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Paris 1986 - Liza remembers

Liza with Ann Holland at the start

It’s 1985 and 4 years earlier Dave Wright had helped his Ranelagh Harriers running mate, Chris Brasher launch the first London Marathon by painting the blue line for the lucky seven thousand entrants to follow round the route. It’s 1985 and Liza Howes has run her first race since school sport days when she came 2nd (and 2nd lady vet) in the Fairford Fun run by finishing the 10k well behind Cirencester Athletics club member Mollie Fisher. 1985 and Cirencester Open Air Swimming Pool is broke (after a bad summer?)and the Committee, of which Liza was a new member, were considering closure.

“Tell you what” says Liza – typically engaging mouth before brain – “I’ll run the London marathon to raise some funds for the pool”.

So, having failed to get a place in London 1986 (some 80k applied for 20k places) I managed to secure one for Paris – also held in April 1986. This was a much older marathon – the first was held way back in 1896 when 191 runners completed a mere 40k route to be led home by Brit Len Hurst in 2:31. And the event had been open to the masses and run over the full 42k+ distance from 1977. The history for women is more confused with a record of a French woman completing the distance in 5:40 in 1918 although by 1926 they had speeded up somewhat with 3:40 recorded. But it is clear that women only joined the mass event in 1978 when Maureen Hurst (GB) won in 3:26.

However, winning was not exactly on my mind – I had more immediate problems. Firstly how to up my training from mid week scoots round the block while the children slept and ‘massive ‘ 10 or occasionally even 12(!) mile runs at the weekend? Secondly how, as a single parent of two, dependent of Income Support, was I going to fund a weekend in Paris?

But help was at hand. I had been running one weekday morning and every weekend with Colin O’Hare although on Tuesdays he always deserted me to run with the club. His daughter, Ellen (now Leggatte) who many of you will know from the track or from her speech at the club Awards evening a few years ago, got her core speed from her dad. He could churn out apparently endless 7 to 7.30 minute miles, talking all the way. So, as long as I could keep up with him, (which was fine until we came to a hill) I was getting great training. I slowly increased the weekend distances so that finally I could start with a pre Colin 6 mile warm up and drag myself round a further 4 or 6 mile loop after our 12 miles at race pace together. I upped the mid week distances considerably too but all running had to be done very early in the morning – before my children, then aged 8 and 11, woke up. Lucky for me, this suited Colin’s family commitments too.

The financial concerns were solved by Allan Willis who, as Treasurer of the Open Air Pool arranged for the pool to advance me the cost of the combined hotel and fare package. So very kind, but talk about upping the pressure to compete and to fund raise effectively.

Then, as if it was all meant to be, I discovered that I was going to have company on the day too. Back in 1985 we were angry about a lot of things – think Greenham Common, Peace marches etc. So one day, there I was, protesting about Cruise missiles outside USAF Fairford when I bumped into Anne and Phil Holland. Phil (who lives in Thornbury) and I had run together a few times when staying in adjacent caravans on The Gower so we were soon talking running and it emerged that he too, would be running in Paris.

Mile 10, Liza with Phil in blue vest and beard, going strong

We next met on the start line where Phil informed me, among other things, that we were aiming to run 5 minutes p km in order to finish in around 3 hours 30. And there I was with an ordinary wrist watch just hoping to “get round”! I don’t remember details of the route but it was a very hot day, one of those April freaks with temperatures 20+ - and definitely not what I was used to. We clung to the edge of the Parisian boulevards desperately trying to stay in the shade and those of you who know me will not be surprised to hear I needed a loo stop in the Bois de Boulogne at about 5k. We ran on schedule for the first 30 k but by 31, Phil, started to show signs of dehydration and slowed to a walk leaving me to continue on my own. Over the next 10 km, I, who had not even eaten jelly babies mid run, discovered the joys of dried fruit as the event was sponsored by Carrefour. The photo reminds us just how things have changed – I set off with neither food nor water – Gells? – what were they? About 35 km in , my school girl French also enabled me to discover that a marathon is a mere 42 km not the 47 km that I thought I was running – a fine discovery that was!

Ignorant and ill prepared as I was, I finished in 3 hours 47 and I think I was 35th (or was it 37th?) woman to cross the line. Again, how times have changed, very few women ran in those days – any distance - let alone marathons and hence I was given an enormous bouquet of flowers at the finish. Phil finished some 20 minutes later but two years later ran London in 3 hours 21.

In the absence of social media and sites like JustGiving raising money was the hardest bit but the town led by the local branch of The Halifax and The Wilts and Glos Standard (everyone read it in 1986) got behind me. The £4500+ I raised was a massive sum in those days and, obviously, The Open Air Pool stayed open to continue being a much loved asset to the town. Meanwhile, I became “hooked” on marathon running but the rest of my marathon career is history too although I do confess to not knowing just how many I have run since Paris in 1986.

PS: You may be amused to hear that the flowers caused much excitement - back at my hotel when the chamber maids assumed I had won (!) and again in Cirencester when the National Express Coach driver bringing me back to Ciren insisted on going down on one knee to present them to me – causing the coach to erupt into a storm of applause.

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