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by Murray Lambden

I'd heard a lot about the Bradford 50km walk from the many Manx walkers who encouraged me to enter.  John Cannell, Kevin Madigan and Graham Young all used to enthuse about the size of the crowds on the circular course. The walkers just called it "the Bradford" and I was to learn that the locals called it the "Bradford Walk" - no-one seemed too bothered about the distance, it was more the size of the hills that were legendary.

As were the crowds, 10,000 plus I was told, a figure I doubted until I made my debut and discovered that, in the days when licensing laws were much stricter than today, pubs along the course were allowed to open in the morning. It was a tradition for many in the area to go for a pint on Whit Monday and watch the walkers go past the pubs.

I was living in Stoke-on-Trent between 1975 and 1979 studying for a Business Studies degree at what was then North Staffs Polytechnic but became Staffordshire University by the time Gianni Epifani, Mandy Radcliffe, Steph Gault and Andi Drake were to study there many years later.  As part of my course however, I was required to spend two six month periods working in industry and I found myself in the second of these (April to October 1978) working for British Road Services (BRS) based in Manchester. Road Haulage was nationalised after the second world war in the shape of BRS, and although subject to competition by 1978, was a major general haulage operation as well as owning Pickfords, providing contract hire for many retailers and distributors and setting up BRS truck rental.

Anyway, I digress in Ronnie Corbett style.  I managed to share a house in Levenshulme (mid way between Manchester and Stockport) with some Manx students during my six month Manchester stint.  During this time I worked in the North West headquarters of BRS next to Victoria Station, and spent six weeks in the Tameside branch at Duckinfield and the same period in Preston.  I took the opportunity during the summer of 1978 to enter most of the long distance walks including the Northern & National Championships, Bradford 50km, Manchester to Blackpool, Plymouth to Dawlish and other open races, many of which are no longer held, such as the Gomersal 20km in Yorkshire.  I managed to pop home for the Parish Walk and only for the sudden death of my father the week beforehand, would have taken part in the 100 mile race.

During the Spring Bank Holiday weekend of 1978 I only had one thing on the agenda - my debut in the Bradford 50km.  On the Sunday, I popped into the city centre to check the train times and just happened to bump into Graham Young from the Isle of Man who had just arrived in Manchester, on his way to Bradford for the 50km walk, but with nowhere to stay. I invited him to stay overnight in our student house but warned him of two things. Firstly, there was virtually no food in the house and secondly, the main Manchester to London railway line ran very close to the house and it was therefore noisy all night.

Graham accepted the invitation but was shocked to find out that my statement about food was not an exaggeration and that a few beans and some bread would not be enough to feed two people.  Although the cupboards were exceptionally bare that weekend, I really appreciated the goodies he bought for us on that Sunday night. When we rose next morning for the early train to Bradford to said: "You told me the trains would run all night but you didn't tell me they went through the front room" such was his impression of their proximity.

It was a scorching Bank Holiday Monday and the crowds along the route were far bigger than I ever believed and I would agree that they were of the five figure variety. Although dwarfed by the London marathon crowds just a few years later, I don't think there was a long distance event, run or walk, at that time, which attracted such crowds.

Graham Young thrived in the heat and won the race in a time of 4 hours 55 minutes 55 seconds. At the time it didn't receive massive publicity, particularly as it was a relatively slow winning time. But I can vouch for the heat that day (I can still remember the burnt shoulders I suffered), he won by more than 7 minutes and some three weeks earlier he had become the 10th fastest British walker ever at 50km on the track, which gives you some idea of the shape he was in at the time.  Not to mention his fine 8th place in the Commonwealth Games just a few months later.

According to my records he walked 4.29.04 in his track race at Hendon with great splits of 54.06, 53.55, 52.53, 53.11 and 54.59.  It seems odd that Graham's 50km track walk was never listed among the Manx records when the IOMAA used to publish their annual yearbook, even though records of obscure records such as 150km, 8 hours and 80km were.

I was just 21 at the time and the Bradford was my third walk in four weeks and none of them were training sessions!  Early in May I had travelled down to Plymouth (6 hour train journey) to walk in the Plymouth to Dawlish 42 mile race. I set a PB of 50km of around 5.09 before slowing to 7.11.21 taking 6th spot some 45 minutes behind te young GB international Chris Maddocks who I met for the first time, and my Boundary Harrier clubmate, Derek Harrison, who was 11 minutes behind Chris.  My next walk some two weeks later was the Parish Walk (note it was held in May in those days) which I won in 16.19.37.  At the time I was the 5th fastest on the course.  During that busy month of racing, if not training,  I should have competed in the National 20km at Coventry the Saturday in between the Dawlish and the Parish but arrived at he venue too late to take part.

So I wasn't really too well prepared for another 50km just 8 days after the Parish and suffered in the heat finishing in 5.25. Nevertheless what was to become my favourite race had been discovered.

Before moving onto 1979 however, I'll  just comment briefly on the Parish Walk. Despite the length of time that Derek's record has stood in the Parish Walk (1979) I was never one who thought it was the ultimate. I only won the Parish Walk in 1978 because Derek didn't take part during the peak of his career which was probably 1975 to 1978. On the same weekend as I won the Parish in 1978, Derek set a world best of 136 miles 735 yards for 24 hours at Rouen in France.  It was only when he declined the  invitation to return to events like that, because he was well below his best form, that he returned to the Parish and set his record.

I still have a copy of Derek's Manx Radio interview after he set the record and far from recognising that he had set a time that would last at least 25 years, he spent his time explaining the mistakes I had made by allowing myself to get cold and dropping out after I had been within two minutes of him at Jurby!

For the 1979 Bradford walk I was back at Stoke. Despite my final exams starting the day, I felt well enough prepared to travel to Yorkshire. I talked my old school friend, Allen Moore from Peel, who was studying at Bradford and living nearby, to enter the race and to put me up on his bedroom floor the night before the race.

I really struggled in the race that year finishing in 5.38 with Allen recording 6.13. Other than the encouragement from the crowds and the fact the hills seemed even bigger than the year before, it was a pretty forgettable race but I knew I would be back.

It was just a few weeks later, on my return to live in the Isle of Man, that I completely changed my attitude towards training and racing.  My hilly training sessions around Kirk Michael, which nearly all involved two miles of climbing at the start as far as Sartfield cafe, saw me well prepared for the TT walk in August, where I finished third, and I made good progress through the winter of 1979/80 but I was still not prepared for the improvement that was to come and is the basis for my story.

I was with the leading group from the start and it was a big thrill to be walking alongside my hero when I went into the sport, the 1974 Commonwealth champion John Warhurst.  As 6 times winner of the Bradford, and a Yorkshireman from Sheffield, he was well known as the crowd would shout "Come on John lad, see you at the finish" whereas I didn't get a mention.

So the feeling I got when, just after half way, I realised that I had dropped John was amazing. I almost felt like waiting for him to catch up as it didn't seem right to leave him behind!  I increased the lead to 4 minutes and 18 seconds by the finish to win in 4.31.40, some 24 minutes inside my best on any course (the 1979 National 50km at Coventry) and 1 hour seven minutes quicker than the previous year.

I travelled to Bradford on the almost new Manxline service to Heysham with Willie Corkill and Graham Young where we stayed with Harry Holmes, a Yorkshireman who represented the Manx club Boundary Harriers. Willie, who later went on to win the Parish Walk  three years in a row, made a good off island debut with 5.09.24, Graham Young finished in 5.17.46, Harry Holmes in 5.36.43 and Allen Moore, in his second Bradford, 5.55.34.

It was interesting to remind myself from the press cuttings I have attached that I came close to winning the Northern 20 miles 12 days later in Sheffield when my great friend and rival Denis Jackson got the better of me in the last mile. I could have claimed the Manx record of 2.33.54 but it was myself who reported it to be a short course based on my own belief of what I could achieve - I could never be a footballer!

Nothing could compare with the feeling in 1980 and things had moved on in my career by 1981 but against most advice, I always was stubborn, I was determined to defend my title.  I had set what at the time was a British best for 30km in February and had been picked for the British team for my international debut in June just four weeks after Bradford.  

So Bradford was a bit of a damage limitation exercise. Despite a bout of sickness at the halfway stage (I didn't have the benefit of Steve Partington's coaching but I did manage to do it on the move!) I think I was as comfortable as you can be walking 31+ miles on a hilly course in the rain and I remember setting one of my fastest ever times on a 14 mile training session the following evening back on the Island such was my determination to show the powers that be that I hadn't taken anything out of myself.

Of course I had. When I look back and remember how I was injured after my GB debut, then so much racing may have contributed and yet my Bradford time of 4.26.29 left me 20 seconds outside the course record which was also frustrating.

Bradford in 1981 was still a great day for the club however with Graham Young setting his best time on the course (4.53) in 6th and with Robbie Lambie and Allan Callow taking 10th and 11th we easily won the team event.  After talking for so long about a return to the Bradford, John Cannell was with us, yet a time of only just over 5 hours left him outside of the scoring four.

I was probably even less sensible to return to Bradford on the Bank Holiday of 1982 as I had already raced in the Manx Airlines 30km, the York 35km, an international 35km in Spain the National 20km and had two more internationals in the next seven weeks in a season that was to last until October with the Commonwealth Games.  I probably didn't treat the course with enough respect either on a hot day and the wheels really came off in the last few miles. I had to resort to Parish Walk style plodding over the last five miles and was lucky to complete a hat trick in 4.37.46. John Cannell finished 8th that day and Dave Turner, a regular Isle of Man visitor, was 11th.

By 1983 I was finally listening to advice and raced and won the 50th staging of the Leicester Mercury 20 Miles two days before Bradford instead of returning to Yorkshire.  Again I was probably lucky to win as the previous year's winner Allan King was sitting it out. But with a list of Olympic athletes among the 49 previous winners it was another Spring Bank Holiday weekend to remember.

This article was written on 31 May 2004 as I thought about the Bradford 50km. Now more than 100 years old, I hope that it survives long enough for me to, one day, relive some of those memories from the road rather than the computer!


copyright (c) 2004 Murray Lambden. All rights reserved.
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