Athletics: Why do you run, run, Ron?

Simon Turnbull talks to the legendary athlete whose exploits pass into folklore today
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It was a celebrated resident of Greta Hall in Keswick, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who conceived the unlikely Rime of the Ancient Mariner. He did so with a liberal measure of poetic licence. Ron Hill is no grey- beard loon but the tale he can tell of his sojourn to the grounds of Greta Hall today would stretch the wildest of imaginations. It is, you might say, the definitive long-running story. It started almost 34 years ago and is likely to run for some time yet. At noon today, when the Derwentwater 10-mile road race starts in the shadow of Coleridge's sometime home, now part of Keswick School, Ron Hill will embark on his 12,000th consecutive day of running.

"The 20th of December, 1964," he said, recalling the last day on which he did not run at least one token mile. It was the day before the House of Commons voted to abolish hanging, a month before Churchill died. Liz McColgan was six months old. Ever since, Hill has kept on running, come rain, come shine, in sickness and in health.

There have been late-night jogs at airport terminals, on railway platforms. There was the time, three years ago, when he was injured in a car crash. "I broke my sternum and was taken to hospital," Hill recalled. "Fortunately, I'd already run that day. They kept me in overnight but I was released the next day. When my wife went out shopping I sneaked out and hobbled through a 12-minute mile. It was not a very nice experience."

Then there was the time he persuaded his son to drive him to the local track when he left hospital with a plaster cast on his foot after a bunion operation. "Now that really was painful," Hill reflected. "My son told me I was stupid but he waited while I did my four laps. I ran a mile every day for six weeks with the cast on."

Some would deem it certifiable behaviour. But those who have crossed paths with the 59-year-old Lancastrian during his on-running marathon saga know he is simply staying true to the against-all-odds spirit of the character who first inspired him to run. A car crash and a plaster cast would not have stopped Alf Tupper in his tracks. The "Tough of the Track" would have still put in a full day's welding shift, stopped at Aunt Meg's caff for fish and chips and a mug of tea, hitch-hiked from Greystone to London and survived his customary mid-race tumble to burn off the southern toffs or the East European racing machines at the White City.

Back in 1952 Hill was a 13-year-old schoolboy following his hero's progress to Olympic gold in the pages of the Rover. In 1970, according to the Victor, Alf was the marathon victor at the Commonwealth Games, running as a one- man team for Tristan-da-Cunha. The record books, in fact, show that Ron Hill, the Tough of the Tarmac Tracks from Accrington won the marathon gold medal in Edinburgh. He did so, moreover, in 2hr 9min 28sec, the fastest undisputed marathon clocking at that time, and, in the 27 years since, bettered by only eight British runners.

Hill won the European marathon title, too, on the classic Marathon to Athens course in 1969. He is revered world-wide as a living legend of long-distance running. Why else would the Runner's World web-site in the United States carry a two-screen preview of a 10-mile race around the shores of Derwentwater? Hill's renown is three-fold: as one of the all- time marathon greats, as a pioneering manufacturer of synthetic running gear, and as the man with that unbroken long-running streak.

"We all die some day, but I see no reason why I can't keep it going for another 33 or 34 years," he said. "Running keeps me healthy and I'm still working on fabrics as a consultant; I can test out materials. Since I started keeping a training log, in 1956, I've run 133,907 and a half miles and Sunday's will be my 1,959th race. The plan is to pass the 2,000 mark before I'm 60 in September next year. I only run 30 miles a week now, though, and I try to run seven-and-a-half minute miles in races. I feel comfortable at that pace. I can enjoy it."

When Hill first ran the undulating 10-mile Derwentwater course, as the 1963 winner, he was inside five-minute miling all the way - despite straying temporarily off route with the leading pack in Keswick. "I could hardly run for laughing," he recalled. "A boy on a delivery bike was so surprised to see us charging up the the main street he crashed into the pavement and collapsed in a heap."

Some things in life, indeed, are just plain ridiculous. "Do you know," Hill confided, "there are some runners who go out at a quarter-to-midnight, come back at a quarter-past and call it two days' running." They, presumably, are the grey-beard loons of the ancient marathoners.