History of the Ronnie Walker Saltwell Road Race
Written by Walter Fraser in 2011.
The Saltwell Harriers annual 10k road race, renamed the Ronnie Walker Saltwell Road Race in 2010 in appreciation of the Club’s long-serving, nonagenarian President, celebrated its centenary on Saturday 17th December 2011, having survived two world wars, a change of ownership, the occasional road works disruption and increasingly limiting safety restrictions that have threatened the retention of its “road” status. Despite the demise of many other famous road races, the Saltwell race lives on as the oldest road race in England.
The first race, organised by the Gateshead Congregational Harriers (Congers), was held on Boxing Day 1911 and its success heralded the beginning of the Annual Boxing Day Open Road Races that were consistently held on the 26th December for more than 60 years. Crowds lined the finishing straight down Prince Consort Road as the event became a get-together for former runners. Sponsors’ preferences resulted in the races being moved to the Sunday before Christmas and, while the number of race entrants increased, the number of spectators was never as huge as before, albeit that the event is still well attended and vociferous support and encouragement for the runners is still plentiful. The event day was switched to Saturday in 2009 in response to the perceived preferences of race entrants.
Saltwell Harriers took over responsibility for the races from the Congers in 1970 with Ronnie Walker playing a key role as Saltwell’s Race Secretary. Thankfully, the Congers kept the races going the previous year despite their disdandonment months beforehand. The demise of the Congers also meant that Saltwell, established 1890, became Gateshead’s oldest surviving athletics club. Both clubs were formed within months of each other with help from the region’s leading club at the time, Newcastle Harriers.
“David Whitmore, South Shields, has competed in all but one race since 1977. Illness forced him to break his unbroken sequence but 34 out of the last 35 races is some achievement.”
When W.G. Wilson of Newcastle Harriers lined up outside the Royal Hotel, Prince Consort Road with other hardy athletes for the start of the first Boxing Day Open Road Race in 1911, he probably never imagined that his achievement that day would be remembered 100 years on. His club no longer exists but his winning time of 37 minutes over the 6 miles 1232 yards (6.7 miles) course set the first benchmark for competitors in subsequent Boxing Day Races to aspire to or surpass. Wilson is recorded in the list of winners below. There have been some remarkable feats since then, not least Mike McLeod’s world record sixteen successive victories (1974-89), including three course records which have not been bettered by any athlete in the Race over the 10k or 6.25 mile distances in which they were set.
Changes in external circumstances have meant that route of the course and race distance have changed several times over the century. The victory of Saltwell’s Jack Potts in 1938 was the last over the original 6.7 mile course, which went down Bensham Bank and as far West as Lobley Hill, veered South along the old Coach Road before heading East onto the challenging Chowdene Bank and returning North along Durham Road and Prince Consort Road into the finish. The post-war course was shortened to 6.25 miles, courtesy of the Kingsway, Team Valley route to Chowdene Bank. The race went metric in 1985 and became a 10k, retaining Chowdene as an integral part of the course until 1995. The current 10k course weaves its way around and inside Saltwell Park and, while it is suitable for all runners, it has a collection of inclines that, arguably, more than compensate for the loss of Chowdene Bank.
Charlie Wright of Saltwell won the first post-war race just ahead of Ronnie Walker in second place. The 1950s and 1960s were a golden age for Saltwell Harriers, who were at that time the leading distance running club in the region. The club won the team race 13 times in a 15 year period with individual honours going to England internationals John Anderson, with 8 successive wins, including a course record and John Hillen, with two victories, including a course record only bettered by McLeod. Other top-class Saltwell athletes included Miles Atkinson and Pat Hollywood along with the squad of Billy Anderson, Reg Dixon, Winston Churchill, Danny Heron and Bill McGuirk which won the English National Youths title. Ironically, since Saltwell took over as race organiser, the club’s success stories have been few and far between, although positive actions are underway to revive the club as a competitive force. The Centenary Race has spurred the momentum in that respect with victory for the Saltwell Ladies team in the Women’s 10k.
Points of interest
The following are points of interest, selected by the author, from the history of the race but the race has generated a multitude of memories for all who have been part of it, whether as competitors, race officials, marshals and organisers, spectators and other parties involved:
- The course had been used for annual Club Championship races between Congers club members since 1903. Saltwell Harriers held their own Club Championship over the course and continue to hold it annually over the newer 10k Chowdene route.
- The Boxing Day Open Road Races incorporated a 6.7 mile Walking Race from 1912 until 1938. The first was won in 55.58 by R. Harrison, North Shields Poly who retained his title in 1913 with a time of 54.31.
- When Jack Potts claimed the second of his three victories in the Senior Men’s race in 1937, 67 runners competed. 13 walkers took part and victory was closely contested between winner W. Malone, Gosforth (52.02) and R.Edon, Darlington who was only one second behind him. Edon was several times a previous winner.
- In 1984, the year of Mike McLeod’s 11th consecutive win, there were over 780 entries. The running craze had taken off in a big way.
- McLeod was awarded special trophy before the 1983 race in recognition of his 9th successive victory in 1982 which broke John Anderson’s record of 8. His eventual total of 16 consecutive wins is a world record for a single race which he shares with Michael McDermott in the Harrismith Mountain Race 15k, South Africa and Jim Pearson at the Birch Bay Marathon, Washington, USA.
- One of the most famous battles that took place on Chowdene Bank was that between McLeod and Steve Cram in 1987. Cram was impressive on the steep incline but McLeod’s acceleration when they reached Durham Road was even more so and he went on to finish in a record time of 29.16 for the 10k course with Cram 22 seconds behind in what is, credibly, still the sixth fastest time over the Saltwell 10k course for all years.
- The Women’s 10k race was first held in 1987 and was won by Scottish international Sheila Catford, Leeds who went on to win next three races as well. Prior to that, women’s race had been held irregularly and restricted to shorter distances of 1.5 or 2 miles.
- Last year’s victory in the Women’s race by Claire Simpson, Chester-le-Street, was her fourth, having won in three successive years, 2000-2002 as a Jarrow & Hebburn athlete.
- 2011 winner, Chester-le-Street’s Alyson Dixon, set a new course record of 35.59.
Elswick hold the most team wins (8) in the Women’s race.
- Apart from the war years, the races have always been held in December except for the 2001 event, which was rearranged, due to adverse weather conditions, for April 2002. The 2011 race was the 89th.
David Whitmore, South Shields, has competed in all but one race since 1977. Illness forced him to break his unbroken sequence but 34 out of the last 35 races is some achievement.
- One of the most exciting finishes took place in the rearranged 2001 Men’s race, held in April 2002. Sunderland’s Mark Hood took first place by a fraction of a second from Mark Slesser, Jarrow & Hebburn in a sprint finish between these two Juniors.
- Another close call but maybe more a case of brotherly love than rivalry was when Morpeth’s Ian and Mark Hudspith tried to “dead heat” in 1994. Although they both recorded the same time, the judges separated them and Ian was awarded first place.
- Ryan McLeod won the race twice in succession in 2007 and 2008 and won the 2011 race in a course record time but will anyone ever emulate his father’s record? Unlikely but who knows for certain?
On a lighter note, some race trivia:
- 1934: Jack Potts won his first victory, Will Hay starred in “Those were the days” at the Bensham Picture House, W. Douglas, High West Street offered best quality, made-to-measure running pumps at 20 shillings, black and 21 shillings, tan and the sole proprietor of the Hawks’ Dancing Assemblage was also the donor of the Percy E. Davis Challenge Cup for the Boxing Day Open Harriers Team Race.
- 1946: W Boak was the first over the line of 84 runners, Fred Astaire in “Yolanda and the thief” was on at the Bensham Picture House, W.Crook stocked spiked running pumps at Wellington Street (aptly named for a footwear business), and shorts were referred to as “knickers” in runners outfits sold by Murton’s of Grainger Street.
- 1964: Ernie Pomfret won the Senior Men’s race , Elvis Presley and Barbara Stanwick starred in “Roustabout” on the ABC Ritz, “Cast your fate to the wind” by the Sounds Orchestral was a tip for the top and Tuckers Brewery, Gateshead made Goldcrest Pale Ale.
- 1980s & 1990s: Races were given sponsors names, e.g., “Metro Radio Road Races”, “Liverpool Victoria Friendly Society and Saucony Road Races”. What’s new Mike Ashley? We’ve been there, done it, got the whiskey and glass and have given the race a name that reflects all that is admirable about the sport. Long may this traditional annual event continue!