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Mid Week Retro: Great memories of walking heritage

Star Walk finish at Owlerton Stadium. 8 June 1965.
Winner: Keith French.

Star Walk finish at Owlerton Stadium. 8 June 1965. Winner: Keith French.

IT promises to be an enjoyable stroll in aid of a great cause.

An all new Star Walk is to be held this year with Sheffielders invited to join a one mile amble through Hillsborough Park. They will raise money for a statue honouring the women who worked the steel foundries during World War Two.

But for generations of competitors the Star Walk meant something altogether different: namely it meant blood, sweat and vomit in the streets; it meant an event which, while undoubtedly enjoyable, was also capable of reducing grown men to tears.

The annual road race, held between 1922 and 2000, saw thousands of contestants compete to be named Sheffield’s fastest walker over an agonising 11 miles.

Blisters were common. So too was the sight of amateur athletes collapsing. On at least one occasion a front runner was clipped by an official’s car. W P Parker won the race and then took himself to hospital. That was 1924, in the days before health and safety.

Later winners would go on to represent Great Britain at the Olympics and Commonwealth Games.

“Safe to say it wasn’t for the faint hearted,” says Stuart Hastings, a retired Star photographer who snapped the race from 1968 - and took part in it just once.

“They say walking is the most physically demanding sport there is except swimming. But there was real kudos in winning – you’d not have to buy your drinks for a while.”

It changed somewhat in later years to become a fun-run style event with many participants in fancy dress. But until the mid-Eighties, this was serious stuff.

“The atmosphere was great, though,” says Stuart, 65, of Dore. “Especially if it was hot. That wasn’t so good for the walkers but perfect for onlookers.”

The tradition was initiated by The Star – then the Yorkshire Telegraph and Star - to encourage walking as a hobby.

“Sheffield has a sporting reputation second to none,” an editorial declared on May 1, 1922. “But great as its programme is, there is ample room for an event which will encourage such a fine healthy pastime as road walking.”

The rules were simple. The race would be held on Whit Tuesday and would be open to those living within 20 miles of Kemsley House, High Street.

Only amateurs could enter. No-one who had won in a race was allowed to take part – a regulation which meant those who actually finished first one year weren’t allowed to compete again.

And its success was instant.

Some 272 men competed that first year. Two women had the temerity to apply but were told this was chaps only. That rule remained until 1978. The first ever winner was HE Hoyle, of Hillsborough. Over the next 60 years minor changes were made - the route altered to end in Hillsborough, and the day changed to Spring Bank - but the spirit remained.

Which is to say, it remained fun and friendly but also ferociously competitive.

“You’d often see them collapse as they came over the line,” says Stuart. “Or vomiting in the street. For years water stops weren’t allowed - because it was considered bad for the walkers.

“They’d swear they’d never do it again. Then you’d see them the following year.”

Several winners would go on to have successful athletics careers.

Laurence Allen and Roland Hardy - 1947 and 1949 winners respectively - represented Great Britain at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics. John Warhurst, meanwhile, won the walk in 1967 before taking gold at the 1974 Christchurch Commonwealth Games.

Yet by the mid-Eighties, a shift had started. Increasingly, people wanted to do the walk for fun. The competitive element faded. In 1996, it became The Star Walk For Charity.

The last year was 2000. With the growth of fun runs, bosses decided the walk had, well, walked its course. It was an institution which, until last week, was consigned to history.

* Details of the 2013 Star Walk - and entry forms - are being published in coming weeks.

 

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