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11th Jul, 2021, Alastair Aitken

Ron Hill, who died on 23 May 2021, will go down in athletics history as one of the ‘Greatest’ all-round distance competitors, not just as a ‘Big’ Championship marathon winner but as one of the truly ‘Great’ club athletes that strikes at the heart of grass roots athletics. He did end up being with Clayton Le Moors club but it was with Bolton United Harriers and Lancashire’s County teams that he ran his successful road relays and cross countries. 

Ron ran, even if injured, up to a mile a day between 1964 and 2017; that was more than 19,000 consecutive days. He stopped running seriously when he had heart trouble on a run in 2017 and he did not want to be a danger to his family, his wife May and his two sons. However, even with the oncoming of a dementia-related illness in 2018 when he was 80, he still managed a Park run at Hyde Park.  ‘You can’t keep a good man down’ one is tempted to say.

Ron was born in Accrington in Lancashire on the 25 September 1938 and his parents became supportive of his love for running, when he went to Accrington Grammar School. He was in the athletics team but all his life in one way or another he really worked hard for his eventual success in the sport. He got a PhD at Manchester University. He then worked at a large textile firm as a research chemist and his knowledge grew and grew. He invented those Ron Hill freedom shorts and string vests, that were very popular, particularly in the 1970’s and 80’s and he founded Ron Hill Sports, which his two sons have worked for. Even in 1964 when I talked to him first of all he said “My wife May never grumbles when I am so often away from home racing. I don’t talk about athletics much at work, as it is personal, but to a lot of other athletes I do.”

As the years went by he learnt about the best diet for the week of a marathon build up. A lot of runners followed his ideas about a protein diet followed by the last three days of carbohydrates. He was also a good organizer of events in later years.

Regarding his career, I have decided not to pick on the failures he thought he had on the way but to focus more on his successes, which to me are quite revealing in themselves. I asked him in early 1964: “What was his most satisfying result to that date?” and he said to me then “My win against the Americans at the White City in 27:56.0 over 6 miles in July (63) on a sloppy track, on a windy day. It proved my AAA’s win in 27:49.8 was not just a ‘flash in the pan’ particularly as I ducked under 28 minutes twice in three weeks.”(Jim Hogan was second in the AAA’s in 27:54.2 ).  

On 14 October 1964 Ron ran his first Olympic race in Tokyo over 10,000m. He was the first GB runner in 29:53.0 and on the 21 October Ron ran the marathon in 2:25.34.4 coming 19th of 53 (Basil Heatley 2nd and Brian Kilby 4th were the other GB runners).

In 1966 and 1968 Ron Hill won the National cross country but it was Tim Johnston of Cambridge University who, back in 1963, won the Inter-Counties & British Universities (Ron was 4th in the latter) Memorable because they were all in the considerable snow about at the time! In the former Gerry North the 1962 National Champion was second. After that Bas Heatley won the National in the mud in 1963. A very good cross-country runner in tough races was Thurrock’s Mel Batty who won in 1964 and 1965, with Ron Hill third in the former and in 1965 Ron was the fourth English runner behind winner Mel Batty. Dick Taylor won in 1967 and Trevor Wright in 1970. Ron was second in the 1964 International. The really amazing National was at Graves Park, Sheffield in 1966. Ron Hill won by a few inches from Mike Turner of Liverpool and Cambridge University, in their last 100m dash for the line. Of the two times in the International (Old World CC) when Ron came second, in Tunis in 1968 he finished in 35.27 just one second behind Mohammed Gammoudi of Tunisia (35:26), who gained gold silver and bronze medals over the space of three Olympics at 5,000m or 10,000m. Ian Stewart, that great competitor, waxed lyrical about Mohammed’s ability, when I talked to him. Third in Tunis was Roy Fowler (35:32) who won in 1963. Like with Mike Tagg’s victory in 1970, they both finished just in front of Gaston Roelants, the 1964 Olympic Steeplechase Champion.

Often, like with Bruce Tulloh the 1962 European 5,000m Champion, Ron Hill ran barefoot on the country and the track. The Lancashire team were very often in the frame as winners of the CAU Inter-Counties senior CC race with runners like Mike Turner and Mike Freary running and, of course, Ron Hill too.

In 1968 Ron Hill ran in the Mexico Olympics at high altitude. It was in the 10,000m, where so many came unstuck. Ron Hill came seventh in 29:53.2 just behind multi world record holder Ron Clarke (6th) of Australia 29:44.8 suffering the serious effects of altitude. Bill Adcocks was fifth in the marathon. Tim Johnston eighth. Because of the effects of altitude Tim told me in Mexico “it was a b…. waste of time racing at altitude in those Olympics”, so all in all it must be a plus for Ron Hill.  

Ron ran in 115 marathons in all so, I am going to pick out a few but, of course, one must also remember he ran a World Best for 25,000m of 1:15:22.6 on 21 July 1965. His fastest 10 miles was 46.44.0 and he ran 6 miles on the track in 27:26.0. He was only the second person to ever break 2:10 for a marathon. Something of interest was Ron never liked to train with anyone after his university days and went for extensive runs in the countryside on his own, which did upset one farmer when he ran across his land. Even though it was a public footpath. and he physically turfed Ron off the ground, Ron had a few things to say!

In the very hot conditions of Athens on the historic route he was first in the European Championships of 1969. The result on 21st of September: 1.Ron Hill (GB) 2:16.48; 2 Gaston Roelants (Belgium)2:17.22.2; 3 Jim Alder (GB) 2:19.05.8. 

I talked to Ron in Glyfada/Athens and at his home about the race. Ron comes in “At about 32 kilometers at the end of a long hilI I could still not see Roelants. as he was out of sight, but the message was he was two minutes ahead at one stage earlier and I did not know just how far he was ahead at this stage. It was when we came to the top of the hill I gained a psychological boost: all it was from this point was a downhill run to the finish. I was feeling good. I remembered when training over the course that I had seen this sign that it was only a matter of six miles downhill run to the finish. I remember thinking then ‘When you see this sign in the race you know there are no more hills’. I changed gear and started running faster. Jim Alder changed gear as well, but not so drastically as I had done, and I went past him and away, and that was it. I was certainly worried at that point but at the time the main thought was simply to maintain the pace for as long as possible and hold on to that silver medal. With a mile to go I suddenly saw Gaston ahead of me, and it was just with half a mile to go I chopped him. When I got nearer to the finish. I went down towards the orange lights. I had no idea where Roelants was. I could see where the stadium was on the left hand side, over the Central reservation and moved from the right hand carriage way to the left hand side. Just as I did this a landrover went right across in front of me-one of the convoy leading the race so I almost collided with the vehicle, my hands stretched out in front of me to stop the impact. Needless to say he got a mouthful of English he probably didn’t understand. I continued running up the ramp into the stadium and almost sprinted along the track to the finish.”

I thought “That’s shown’em. A few days afterwards when you can think back ‘I won the European Championships’ it’s a nice feeling.”

On 20 April 1970, Ron Hill sped through a continuous down-poor of rain to take the famous Boston Marathon race victory in a course record breaking 2:10.30, which was the second fastest ever time recorded and finished 42 seconds ahead of Eamon O’Reilly with Pat McMahon third in 2:14.53. 

Referring to his build-up to the 1970 Commonwealth Marathon he said “I did not intend at the outset taking the cross-country as seriously this Winter as I have in the past, and yet it was only part of the build-up. In the past, cross country was an end in itself. It was part of the marathon build up for the Commonwealth.”

In the athletes’ village, before the Commonwealth Marathon in Edinburgh, it appeared to me Derek Clayton, running for Australia was very confident, particularly as he had run a world record of 2:08.35 for the marathon in 1969 but of course in Edinburgh on the 25 July 1970. amongst others to contend with who were running was Ron Hill and 1966 Commonwealth Champion Jim Alder!  In addition, there was Olympic fifth placer Bill Adcocks.

The race started and in the front was Jerome Drayton of Canada and Harnek Singh of India was just in front of Derek Clayton with Ron Hill just tucked in behind. Drayton was leading the front group as they went through 5 miles in 23:21. Ron Hill had gone ahead by 10 miles in 47:45. Ron was still ahead at half way in 1:2.35. It was 1:37.32 at 20 miles and two of his toughest opponents Drayton and Clayton, had dropped out. Morpeth’s Jim Alder was now in second place. Don Faircloth started to move and went into third position. Into the Meadowbank stadium Ron came in. It was quite something to see. It was the fastest ever competitive marathon time to date of 2:09:28; second was Jim Alder (Scotland) 2:12.04; and third was Croydon’s Don Faircloth (England) in 2:12.19.

On 12 August 1971 in the European Marathon Championships in Helsinki the winner was Karel Lismont of Belgium (2:13.09) but all three British competitors filled the next three positions, one of those being Ron. Trevor Wright was second in 2:13.59.6, Ron Hill was third in 2:14.34.8 and Colin Kirkham was fourth in 2:16.22.

1972 was Ron’s third Olympic Games and he ran the Marathon, won by stylish Frank Shorter of the USA in 2:12.19.8. Ron Hill was the first British runner in sixth place in 2:16:30.6 just one ahead of Don Macgregor of GB who did 2:16.34.4. Amongst many other claims to fame over his extensive career was when in 1975 he ran for a course record, when winning the Enschede marathon in Holland and he won the event back in 1973 too. Ron Hill will always go down as an inspiring Northerner to all that had the chance to talk to him or saw him running in so many places.