1954: In the beginning…

My first recollection of running with a purpose was as a 10 year old at primary school. Queen Elizabeth was our monarch, Everest had been conquered, Stanley Matthews was brilliant for Blackpool and England and at lunchtime I ran round the school playground as a belt horse. Great days.

Ralph O'Donnell in the summer of 1948.  Grammar School Rugby 1st XV and West Riding Rugby XV.  From the School Magazine 1948:  An excellent stand off half. Sells a beautiful dummy, and is adept at making openings for his team mates. A deadly tackler and a most consistent goal kicker.
Ralph O’Donnell in the summer of 1948.

What’s a belt horse? As I remember it, we ran or galloped in twos with one arm firmly around our partner. Like that we had speed or endurance races against other pairs. Sometimes we would also wear our raincoats as cloaks and imagine we were whatever or whoever we wanted to be. The playground was situated on a slope, as was the sports field. We felt good running down hill and really picked up speed. Uphill, however, it was a different story – especially in the longer races. We realised that we were not “fit”. What could we do? Luckily, along came Ralph O’Donnell, a professional football player for Sheffield Wednesday. He came to my primary school to try to motivate us to play football. He could kick the ball the length of the football field! Wonderful. He looked so powerful. Ralph explained about the need to train and train sensibly. (Only when I was in my fifties did I find out that he used to be a pupil at my grammar school.)

So there I was, a young, motivated footballer who had found out that all team members had to run well to play the game successfully. What a great feeling it was to pull on a school football shirt. That was the first team I ever played for. Our colours were the same as West Ham United and the smell of the shirt was fantastic. Never to be forgotten! I belonged here. Later in the season our team was strengthened by two pupils from Scotland — Tom and Willie Dougal. I think their father had come to our area to work in the local coal mine. They were the first boys I had met from a different culture. Mining villages at that time were quite insular and the mine dominated both employment and social life. The Dougals were both strong and very fit. (I wrestled Tom — big mistake.) So perhaps this fitness thing applies everywhere and to everybody? How did they get like that? Our teacher said that natural ability was fine but everyone could improve their performance by training. That statement penetrated. Tom’s strength was a mystery.

At that time my brother told me he had ordered a weight-training set from Joe Weider. Nothing registered in my brain. Sometime later there was a great commotion at the front of our house. My mother had been sitting at the nebbing window on the stairs when she called out that the postman was having big trouble with a sack. She opened the front door to reveal that the poor man was dragging the sack along the path with his back towards us, heaving away. He shouted out “Oh, missus. What on earth is in this sack?” She replied that it was for her son. “Blimey. A dunt want to meet im!” Watching that postman was my first introduction to weight-training. My brother had taken up power-lifting. Eventually he became the local champion.

So there it was. How to improve at sport? Training in all its forms! 1954 passed smoothly into 1955 and my Rupert Annuals had been added to. The new year was to be of great significance.

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