40 Years on – Ron Bentley & the 24 Hour World Record (Part 1)

INTRODUCTION

The weekend, Saturday 3rd & Sunday 4th November 1973. The place, the Walton & Hersham F.C. Stadium, Stompond Lane, Walton On Thames, Surrey, England. The event, the Road Runners Club Accolade 24 Hour Track Race.

November 2013 will see the 40th Anniversary of this famous performance. This article aims to celebrate both an athlete and the event that went down in history. The athlete is Ron Bentley from Tipton Harriers.

RON BENTLEY - THE FORMATIVE YEARS

Ron Bentley was born on November 10 1930 in the Hurst Hill area of the Black Country in the West Midlands, known locally as the “backside”.

From the outset life was hard for him & his family. The house they lived in had no electric or gas supply. Lighting was by paraffin lamp and they cooked using a pressure stove by open fire.

Ron’s mother was from a large family, one of 14, and the family lived in a two bedroomed house. His grandparent’s lived in a shed in the garden. Ron’s grandmother could cook and turn her hand to anything. She kept pigs and all sorts of other animals. She took Ron under her wing and used to look after him and feed him. Ron was her chief errand boy. It was here in this environment he learned the benefits of good honest hard work.

Ron’s father was much older than his mother, his first wife having died. Though Ron was his mothers’ first born there were 5 brothers and 3 sisters in his expanded family from his father’s first wife. Ron’s mother went on to have two more sons, Roy & Gordon.

As well as no gas or electric there was no radio or TV either in those days for amusement. As a young boy in the 1930’s Ron’s father would tell him stories around the fire.

It was here he heard talk of Jack Holden, at that time the greatest distance runner in the country, who only lived down the road. He was a member of Tipton Harriers. This particular memory stayed in his mind when Ron grew older and went into the Army.

NATIONAL SERVICE

Ron did his National Service starting at Blandford Forum (Dorset) in February 1949 eventually coming out in the autumn of 1950. He really loved army life with the regular meals and ready access to sport.

Naturally keen on sport, he could see the benefits it brought people. So too did the Army. He played football, basketball & hockey, commenting that he was the only “Private” in the hockey team! He also did some wrestling and claims to have been undefeated.

He also got hooked on table tennis after being introduced to it by a mate in the Army, although admitting now that before he played he “thought it was a sissy’s game”.

Whilst in the Army Ron did not focus too much on running through his participation in all the other sport, although he did run and observes that there used to be a race around the hockey pitch at the camp. The first time he was 5th but vowed to improve and he eventually won it.

He was naturally physically gifted and in the cross country races he could vault any gate or fence with ease. At the end of his 6 weeks induction training he won the race between the various platoons after having trained on the hills and paths around the camp on the Dorset chalk hills.

When he left Blandford Forum and was “posted” the Army marked him up as having a talent in athletics & running. That forced him to take running a bit more seriously.

He first went to Bicester and then onto Reading before a stint in Germany with the 7th Armoured Division (The Desert Rats). He followed another famous runner, Jack Haslam, into this Platoon. During his time in the Army part of his training was as a mechanical ‘fitter’.

At one Army Track & Field Meeting he won the 1500m, 2nd in the 5000m and won the Pole Vault. This won him the Victor Ludorum and medal for the overall champion.

Whilst waiting for his posting he used to get the odd weekend off as he worked all hours he could in the kitchens during the week and gain time to head home. He used to cadge a lift on one of the army lorries back to the Black Country. It was on one of these weekend trips home that he met his future wife, Eva.

JOINING TIPTON HARRIERS

Ron also recalls being back at home on leave during the time he was in the Army when he heard that the great Jack Holden was racing in the area. It was probably 1950 in the Sedgley 15 Mile Road Race held in conjunction with the Festival Sports held in early August. Ron went up the road and watched Jack win it.

It rekindled memories of the stories that his father had told him as a child about the legendary feats of the local hero during the 1930’s & 40’s and the famous Tipton Harriers.

After being demobbed in the autumn of 1950 he decided to keep himself in shape. He went to PET (Physical Education Training) classes. In deciding to look after himself he used to go out once a week for a run which was about 9-10 miles.

He mentioned to a local acquaintance that he was thinking of joining Tipton Harriers. His friend replied “they’ll kill you down there”. This put him off for a bit. But he decided to get himself fit so did a bit more.

By this time he was working for Young’s a local scrap metal dealer. One day, on his way back from a job at the Austin Motor Works at Longbridge in Birmingham he called by the old Clubhouse in Sedgley Rd East, Tipton, and met Jack Baker the Club Trainer.

Ron said he wanted to join the club. Jack asked him what he wanted to do and off the top of his head he said “a long distance runner”. That was the start of his Tipton Harriers connection.

Ron officially joined Tipton Harriers in September 1951 being elected at a Committee Meeting held on 19th September.

His first race for the club appears to have been the Bristol To Weston Super Mare Road Relay in October. He had run the trial and been nominated as first reserve but ended up running as one of the team, Don Osborne, was getting married that day. He ran the 3rd leg and the team were 3rd.

By 1952 Ron had now married Eva and they had their first child, Jane, in September 1954. A son, Ron “Junior” was to follow in December 1958.

Ron prospered at the club running many races and learning all the while. He was inspired by the famous runners he encountered both locally and on the many trips to road races around the country.

Eventually Ron began marathon running at the 1958 Midland Marathon Championship at Baddesley. He placed 3rd in 2h 47m 18s (according to AW). Little did he know to what this would lead.

FROM MARATHON TO ULTRA RUNNING

Throughout the 1960’s he had become a key member of the Tipton Ultra Distance team that won many team titles in these extremely long races around the country.

It was in 1962 that members of Tipton Harriers first ventured to the Road Runners Club London To Brighton Road Race. That year there were just two.

Two years later (1964) and the club returned to the race. Tipton's two leading 'ultra' men of the day, George Johnson and Tony Fern pressed ganged Ron into running the race. It was a very tough race for him but he hung on to the bitter end, despite fading from his team mates by 35 minutes over the last 18 miles. His was 23rd in a time of 7h 7m 22s.

By finishing he was the third and final scorer so clinched the team title for Tipton. This meant they had to go back and defend the title. They did, without Ron, and were 2nd.

That dogged tenacity he showed was to become even more of a trademark as the years went on. He returned to the race in 1966 improving to 6h 28m 32s.

FROM THE 60’s INTO THE 70’s – “OUT ON HIS OWN” IN MORE WAYS THAN ONE

The mid to late 1960’s saw Ron move from Young’s, via a short spell in the building trade, to Dowd’s, another local scrap metal dealer. This absorbed a vast amount of his energies and time, with his young family as well, he was now saving money to buy a house.

He was kept in touch with the club as people like Arthur Fellows who visited him and kept him up to date with the goings on. During these times he barely ran at all.

After working at Dowd’s he set up a business on his own in Oldbury. He applied his “hard work” ethic to his new venture. This move also enabled him to resume serious training and by the end of 1969 he was “quite fit”.

He was 39 in November 1969 and felt he had done all he wanted to in athletics. Following some encouragement from his brother Gordon, and Colin Hunt, he decided to knuckle down and have one last fling.

He began to train really hard. He built up and was soon regularly running from his home in Carlton Close, Woodsetton, to his work premises in Eel Street, Oldbury, a distance of about 8 miles.

On top of this he added a run at lunchtime (another 8 miles) and, after work, would run towards the Tipton Harriers clubhouse and meet up with his club mates and others from local Midland clubs on the canal and knock off anything between 10 & 15 miles.

Bear in mind his work, in the scrap metal industry, was physical as well. At weekends he would venture out for runs of 4 hours on a Saturday and even more on a Sunday (upwards of 5 hours) around the Black Country and out into Worcestershire. This soon gave him a regular basic weekly total of 150 miles a week.

As Ron headed into the 1970’s we will see that his racing programme included more ultra distance events. Ron turned 40 in November 1970 and the Veteran ranks beckoned.

He was also getting more involved with the club again helping establish it at its new base, opened in 1971, at Gospel Oak.

He laid paving slabs, put up railings and did a lot of unseen, but necessary, practical work to help the club get established.

He had also begun to get involved with “team management”. Above all he was unknowingly forging himself as an iconic member of the club; one that people looked to for inspiration and encouragement.

His work ethic inspired other members of the club to up their game. The 1970 Exeter To Plymouth race (44 miles) demonstrated their application with a Tipton 1-2-3-4. Ron won with John Malpass 2nd, Billy Carr 3rd & Ron’s brother Gordon 4th. Ron set a course record of 4 hours 41 minutes & 23 seconds over the very hilly course. In 1971 they repeated the team victory with John Malpass winning, Billy Carr 3rd, Ron 4th & George Johnson 5th.

It was a string of strong consistent performances like these that attracted the attentions of the Road Runners Club (RRC) and Ron was invited to take part in the RRC Radox 100 Mile Track race held on 23rd October 1971 at Uxbridge.

All this was done on a simple wholesome diet. Typically he would have porridge at the start of the day, some sandwiches for lunch followed by a cooked meal in the evening. His diet included red & white meat and a wide range of vegetables. Ron never smoked, unlike his brother Gordon, but enjoyed, like many Tipton Harriers, a drink or two.

THE 1971 RADOX 100 MILE TRACK RACE

The RRC had staged a similar event back in 1969. These events were being staged nominally every two years. The next was due in 1971.

Eddie Gutteridge (of Cambridge Harriers and the RRC) and his younger brother Vic had wanted to hold a race at their local track. Eddie was an energetic & meticulous organiser and arranged the event along with all the officials.

12 runners toed the line at Uxbridge including a number that would appear again in the 24 hour record in two years’ time.

Tipton had two contestants, Ron & his brother Gordon. The quality of the field was excellent throughout with the likes of John Tarrant (“The Ghost Runner”) along with Phil Hampton, who had become the world's fastest 50 mile runner. There was one overseas visitor, Theo Gensen, from Luxembourg. There is another name worth recalling, that of Alan Storey, a former race director of the London Marathon and a renowned distance coach who played a part in the career development of Mo Farah.

This race was also one of the first times that scientific research was being undertaken on the performance of the body when running ultra distances.

Dr John Brotherhood, a member of Dr Pugh's Department of Human Physiology of the National Institute for Medical Research was at the race and established a “laboratory” in a tent on the side of the track, and conducted various tests on the competitors during their long run. Dr Brotherhood was also to play a part with advice in Ron’s build up to the 24 Hour Run over the next two years.

Another “new” thing being tested out was the use of a “digital” timer to compare its performance with that of the official timekeepers. The tester of this device was none other than Harold Abrahams (C.B.E.)!

This 100 mile was a great competition. Ron took the lead just over half way and never relinquished it despite the close attentions of John Tarrant.

The result was as follows:-

Position Name Club Time
1st Ron Bentley Tipton Harriers 12h 37m 55s
2nd John Tarrant Salford Harriers 12h 51m 38s
3rd Gordon Bentley Tipton Harriers 13h 14m 17s

Although Ron’s time was around 6 minutes outside John Tarrant's UK record it was still first class and placed him third on the “all time” list.

It was the manner of his racing performance as well as the time achieved that caused some of those present to think that here was a man who could challenge the 24 hour record.

If the Radox 100 was the highlight of 1971 then 1972 was to be even better.