It is a great and enduring argument to determine just who is the greatest sporting athlete of all-time. Exactly what criteria would determine the winner? Should their success be simply measured in honours; or is it the influence and impact that they have on others? In my opinion, it should always be both. Therefore, it’s not possible for everyone to agree on the matter. What is certain, however, is that we would all choose a different sporting hero for reasons of our own.
I am often asked who I consider to be the greatest. For me, a passionate and seasoned fell runner, it’s an easy question. My answer is, and will always be the same; the legendary fell runner, Kenny Stuart. Now you may be reading this and perhaps wondering exactly who he is. It doesn’t surprise me if this is the case. The fact that you might not have heard of him is one of the many reasons why he is my number one choice. Aside from the obvious, in my opinion, a sporting hero should be humble, down-to-earth, hard-working, respectful and honest. Kenny Stuart has all of these qualities and more. He is one of the greatest athletes our country has ever produced. A modern day, unsung hero. A regular, working-class, no-nonsense kind of guy. A real person, with real values. Someone who we should all aspire to be more like. An idol and an inspiration.
Pictured above: With my fell running hero, Kenny Stuart.
It is therefore, with great pleasure, that I am able to introduce a new guest blog which features my own sporting hero, Kenny Stuart. This superb literary contribution has been provided by renowned author, Steve Chilton, as part of his ‘Running Hard‘ Blog Tour.
I have requested this particular extract from his book, because it holds a very special and personal meaning to me. It features an account of the Snowdon Race in 1985 and Kenny’s attempt at winning this iconic race. Something, I myself might hope to accomplish one day.
CHAPTER 19: Like winning the FA Cup
A few weeks later came what I consider one of the greatest fell racing performances ever. On 20 July 1985 Kenny Stuart set a new record for the Snowdon race that has not been bettered since, against a top field that included some of the leading Italians. Fausto Bonzi held the record of 63-46 from the previous year’s race, but Stuart took this apart with a startling time of 62-29.
Kenny Stuart has very clear memories of that day. ‘I got three quarters of the way up and Robbie Bryson started to push hard and I went with him. I expected the Italians to follow suit and they didn’t. I was really on a knife edge when we hit the summit. So I let him get there, about nine seconds ahead of me. I was more frightened of the Italians coming from behind than Robbie. I just felt I could beat him going down. He wasn’t a brilliant descender, and I had the strength to do it. I caught him and the Italian challenge didn’t materialise. It was a bit like the Butter Crags race [earlier that year], in that I felt really good on the day, conditions were good. It was warm but not too warm, with probably a slight wind behind you going up. Everything just fell into place.’
At the turn in the race, Bonzi was 30 seconds adrift of Bryson and Stuart. The television report on the 2015 Snowdon race (which was the 40th anniversary of the event) noted in the commentary that on this day in 1985 the first five runners at the summit took under 40 minutes for the ascent, and that no-one has done that since, which Kenny thinks is quite likely to remain the case.
Pictured above: Kenny Stuart (106) sandwiched between two Italians (102 and 103) on the climb towards the summit of Snowdon (1984).
Bryson lost his lead going down, and Bonzi closed on him. Stuart pulled clear to win by over a minute. Renowned as a fast descender, Jack Maitland thundered down in a time that was actually six seconds faster than Stuart, taking 2nd place for his troubles, with Bonzi 3rd – well beaten yet still only 10 seconds off his record time. Colin Donnelly also distinguished himself, coming down in a time that matched Maitland to take 4th place from Italian Pezzolli, with Bryson 6th. Hugh Symonds was 12th, commenting, ‘Bryson may still have the fastest time to the summit. He was good. But the path here burns your feet on a hot day, possibly worse than Skiddaw.’
Symonds went on to point out, ‘that there is no point in being first to the top in a race if you are not first to the bottom. That was very much my attitude.’ Taking up this point, I wondered whether Symonds was actually better at going up or down. ‘At first I was much better at ups. I thought if I am going to be any good I need to train for downs. I had a good training partner in Bob Whitfield from Kendal AC. He lived in Clapham (in the Yorkshire Dales) and we used to alternate our training between Sedbergh and his patch (and run around the Ingleborough area). Bob was a fantastic descender. I think training with him helped me learn to descend. I would also choose some of the steepest places in the Howgills and specifically practise running downhill fast. I would do rep sessions with downhill as well as uphill in them.’
Although he admits he was beaten by the better man on that day Jack Maitland is justifiably proud of how much he and Bryson contributed to the result that Kenny Stuart achieved. ‘Robbie was a great Irish guy, a good climber but not so good as a descender. Although I was well beaten by Kenny, I would be interested to see all-time records for times down Snowdon. Mine was a pretty fast descent time.’
As part of the race build-up in 2010 Kenny Stuart was interviewed, now 25 years on, about his memories of the day, and thoughts about the record’s longevity. In part, he commented:
I remember the conditions being very good. I do recall being pushed at least until three-quarters of the way up by the two Italian chaps, who were very good. Bonzi held the record actually. Then it was taken on by Robbie Bryson who pushed very hard to the summit. It was a memorable ascent because it was very fast and I knew it. I held back a little coming off the top as I didn’t know if Robbie had taken it out too fast. I think he had taken it too fast for himself, but I recovered and went on to break the record, fortunately.
I think every fell runner knows when they start a race, within the first half mile he knows how he is going to feel, and I felt good right from the start. The year before that, it was a very red hot day and the Italians set a blistering pace and I died a death at three quarters. I managed to come back and hold on to third position but I ran 65 minutes and it felt a lot slower than that.
I am quite amazed it [the record] still stands, but is something I am reasonably proud of. I think it is time it was broken. The record might stand for a number of years. If athletes of a certain calibre, maybe Africans, came over en masse they might break it. But it will take some breaking.
Pictured above: The ‘Top 10’ results at the Snowdon International Race, 1985
About the book
Running Hard: the story of a rivalry. Sandstone Press. Format: Paperback. ISBN: 9781910985946. Publication Date: 19/10/2017. RRP: £9.99
For one brilliant season in 1983 the sport of fell running was dominated by the two huge talents of John Wild and Kenny Stuart. Wild was an incomer to the sport from road running and track. Stuart was born to the fells, but an outcast because of his move from professional to amateur. Together they destroyed the record book, only determining who was top by a few seconds in the last race of the season. Running Hard is the story of that season, and an inside, intimate look at the two men.
His book Running Hard: the story of a rivalry is published in paperback on Thursday 19th October.
About the book’s author
Steve Chilton is a committed runner and qualified athletics coach with considerable experience of fell running. He is a long-time member of the Fell Runners Association (FRA). He formerly worked at Middlesex University where he was Lead Academic Developer. He has written two other books: It’s a Hill, Get Over It won the Bill Rollinson Prize in 2014; The Round: In Bob Graham’s footsteps was shortlisted for the TGO Awards Outdoor Book of the Year 2015 and the Lakeland Book of the Year Award 2016. He blogs at: https://itsahill.wordpress.com/.