Ron Hill MBE ‘A Legendary Character’ (March 2022)
Ron Hill will go down in athletics history as one of the ‘Greatest’ all-round distance competitors, not just as a ‘Big’ Championship marathon winner but, also 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 Bolton & Lancashire’s County teams that he ran his successful road relay’s and cross-countries or as, I am sure his international Bolton United clubmate, Mike Freary would testify. Ron ran, even if injured, up to a mile a day between 1964 and 2017; that was 19,032 consecutive days).When he stopped running seriously was when he had heart trouble on a run in 2017 and, did not want to be a danger to his family particularly 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’ (He died May 23rd 2021)
Ron was born in Accrington in Lancashire on the 25th of September in 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 PH.D 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 & 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 a lot on the failures he thought he had had on the way but 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?” he said to Alastair Aitken 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 2nd in the AAA’s in 27:54.2 ).
On the 14th of October 1964 Ron ran his first Olympic race in Tokyo over 10,000. He was the first GB runner in 29:53.0 and on the 21st of 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 2nd. 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 & 1965, with Ron Hill 3rd in the former and in 1965 Ron was 4th English runner behind winner Mel Batty. Dick Taylor won in 1967 and Trevor Wright in 1970. Ron was 2nd in the 1964 International. The really amazing National was when at Graves Park, Sheffield in 1966. Ron Hill won by a few inches from Mike Turner of Liverpool and Cambridge University, in their last 100 for a dash for the line. Of the two times in the International (Old World CC) when Ron came 2nd in Tunis in 1968 in 35.27. just one second behind Mohamed Gammoudi of TunisIa (25:26), who gained gold silver and bronze medals over the space of three Olympics at 5 or 10k. Ian Stewart, that great competitor, waxed lyrical about Mohammed’s ability. when I talked to him. 3rd 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 5k 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 10,000 where so many came unstuck. Ron Hill came 7th 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 5th in the marathon. Tim Johston 8th, Because of the effects of altitude Tim told me in Mexico “it was a’B…. waste of time racing at altitude in the 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 about a few but, of course, one must also remember he ran a World Best for 25,000 of 1:15:22.6 on July 21st 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 country side 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.
21st of September 1.Ron Hill (GB) 2:16.48; 2 Gaston Roelants (Belgium)2:17.22.2; 3 Jim Alder (GB) 1:19,05.8. 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 2 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 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 remembered 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 mouth full 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 the 20th of 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 3rd in 2:14.53.
“I did not intend at the outset of taking the cross-country seriously this Winter as I have in the past., and yet was only part of the buildup. For in the past cross country was an end in itself. It was part of the marathon build up for the Commonwealth” said Ron.
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 25th of July 1970. amongst others to contend with who were running was Ron Hill and 1966 Commonwealth Champion Jim Alder!
As well as a fast man over the Athens marathon course Olympic 5th placer Bill Adcocks.
The race started and in the front was Jerome Drayton of Canada and Harnek Singh were just in front of Derek Clayton with Ron Hill just tucked in behind that. 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 opposition Drayton and Clayton, had dropped out. Morpeth’s Jim Alder was now in second place. Don Faircloth started to move and went into 3rd 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; 2nd was Jim Alder (Scotland) 2:12.04; 3rd Croydon’s, Don Faircloth (England) 2:12.19.
On the 12th of 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. 2nd Trevor Wright 2:13.59.6; 3 Ron Hill2:14.34.8, and 4 Colin Kirkham 2:16.22.
In 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 6th 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 188.8.131.52 for a course record, when winning the Enschede marathon in Holland and he won the event back in 1973 too. He 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.
Regards Alastair Aitken.