As Ron Hill turns 80, Roger Robinson pays tribute to one of the most outstanding runners in history
For most runners today, the name Ron Hill means the world’s leading “streaker,” the man who didn’t miss a day’s running between December 1964 and January 2017 (56 years, 39 days).
That was a rare achievement in persistence. But Hill – who was born on September 25, 1938 – is more than an obsessive box-ticker.
One of the great athletes of a great era, he set world records, won major titles on every kind of surface and reached the top of world marathon rankings. He was outstanding also as a barrier-breaker and innovator, who applied a top-class scientific mind to the sport he loved. Every runner’s apparel choices are still influenced by Hill.
The combination of that creative intelligence with his granite-hard Lancastrian determination made Hill a fearsome racer, especially for his unfailingly fierce competitiveness.
The 1970 Boston Marathon was probably his greatest race. He ran 2:10:30, a Boston record by three minutes, in weather almost as bad (no exaggeration) as Boston in 2018.
“It was a terrible day – cold, wet and windy,” he remembers. “After I left Canada’s Jerome Drayton at 10 miles, I ran alone. I had no idea of my pace, because I didn’t understand the odd splits that Boston used in those days. So I was shocked when I heard the finish time, and absolutely elated – the first Briton to win Boston.”
“Hill was outstanding as a barrier-breaker and innovator, who applied a top-class scientific mind to the sport he loved” – Roger Robinson
At that moment, Hill was the world’s best marathoner, arguably the best ever. The world record stood to Derek Clayton of Australia at 2:08:33. Hill won the European Championship in 1969 in 2:16:47.8, which sounds modest until you know that it was on the notoriously tough, hot and slow Marathon to Athens course, and that he beat Gaston Roelants to do it.
Then came his 2:10:30 into Boston’s drenching headwind and the Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh in July, 1970, where he won in 2:09:28, the world’s second-fastest at that date. If the Europeans had been somewhere other than Athens, if conditions had been less foul at Boston, if he had run his first 10km at Edinburgh a little more cautiously than 29:24 (2:04 marathon pace), he would surely have nailed the world record.
I knew Hill (pictured below in 2014) first as a student runner for Manchester University, running his heart out for the fastest time in the Hyde Park Road Relay; then as a club man for Bolton United Harriers, often in a dynamic duo with Mike Freary; and as key to Lancashire’s tyranny over all Inter-Counties races in the 1960s.
He reached the global pinnacle by racing every available local and national race, at a time when England was the strongest distance-running nation. In cross-country, he won or was placed year after year in the National, Inter-Counties, Northern and Lancs (even that one wasn’t easy to win).
On the track, he broke the UK six miles record, won the AAA 10-mile title four times, and broke the world records for 15 miles and 25km.
Road racing best suited his economical stride and light frame. He reeled off the victories. I was a few minutes behind him when he set a world’s best for 20 miles, 1:36:28, at the Pembroke 20 in 1968.
He was the first to show the potential of an eccentric new distance, the half-marathon, when he won Britain’s first, at Freckleton, Lancashire, in 1964. His 64:45 record still stands.
Pushing the limits of endurance is only one way in which Hill broke new ground. Other innovations came from his relentless search for improvement. He often raced barefoot, decades before it became the trend. Hill was barefoot, for example, when he placed second in the International Cross-Country in 1964 and seventh in the Mexico Olympic 10,000m in 1968 and even experimented racing barefoot on the road.
“He reached the global pinnacle by racing every available local and national race, at a time when England was the strongest distance-running nation” – Roger Robinson
“I was going to run the marathon at the 1972 Munich Olympics barefoot, but the Germans laid new stone chippings on parts of the course,” Hill surprisingly revealed to me for an article on minimalism.
He approached the new idea of pre-marathon carbo-loading with the same scientific rigour. With a PhD in textile engineering, Hill was specially well-placed to experiment with running apparel and soon went into it commercially with Ron Hill Sports.
Hill kept racing after his international career faded, despite never being a top masters runner. He began to chase the new target of racing in every country and has finisher’s medals from more than 100.
In May, Hill announced that he has Alzheimer’s, but intends to remain active. “I’ll cheerfully carry on keeping active and, hopefully, this will give other people the impression that dementia is nothing to be frightened by and there shouldn’t be any stigma attached to it,” he said in a statement.
Ron reported positively when he gave permission for this birthday tribute on September 7. “Mentally I am in a good place, as my carer is May, my wife of 58 years,” he wrote.
In his book, he attributes his big improvement in 1961 to his recent marriage to May and the stability that gave him.
AW and his friends and admirers wish Ron Hill a happy 80th birthday.
» This is an abridged version of a three-page article that appears in the September 20 issue of AW, which is available digitally here
Photos by Mark Shearman