Nothing came easy to Ron Hill, but that didn’t stop him from chasing his dreams. From world records and gold medals to unusual race nutrition and innovative kit design – he knew how to make a plan and grind out a result. We celebrate a true legend and one of Britain’s most decorated, respected and downright dogged athletes.
December 21, 1964 was quite a big day. The House of Commons voted to abolish the death penalty in Britain; the third Bond movie (Goldfinger) premiered in the US; the supersonic F-111 fighter aircraft made its first flight; and Ronald Hill, a long-distance athlete from Accrington, Lancashire logged the first of 19,032 consecutive daily runs.
If you’ve heard of Hill, it’s likely that this run streak is what caught your attention – and understandably so. Hill’s streak spanned 52 years and 39 days, was the original that inspired several generations of run streakers across the globe, remains a world record and is part of running folklore. If you’ve ever wrestled with how you’d find the time to run every day, consider that during this time, Hill ran while studying for a PhD; working full time as a textile chemist; starting, building and then selling his own company; bringing up a family with his wife, May; breaking three world records, having bunion surgery; fracturing his sternum in a crash that left his car a write-off, and competing at three Olympic Games. And he never took a day off.
Incidentally, if you’re wondering how it’s possible to run after foot surgery, Hill ran a daily mile (his self-imposed minimum) round a track for six weeks while wearing a plaster cast – and for the first seven days using sticks for balance.
Steven Hill, Ron’s eldest son, says that his father’s streak was a source of great pride but also occasional conflict in the Hill household. ‘My mother was secretly proud of the streak but also frustrated at my dad’s stubbornness,’ he says. ‘He would sometimes run in secret, especially if he wasn’t really fit to, in order to avoid Mum knowing about it. She couldn’t have stopped him, though, even if she had been aware. He’s the most stubborn person I have ever known.’
Hill reluctantly called a halt to this phenomenal effort on January 29, 2017, aged 79, saying in a statement to Streak Runners International: ‘It is with great sadness that I have to report the end of my streak. I have been having heart problems, and have been waiting for some time now to have the problem diagnosed and hopefully rectified. One-mile runs have not helped, and on Saturday 28 January I ran my last one mile. After less than 400m, my heart started to hurt and over the last 800m the problem got worse and worse. I thought I might die, but just made it to one mile in 16min and 34secs. There was no other option but to stop. I owed that to my wife family and friends plus myself.’
A year later, he announced that he was also suffering from Alzheimer’s and, very sadly, was too ill to give Runner’s World the interview that had been scheduled for this feature. It’s an especially cruel disease to be visited upon a man whose vitality, mental and physical grit, and bloody-mindedness have been the central touch points of his life. This is a man whose wonderful qualities and achievements deserve to be celebrated.
Against the odds
From the start, Hill identified as a scrapper. The product of a wartime, northern, working-class upbringing, he weighed just 4.5 stone at the age of 11, and recalls being too puny to play football or cricket, so running became his sport. His hero was the comic-strip runner Alf Tupper, The Tough of the Track. Hill said of Tupper: ‘He was from a northern town, as I was. His training places: darkly lit streets, railway tracks, canal banks and around gasometers were all familiar to me. And Alf was always up against it. Whenever he had a big race something went wrong; there were disasters to avert, emergencies to sort out but he always overcame them and, full of his favourite diet of fish and chips, he would vault over the railings of the track just in time to start the race and beat the toff university boys who couldn’t stand him.’
This outlook was to have a material effect on both Hill’s athletics and business careers. Encouraged by his father to interview at Oriel college, Oxford, Hill deliberately flunked the exams, wore an outlandish outfit (‘including a bright yellow waistcoat and a Tony Curtis haircut’), gave all the wrong answers in his interview and succeeded in failing – instead enrolling on a textile course and, later ,a PhD in textile chemistry at Manchester University.
Hill’s 20s were a blur of near constant motion, sub-standard rental accommodation, coin meters, long working hours, training – consisting largely of running to and from work – and trying to make ends meet with his teenage sweetheart May, who was now his wife. He used his wits and athletic ability to supplement his income, resorting to ruses such as accepting invitations to races around the country, claiming the expenses for travel and accommodation on offer but instead driving in his beat-up van on the morning of the event and commuting back home the same day.
Sweating the details
Once his reputation was cemented after being selected for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, where he finished 19th in the marathon and 18th in the 10,000m (much to his disgust), Hill took advantage of his newly elevated status by pre-agreeing his prizes for winning with race organisers before he agreed to take part in their events. In this way – and in consultation with May – he was able to kit out the Hill home with essentials such as pots, pans, kitchen knives, bedsheets, dinner service, alarm clocks, rugs, weighing scales and plenty more of the basics that he didn’t have the money to buy.
The same invention and nous was applied to the detail behind his performances. Hill was always looking for an edge and never afraid to experiment. He read that raw food was better than cooked and so began making his breakfast a nauseating cocktail of raw rolled oats mixed with frothed milk, sugar and a raw egg. He also ensured that one of his two weekly baths was the morning of a race, so he could ‘remove any body oils that might slow down cooling of the skin.’
His experiment-of-one thinking wasn’t always in tune with science – he stopped taking on board any fluid or fuel during a race, for examples, believing they would slow him down; instead wetting a hanky and tying it to the back of his neck to keep him cool and occasionally rinsing his mouth with a sponge. But on some things he was very much ahead of the curve. Before the rise of the quantified, data-driven runner, Hill was already logging everything. Think of the frustration you feel with your GPS watch doesn’t immediately sync your training data to your platform. Now think of Ron getting home from training, heating one of his biros on the stove (the cold in the house often froze the ink) and meticulously charting his mileage, mood, how he felt physically, what he had eaten beforehand, any niggles, and then analysing the data for common threads.
This obsession over the details began to pay off, with the breaking of two world records in one race in the summer of 1965. At a specially convened evening event at a track in Bolton, Hill assembled a field of 12 runners to help him have a crack at the great Emil Zatopek’s world record of 1:16:35 for 25km. A crowd of 3,000 turned out to watch as, one by one, Hill’s fellow runners dropped off, leaving him to circle the track alone in the dusk, trying to hold his form as he ticked down each of the 62.5 laps. As he went through 60 laps, somebody shouted that he’d just broken the 15-mile world record and three minutes later, stomach churning and calves screaming, he crossed the line in 1:15:22, beating Zatopek’s mark by almost 74 seconds.
Hill was militant about keeping weight to a minimum and had long been seen competing in cross-country races barefoot, decades before it became a trend. He began to do so on the track as well and after being called up by the British Olympic Association to represent Great Britain at the 1968 Mexico Olympics, he ran the 10,000m shoeless, finishing a highly creditable seventh, despite spending only two and half weeks acclimatising to the 2,300m altitude, when his better-funded competitors had spent up to nine months at high-altitude training camps.
Typically, Hill refused to use the conditions as an excuse, and was in no mood to celebrate his ‘failure’ to secure a medal, commenting afterwards: ‘I knew I had had a good run and yet seventh place meant nothing. People were congratulating me but I said to them seventh was no good.’
On his return to England, Hill began putting his textile background to use, designing what would become two iconic and influential items of running kit: a string vest with large arm holes and a low-cut neckline to allow for maximum air flow; and his ‘Freedom’ shorts, which were shorter than existing options and split up the sides to increase ease of movement. Versions of these shorts have become standard attire among competitive club runners, but Hill was the first to conceive of them, and later bring them to market.
He began to wear these for all his races, suffering the barbed remarks of his amused competitors on the start line but usually gaining revenge in the best way possible – by leaving the field trailing.
To prepare for his crack at a marathon gold medal in the 1969 European Championships in Athens, Hill began to work on a special diet he had heard some Swedish researchers had had some success with. The week before a big race, he would cut down his carb intake to almost nothing, consuming mostly protein and greens but continuing to train. On day five, weak as a kitten, stiff and severely energy depleted, he would switch and spend two days stuffing himself full of as many carbs as he could get his hands on and gorging on sweets. The theory was that this ‘deprivation and excess’ method induced the muscles to store more glycogen (the fuel source from the sugars in carbs) than they normally would.
Whether it was down to the diet, the bespoke kit, the training volume – which had been creeping up annually and now stood at around 125 miles a week – or the fact that his family were there for the first time to watch him compete in a major championships, we can’t know for sure, but Hill romped to victory in 2:16:47, a full 30 seconds ahead of the second place finisher.
He followed this the following year by becoming the first (and still only) Brit to win the Boston Marathon, shattering the course record by over three minutes to win in 2:10:30. And the gold kept coming at the Edinburgh Commonwealth Games later in 1970, where Hill’s marathon performances peaked in a time of 2:09:28. This was slower than the disputed time of 2:08:33 Australian Derek Clayton had clocked at Antwerp the previous year, but was ratified by the Association of Road Running Statisticians as a world record due to the Antwerp course being said to be short. Hill’s time was never recognised, however, by the IAAF as an official world record.
The only thing missing from this rosy picture was the financial reward that today’s top athletes enjoy. Athletics did not become professional until the late 1970s and there were prohibitive rules on prize-giving and sponsorship. Hill later commented wryly during a joint Runner’s World interview with Australian runner Rob de Castella that while ‘Rob's [1986 Boston marathon victory] was on TV, and he got appearance money, prize money and a car, in 1970 I got a medal and a bowl of beef stew.’
So Hill took money matters into his own hands, starting Ron Hill Sports, a mail- order running-kit business that he initially ran out of his home. Son Steven recalls: ‘At first, we used the attic to keep the stock in and then when that wasn’t enough we used the garage. He was the first person to import Nike trainers to the UK, and even though I was only about seven years old at the time I clearly remember all these orange shoe boxes stacked floor to ceiling. I think they were the Nike LDV-1000 and we sold them for £24.99.’
Alongside managing his growing business, Hill continued his now decade-long habit of competing in every viable UK race to top up his income. Now, though, he took Steven with him but not simply to cheer on the sidelines. ‘I’d go to the event with Dad and while he was off running I’d be flogging shoes out of the boot of the car,’ says Steven. ‘When Dad was abroad competing, me and my mum would be in charge of the business, wrapping and addressing packages and sending them off. She never learnt to drive, so we’d be carrying all these parcels in rucksacks, walking a couple of miles into town and then the same back home again.’
After the triumphs of 1970, things began to change. Hill was selected for his third Olympics, the 1972 Munich Games, but could only finish sixth in the marathon, despite being considered the pre-race favourite. His international career began to wind down, although he remained extremely competitive, setting a target of competing in 100 countries, which he did by his 70th birthday. He wasn’t just there to make up the numbers, either, competing with astonishing consistency and dedication, and chasing down various masters records as he moved through the age groups. His final figures show that he completed 115 marathons, with 112 of them under 2:50, 103 under 2:45 and 29 under 2:20.
Meanwhile, Ron Hill Sports was pivoting from the home-based mail-order business to the company that thousands of runners know it as today. The aim was always, and still is, to design and produce the most technically advanced kit possible at reasonable prices. Hill was one of the first apparel entrepreneurs to see the potential of manmade fibres – and as of last year, the fabled Trackster leggings, with their looser cut and distinctive foot loop, had sold over three million pairs. Not bad for an independent company based in Hyde.
Hill sold the business amid a recession in 1991, but remained on board as a consultant and ambassador. Graham Richards, the Brand Director of Ronhill, has worked there since 1980 and says Ron’s personality and bold sartorial taste was stamped all over the brand. ‘There were so many things that made the company Ron’s own,’ says Richards. ‘Ron always wanted to run to and from work. When he first moved into the industry, he would always choose where he lived by measuring a nine-mile radius from the office and finding a home within that circle. Since setting up Ronhill, anywhere he’s lived has been two or three miles from the office so he could run to work.’
Employees were expected not just to work for the brand, but to also walk the walk. Or rather run the run. ‘When I interviewed for a job as a fresh graduate, I was asked to bring my running kit with me as part of the interview,’ says Richards. ‘The staff would go running during the working day, a tradition that continues to this day. After I joined, my running performance improved and my 5K track time went from 14:57 to 14:15. Every Tuesday, we did a 15-mile run at lunchtime, worked until 7:30 in the evening, then went to the pub. It was the 80s!’
Despite – or perhaps because of – this company culture, the kit that came out of Ronhill’s R&D was innovative and game-changing, with a huge influence on the development of running apparel. ‘Ron's innovations, from the fabrics to the colours, absolutely changed the way everyone dressed when they ran – you can see it now,’ says David Bedford, former 10,000m world record holder and London Marathon race director. ‘There are plenty of other brands now of course but his was the first brand and everyone copied it.’
Hill, who over his lifetime ran a dizzying 162,442.5 miles, never officially retired from athletics and was fond of saying that he would never stop competing, and even now as the Alzheimer’s reaches the advanced stages he remains true to this in spirit. Steven relays a tale about taking his dad out for a walk in the local park. Ron was complaining of fatigue and requested to return home after only a short distance when another elderly man shuffled by, using a walking frame. Immediately Ron’s posture straightened, his expression changed, says Steve, and he began shuffling quicker, hunting down the old fella in front. The killer competitive instinct fully intact and never far from the surface.
First published in the February 2021 issue of Runner's World.
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