Oi Polloi

Interview: Ron Hill

Published: Fri Sep 18 2015

When it comes to running, not many have done as much as Ron Hill. He’s won marathons, he’s broken world records, he’s started his own sportswear company and he’s designed trainers with Reebok. Not only that, but since December 1964, he’s ran every single day, without fail — through sleet, snow and a broken sternum.

I met Ron in a few weeks ago to talk about his endless achievements. We were sat in a renovated mill on the outskirts of Hyde, it had been raining all morning and the 76 year old had just got back from his daily run...

It might be a bit of an obvious question, but how did you start running?

When I first went to Accrington Grammar School I used to get a boy’s magazine called The Rover. There was a guy in The Rover called Alf Tupper — the Tough of the Track. In the pictures it would be pouring with rain, there were cobbled stone streets and gas lamps, and he was very poor. It never showed his parents, he lived on disused barges and under railway arches, and he was a welder.

If he had a race to go to in London something would go wrong — he’d have to work all night welding or something. Then he’d hitchhike down to London, eat a bag of fish and chips, vault over the railings and get on the track. He’d be up against all these toffee noses from Oxford and Cambridge and he’d beat them all on the last lap.

And I thought, “Bloody hell, this is a man with nothing going for him whatsoever, and he’s succeeding.” He wasn’t in a team, the officials were against him and I thought that I’d like to be like that — doing stuff all off my own back, basically.

Could you relate to Alf then? What was your situation like growing up?

I managed through the Eleven Plus to get into a grammar school, but yeah, we were very poor. My mother had to go out to work to support us and my dad worked on the railway but it didn’t pay a lot of money.

We were poor, but I didn’t realise that — you just live like that. I went back to an Accrington Grammar School reunion and someone said, “Bloody hell, you were poor weren’t you?” He probably said that because my socks were all darned, but I didn’t notice that, I was just glad to be studying and getting on with things.

I’d joined the cross country club and I was the only guy in the school who looked forward to the annual race, everyone else just went round the corner to hide.

When did running become something more than just the annual cross country race?

From 1953 onwards I ran in the cross country races — the East Lancs, the Northern and the National. You had the boys and the youths, then the juniors and then the seniors. I went along to those but never did anything; I was just excited to be at a race. I remember the first one I ran was as a youth and I was like 256th or something like that — but I was still excited and looked forward to the next one. I remember I couldn’t sleep at night because I was so nervous before a race. Even as a junior I think I was 55th. That’s some progress but it’s nowhere near the front.

And then I went to Manchester University to study Textile Chemistry. In digs I was living with a couple of people who were runners and we began to learn about training. That’s when I got quite serious.

When did you start winning then?

By 1962 I’d become a really avid racer. This was before I’d graduated and I wanted to run every weekend I could find a race. That was how I entered my first marathon — I was looking one week in 1961 and I couldn’t find anything that weekend, but I saw on the fixture list that there was the Liverpool Marathon.

I lived in Fallowfield at the time so I got a bus into Manchester and then a train to Liverpool and went to Saint Georges Hall where it started at. There were 53 entries — and this was supposed to be a big marathon! Maybe 30 people finished, and I managed to win it, which was a bit of a shock.

At first it was like, “Why are they running so slowly?” so I decided to let someone else have the lead — a man called John Tarrant. John was known as The Ghost Runner because he’d got banned from being an amateur athlete after admitting to receiving ten pounds to buy boxing equipment. Anyway, I passed this guy with four miles to go and won the race.

The finish was at Anfield in front of the crowd for a pre-season football game, so it was crammed and the noise was amazing. But after that I was so stiff a guy had to give me a lift back to Manchester. He took me to Wythenshawe and propped me up against a bus-stop. I remember thinking, “Bloody hell, I’m not doing this again.”

Anyway, in those days the papers like The Guardian would follow the race and I read the report and saw my picture in the paper and thought, “Well, it wasn’t too bad that, was it?” And that was what got me into marathon running. I subsequently ran another 114 marathons.

How often were you running at this point?

I was doing 100 miles a week for two years. I was going out in the morning before cycling to university and I was going flat out. I was knackered.

This is probably a bit of a boring question, but was it hard to do that much running whilst trying to do your university stuff too?

Not really, it just became a routine. I did the morning run, had a bit of breakfast, biked to university — I was in the laboratory most of the time on the fifth for of UMIST — then I’d get on the bike home, stop off at the ground, get changed quickly, do a run and go home. I had a small scholarship, but to keep our finances together my wife was working. We’d then have something to eat and maybe listen to the radio or read a book. And that was life — we didn’t know anything else and we didn’t expect anything else — we just got on with it.

Was your decision to do Textile Chemistry at university because of your running? How did you start making clothes yourself?

No, that was another lucky break. I had no idea what I wanted to do. The headmaster at Accrington Grammar kept me on for an extra year to study Latin as he wanted as many pupils as possible to go to Oxford or Cambridge. So I got the qualification and I went down to Oxford to do the entrance exams and I’m not kidding you… I was Alf Tupper there. It was totally alien to me. The accents, the things that were happening — I just thought, “There’s no way I’m going to come down here.”

So I just answered a few silly questions in the oral part and then quite honestly, I didn’t write anything in the written part. I just left it blank.

I still had no idea what I wanted to do, but the careers master said, “There’s two scholarships going here, both in textiles.” So I went down to talk to the head of Textile Chemistry and I got the scholarship. Okay, it was interesting and I stayed on to do the PHD, probably because I thought I could get another three years with the time to train and race abroad. And then I got a job at a company called Courtaulds.

Meanwhile at that time I got to know the treasurer of the East Lancs Running Association. And he said, “If you want to try and buy a house I’ll lend you the £250 for the deposit.” So I started to look for a house. I thought, “Well, the only way to get my training in whilst I’m working full time is to run to work and back,” So I got an ordnance survey map, stuck a compass in it with a five mile radius and I drew a circle of places to look for a house. I got one in a place called Romiley, right on the line. Obviously I couldn’t run as the crow flies, so it ended up being about seven miles, which was ideal.

Looking back, it must have been tough in winter because it snowed and it was dark and it was raining, but I can’t say it was a terrible time or anything.

Having done that, I was looking at the clothing I was wearing. There were some pants on the market that were made from cotton. And they were alright if it was dry, but if it rained they just absorbed moisture like anything — you were running holding the things up. And the jackets that we had weren’t waterproof jackets. So I decided to start looking at designing clothing myself.

We designed some shorts called Freedom Shorts that were split up the side. These came about because I was running for Lancashire in the Inter Counties Cross Country Championships and I couldn’t lift my legs fully in the shorts I had. So I ripped them up the sides at the seams and suddenly I had this freedom. It looked a bit daft though, with these splits up the side, so I came up with the idea to overlap the front seam over the back. You still had the parting when you were running, but when you were standing around, you just looked normal.

It was the same with vests. I went to a marathon in Japan and found a vest that was really well cut, so we’d make them too. There was a factory in Hyde where this guy would make me short runs of things.

My wife and I had built up this mail order business to about £800 a week or something like that. I thought that if I did it full time then we could have a secure business… so that’s what happened.

How did word get out about Ron Hill Clothing?

We did a small ad, a tiny classified ad, in Athletics Weekly and it just built up. The stock was building up so much in our small detached house that the loft got full, and then the garage got full and then the corridor to the front door got full. I thought, “Christ, we can’t continue like this.” So we bought a derelict shop in Hyde — an old chemist’s shop. It was a dump really as we had no money to put proper furnishings in there, but that was when people started knocking at the door. So we turned it into a retail outlet as well as the headquarters. And it just went from there.

Why do you think it was so successful? Did your experience as a runner help?

Yeah, they worked. Like the mesh vest — I was looking in 1968 for something that would give my skin maximum exposure to the air to cool it down, as I knew the Olympics were going to be in Mexico City.

I think in the May of that year I ran a 20 mile race. I ran away from everybody in that race. I had a pair of shoes that had just been made for me by Reebok and a cutaway vest and I ran one hour, 36 minutes and 38 seconds, which if you think about it is two 49 minute ten miles on the trot. I was miles in front of everybody else. I don’t think the selectors ever saw it, but that gave me a lot of confidence. There was such disbelief at my time that the guy at the course went and re-measured the course the day after.

But anyway, my cutaway vest didn’t really work so I went to Stockport Army and Navy Stores and bought two string vests.

When I stepped out onto the track I had this string vest on, these shorts on and bare feet — there was a gasp from the crowd.

What was the reason for running with bare feet? Were there no trainers good enough?

The main reason for me was the weight — it made such a difference. Akin to this, when I was running in the Tokyo Olympics I was getting some free shoes from Puma and they were heavy. So I got in touch with this guy and said, “What I want is a spike, with no spikes. Just take the spike plate off and put a piece of rubber underneath.”

I got these shoes made and actually punched holes in them with a leather punch, so they were ventilated.

But when I broke the record for the marathon in 1970 I was back working with Reebok and they’d made me some kangaroo leather shoes that were incredibly light.

Did you have a lot of say in these?

Oh yeah, it was my design. It was called the World 10. And then we did another one called the 209 Marathon, which was even lighter still. I guess these were the first minimalist shoes.

Going back to the world record, how did that come about?

There’s a story attached to that. I wanted to get into the European Games marathon in 1969. I’d got my training regime well sorted out, but three weeks before the actual marathon was held in Manchester, I’d been invited to run in a race in Helsinki.

So I ran this race. There were three Ethiopians in the race, and I’m sure their coach had said to them not to let anyone past — so it started to develop into a bloody fight. Anytime anyone went up to go past, they got the elbow. One guy, the Olympic steeplechase champion Gaston Roelants, just threw his arms up and said, “This is not a race.” When I saw this, I went up to the guy, tapped him on the shoulder and said, “Any more of this and you’re going to get that,” and showed him my fist.

We carried on running, and as we came to five laps and pace was slowing, I thought, “Right, I’m going to overtake here.” I stepped out to pass him and the next thing I know I’m on the floor looking up at the floodlights. I get up, and this guy Roelants had been shoved back into the race by his coach, so as he passed me he said, “Tuck in behind me, I’ll take you back up to the leaders.” We slowly crept back up the three of them, and it came to the last lap. There must have been about 200 metres to go so I moved into the outside lane, sprinted like hell and I beat the three of them.

At first I thought, “Brilliant,” but then I thought, “Hang on, what’s this squelching noise in my shoe?” I had a five inch gash down the inside of my ankle and there was only three weeks to go until this bloody marathon.

There was a doctor at the stadium and he said, “Come under the stadium, I’ve got a bench there — I’m going to stitch that back up.” I went with him and he said, “Well, the skin is dead, you won’t need any anaesthetic.” He stitched it with no anaesthetic. I still ran the next morning but it was awfully painful. After about ten days I went to the doctors to get the stitches taken out and he said he couldn’t because they’d gone septic.

It was a good job I didn’t have a coach, because no coach would let someone run with stitches, never mind stitches that were going septic. I just thought, “I’m going to run this marathon, I don’t care what anybody says.”

Then I went to Athens, it was a stinking hot day and the tar was melting on the road. For a drink, what I used to do was put maybe half a spoonful of salt into some cordial, drink that down in one, and then drink nearly a pint of water. That was my fuel for a race. I didn’t take a drink in the race, and when I was coming down the hill to the Olympic stadium I saw this plastic cup on the floor. I thought, “That’s Roelants, he must be getting bad if he’s drinking water.” I caught him with one kilometre to go, and I didn’t quite know what to do because I’d never been in that position before. I just thought, “Sod it, I’m going.” I went past him and right down this road to the stadium.

A Land Rover nearly knocked me down doing a U-turn and nearly killed me. Anyway, I won the European Championship — brilliant. It was in the old stadium and my wife and kids and my mother and dad were there, it was fantastic.

As I was coming out of the stadium this guy came up to me who was the boss of the Road Runner’s Club in England and said, “I say Hill, how would you like to run the Boston Marathon?”

They had a whip around in the Road Runner’s Club magazine to pay for my air fare to Boston. Anyway, they got my money. I was running against a guy who had beaten me previously, but I’d been doing the glycogen loading diet and had got it to perfection. We set off and we were head to head. I was blowing my fingers ‘cos they were so cold and my mesh vest wasn’t doing anything for me.

Anyway, I dropped him at about six miles and thought, “Jesus, I’ve got all this way to run on my own now.” He came back and I said something to him like, “Where’ve you been all my life.” I think that put him off a bit, as he dropped back and soon after he dropped out. I forged on in the rain and I had no idea what time I was running. I ended up winning the race — the first Britain to win Boston. This journalist came up and said, “Oh, by the way, you broke the course record by over three minutes — you ran two hours ten minutes. That gave me loads of confidence then.

Edinburgh was in July. I had my rest and I knew what I had to do. I visualised the race for the first time — I could see the Portobello Power Station and I could see the way the wind was blowing. The start was like the start of a 1500 metre race. I think I went through ten kilometres in 28 minutes. I know the old record holder had said to someone that my pace was suicidal and that I’d never keep it up. Coming back I knew that I had to look good, so I gave everybody a thumbs up and kept going. I nearly got an ulcer with the worry of whether I’d be able to keep going. I did, and in the end I ran 2:09:28, which was a world record.

I’ve had some good times.

How did that feel — to hold the world record? It didn’t sound like you expected it.

I was just on top of my form. I’d done all the right things, including the diet.

Yeah what was that called? Glycogen loading? What’s that?

A guy called Martin Hyman who coaches orienteering had read about these experiments some people had done with cyclists in Scandinavia. They gave one lot a high carbohydrate diet, another lot a high protein diet and another lot they gave them protein for half the time, and then carbohydrates for the other half. That last group performed so much better than the rest. I thought, “What if you use this for a marathon?” and it bloody well worked. I was so strong at the end of marathons using that diet.

What would you eat?

I wouldn’t eat any bread, I wouldn’t eat any pasta and I wouldn’t eat any potatoes. And then after four days when my body was craving carbohydrates, I’d eat loads of cakes. Then I’d go back to a more normal diet, making sure there was carbohydrates in it.

What happens is that when you starve the enzymes in your stomach of carbohydrates, they think, “What the hell is going on?” and start to multiply to find more. Then when you pile it back on they go, “Wow,” and start to get it. You get at least a ten percent increase in your carbohydrate level in your muscles. That’s what you can use at the end of a marathon.

Well it obviously worked. I know you said before that hardly anyone was around when you ran your first marathon in Liverpool. How has the world of running changed since you first started?

You know the story of Chris Braser and John Disley? They did the New York marathon and thought, “We can get this back to England.” In 1981, they started the London marathon, and it worked. It was a people’s marathon — people saw it on television and said, “Look at that! If they could do it, I could do it.” And that’s how it snowballed.

Yeah, the shift from traditional runners running to normal people running.

Yeah exactly. Whereas in my first marathon they were just hardened marathon runners — that was all they did.

You’re probably what they’d call a hardened runner too. You’ve got the world record for the longest streak of running every day. When did you start that?

I think it was December the first, 1964. I was 18th in the 10,000 and 19th in the marathon at Tokyo. I was the second fastest marathon runner in the world, and I blew it. I couldn’t stand being away from home — I just went to pieces. When people say they were petrified, I know how they feel. Spending time away from family doesn’t work from me. I knew I was far better than that, and I was going to get the best out of myself.

I’ve got a couple of sayings — one is, “Leave no stone unturned in your endeavours to be the best you can be.” So I ran once the next day, and then I ran twice the day after. I ran twice a day and once on Sunday for 26 years without missing a run — and thinking about all those races I told you about, it did pay off.

I just kept looking — the diet, the mesh vest, the bare feet, the minimalist shoes — and it worked.

You obviously considered every single part of it.

I used to read a lot — a hell of a lot. I’d go down to the second hand bookshops at Shudehill in Manchester and read stuff about diets there. I’d find out about green vegetables and the trace elements in them that your body needs, and think, “Well, I’ll make sure I’ll get those.” So yeah, I did think about it very much, think how I could be the best I could be.

Going back to the everyday running thing, has there ever been times when you’ve not been able to go out?

Having the streak is a motivation. It was a big decision to come down to running just once a day, but it worked because I was getting very tired. I wouldn’t want to miss a run, I’d feel like I was a failure if I did. People say, “What if you feel really bad?” I say, “Look, all you’ve got to do is get your kit on, go to the front door, open it and go out. Within five minutes you’ll be fine.”

And it’s true. Just get out there and you’ll be fine.

Haha, that makes sense. When do you think you’ll stop?

I’ll just keep going. When they nail me in the box, that’ll be it.