The South Devon club has built on an impressive roll call of elite athletes to cement its position as a running and triathlon powerhouse, write Ruth Jones
Torbay AC was officially formed in 1970 when road and cross country specialists at Paignton AC, one of the top clubs in the country at the time, amalgamated with track club Torquay AAC. The history of the club goes back to the 1870s, though, when clubs in Torquay, Paignton, Newton Abbot and Exmouth engaged in regular “foot races”, and Paignton AC and St Marychurch Harriers – formed in 1894 and 1909 respectively – dominated the racing scene for decades.
Paignton AC had their headquarters at Queen’s Park, sharing the facilities with the town’s cricket and rugby clubs, and from 1946, when Torquay AAC was formed, the Recreation Ground was also used for training. At the end of the 1960s, Paignton was ranked seventh in the country for distance running, and were able to field six teams in the county cross-country championships.
Where they train
Outdoor winter training takes runners on a variety of road routes from the Riviera Centre from October to April every Tuesday and Thursday evening. Indoor sessions for juniors are based at Torquay Boys’ Grammar School on Friday evenings. During the summer, training moves to the Torre Valley North sports field. As the club also caters for triathletes, swimmers train with local club Oddicombe on Sunday, Monday and Thursday mornings at Plainmoor Swimming Pool, while sea swims are on offer most Sundays in the summer months at Preston Sands in Paignton. Cyclists train with Mid Devon Cycling Club on Sundays.
Brian Lewis and Jenny Lister head up the beginners’ group, while the juniors are overseen by Steve Cottle, Eve Bates, Tim Peters, Martyn Breslan, Anita Merritt, and Anthony Raine. The club’s road and cross-country endurance groups are coached by Steve Wilbraham, Greg Fine, Mike Davies, Tessa Hearfield, Julia Scofield, Jonathan Cowling, Andy Longthorpe and Tony Hodge, and the triathletes are mentored by Jon Pressling, Jon Parkinson and Tony Foster.
The club sends a healthy contingent of athletes from under-11 upwards to the Westward Cross Country League in the winter months, while the summer season sees a strong representation from the club at the South West Track and Field League despite athletes having to travel long distances to fixtures in both competitions.
The club has had one of its most successful years in all competitions, with athletes winning 30 races so far and a total of 49 podium places, claiming more local victories than any other club in Devon. Torbay won the Westward League cross-country team of the year award in 2014, rewarding the athletes’ team spirit and attendance record. Eric Barber recently held the titles of V65 and V70 world duathlon champion.
Andrea Wallace is among the best known athletes to don the Torbay AC vest. Wallace reached the pinnacle of her illustrious career when competing in the Barcelona Olympics 10,000m in 1992, the year after winning silver in the IAAF World Road Race Championships 15km. Other highlights included a bronze medal at the 1991 London Marathon with a 2:31:32 PB and a stunning 69:39 at the Bath Half-Marathon two years later, all times which place her in the UK all-time top 10 rankings.
Discus thrower Lesley Mallin held the British title, while Barry Knight represented Great Britain on numerous occasions.
Spreading the word
Adharanand Finn, author of Running with the Kenyans and The Way of the Runner, is a member and has helped to promote the club in his books and on social media. He was keen to tell the story of how the club helped to sponsor the Kenyan Japhet Koech when he came to the UK to race the Edinburgh Marathon.
“In the week before the race, he came to a club night in Torbay and did a track session on the grass with us,” Finn wrote. “The club hoisted a Kenyan flag and proclaimed Torbay ‘the other home of champions’ – after Iten in Kenya, which calls itself ‘the home of champions’.”
Japhet was presented with a club vest that he wore in Edinburgh, finishing second in 2:16.
Need to know
One of the club’s incredible achievements has to be its successful attempt at breaking the World 24-Hour One Club running record in 1971. Torbay athletes broke the existing record of 277 miles on the grass track still in use today and every member had to run at least 27 miles in relays at an average speed of just over five-minute mile pace. But the 10-man squad that included international Dennis Crook and 16-year old starlet Martin Wilson, an eventual sub-four-minute miler, achieved what had seemed impossible.
Number of members: 200 seniors, 90 juniors
Fees: Juniors – contact club for fees. Seniors – £37
Main base: Summer – Torre Valley North, Walnut Road, Torquay, TQ2 5LF. Winter – Riviera Centre, Chestnut Avenue, Torquay, TQ2 5LZ
Club colours: Yellow with red horizontal band
Facebook: Torbay Athletic Club
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