David Ashton – A Lifetime In Athletics (Part 1)

In October, 1964 as a fifteen year old school boy I joined Manchester YMCA Harriers in what was to become a lifetime of sheer enjoyment. However, my introduction to races began at primary school. My first certificate reads: Prestwich and Whitefield Town Sports 1957, Second in the boys obstacle race. Certificates followed for flat races, obstacle races, potato races, egg and spoon, sack etc. up to 1960. The highlight of remembrances at this time was being part of the school winning relay team of 4 × 100 yards. In 1959, qualification for the team was simple – a number of us were herded down to the local park one lunch time. A race was set in motion and the first four were picked. From there we were given kit, a race order and details for race day. No training! No tactics! Just run! IT WORKED!

I was thrilled with this achievement on two counts. Firstly, it was a first team prize and secondly, I had qualified a year younger than the others.

Looking back on this photo what strikes me now is not the typical northern scene in black and white but the kit. The school T-shirt was one size fits all and for someone my height it needed to be rolled up and pinned to the shorts. If not it was down below knee level which quite restricts running action. Also the shirt was used for all sports in all weathers. We were either brave or most likely stupid. The shorts were made by mum and will appear later in these memories. The pumps were big sisters hand downs and the socks … well, least said the better. When one considers today’s kit the amount we use and the technical research that has gone into it – well, how times have changed.

Here we are again, May 1965. (Recognise the shorts?) – things were made to last in those days. Although Jack my opponent is wearing a Bury and Radcliffe kit and I’m in a club training top the event is actually the 880 yards in the school Town Sports. This is one of my proudest achievements for I’d never beaten Jack before. He was a much stronger runner than myself but I had the ace card of a sprint finish – looking at my facial expression it certainly doesn’t seem so. I remember being thoroughly motivated by Roger Bannister’s book on the first sub 4 minute mile and how he used his sprint finish to great effect in races. With the aid of school pals leading at the start for the first 220 yards I then sat in behind Jack and clung on till 100 yards to go then WOOSH! Everything went to plan I zoomed past Jack then exhaustion kicked in and I had to grind out those last few yards – hence the facial expression.

As an aside to the Roger Bannister reference. Following his 3:59.4 achievement John Landy, an Australian, took the time down to 3:57. Later that year (1954) they raced at the Empire Games in Vancouver. Imagine the setting the only two men ever to break the four-minute mile racing against each other. It was a great race with Bannister using his favoured tactics to sprint to victory. For years this story thrilled and excited me from just reading the book. It is only in recent years that I’ve seen the actual race on You Tube and it doesn’t disappoint. I can’t help wondering if that race was fast forwarded to 2016 and the massive hype and publicity, not to mention monetary gain, that would have surrounded the event.

Apologies if I’ve gone on somewhat but, as you’ve guessed, he is one of my heroes.

Back to the script.

School days.

From 1960 to 1964 I raced in many school events with no preparation or training. We just went to the event.

Looking back now I can’t help wondering if my paper-boy delivery round didn’t act as a basic fitness programme. I started this as a ten year old. Interestingly the law said you had to be fourteen but no-one checked. The pay was 16 shillings a week (80p for all you post 1971 readers), and was useful in saving up for a bike. Three memories stand out from this job:

  1. My mum deserves mention for rising early and making the porridge.
  2. Wearing a balaclava and duffel coat I must have looked a real thug long before the days of “hoodies”.
  3. Returning home with blackened face in days of fog and smog and the polluted air that must have been inhaled.

Back to school races. For all you younger readers who are sick of hearing from us oldies how life was great in our day, consider this. The maximum distance we raced was 220 yards at age 12, 440 yards aged 13 and 880 yards aged 14. It wasn’t till 1964 that the mile was introduced. WHAT WHIMPS WE WERE.

To finish Part 1 of these memories I’ll reference races through the Air Cadets. Yes I was a cadet – useless at drill, shooting in fact any kind of military challenge. However, my running ability gave me a little street cred whilst a member of 1005 Radcliffe and Whitefield squadron. Races were held for East Lancashire squadrons. If successful here you progressed to the Western Region at RAF Cosford and from here a first place meant the National Finals at RAF Uxbridge. In 1964 and 65 I won at East Lancs but only came second at Cosford. In 1966 I progressed to RAF Uxbridge but was disappointed with my third placing. This meant I had one last chance before age barred me from competing. The reason this is included in my memories is because it was the first time I concentrated on a specific race on a specific date and set forth on a training programme with that goal. 1967 then – first in the mile and 880 yards at the East Lancs and Western Region. National finals – everything gambled on the 880 yards. Yes! Success at last! I used the same tactics as those against Jack in 1965 and with exactly the same result.

An interesting aside to this story. When my mum was suffering from terminal cancer in late 1983 she looked through my medal collection. She picked out the Piccadilly marathon medal of that year as her favourite. I was devastated. Firstly, the medal was not won but given for finishing and I hated the event and have never run a marathon since. But, secondly, what really hurt was that my pride and joy of a national title gold medal was not the chosen one. Such is life.

To finish part one I’ll reference this photograph. I’m sure you’ve all experienced bizarre injuries and the stories association with them. Well how’s this: on winning the mile race at RAF Cosford in 1967 the finishing tape got caught on my throat. I shouted my feelings to the boys holding the tape no doubt in choice language (certainly not for repeating here). Imagine my disgust when I was seriously reprimanded and put on a charge for my outburst. The photo shows me in the medics office the next day. The scar remained for weeks and for a number of years appeared each time I got hot. It just shows athletics has its downside, too.

— David Ashton, May 2016