Climbing with Hilary - by Harry Bates
Having attended the celebration of Hilary Mc Ewan’s life at St Mary’s Church in Boston Spa I felt compelled to put on paper some thoughts recalling my early
running experiences shared with Hilary and other aged members of Valley Striders
As all good tales this one starts a long, long time ago and will always be a lasting unique memory of Mr. Mc Ewan.
Being an established member of the St John’s Sunday run fraternity I recall my first meeting with Hilary. I also think it was his first attendance at the Valley Striders Sunday Service. This was a ritual arranged by Stuart St John and his followers, where many local runners as well as club members where invited to join a procession along the winding roads and trails north of Leeds. This ritual procession visited a number of very special places were offerings of blood sweat and tears were given to ward off the evils of the flesh to which all runners can succumb on the all important race day.
If I remember correctly after introducing ourselves for the first time, Hilary undergoing his initiation wanted to know why everyone had gone quiet as we neared the foot of Creskeld Lane. This, as all early attendees will testify, was the main moment of sacrifice in the long Sunday morning service. All present were expected to contribute according to their standing as the chosen few attempted the accent of the north ridge of the infamous Creskeld Lane.
“What’s going on Harry?” Hilary asked, running on my shoulder.
I explained that any time now a race would start to reach the summit of Creskeld Lane.
“It’s long, Its steep and it’s a bastard “ I said.
I knew it was best to wait until some poor soul couldn’t stand the tension and went for it. The best tactic was to then set a steady pace and work to the top.
That morning, I seem to remember, was a clear day with mist clinging around the tall trees which guard the ascent. A number of runners made a bid for the top sprinting madly to the first corner. I let them go knowing my limitations and Hilary stayed on my shoulder until one too many had passed. Then as if a rubber band had snapped he was off. I reluctantly picked up pace and followed eager to stay with the new boy. Hilary careered after the runners in front picking off many of the early stragglers. As we neared the first blind corner I noted that Hilary began to ease. I felt I was gaining and stepped up the pace managing to pass him as the incline eased. I noted his heavy breathing and knew there was a long way to go. I decided to put in an extra effort to put some distance between Hilary and myself. At this point there was no one else in immediate contention and the first few making for the top were well gone. I neared the next corner and heard feet approaching. After a few more yards Hilary went past my shoulder as if I was resting. Shocked I again picked up the pace gulping in the air trying to hold his advantage to a few yards. We were still only half way up and I was running a lot faster than I wanted too. This, I knew, was going to hurt but I had to stay with the new boy. A sustained effort eventually paid dividends when on the next incline I managed to pass a slowing Hilary. Another few yards and I tried to gain a second breath for the next rise and penultimate corner. Again, the pounding of feet grew closer and Hilary charged past steam coming from his ears. We were nearing the end and it was purely down to will power. I had to hang on. We battled it out until we made the level ground just before the last gentle incline to the summit. My legs had gone and on the shoulder of Hilary I lengthened my stride as best I could and eased off. To my total amazement Hilary complied and grunted
“How much bloody further?”
I smiled knowing there was only a gentle incline to the summit and together we gently jogged to join those waiting at the top. They were bent over, coughing, surrounded by clouds of sweat, waiting for us lesser mortals to cross the imaginary finish line. We had managed to regain some composure but I feared we would get some derisory comment from the early finishers. Before anyone could speak Hilary struck.
“You bastards must have found a short cut. We came the long way round “ Everyone laughed and no reprisal was forthcoming
We waited till all had achieved the summit and gathered together in a single group then set of down hill for the promised land of Golden Acre Park. Martin Hopson, Steve O and Stuart St John were leading the way. Being next to me some short distance behind Hilary once again spoke up.
“Harry we are better runners than them. Look at their legs, if our legs were as long as that, we could beat them, easy.“
I smiled, thought yes and nodded in agreement. I think on that first encounter I had found a kindred spirit.
Over the following years we raced against each other regularly. He in his newly adopted Valley Striders aplomb, I in the Yellow of Skyrac AC.
I recall an early Leeds Marathon, when running through Hunslet, making good time I passed a distressed Hilary sat on the roadside. I didn’t even know he was in front of me. I pushed on knowing someone would shortly come to his assistance. At the finish I counted the Valley Striders behind me (that was always the measure of success for a local club runner at that time) and realized Hilary had not finished.
The next time I saw him I asked what happened. He just said “I had nothing left , I’d gone.” It was typical of Hilary. Brutally honest with his own performance but I awaited for the cutting comment. It didn’t come. Only then did I realise how distraught he was with his own performance. It was I think some time before he attempted the distance again and I went on to improve my times becoming confident that I could beat Hilary at the marathon distance. (As every early Valley Striders knew that was the only real distance that counted anyway.)
Hilary continued to improve mastering the shorter distances eventually attempting the marathon, as a Valley Strider should. His improvement I think was down to some sound advice from his erstwhile coach, mentor and friend Brian Scobie. He managed to persuade Hilary to run in shorts and dispose of the kilt.
Eventually, it paid dividends. Then some news from Scotland shattered my assumption that I was better over the marathon distance then Hilary.
An excited Stuart St. John, who always made a point of trumpeting any Strider’s success, delivered the earth shattering news to me. I noted the time. 2hrs.29mins.13sec.
I was reluctantly pleased for Hilary and amused by Stuart's obvious pleasure. Hilary had beaten my marathon PB by 11 seconds and Stuart knew it. Very shortly after hearing the news I approached Hilary. I was a little apprehensive about what to say. It was only respectful to congratulate his fine effort but I needed to be ready for the follow up jibe.
Eventually I plumped for
“How did it go Hilary?”
“I was just bloody brilliant” he replied “just bloody brilliant”
I looked into his smiling face, his mischievous eyes and was ready with my prepared repost of (“You might have been, but you had to climb back over Hadrian’s wall to do it”) As always I couldn’t hold my face straight and I smiled. Hilary burst into laughter gave me a slap on the back and I joined him laughing. He knew it was job well done and nothing that I would say could diminish his obvious joy.
I was a few years older than Hilary and although I tried with renewed vigor to erase those eleven seconds I never achieved it.
These few recollections will always be special in my treasured memories of a happy running career. The reason I eventually joined Valley Striders was because throughout the years of racing nothing could compare to the banter, camaraderie and fun that I experienced on those long Sunday runs. Hilary was an integral part of that experience and I can’t help feeling he will have his feet up, in the clouds looking down thinking.
“What’s up with you guy’s, have you lost your way ?” as he watches, with great amusement, the feeble attempts of all his running friends trying to push back the ravages of time and complete one last race.
Well, we will all one day complete that one last race, and when I do Hilary will still have another better PB than me of 54 years. I would not wish or advise any Valley Strider to pursue a better PB than Hilary’s but when we all complete the race for life I hope we cross the final finishing line in the sky, with his dignity and good humour.
Just a word of warning for any wayward strider who ventures on an early Sunday run to the foot of Creskeld Lane and attempts the accent alone. If it is a cool misty morning you may on your laboured climb hear the strange sound of wailing pipes, the incessant pacing of footsteps behind. So be very aware. If a lone runner passes by wearing running shoes and a kilt don’t take up the chase. He may take you on a short cut to the clouds and achieve a PB you really don’t need.