King of the Joggers faces life as a fox

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The Independent Online
Some call it fun. But, to most people, it is not even sport.

Let me give you an extreme example of just how far so-called civilised people will go in their pursuit of pleasure. Picture a hunted animal, chased across miles of countryside by a pack of rampaging dogs, spurred on by a small, lite group wearing the stylised uniform of a bygone era. Horrible, isn't it?

Yet if you wander the Nottinghamshire countryside on almost any Tuesday, you may be unfortunate enough to witness this sorry tableau. The worst thing of all is that those slavering bloodhounds are not pursuing a fox or a deer, which of course would be perfectly right and proper. They're after the King of the Joggers.

This is how John Whetton, once our finest 1500-metre runner, now gets his warped pleasure. He goes jogging at least six times a week, but, on Tuesdays, he plays Fox and Hounds, leading a local pack up hill and down dale. "I get about 20 minutes' start and sometimes I run for two hours, but they very rarely catch me," he says, confirming my private view that continued pounding of the metatarsi on hard surfaces affects the frontal lobe in as yet undocumented ways,

At 53, you would think Whetton, principal lecturer in animal physiology at Trent University, would know better. But if anything, he is even more evangelical about running for fun than he was back in 1979 when, with Sports Council backing, he helped to set up the National Jogging Association. Since then, he has been at the forefront of helping a whole generation get fitter rather than fatter. In fact, Whetton has been so successful that his job is now all but redundant.

"I could wind the association up now," he admits. "It is virtually dead.We never have an annual meeting and though I still get a few phone calls and the odd letter, there's hardly anything for me to do." It is an extraordinary tale of an organisation that has been a victim of its own success.

Back in the late 1970s, people suddenly became aware of a link between inactivity and heart attacks. Exercise became a sexy word - and what could be easier than jogging, a toned-down sort of athletics which anyone could do simply by stepping outside the front door? It needed no customised equipment, no special skills and best of all, it was free.

"Initially the association was set up to put some structure into jogging," Whetton recalls. He had a personal interest. When he gave up competitive running (1969 European champion, European indoor champion three times, finalist in the Tokyo and Mexico Olympics), he put on 21 lb in three months. "I was in the US at the time and 70 million Americans were classified as obese. It shocked me, and I came back to England, motivated to do something."

The organisation printed leaflets, set up an incentive badge with backing from Adidas, and gave information on everything from clothing to training. Jogging suddenly became as fashionable as Jean-Paul Gaultier. Respectable people couldn't walk to the pub without being run down by hordes of puffing bullies.

Jogging had an unexpected impact on traditional athletics clubs. "Joggers were not welcome and anyway could not identify with the clubs' aims, which mostly comprised young, very fit athletes. More mature joggers felt a bit embarrassed, so they banded into groups of perhaps a dozen, and started their own clubs," Whetton says.

The infant grew up fast. "People soon weren't content just to run a couple of miles," Whetton continued. "The joggers became fitter and fitter, and they wanted more than merely taking part in a fun run. I think people are competitive by nature. They were talking about needing another goal, and marathons fitted the bill perfectly."

lt was the Age of the Long Distance Runner. In 1983/84, there were 134 full marathons on offer, as well as countless half-marathons, and 10-kilometre runs. Suddenly, the snooty athletic clubs' lite runners were being beaten by middle-aged men (and women) representing such unlikely organisations as The White Swan Puffers or More Dead Than Alive Running Club. That was the key. The joggers had become runners, and sometimes very good ones.

Distance running, once the preserve of fools and horses, had become respectable. And Whetton, who had played a key role in spreading the gospel, suddenly found that the phone stopped ringing and the postman no longer needed two hands to deliver the association's mail.

He is philosophical about its decline, particularly as the spread of jogging and its development into mainstream distance running produced some unexpected benefits. "I think the jogging boom did a great deal for women's participation in sport," he says. "As recently as 1984, the longest distance for them in the Olympics was 800m. Now the number participating in marathons is phenomenal. The Robin Hood Marathon that I run in Nottingham attracts 1, 000 women."

It sounds like a story with a happy ending. Whetton, after all, was doing the work, for love rather than money. He has plenty of other interests. As well as his university work (which appears to involve doing unspeakable things to hamsters if the corridor walls are anything to go by) he is a member of the International Amateur Athletics Federation's doping "flying squad". At Christmas, he visited the Gulf states to talk about setting up a drug-testing facility.

But his work may not be over, after all. Only this week, a survey by head teachers revealed that the UK was bottom of the table when it came to weekly physical education in schools. And those joggers are getting older. "In the Robin Hood marathon, 8.2 per cent were aged 40-49 when it was first held. Now it's 27 per cant. In the first year only 1.7 per cent were 50-59, now it's 9.7 per cent," he says.

"I wonder about the vacuum that is developing. The joggers that developed in those boom times are getting older and older. The next question must be how we can recreate the jogging boom."

He may have discovered the answer himself. If hunting really is going to be banned, there will be an awful lot of horses and hounds with nothing to chase. The British Jogging and Hunting Association may be the way forward for both groups.