Ron Linstead 1936-2004
Lewisham in southeast London was Ron’s place of birth, on 31 January 1936. During the War, the Borough was among the worst affected during the London blitz when it was hit by no fewer than 115 flying bombs. Over 1,100 houses were destroyed, more than that number were rendered uninhabitable, and over 60,000 suffered damage in some form. The Linstead family were among those ‘bombed out’ but they managed to find accommodation in Wimbledon.
Here Ron soon discovered Wimbledon Common and as he ranged the wooded slopes with his school friends they were amused to encounter packs of Belgrave Harriers loping along the bracken bordered sandy paths. The boys were convinced that the runners were training to be clowns, but it was not long before the intrigued Linstead discovered their real purpose.
At Rutlish Grammar School, already outspoken and a bit of a ‘loner’, supervised team sports were not for him; he had developed a taste for the joys of running and cycling. AAA timekeeper Harry Hathway was Senior Maths Master at Rutlish and when the young Linstead was seen to be excelling at running and walking the older man presented Ron with a book on athletics. It was not long after that the 12-year-old boy appeared round the door of Belgrave Hall with the request, “Please may I join your club?”
He became a member in July 1948 and his first Saturday afternoon runs were with the veteran George Still; but he soon gravitated to the pack led by the legendary Bert Footer, then in the twilight of his career.
The tough duo of Footer and Arthur Whitehead took holidays in the Lake District where they spent their time walking, climbing, and running, and before long they found they had Ron Linstead for company. Ron loved these activities and as an adult, he looked back on those holidays with nostalgia; he remembered the great mental boost he got from them. The immense sweep of the fells had given him a new concept of distance and the notion of ultra-distance training runs.
A major club day at the start of each winter season was the first Saturday of October. Belgrave runners of all calibre came together for the slightly over distance Yacht 3 Miles Handicap which started near the Clubhouse in nearby Lauriston Road, headed for the Windmill via Parkside, and returned to the top end of Lauriston via Inner Windmill Road and the Fox & Grapes. The 1950 event was Ron’s first race of consequence and the 14-year-old placed second with an actual time of 16:49 – 17th fastest of the 68 strong field. It wasn’t until 1952 that he met a stiffer class of opposition. In the Southern Youths Cross Country Championship at Hadleigh in Essex, he was 25th, and second Belgrave runner in our 4th placed team.
Above: a mighty run from Ron on the Redhill stage of the 1960 London to Brighton Relay. It came after a whole series of ultra-distance runs. Running into a headwind, he clocked the fastest time of the day. Only four men had run faster in the preceding six races.
Ron resolved to run in everything he could in the winter of 1953 and started well by finishing 8th in the Surrey Youths Cross-Country Championship. Not for the first time, though, his heavy training mileage resulted in leg injuries which put him out of the Southern and National. He bounced back for the road relays in scintillating form, winning our Club youth trial from county champion Frank Wright and then recording the third-fastest time of the day in the popular Aylesbury Youth Relay. He was rarely seen on the track in 1953 but in the Autumn of that year, he again beat the handicapper in the Yacht ‘3’ to finish 2nd and record second fastest time of the day at 15:10. Still a youth, he followed this up by beating all the juniors for the ‘Savage Shield’, beating all the seniors, bar Jack Brown, in the ‘Blackstaffe Shield’ seven miles, and finishing 2nd in the Surrey Youths. For once Ron was free of injury and in February 1954 he finished 12th in the Southern Youths Championship (25 seconds behind Stan Eldon and leading our team to silver medals) and 30th in the National. Useful as these performances were they by no means reflected his ability as a road runner, as later events were to confirm.
Above: winning the L.C.C. Junior Mile in 1953.
27th March 1954 was a date that lived on in the memories of all those who were present that day at Wimbledon for the 5¾ miles road trial to select the team for the National London-Brighton Relay. Belgrave Harriers were out to regain their National title, and competition to make the team was intense. Only just eighteen and too young to qualify, Ron Linstead nevertheless lined up alongside his senior club-mates. Imagine the sensation when he not only romped home a convincing winner but did so in a record 28:24 – a mark which withstood senior assault for five years!
Two weeks later came the National Relay, with Ron on the sidelines. How must he have felt? It was estimated that Belgrave would need a two and a half minutes advantage to hold off the two S.L.H. stars Pirie and Driver on stages 7 and 8. In fact, all the Bels could gain was a mere 18 seconds, and it was not enough. The race was lost by only 66 seconds, a fine performance, but with the trial race winner too young to take part.
Revelling in hard work, Ron was absolutely dedicated and well ahead of his time in the workload he undertook. He frequently trained twice a day doing a steady 5 or 6 miles in the early morning (sometimes in army boots) and 8 or 10 in the evening with runs up to 20 miles on a Sunday morning. Remember, this was in the mid-1950s when 50 miles a week was regarded in the same light as 100 was looked upon in later years.
In the summer of 1954, Ron was called up for National Service and was posted with the R.A.F. Regiment at Watchet, on the northern coast of Somerset. His new surroundings were much to his liking, for the Quantock Hills were well within running distance, and it was another period that Ron later fondly looked back on: the long runs and early morning outings in those West Country hills. Apart from retaining his ‘Savage Shield’ Junior Club Championship title and finishing second in the Western Counties Junior Cross Country Championship, he had little competition in the latter half of 1954; but his relentless build-up continued and he was fitter than ever at the end of the year. Then, in 1955, disaster struck. Flooded camp conditions and a broken-down heating system resulted in Ron contracting pneumonia and pleurisy. Tuberculosis set in and he was confined to barracks for many months. After a period of convalescence, he was discharged on a 100% disability pension. So, after years of dedicated training that had taken him to the brink of great things, he was now little more than an invalid. Surely this was the end of the road.
Back at Wimbledon in late 1955, Ron began to renew his visits to Belgrave Hall. Gradually he nursed himself back to general fitness. The Lake District was revisited and he introduced long walks, weight training, and jogging into his routine. For four years he persevered, until at the end of 1959, he was a fully fit running machine once again. Ron’s belief in ultra-distance training runs was put to good effect during his build-up and his natural ability on the road led him to think seriously of long-distance competition. He had been fascinated for some time by the articles and books written by the immortal Arthur Newton. Ron had written to Newton and on several occasions had cycled over to Ruislip where he had listened intently to the advice and reminiscences of that great authority.
His distance runs grew in frequency. Sometimes he would spend all day in the country, always varying his route, and drinking in the scenery wherever he went. To avoid circuitous routes he would often take a train to somewhere like Haywards Heath, tie his lightweight trousers round his waist and run 40 miles or so back to Wimbledon. He never deserted his speed training and always remained a great believer in what he called ‘contrast training’ – surely an appropriate name for work which produced alternately, 40 miles run, 2 miles time trial (morning, noon, and night), double session of steady running and fartlek, one day of speed work (100’s and 200’s), 20-30 miles run. Such work was enough to raise eyebrows many years later, but in those days it was truly phenomenal.
Ron Linstead’s second ‘career’ began with the Darlington to Barnard Castle ‘16½’ of June 1960 where he finished second, inside the course record. The following month he finished 6th in the Belgrave ‘20’ in 1:51:19. It was a good start and it gave him confidence for the September 3rd – October 8th period in which he would cram in four quality runs that were truly ‘contrasting’.
The first was the S.L.H. ‘30’ where he placed second in 2:56:03, breaking the record and running the last 15 miles nearly three minutes faster than anyone else in the field. This was the third consecutive event in which he had raced further than ever before and on September 24th he made it four by doing the London-Brighton Run. This time he stayed with the front runners for most of the way, going through 20 miles in 2:01, 40 miles in 4:04, and the full distance in 5:36:14 to finish a brilliant 3rd behind Mekler (South Africa) and Elderfield (T.V.H.) and thus becoming the sixth-fastest ever – unmatched by any previous Englishman. The incredulous Sam Ferris wrote in Athletics Weekly “This boy Linstead is amazing and has terrific capacity for severe punishment”.
While some would have rested up after this gargantuan effort, Ron was out again seven days later to do further battle with our handicapper in the popular Yacht ‘3’. And yet again Linstead came out best, finishing 2nd for the third consecutive time in 14:53 and joining the elite band of sub-15 men. His next outing in this purple patch was the London-Brighton Relay the following Saturday. Running on the tough Redhill stage, into a headwind, he clocked the fastest time of the day. Only four men had run faster in the preceding six races. This run gave him great pleasure, for there had been some controversy at that time about the wisdom of long-distance work for short races. Interval training was all the craze. By running 16 seconds faster than Polytechnic’s Roy Proffitt, who had recorded 8:59.2 for two miles at the White City ten days earlier, Ron felt his methods had been vindicated. Whichever way one looked at it, his first year back had gone with a bang!
Ron’s father had been very ill for some time and in 1961, with other things on his mind, his running was affected and he was often depressed. His love of running was a great help and there were bright patches in a not too happy year. Paradoxically, the brightest of these was an occasion which Ron himself rated as the highlight of his career – the Isle of Man road race over the famous T.T. course (37¾ miles). Eddie Elderfield (who had beaten Ron in the ‘Brighton’) and Don Turner, the previous year’s winner, were Ron’s main rivals, but the Belgravian exuded tremendous confidence and was never headed. Elderfield was still with him at ‘20’ (2:02) but as they approached the formidable Snae Fell (2,054 feet) Ron spurted ahead, attacking the mountain with unusual ferocity. “I was amazed at how good I felt, and as I weaved around a hairpin bend at 1700 feet and looked down onto the heads of the runners below it felt almost idyllic,” he recalled. Tom Richard’s record was smashed by 6¼ minutes with a display of running which led the front page of the Isle of Man Daily Times to say “ … but if he was unfamiliar with the circuit he was certainly unafraid of the T.T. course’s reputation.
Left: Nearing the finish of the Isle of Man 37¾ miles race on the T.T. circuit - a record breaking run.
Right: "This boy Linstead is amazing and has terrific capacity for severe punishment." So wrote Athletics Weekly correspondent Sam Ferris.
Although he had enjoyed much success in these two years there was still something missing from his experience. Those long chats with Arthur Newton and the old man’s vivid description of the South African scenery had left Ron yearning to run over those self-same hills. Would he ever realise that dream? His chance came sooner than expected when the Road Runners Club announced that it was launching an appeal to send Ron Linstead, Tom Buckingham, John Smith, and Don Turner to the 1962 ‘Comrades Marathon’ (Durban to Pietermaritzburg, 54 miles). Ron was delighted and he set about making 1962 his fullest year yet.
He was still not at ease over the country, but to help his preparation he turned out in almost every fixture of the ‘61/’62 season, culminating in a moderate 78th in the ‘National’ at Blackpool. He sharpened up with two road races before leaving with the R.R.C. party – the Wigmore ‘15’ (7th) and the Finchley ‘20’ (10th). He was pretty fit but not yet showing his best form.
They arrived in Johannesburg on May 20th and then moved on to their pre-race H.Q. at Pietermaritzburg in the beautiful province of Natal. Ron wrote in The Belgravian “It was sheer joy to run in that hot sun through such lovely scenery. Sometimes we left the roads and went over the dirt and gravel mountain tracks and had superb views. We felt that we were hundreds of miles away from civilization. Occasionally we encountered native kraals and villages where our appearance would cause a sensation. Often, barefooted children would run with us for a mile or more, seemingly untroubled by the rocky, flinty surfaces. It was all so very peaceful …” It was just as Newton had described, and Ron was intoxicated with it all. How he wished the old master could have been with them at that time. It was Ron’s most sentimental journey and he said he would carry its memories to the end of his days.
The race began at 6 a.m. The first 25 miles rose through 2,500 feet, at which point Ron was 6th of the 150 starters, eleven minutes down on Mekler. Although he had to leave the road temporarily at about 40 miles and was finding it harder than his Brighton run, he still moved into 3rd place at 45 miles – feeling hopeful. However, those hopes were dashed at 48 miles when he was hit with a stomach cramp and he had to call on every ounce of that iron will to hold on. Turner and Buckingham passed him soon after, but with Smith beating Mekler upfront the R.R.C. team had placed 1st, 3rd, 4th, and 5th – an excellent effort.
Only seven days after returning home Ron turned on another of those ‘purple patches’ remarkable for their variety. It began with the Poly Marathon where he finished a creditable 12th. Three weeks later he turned out for the Old Rutlishians on the track (an almost solitary excursion with no special preparation) and won the two miles in 9:18.6! This was just ten days before he won one of the most exciting Belgrave ‘20’ races ever seen. It was with two of the three laps completed that Gerry North held a 55 seconds lead. Eye-witnesses recalled how Ron visibly accelerated into that final lap with jaw jutting and eyes gleaming – a veritable caricature of himself. He caught Gerry at Copse Hill and is reputed to have run up it faster than anyone before or since (or so Gerry said!) and went careering on to win in 1:48:50 – 52 seconds ahead of Gerry. Only Fred Norris had run faster.
Still no rest. On August 11th he lined up for the A.A.A. Marathon and in terribly difficult conditions finished 8th (2:31:30) only five minutes behind Brian Kilby and Alistair Wood and one minute behind Gerry.
These races were a ‘carry-over’ from the Comrades event and with the road season now finished he had no real ambitions remaining. He competed in several events in 1963 but there was nothing that could match his years of 1960, 1961, and 1962. In the last of those years, he held Club Championships on track (6 miles), cross-country (10 miles), and road (20 miles and marathon) and won the ‘Harry Parker Memorial Bowl’ for the first Belgravian to finish in the ‘National’.
Plagued with recurring injuries he retired from competition in 1964. He still ran, of course, but those attributes which had served him so well as a competitor were now channelled into his new interest – photography. Frequently he was in his darkroom until the early hours of the morning printing shots that he would send to local newspapers throughout the country. As his pictures improved and more and more were published at home and abroad, he widened his interest to covering other sports and wrote articles also.
Ron married in 1969 and settled down with his wife in Wimbledon, only five minutes jog from Belgrave Hall. In his visits to the clubhouse, he saw our youths and boys doing and saying the same sort of things as he did nearly twenty years before and felt a desire to pass on to them the benefits of his experience; it wasn’t long before he became Junior Team Manager. He ran with the youths in the early ’70s, teaching them to enjoy their running and look forward to training. He wanted them to love their running for running’s sake and adjusted their training to preserve this desire. Soon they began to achieve success – but for Ron, always a non-conformist, life without the daily rigours of training and the challenge of competition became more and more difficult.
Eventually, having left his job, he sold his photographic equipment, moved out of his home, and took to living rough on the streets around Waterloo. Occasionally there were good periods and it is believed that at one time he toured schools telling of the horrors of life on the streets and what it had done to a man who had been among the best ultra-distance runners in the country. Sometimes he would turn up at Belgrave Hall and around 1992 he even started running again. But these spells invariably only lasted for a few weeks, brought to an end each time by a clash with other club members and his desire – indeed need – to treat our clubhouse as more than a base for training. Always his colleagues would do their best to help him get back onto a normal path – but poor Ron was past being able to see that.
He was spotted in a late-night television programme about ‘down and outs’; and just as he was brought back into our consciousness – we learned that he had been found dead on The Embankment, close to the London Eye, on 2nd February 2004. He had died of pneumonia.
There are still a few around to tell stories of Ron: how he would set his alarm clock to awaken himself at 2 am so that he could go out running and ‘get in an extra session’, insisting that in the morning he knew virtually nothing of it and felt the same as if he’d slept all night; how as a young man in the Yacht handicap, he’d turn the corner at the now long gone elm tree with only 200 yards to go, roaring with laughter as he battled with his rivals to take the lead; how in later years he lived rough on Wimbledon Common, reportedly surviving on the odd rabbit.
But for that illness in 1955, who knows what he might have accomplished? Surely his name would have been on our International Honours Board. His darker times, we hope, were tempered by memories of the long runs through the magic scenery of the Lake District, the Quantocks, and the Natal hills; perhaps even the early morning run over Wimbledon Common when he was ‘alone with the world’. May he now have found the peace that eluded him during his later years.
Clive Shippen, memories of Ron and ‘Spotlight on Ron Linstead’.
Alan Mead, memories and conversations with Ron.
Micky Pyer, memories of Ron.