Don proud of playing key role in creating Potteries Marathon

My friend Anthony Davies, originally from Norton but now living in The Smoke, ran the London Marathon last year.

I was in awe. I was filled with admiration for what I saw as his Herculean effort. So much so that I sponsored him to the tune of £20.

As an overweight asthmatic who never runs anywhere unless I am being chased, the thought of doing 26 miles on foot is an horrific concept.

But literally tens of thousands of people from across North Staffordshire used to do just that around roads they knew like the back of their hands.

It is eight years since the last Potteries Marathon was run and it has been replaced by the very successful – if somewhat less daunting – Potters ’Arf.

For more than 20 years, however, it was the ‘friendly marathon’ which, once a year, turned ordinary people into heroes.

One of the men responsible for creating the Potteries Marathon was Don Shelley.

A former long-distance runner who had represented England at cross country events and run marathons for Great Britain, he had organised races before in his capacity as Secretary of the Michelin Sports and Social Club.

He left the Mich in 1975 and was working at The Place nightclub in Hanley when the management team of Kevin Donovan and Graham Bagnall hit on the idea of organising a marathon here in Stoke-on-Trent.

Don said: “The year was 1981 and there was great excitement around the first London Marathon, which had been a huge success and attracted a lot of attention.

“Lots of other cities and towns decided to follow London’s lead and Stoke-on-Trent was no exception.

“Back then, of course, it was easier to organise for a number of reasons.

“Firstly, there was hardly any traffic on the roads on a Sunday and we didn’t even have to ask permission to run the race really. We got away with murder sometimes.

“Secondly, there was a huge amount of interest from local people who wanted to help out. We certainly weren’t short of volunteers.

“Obviously we had to liaise with the police about the route, but the council wasn’t really involved.”

Don, now aged 75 and living in Stone, ran the first marathon himself – dressed as a tortoise – while his mate ran as the hare.

Don said: “It wasn’t particularly well thought-out, to be honest. About two thirds of the way round I had to dump the shell because it was banging against my back as I ran.”

That first marathon, back in 1982, began in Moorland Road, Burslem, with runners starting off down the bank and then going up Porthill Bank.

The following year the race moved to Trentham Gardens, where it started and finished for the next two decades.

Through my admittedly rose-tinted spectacles, I recall blisteringly hot Sundays in June when the whole city came to a standstill.

In my head the race was always won by legendary local runner Mark Roberts, but I’m told other people did cross the line first – including Harry Claugh, of Liverpool, who set the record of two hours, 19 minutes and 10 seconds.

I would walk down to the Holden Bridge pub on Leek New Road, Sneyd Green, where I could watch the runners stream past one of the many drinks stations staffed by locals.

I volunteered myself one year and was given a commemorative T-shirt for handing out juice, water and even tea in plastic cups to the sweaty, gasping individuals – often in fancy dress – who staggered past us, looking for all the world as if they were going to expire.

All I could do was say “well done” and marvel at their tenacity.

Don said: “There wasn’t a marathon in the country that was as friendly or well-organised.

“We were very proud of it. There was a running magazine which ran a poll asking marathon participants which was the race they liked best and we won the accolade three years in a row.”

In the end, a fall in entry numbers, increased traffic on the roads, and changes at Trentham Gardens brought the curtain down on the race.

Don said: “As the years went by, the race became more and more difficult to organise because we would be told that certain roads were closed to us and there were more hoops to jump through.

“There was a lot more traffic on the roads. Shops were open on a Sunday and the race was having a big impact on the city.

“At the same time, the owners of the Trentham Estate were making big changes and so our traditional start and finish points had to be altered.”

He added: “Looking back, I think we can be very proud of what we achieved.

“We set out with three aims: To make the people of North Staffordshire fitter; to raise as much money as we could for charity; and to give the people of North Staffordshire a memorable day out. I like to think we succeeded in those aims”.

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Tonnes of snow… and a Christmas to savour with my family

On Christmas Eve 1981 the snow lay three inches thick across the Potteries. It wasn’t the Slush Puppy stuff we’ve been having in recent weeks, either – it was proper, deep snow.

In fact, we were in the grip of the record-breaking, snowiest (I am told there is such a word) December of the 20th Century.

It was an exceptional month, weather-wise. During the night of December 12 to 13 temperatures plummeted to below minus 18 across the UK.

Even the Queen did not escape the snow – ending up stranded for several hours in a Cotswold pub on December 14.

High winds caused havoc on coastal waters and on December 19 the Penlee lifeboat capsized off the Cornish coast as it went to the aid of crippled cargo ship Union Star. Sixteen lives were lost.

After a heavy snowfall on December 21 a blanket of the white stuff covered most of the country – up to 33cm deep in parts of the Midlands.

Yours truly was only nine at the time and my brother Matthew was five. We were off school and the weather was perfect.

We were beyond excited.

Not only was Father Christmas due in Sneyd Green but we had enough of the white stuff to build whacking great snowmen, have snowball fights and – because we lived on a hill –
go sledging down the road.

As usual, Christmas Eve involved Matt and I getting an early-ish night and doing our best to get off to sleep while wondering what new toys we would wake up to.

It is interesting to note that the average wage at the time was £6,000 per year (the equivalent of around £19,000 in today’s money). Petrol was 28 pence per litre, bread was 33p and a pint of milk 17p.

Meanwhile my dad’s festive pint down his local would have cost him and my grandad 35p.

In truth it was to be a sparse Christmas for many as the recession tightened its grip on Britain.

December 1981 was actually the month that a certain Arthur Scargill became President-elect of the National Union of Mineworkers. And we all know what happened after that.

Despite this austere backdrop, Matt and I came downstairs on that frosty Christmas day morning to find that Santa had once again delivered two sacks crammed full of presents.

They included a version of the top-selling toy of the previous year – the Rubik’s ball or snake puzzle – but not 1981’s must-have: Lego’s first electric train set. Not that Matt and I cared, like.

My nan and grandad, Ethel and Frank, arrived from Bentilee mid-morning and we stuffed our faces with turkey dinner, mince pies, Christmas cake and After Eight mints before grandad fell asleep in front of the fire.

It may have been the food, the couple of pints he’d supped down the Holden Bridge pub, or more likely the Queen’s Speech which finished him off.

Her Majesty told us all of her joy at seeing her eldest son tying the knot with Lady Diana Spencer earlier in the year.

She also underlined the importance of the International Year of Disabled People and made a special mention of her subjects in Northern Ireland who were living through the troubles.

Another television must-see that year was, of course, Top Of The Pops which boasted a performance of the Christmas number one – Don’t You Want Me? by The Human League. (A proper pop song in the days before the X-Factor dictated which pretty boy or girl got to number one).

BBC1’s other festive delights were shows by mad-cap comedian Kenny Everett and impressionist Mike Yarwood while its Christmas day highlights included Jim’ll Fix It, The Two Ronnies, The Paul Daniels’ Magic Show and Dallas.

Meanwhile, over on ITV we all thought Sarah Kennedy, Henry Kelly and Jeremy Beadle were Game For A Laugh.

Matt and I went to bed happy, full to bursting and knowing the snow would still be there on Boxing Day. Along with a pile of turkey.

Even against a background of enormous economic uncertainty – not dissimilar to that which we face today – the memories of Christmas 1981 remain golden for me and I know exactly who to thank for that.

Merry Christmas, mum and dad.

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