel Be My Sister, about David Jones, the World War One poet-painter who wrote In Parenthesis, was screened in Oxford in March, 2016.