Maniacs stand out a mile

Craig Wheeler's world record is safe. Simon Turnbull finds downhill running is alive and kicking in Meltham

The grey-haired gentleman walking his labrador down Popley Butts was grateful to have been stopped. "Oh!" he said. "It finishes next to that garden wall up there. Do you know, I'd forgotten it was on tonight. It's pounds 100 if you break the course record, you know. Not bad work if you can get it, eh?"

Perhaps. But then, no human has ever run the blue-riband distance quicker than the record time for the Meltham Mile. Noureddine Morceli, the Algerian Olympic champion, may be the holder of the official world record but he is not the world's fastest ever miler. That honour was claimed at Meltham four years ago by a 16-year-old schoolboy from Manchester.

Craig Wheeler won the 1993 Meltham Mile in 3 minutes 24 seconds, 19.61 seconds faster than the record Morceli set two months later in the Italian town of Rieti. Wheeler's time is not recognised because the Meltham Mile is no ordinary mile. It is, in fact, to quote its proper title, the Meltham Maniac Mile. It was all downhill for Wheeler. The Meltham Maniac Mile is held on a Pennine descent six miles south-west of Huddersfield. The one-mile stretch of the B6108, from the cattle grid on the moor above Meltham to the Popley Butts sign, drops 400 feet. It is not for the faint of heart. As George Spink put it after last year's race: "I was going that fast I might have killed myself if I'd fallen."

He had spoken with tongue very much in cheek, but on Wednesday night old George was conspicuously absent from the pack of club runners making the ascent towards the start. "I think he's running a 10k instead tonight," a fellow Bingley Harrier said. "A flat one." Six years ago George celebrated his 60th birthday by running a mile - albeit Meltham's Maniac Mile - in 3min 57sec. Last year, at 65, he failed by two seconds to become the first pensioner to break four minutes. And, to think ... all of this old-age athletic achievement deep in Last of the Summer Wine country. Norah Batty!

To those who happen to be some way behind the Morcelis and the El Guerroujs on the level playing field of track racing, the attraction of Meltham's Maniac Mile is obvious. "People still like to say they've broken four minutes for the mile," Terry Lyons said. "It doesn't matter how you've done it, you've still run the distance in under four minutes." Lyons is one of those who have successfully followed the sub-four trail in Roger Bannister's historic footsteps, not so much downstairs as downhill. He is, in fact, Meltham's original Maniac Miler. He established the race 13 years ago, after testing the course himself and breaking four minutes.

"One year I saw 25 get inside four minutes," Granville Beckett reminisced as Lyons, clutching his Meltham Athletics Club vest, hiked off up the B6108 with the rest of this year's would-be barrier breakers. "I can remember telling Mick Hawkins his time after one race. "Crikey!" he said. "3:29 and I'm only second." Few are better qualified than Granville Beckett to appreciate the value of a good mile run. Secretary of the North of England Athletic Association and for four decades the printed voice of Yorkshire athletics (as correspondent to the Yorkshire Post, the Huddersfield Examiner and other organs across the white rose county), he has witnessed the emergence of two members of the flat-earth branch of the mile record- breakers' society.

"It's 40 years ago on Saturday," he said, "since Ibby ran his 3min 57.2sec at the White City. I was square bashing in the air force at Wilmslow - in this wooden hut - when it came on the wireless." Beckett was a club- mate and training partner of "Ibby", Derek Ibbotson, at Longwood Harriers in Huddersfield. In May 1979 he predicted in the Sheffield Star that Sebastian Coe would bring the record back to Yorkshire. Two months later, after Coe had achieved the feat in Oslo, Ibbotson revealed on Yorkshire Television that he had disagreed with his old friend. "I told Granville, Coe's an 800m runner - he'll never break the mile record," the man they called "the four-minute smiler" confessed.

Ibbotson, 65 now, still lives in Huddersfield but was not among the handful of locals serenaded by the Meltham Brass Band's mellow rendition of the Rocky theme-tune as the Maniac Milers hurtled into view. Craig Wheeler's record was safe for another year. But as the first man crossed the chalked line on the Tarmac with the digits "3:47" displayed on the clock, another distinction - if not, strictly speaking, another record - hung in the balance.

Matthew Nadin was wearing the violet vest of Hallamshire Harriers, the Sheffield club. So was Sebastian Coe the night he broke the world mile record for the third and last time. On that occasion, in August 1981, the figures 3:47.33 were frozen on the track-side clock at the Heysel Stadium in Brussels. They were removed from the world record book four years later by Steve Cram but have remained as the Hallamshire Harriers club record ever since. They still do. It seemed, for the second time in two weeks, that Hallamshire's most celebrated Harrier might have another of his grand achievements level-pegged, as Wilson Kipketer did with his 800m world record in Stockholm. But Nadin's winning time at Meltham was 3min 47.77sec, rounded up (as road race performances are, to the nearest tenth-of-a-second) to an official 3min 48sec.

"I'm well pleased with that," Nadin, a 17-year-old leisure and recreation student, said. "I'm an 800m runner really. I only decided to run tonight because I had a bad run in the Don Valley open meeting last night. I wasn't sure my legs were going to hold out. I ran last year and was outside four minutes."

So, in tenth place this year, was Terry Lyons, though he took the prize for the first runner aged over 50 with 4min 5sec. Third last of the file of Meltham milers, clocking 5min 38sec, was the turbaned Ajit Singh of Longwood Harriers, the race's oldest competitor. He was, he insisted, no maniac. "I am just keeping myself fit," he said. And a fitter 66-year- old would be difficult to find.

As the Maniacs toasted their gravity-assisted feats at Meltham Cricket Club, Craig Wheeler was pleased to discover he was still the world's fastest miler. He has endured what could be described, with gross understatement, as a bit of a rough time. "I had meningitis last winter," he said. "It was touch and go at one point. I was unconscious for a week. But I managed to pull through. I'm just starting to pick up my running again now."

Wheeler, 20 now and a sports science student at Stockport College, was knocked out in the heats of the 3,000m steeplechase at the British Championships in Birmingham last weekend. The next step on his comeback trail will be plotted in consultation with his coach at Trafford Athletics Club, Neil Cannon.

Whatever the future holds for Wheeler, though, the story of the world's fastest miler already has a sting in the tale. Cannon, himself a sub-four- minute miler of the Maniac variety, started his athletics life as a sprinter in the Northumberland schools team of 1968. And his 100m partner, in the annual fixture against Cumberland and Durham, happened to be one Gordon Sumner of St Cuthbert's School, Newcastle - or Sting, as he is more popularly known.

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