The National 12 Stage AKA Three Hours Fartlek (May 1994)

What is it about the National 12 Stage that makes it such a special day out for the traditional club man or woman ?

This was the question I found myself asking after spending another spring Saturday in the open air at Sutton Park in Birmingham. For three and a half hours I ran round the Park catching the action and taking in the atmosphere.

On Sunday I was knackered as I slogged around an hour & a quarters training run with a group of friends (John Hartigan, Finbar Costigan, Phil Tranter & Mark Hirsh) reflecting on the previous days events.

Why was the overall finishing time so slow ? Is it the decline in distance running standards ? Justin Hobbs ran a real blinder ? You should have seen Rob Denmark !

These are just a few typical comments that I am sure were echoing around many such runs on that Sunday morning after the event.

The 12 stage has become a real athletics institution since it found it's latest home in the Royal suburb of Birmingham in 1974. It's foundations were laid in the famous London to Brighton and the Blackpool to Manchester road relays.

The entry consists of 50 odd teams each with 12 runners all of whom battle hard for their places. Most of them will have qualified through the feeder area championships. Each club will have gone through their own selection heartaches as to who is willing & able to run ?

The event is one of the few opportunities for clubs to draw together the comradeship of training nights into competitive arena. A jury may be have been '12 good men and true' but so is a 12 stage team.

It provides all those who run in it, and those who watch it, with a performance bench mark. You can tell how well a runner is going by the time he runs on the course. A short leg or long leg it matters not which.

Both distances have seen some great athletics performances by athletes that have gone on the major international honours. It provides real challenges & barriers for the club man. Running a sub 14m 30s for a short leg or a sub 25m on the long and you are up with the best.

But there are many other aspects of the race that make it special. The tension starts on arrival with all the team managers trying to confirm that their runners are present. Team managers need to be patient masters of psychology. Kidology also plays a major part in getting runners to perform.

A look at the Team Managers sees many of athletics great's 'Major' Bill Adcocks from Coventry the legendary marathon runner, George Blackburn that enigmatic Irishman from Westbury Harriers. Ron Bentley from Tipton who must have covered a few hundred miles in Sutton Park apart from his other epic road running exploits. From the North we have Stan Long from Gateshead Harriers who has brought many strong teams into the cauldron of the Park.

Team declarations are like a game of bridge with managers finding out whose going on what leg. Tactics and experience comes into play with decisions as to who will run the 6 long legs and who will skip round the 6 short ones.

Where can advantages be gained or pegged back ? Where do you put your weak link to minimise the potential damage. The race rarely unfolds early on with the smaller clubs putting the best hopes on the early legs to shine.

But it is not just the major clubs that make up the characters of this 'management' it is the smaller ones like Massey Ferguson or Bideford A.C. who take just as much pride by matching their stalwarts against the best of Britain.

Rumours abound when the course jungle grapevine tells us that something significant has happened but what & where ? Wait, look at the clock as your weak link has just run a blinder and surprised you by running 14m 10s ! Why ? How ? He has just earned himself a piece of local club folklore - something he & his mates will dine out on through the winter and summer months on training runs.

Team Spirit comes in many shapes, sizes & forms but the 'National 12' shows it off at it's best. Who can fail to be impressed by the crowds down at Keepers Pool with the tight corner where all runners are urged on. Or those who make a pilgrimage up to the Stone to see the runners come back along the pan handle that makes up the long stage. Spectators standing stretching to catch first sight of the runners as they make their way back from Streetly gate. These park roads have seen some magnificent athletic performances.

It is here on these roads that many who attend give the biggest ovation to their heroes. Who can forget the ovations afforded to Brendan Foster, Rob Denmark, Nick Rose, Dave Moorcroft, Jack Bucknor, Steve Jones, Seb Coe or Eammon Martin. This is just one element of the event that makes the event so great. The action is tangible and everyone in the Park can share in it.

It is also the day to polish up your ability to spot the club, now what was that vest - green with black & white hoops ? It must have been London Irish.

It is great to see the hoards of people young and old from clubs like Aldershot, Shaftsbury, Swansea, Boxhill, Leicester, Tipton, Birchfield all cheering their runners on.

This year we started to see banners around the course and chalked encouragement on the roads just like the great cycling tours on the continent. Some may scorn it but in some small way if it helps the lonely runner chasing his dream out on his own let it be.

Martin Rees from Swansea Harriers showed typical club spirit. He has helped raise the Swansea standards over the past few years and made his own contribution to their improved results but this year due to injury he was sidelined. He was still there running round the course shouting his team on and must have felt a little sad not to actually be part of the winning team.

It is also very refreshing. Someone once said that it was athletics in the raw. I have to agree. Who really wants the hype that surrounds the staged track races we now see on TV. There never seems to be the honesty in ethos that there is in road & cross country running.

It is also very much an opportunity for reunion - you may only see them from one year to the next but the friendships are there. I fondly recall the banter between Alf 'Up the Valley' Mignot, Stan Long & Ron Bentley. It is a great gathering ground for great athletes & advisors. I relish being able to give Dave Walsh from Les Croupiers some verbal and receive his in response.

This year did you see John Graham, Seb Coe, Basil Heatley, Bud Baldaro, Alan Storey, Jim Alder & Peter Stewart all enjoying the atmosphere. It can become an 'I Spy' of athletics history !

But there are other smaller things. The officials who, year in year out, badger the runners and spectators to make sure the event goes well.

Graham Heeley the burly Birmingham Policeman who presides over the changeover area & his team. Cliff Franks & his crew on the stopwatch to record everything for future aficionados to mull over. Then there is little Ken Dare who is always out at 'the gate' to ensure that things go smoothly.

There are many other characters. Who remembers the marshall who stands at the bend after the start who directs them down onto the short loop before the climb up through the woods ? He may be officious but without the likes of him the event wouldn't take place. He too is a runner from West Bromwich Harriers and has done his bit in the Midland 12 Stage.

Tipton Harriers may have a tremendous record for performances but there are also two members of that club who make the event tick. Tom & Mary Talbot who patiently stand at the Jamboree Stone and ensure that short & long runners are sent on their correct way. They all take pride the their contribution to what makes the day great.

Rarely does it make the national papers but you will see the hacks from Athletics Weekly, Runners World & The Runner & some of the local rags there gathering their information for a few short column inches.

Pictures of the action are captured for posterity, both at club level to record in the newletters, and by the likes of Mark Shearman for the national & international press. His is not an easy job trying to find the perfect position for the right shot of the right person.

Most of those who watch cover a fair few miles in training. Most of it 'fartlek'. People out walking their dogs must wonder what is going on as stampedes of runners zip through the woods between the hill and the pool to catch the next slice of the action.

Weather conditions may not always be brilliant, but so what, it is always wholesome.

In recent years we have seen some changes, portaloos, a lead motorbike & a grandstand. We now have the infamous fresh doughnut and baked potatoes stands to satisfy the hungry hoards. Where will it all end ?

Well it's over for another 12 months and I'm sure that all the clubs who have tasted a part of this tradition are quietly making plans for their assault on the event next year. I for one will be there - will you ?

Chris Holloway - Tipton Harriers

May 1994