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Behind the scenes with the Buxton Athletic Club

PUBLISHED: 10:05 12 December 2018 | UPDATED: 10:05 12 December 2018

Runners taking part in the Litton Christmas Cracker race

Runners taking part in the Litton Christmas Cracker race

geoff ford

Dynamic and thriving, Buxton Athletic Club proves that there is a desire to engage in sport, whatever your age or level of ability.

Jim Bradley receiving the High Peak Services to Sport Award 2017Jim Bradley receiving the High Peak Services to Sport Award 2017

When the fledgling Buxton Athletic Club organised its Carnival Race in 1978, the entry included international runner Mike Tagg, who duly won the event. One of Buxton AC’s founder members, Chris Bent, got chatting to Brendan Foster, then England’s premier long-distance runner, who had come along to support his friend Tagg.

‘I talked to Brendan at the end of the race,’ says Chris, ‘and said that I would like to create here what he had created in Gateshead. At that time Gateshead was the top club in Britain.’

In 2017, 40 years after Buxton Athletic Club was formed, the dream was finally realised. ‘It took 40 years but we were the top club in Britain!’ Chris exclaimed. ‘English Athletics’ Club of the Year, it had come full circle!’

Whilst the dream had come true for Chris, he was quick to point out that this was an achievement brought about by others who are committed whole-heartedly to the club. There was a tremendous spirit of community that I experienced when I was warmly welcomed to their Litton Christmas Cracker Fell Race on a frosty morning back in February after the race had been postponed from the previous December when the roads had been impassable.

Buxton's Lauren McNeil, winner of the ladies open race, receiving her prize from Chris BentBuxton's Lauren McNeil, winner of the ladies open race, receiving her prize from Chris Bent

‘I actually moved away to Essex in 1985, for nearly 30 years, because of work,’ Chris continued, ‘and returned to find a club that was absolutely thriving due to Sheila Bradley. She really is the heartbeat of the club.’

Chris, who has always been a keen runner, was a member of Salford Harriers before moving to Buxton in 1977. ‘There were lots of runners in Buxton, so we thought that maybe we could have a club here. It would also be a lot more convenient for me not to have to get to Manchester all the time.

‘We organised a get-together outside the swimming pool in Buxton on 9th June 1977 and a handful of people turned up. There was a guy called Eric Mitchell who was a top fell runner at that time. He took a group up to Solomon’s Temple and we had our daughter Alison with us, she was six months old at the time and in her pram, and I ran around the gardens with some people who were complete novices to running.

‘It just went from there. Suddenly we were quite a strong local club – one of the few at that time. There was Derby, Matlock, Dark Peak Fell Runners and us, just four clubs in Derbyshire. Now there are hundreds of clubs across the county.

Junior winner Alex Ediker with Chris Theyer (Thomas Theyer Foundation) and club chair Chris BentJunior winner Alex Ediker with Chris Theyer (Thomas Theyer Foundation) and club chair Chris Bent

‘When I came back I was elected chairman almost immediately, probably to link the past with the present. We didn’t have a junior section in the early days but the junior section we have now is thriving and we have international runners in our junior section.’

Both juniors and seniors were competing at the Litton meeting, a new event in the Buxton AC calendar. The strength of the club is in its sense of community with family members taking part in both races, or organising on this occasion.

‘We are very much a family club,’ Chris added. ‘When we had the 40th birthday celebrations at the Palace in Buxton, we had lots of memorabilia on show including the cupid board: a significant group of people have met their partners through the club and their children have run for the club.’

Club secretary Sheila Bradley, who at one time competed in ultra-marathon distance races, joined the club in 1989, after Chris had moved a way.

First and second in the girls race, Heather Wilshaw and Abbie Fryer-WinderFirst and second in the girls race, Heather Wilshaw and Abbie Fryer-Winder

‘The club was relatively small then and the person who really encouraged me to explore and discover this wonderful Peak District area was Pat Grundy. He was a founder member, ran with the club for a long time, and liked to show everybody the area. Within a couple years I became secretary. I had a four-year break and then became secretary again and have been for the past 25 or 26 years.

‘My husband Jim is life-long President. He was also a founder member and has carried out various roles such as press secretary and club secretary. We’ve always been involved with the club.’

And the club has grown enormously during that time, particularly following the home Olympic Games in 2012.

‘When I joined the club had 30 to 40 members and we currently have around 200. Six years ago, on the back of the Olympics, Jim decided that he would like to put something back into athletics and suggested that we organise a 5K event around the Pavilion Gardens in Buxton. We got the approval of the committee and we now get 80 to 100 people there every month.

Chris Bent presents Billy Cartwright of Matlock, winner of the men's open raceChris Bent presents Billy Cartwright of Matlock, winner of the men's open race

‘It has been very successful and one guy who came along, Andrew Wearden, decided after 18 months with the club that he would like to put something back and started a beginners’ group, Target 5k. He has now had six beginners’ groups and we have registered around 250 people in that time. After they have done the nine-week programme, some have stayed and some have left. As a result of Jim’s idea of putting something back into athletics, it has helped to grow the club even more. All the awards are partly to do with what we’ve done and also what the junior section has done.

‘We have a thriving junior section with very proactive and positive junior leaders: Rachel Dowle, Wendy Higginbottom and Mark Quince. They are really remarkable in what they do for the juniors. We are gathering good level athletes all the time because of our reputation, and we are growing and improving the quality.

‘Equally we look at people at the other end, so we are all-inclusive. This is the legacy that everyone wanted from the London Olympics, so we think it has been successful.

‘We have an ethos within the club: whoever is at the front of a group will, after a while, turn back and rejoin at the back of the group so no-one runs on their own. It helps to make everyone feel part of the club and I think that works really well.’

Club chair Chris Bent and secretary Sheila Bradley with some of the awards Buxton AC collected in 2017Club chair Chris Bent and secretary Sheila Bradley with some of the awards Buxton AC collected in 2017

Certainly there were lots of smiling faces around, a warm and friendly atmosphere despite the frosty start on the day of my visit, and a sizeable entry for the races making for a successful event. ‘A lot of that is to do with the club itself but also Sue Jeff and her husband Nigel who have organised this event,’ says Chris Bent. ‘They built up a community before they came to Buxton and they’ve done the same here.’

The first event to complete was the junior race and I caught up with junior co-ordinator and coach Rachel Dowle.

‘Our Junior Section celebrates its 30th anniversary this year and we have around 100 members from age 7 to 18,’ she told me. ‘We train twice a week and compete most weekends in cross-country – in which we have had a fantastic season – track and field and fell running, which is our real strength.

‘The club has some cracking junior athletes. Alex Ediker (junior winner of the Litton race) has been selected to represent England as has Will Tighe who was placed second.’

The Litton Christmas Cracker Fell Race gets under wayThe Litton Christmas Cracker Fell Race gets under way

Stop watch in hand, Rachel turns to look back up the course. ‘My daughter Heather is coming in, first girl… proud moment!’

‘2017 was an award-winning year for us – High Peak Junior Team of the Year and Derbyshire Junior Team of the Year. The juniors running today are all part of our fell team and the Junior Fell Team took part in the English Junior Fell Championships winning silver, which is amazing because Derbyshire is not renowned for its mountain runners. We’re a small county and we’re up against Yorkshire and The Lakes. We also got bronze medals by a very small margin in the Inter-Counties Fell Championships for under-17 boys.’

Clearly, the strong sense of community allows Buxton Athletic Club to punch above its weight and the health of the junior section suggests a great future for the club. ‘Although we have few facilities for track and field it doesn’t stop us,’ adds Sheila Bradley. ‘Chris does some track and speed sessions, another very good coach Terry Fowler also does coaching for the juniors and the seniors. We have some very good athletes and it helps those of us in the mid-range to get better. We get better because of them, it’s a great club to be involved with, very inclusive, very welcoming.

‘We celebrated 40 years in 2017 and Jim and I put together a time-line of photographs and results, a massive display on something like 50 A1 boards. We had around 150 people at the Palace Hotel and tracked down 55 past members. It was good to celebrate such a successful and thriving club after so long.

‘Jim also won three awards for services to athletics: the East Midlands Services to Athletics Award, the national England Athletics Services to Athletics Award and the High Peak Services to Athletics Award, which was a massive accolade for him and well deserved.’

The great hope for British sport was that the London Olympics of 2012 would inspire the nation and that there would be a lasting legacy. Buxton AC have proved that there was, and is, an appetite to engage in sport at all ages and abilities. They have created a dynamic and thriving community around their club and have been justly recognised by their peers for their outstanding achievements.

For more information on Buxton Athletic Club and how to get involved, visit their website buxtonac.org.uk

This year’s Litton Christmas Cracker Race is scheduled for 9th December, 11am, Litton Village Hall, SK17 8QX. Contact: Sue Jeff, tel: 01298 605092, email: hightops11@hotmail.co.uk

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