It has not been the best of days for Ron Hill, it transpires. He and his wife, May, have been back from a trip to Argentina and Uruguay for five days now minus any trace of their luggage. Another marathon round of international telephone calls has failed to locate it.
Still, at least Ron has been out for his run. "Yes, I did five miles this morning," he says, settling into a comfy chair in the living room of his home on the outskirts of Hyde, Cheshire. "Down the hill and along a disused railway line. It took me 11 minutes and 20 seconds to run the first mile. I had a flu jab yesterday morning and I think that must have got to me. I'm not normally that slow. But I got to the end of it and felt a lot better for it."
As well he should. This is the 15,696th consecutive day on which Ron has run. Since Sunday 20 December 1964 he has run at least one mile every day. Next Thursday his long-running streak will reach 43 years. He embarked on it the day before the House of Commons voted to abolish hanging, and the month before both Winston Churchill and T S Eliot died.
Nothing since has stopped the trailblazing marathon man who won the European and Commonwealth titles at his competitive peak not even the car that slammed into him when he was driving over the Woodhead Pass into Yorkshire. "As I got near to the summit some kid must have got really impatient and decided to overtake this lorry on a blind bend," Hill says, recalling that close call of 1993. "I was doing 40mph coming the other way and suddenly this bloody car comes hurtling towards me. I just put the brakes on and pressed as hard as I could and shut my eyes.
"There was this big bang and everything stopped. The crash had pushed all the engine back, and the steering wheel. There was steam coming out of the thing. I'm thinking: 'Christ, I'm still alive, that's something.' I could feel this grating in my chest and when the ambulance came and they got me to hospital they said: 'You've broken your sternum and your heart's showing damage, you've got to stay in overnight.' Luckily, I'd run that morning and I recovered sufficiently the next day to be let out. In the evening my mother and my wife went out to do the weekly shop, so I walked to a level stretch of road, ran a mile and walked back. I didn't tell them I was running. I did that for a week, then startedto build up again.
"The same year, I had a bunion operation. I ran a mile a day in a plaster cast, in a specially adapted shoe you get from hospital. That was more embarrassing than difficult, because I was going so slowly."
There are alternative words some might choose to describe such behaviour: certifiable, for instance. But others would point out that the 69-year-old Hill has merely stayed true to the comic- book character who inspired him to run in the first place.
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 and stopped at Aunt Meg's caf for fish 'n' chips and a mug of tea before he hitchhiked from Greystones to London and survived his customary mid-race tumble before burning off some southern toff or robotic East European at the White City.
As a teenager who was brought up in a "two up, two down" in industrial Accrington in the early 1950s, Hill could readily identify with the hero whose exploits he followed each week in The Rover. "Still do in many ways," he says. "Because, you know, Alf won the Commonwealth Games marathon in Edinburgh."
Indeed, according to the storyline printed in The Victor in 1970, Alf won the Commonwealth marathon in the Scottish capital that year, running as a one-man team for Tristan da Cunha. In actual fact, Hill won the race, representing England. His time, 2hr 9min 28sec, was the fastest undisputed clocking for a marathon at that juncture, doubts having persisted about the exact distance of the Antwerp course on which Derek Clayton of Australia had recorded 2:08.34 in 1969.
Hill also won the European title on the Marathon to Athens course in 1969 but never scaled the heights of the Olympicpodium as a marathon runner, finishing 19th in Tokyo in 1964, being picked only for the 10,000m in Mexico in 1968 (crossing the line seventh in the final) and placing a distraught seventh in Munich in 1972 after an experiment with altitude training in St Moritz backfired.
Paula Radcliffe, he hopes, will not suffer the same Olympic marathon fate. "She seems to have her 'head' on now with that New York run," Hill says of the women's marathon world record holder. "If she can get to a peak for Beijing and she runs away, nobody will stop her. She's so far ahead of everybody else."
Like Radcliffe, Hill is aniconic figure in the distance-running world. He pioneered synthetic running gear as we know it today; a PhD in textile chemistry, he no longer owns Ron Hill Sports but works as a consultant for Hilly Clothing. He is also the man who can'tstop running. Ten months short of his 70th birthday, his ruddy complexion and slender build testify to the benefits of his Forrest Gump lifestyle. "My weight now is 9st 1lb," Hill says, "which is what it was when I was 20. I did go down to 8st 7lb at one time and went to the doctors about it. He did blood tests and everything and he said: 'The only thing I can think of is it's the stress of losing your business. You'd better forget about it and start to look to the future'."
That doctor was not Harold Shipman, though Hill was once treated by the infamous Hyde GP. "I had some stomach problem and brought some samples in and he did tests and gave me antibiotics," he recalls. "Everybody said he was a good doctor even the people that he killed thought he was. But he was on a mission of some sort."
Happily, Hill is in the rudest of health. He runs 30 miles a week and still races in the colours of Clayton-le-Moors Harriers. The Littleborough five-mile event last Sunday took his tally of races to 2,240. He has raced in 98 countries and plans to make it 100 by the time he turns 70, on 25 September next year.
In the meantime, he has two landmarks ahead of him in the coming week. On Thursday there is the 43rd anniversary of his unbroken daily streak. Then, on Saturday, Hill is scheduled to complete his 150,000th mile since he started logging his training back in September 1956.
That is the equivalent of six times round the world, though the Lancastrian legend is going back to his roots to mark the occasion. He intends to break the tape at Accrington Stanley's football ground, prior to his old hometown team's League Two fixture against Shrewsbury. Alf Tupper would be proud of him.
What else happened on 20 December 1964...
* In the First Division match of the weekend, Chelsea lose 3-0 at Sunderland, missing the chance to overtake Manchester United and Leeds United at the top of the table. The report in 'The Times' opens: "Mr T Docherty, the Chelsea manager, made a rash remark on television when he said, in a gay moment, that his team would be back at the top of the First Division table after their visit to Sunderland." Nicky Sharkey, Martin Harvey and George Herd score the goals that beat The Doc's boys Terry Venables, Peter Bonetti, Barry Bridges and Co.
* The Beatles are top of the pop charts for a third week with "I Feel Fine". Petula Clark moves up to No 3 with "Downtown", while the highest new entry is Georgie Fame with "Yeh, Yeh" in at No 15.
* MPs are preparing for a vote in the House of Commons tomorrow on the Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Bill, which has been introduced by Sidney Silverman. The Labour MP for Nelson and Colne urges the House to "end this last remnant of a grotesque barbarity". His bill is carried by a majority of 185, removing the penalty of hanging.
* The two-channel tele-vision schedule offers 'Z Cars', 'The Count of Monte Cristo' and 'Pinky and Perky' on the BBC and both 'The Saint' and 'The Eamonn Andrews Show' on ITV.
* It is claimed an Indonesian farmer has died at the age of 194 in the north of Sumatra. He is survived by his 120-year-old wife.
* A new Mini is advertised at a price of 469. An MG Midget Mark II costs a princely 623.
* A Finnish meteorologist, having pored over Russian weather reports covering the past 150 years, says that adverse conditions had little to do with the retreat of Napoleon from Moscow. He claims that the weather in Russia in October to November 1812 was basically"comparatively mild".
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