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Feb 1, 2019

Comic inspiration leads to a life on the run for Ron Hill MBE

Ron Hill MBE talks to Mark Hayhurst about a fantastic athletic career, world records, a 52-year running streak and setting up an iconic clothing business

How did you become interested in running?

I was never really interested in team sports, at school. I wasn’t very tall and was very thin, so heading a hard football or getting knocked down in rugby, wasn’t my scene. However, my main inspiration was a character called Alf Tupper –‘ the tough of the track.’ who featured in a weekly comic that I received. I felt that I had many similarities to Alf and I liked the fact that he overcame adversity and won races. I wanted to be like Alf!

When did you realise you were good at it and who encouraged you to continue with it?

I didn’t have instant success as a youngster, but I started to improve when I started to train more frequently when I started at Manchester University. I was able to train with other good runners, including John Whetton, who became European 1,500m champion, in 1968, and went to two Olympic Games. My training wasn’t very structured and to toughen myself up ran in vest and shorts in all conditions and all times of the year! No wonder I started to suffer from sore knees and other ailments!

I have never had a coach, so I inspired myself, by running faster and winning some races and being one of the best runners at Manchester University. For whatever reason I became driven to continue and improve.

However, I think that it was when I won the Commonwealth Marathon, in 1970, in a time of 2.09.28, that I realised that I wasn’t too bad a runner! I had my failures along the way, but had mastered a training and racing regime that suited me. I should have stuck to this formula in the build up to the 1972 Olympics, in Munich, as I was one of, if not the favourite, to win. However, I decided to spend a little time training at altitude and pushed the carbohydrate loading diet too far, in an attempt to give me the extra fitness and resource, which in the end resulted in me having a bad run. I knew after 400 metres it wasn’t going to be my day!

You have had a fantastic career – What are your highlights and what are you most proud of?

There are quite a few actually, some being stepping stones to future successes such as the Mexico Olympics, when I ran the 10,000m, and was leading until a few laps to go. I was the first European runner or non-altitude born/trained runner. However, I know that I would have performed better in the marathon, as the altitude didn’t appear to affect me.

I entered my ‘purple- patch’ from 1969. I won the European Marathon, on the classic Marathon to Athens course. It was so hot that the tar was melting on the road. I was running in second position for a lot of the race to the Belgian runner, Gaston Roelants. I didn’t take a drink at all despite the conditions. As we got closer to the stadium I realised all I had to do was to continue running and I would win a silver medal. At last after all my ‘failures’ I was going to win a medal.

I recall looking ahead and I saw blue flashing lights. I soon realised that it was the lead car and that I was catching the leader. I then noticed an empty cup of water on the floor and I thought he (Gaston) was weak, as he has taken a drink. This spurred me on, but I too, was getting increasingly tired and I was willing him to keep going as I thought that I didn’t have the energy to go past him.

However, I did and despite feeling that he would come past me again, he didn’t and I ran into the famous stadium in Athens and won the race. It was even sweeter as my wife, children and mother and father were there too.

The following year, I won the Boston Marathon, in 2.10.30 a new course record and the same year the Commonwealth Marathon, in Edinburgh, in 2.09.30.

You famously did not miss a day of running between December 20, 1967, and January 30, 2017. How did you keep that streak going and didn’t you feel on some days just staying inside?

Well motivation to keep the ‘streak’ going was a key factor, but I just enjoyed running and it just became part of my daily routine really. I used to train twice a day, but got to the stage that I wasn’t enjoying that routine, so coincidently I realised that I had been doing that for 26 years, so decided to reduce down to once per day, when I reached 26.2 years – the same as the marathon distance! The ‘streak’ proved difficult on occasions and did include some runs around airport terminals and other strange places!

I continued the ‘streak’ through illness and injury and appreciate that some of these runs perhaps weren’t that sensible, but that’s me!

Without doubt I ran on days or periods when I shouldn’t have. For example, I ran after the day I had a full on car crash and had broken my sternum and for weeks I hobbled a mile on the track in a plaster cast after a bunion operation!

Yes, there were many days that I didn’t feel like running and instead staying inside, and when I felt like that I told myself to go out and run very slowly and just enjoy the run with no pressures, or run a shorter distance than intended. On most occasions a mile or so into the run I was running at my normal speed and had forgotten about not wanting to go out or reducing the distance run. Without doubt it was a nice feeling finishing the run and knowing that I had overcome my reluctance!

I always say that we can all find time in our day if we want to. Yes, people have busy lifestyles these days, but if there is a will there is a way. Planning is a big part of this routine. There is a great satisfaction completing any run or exercise.

What led you to setting up your clothing company and what obstacles did you have to overcome?

I actually brought Nike shoes into the country and sold them out of the back of my car after I had raced, so in essence was the first importer of Nike into the UK!

However, without doubt the lack of technical performance apparel was a key factor. Being a scientist, I was always experimenting. I used to race in a mesh vest bought at the time from the Army and Navy Stores, as I worked on the basis that ventilation and cooling was far better for a distance runner than a cotton vest, which absorbed the perspiration. Likewise, running shorts were very restrictive, so out of frustration I ripped each side to offer greater freedom and movement. In turn, these developed into the ‘Freedom’ Shorts, which became popular worldwide.

I started working with a local supplier who made the shorts for me. I set up a mail order business from home and in the end we had boxes of stock all over the house, so in 1970, I gave up my job in industry and bought the shop in Hyde, to run and then develop the business from. There then followed other new products, such as the mesh vest and then the Trackster.

I guess the biggest obstacle in the early days was ensuring that the business was a success as I had a wife and two children to support and no luxury of a full-time wage from industry. I was also still competing at a reasonable level and travelling, so it was also a case of balancing everything.

How beneficial was your running experience in coming up with new and innovative products?

I think it was more of a combination of my need for better products to run in, combined with my PhD In Textile Chemistry. As I started to improve as a runner, I demanded more of the kit I wore, or was available at the time. For example, as mentioned above, the restrictive shorts. Likewise as a scientist I understood certain things and tried to implement some of these into apparel.

I knew that when I was pushing my body over long distances that I needed as much as help as I could get from my kit. I also worked with Reebok and helped them design a lightweight racing shoe, called the ‘World 10’, based on my experience and demands for lightweight and comfortable running shoes.

What products are you most proud of?

I guess there are many for different reasons really. The most famous was the ‘Trackster’ training pant. They became the runner’s uniform all over the world, and I am told over 3 million pairs have been sold. The product is still in the Ronhill collection today in a variety of different designs, more than 48 years after I designed them!

I was the first to introduce 3M reflective tape onto apparel and now all brands worldwide do the same. I also developed a Goretex suit in 1981 and lightweight windproof suit called the ‘Deluxe’, which became very popular.

As mentioned, being involved in the design of a running shoe was a big moment too.

As mentioned earlier I ‘invented’ the Freedom short and mesh vest and was instrumental into introducing synthetic fabrics into running apparel. I really enjoyed experimenting in the use of different fabrics and even developed fabrics with key UK suppliers. Mesh and micro-mesh played a big part in these developments. I developed one range in the mid-eighties which was 100 per cent mesh both vests and shorts.

We had the contract for the London Marathon apparel in the early eighties and I developed a vest that incorporated three different fabrics, including a wider mesh on the lower half of the vest (lightweight Tricot upper) and a micro-mesh on the back. That was over 35 years ago!

I would like to think that I have been a pioneer in technical and functional running apparel and the Ronhill brand continues to develop new products and introduce new technologies nearly 49 years after I founded the company.

After selling ronhill did you take hilly in a different direction?

Well after I ended my agreement with the new owners of Ronhill, I continued as a technical consultant for a fabric company called Cloverbrook and also assisted my two sons as we owned the running shop, in Hyde, (which I opened in 1970) and called it Up and Running (Hyde 1992 Ltd), (not to be confused with the Harrogate head –office based Up and Running). The Hyde shop has since changed hands, but is still there trading as Run North West.

We saw a gap in the market for a range of technical running socks, so we formed Hilly and started to design and distribute the brand. Graham Richards (now the Brand Director for Ronhill, Hilly and Altra) joined the business in 2002, as a Director and shareholder, and with Dean Loxam, a Stockport Harrier, we developed the brand over the following years to become one of the UK’s leading sock brands. We did develop a narrow range of running accessories, but decided to leave apparel alone and it was our focus on socks and developing the range that led to its success.

The brand was bought by the Bollin Group in 2008, as we all felt that we were ready for the next step within a larger group. We were proud to have built up a very profitable and ‘nice’ business.

What innovations do you see coming in the next five years?

I am not involved in the business now, but am a brand Ambassador. I am aware, however, that innovation for both Ronhill and sister company, Hilly, is so important and I know that they have some great new development in the pipeline. It could be said that innovation is harder these days than when I started producing apparel as it was so basic then. Every development was innovative! I think that it is also important to define innovation. In many respects there is technical innovation, fabric innovation , design innovation and trend innovation. Brands such as Ronhill Sports embrace all aspects which, in my opinion, is imperative.

If you had access to today’s running technology how much would that have made a difference to your times?

Good question! I am often asked how much quicker I could have run than my personal best of 2.09.30, in 1970. I, like nearly all marathon/distance runners in my day worked full-time and had no funding. I ran to and from work, which suited me and I was home at a reasonable hour to help my wife with our two small children. I went to altitude once for training but it didn’t help me and once I tried increasing my weekly mileage by adding a third run on certain days, but that didn’t work and I was continually so tired.

Without doubt if I had all of the benefits that top marathon runners have today then I could have run faster – perhaps 2.05/2.06. It puzzles me there is only one runner in the UK at present able to run faster than I did all those years ago. For me it was winning medals and winning races!

How much do you think the running market has changed over the years?

There have been some significant changes. For me, the percentage of women running and racing has been a major change. It wasn’t that long ago that sales of women’s apparel represented 20 per cent of sales , now its 50 per cent plus. The days of ‘shrink it and pink it’ for women are long gone! In turn, times and performances by female athletes have improved significantly too.

The dominance and times run by African and athletes from altitude has also been a major change on the world scene. Initially, it was dominated by the male athletes, but these days its women, as well, who are setting new records.

Mass participation running has also had a significant impact on the number of people running and exercising, but I do feel that this has had an adverse effect on the overall standard of running in this country. Besides Mo Farrah and few others, we are not producing the times that were being set years and years ago. In my day there were far fewer races, so most were head-to-head and so producing fast times. These days the average 10Km is won in 32/33 minutes, in my day it would have been 27/28 minutes!

Running footwear and apparel has progressed in relation to new innovations and technologies and fashion (certainly a result of more women running and in turn lifestyle changes).

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