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Snow had been drifting down lightly at the start of the Three Counties cross-country race at Bridgely, but soon after the runners had completed a couple of laps, the wind rose, the snow thickened, and Alf Tupper, the Tough of the Track, lost sight of Harden-Hughes, who was leading the field. Alf plodded on.

The wind howled and a line of spruce trees bent over in the gusts. It was impossible to see for more than a few yards. “Lummy,” muttered Alf grimly, “this is a nice afternoon out!” He reached a ditch and only after a search found the plank that spanned the icy water. Through the driving snow he located a Dutch barn that showed him he was still on his course. Alf shivered and ran past the barn. Running was his sport. In the summer months he had had a successful season on the track. He couldn’t bear the idea of laying off during the winter, so he had taken up cross-country running. He lived in Greystone, a large manufacturing town, and was plumber’s mate to Charlie Chipping. The Tough made out a windmill that gave him his bearings. He battled his way over the summit and found the going a bit easier down the slope. But it required a search to find a way into the sunken lane that led back towards the Bridgely village, the finishing point. Already the snow was forming drifts and Alf ran into a patch in which he sunk up to his knees. He forged through and trudged on. He was plastered with snow. It lay thick in his shaggy hair. Through another drift he emerged from the lane. Now he was facing north-east and full into the wind. He had to keep his head right down to breathe. An oak tree gave him his bearings and then, out of the blizzard, came the shape of Bridgely School from which the race had started and which was also the finishing point. Alf plodded slowly towards the building. He peered round and scowled angrily. “Why aren’t the blooming judges on the job?” he growled, for nobody was to be seen. Alf turned in through the school gateway. Lights were shining from the windows, for the building was being used as a dressing-room. There were shouts of “shut that door” as he pushed it open and stood on the threshold. His blurred eyes picked out Harden-Hughes, the famous cross-country runner. “So you beat me to it, Noel!” he exclaimed. Harden-Hughes stared at him in amazement. “You haven’t the course?” he gasped. Alf stared at him in surprise. “What d’you suppose I’ve been doing—looking for birds nests?” he scoffed. Stewart Farr, the secretary of the Three Counties Association, came forward. “The race was abandoned,” he said. “It wasn’t fit for a dog to be out—and we abandoned it after the second lap.” “I was out in it,” snapped Alf. He gave a sniff as he looked down the room at the other competitors, most of whom had finished changing. “Lot of cissies!” “I admire your pluck, Tupper,” declared Farr, “but I’m afraid that as the race was abandoned, we can’t award you a medal.”

This first episode (Third Series) of:

The Tough of the Track

Is taken from The Rover #1331

December 30th 1950

Alf raised a grin. “Don’t make me cry.” He said. “I’d sooner have a cuppa tea than a box of medals.” “We can give you a cup of tea,” replied Farr. Alf thawed out a bit by the stove and got out of his sodden running togs. He dressed in shirt, trousers, sports jacket, and boots. He never wore under-vest, pull-over, or socks. Round his neck he tied a muffler and then he put his prized rain-coat, that he only wore on rare occasions. He wrapped up his running things and shoes in a piece of brown paper and was ready to go. It took the bus two hours to cover a distance that ordinarily would have required half an hour. Alf’s feet were cold but he did not keep sniffing and sneezing like many of the other athletes in the vehicle. Harden-Hughes, muffled up in a thick overcoat, sat next to Alf. “What are you shaking for, Noel?” the Tough asked. “I’m frozen to the marrow,” replied Harden-Hughes, his teeth chattering. “I’ll get in a hot bath as soon as I get home and then go to bed.” When the bus put down its passengers at Greystone, Alf made for the small café kept by Sam Kessick near the railway viaduct. The café was suffocatingly hot but Alf sniffed appreciatively at the aroma of boiling fat and fried fish and chips. “Six penn’orth of chips and a piece, Sam,” he said. Kessick stared at him from his one bright eye. “You ain’t been running this afternoon?” he exclaimed. “I’m about the only one who did,” grunted Alf. “I can’t make some chaps out. Just because it started snowing a bit they packed up.” Alf enjoyed his fish and chips and swilled them down with a couple of cups of tea. “That’s better,” he said to Kessick. “I’ll be off home now.” Snow plastered him again by the time he reached the disused canal basin in which lay a derelict canal boat. He sprang aboard and hauled open the creaking door of the cabin, roofed now with a sheet of corrugated iron. He lit a candle and pulled open the damper of the stove. He never lacked for fuel. There was plenty of coal to be excavated from the mud, as coal barges had at one time been unloaded at the wharf. Alf sat on the edge of the bunk to take off his boots. “It ain’t been a bad day out,” he muttered. “Just the same, there ain’t the thrill in cross-country running that you get on the track—not for me, anyway.”


Snow lay thickly around but the sky was clear and frosty when Alf pushed open the door of Charlie Chipping’s shop on Monday morning. The room was crammed with such objects as cisterns and galvanized iron tanks. With his bowler hat on the back of his head, Chipping was taking a message on the phone. He had the kind of moustache usually seen on the face of a walrus and, because of the cold, a ripe, red nose.

He hung up the phone and greeted Alf with a nod. “That’s the tenth,” he said. “The tenth what?” asked Alf. “The tenth burst pipe to be reported this morning,” stated the plumber. Alf started to collect the tools and Chipping filled the containers of their blow-lamps. “So your race was abandoned on Saturday,” he remarked. “Ay,” grunted Alf. “It was a blooming frost!” Chipping who had done some running in his younger days, put down the petrol can. “Is this cross-country racing doing you any good, Alf?” he demanded. “You’re a track man. You had a champion season during the summer, ain’t you backing the wrong hoss in tackling these cross-country races?” “I’d be bored stiff without a bit of racing, Charlie,” replied Alf. “That ain’t the point,” retorted the plumber. “That’s a short-sighted way of looking at things. When I was a young ‘un, our trainer was Tom Woods. You wouldn’t know him now, but he was right on top of his job—did it as a hobby, of course. Well, Tom always used to tell us that runs, but not races, across country were to be recommended for keeping fit. He was dead against a track man racing in the winter.” Alf listened intently.  “He was up against racing, was he?” he muttered. “Right up against it,” said Chipping. “Have a run in the country, yes, he used to tell us. Race across country, no he’d say.” The phone rang and Chipping answered the call. He hung up the receiver. “The lady at fifteen Belmont Street, has got a blooming fountain playing in her back kitchen and don’t know where to turn off the water,” he reported. “We’ll call there first, Alf.” With Alf shoving the hand-cart and Chipping resting a hand on the side, they left the shop and started out on their day of mending burst pipes. They had reached the High Street when Alf let go the handle and let the hand-cart come to a stop. There was curiosity in his eyes as he stared across at three men, hatless, but muffled up in scarves and overcoats, who were walking along the opposite pavement. “Lummy, I thought Cal Marrow had gone back home,” he exclaimed. “Which one is Cal Marrow?” asked Chipping. Alf pointed to the bronzed young man in the middle of the three. Marrow was the American runner who had had great success on British tracks during the season. The Tough had beaten him once, but that had been Marrow’s only defeat. The tallest of the group paused to look in a shop window and Alf could see his keen features with a long, prominent nose and a chin which stuck out like the point of a new moon. “I’ve placed him, too,” gasped Alf. “I’ve seen pictures and cartoons of him in the papers and if he isn’t Frank Ferris, I’ll shove this cart up a lamp-post.” “Ferris?” echoed Chipping. “The chap who won all them track events in the Empire Games in New Zealand?” “That’s him or I’m a corkscrew,” said Alf. “He didn’t half set up some cracking times. I was hoping he’d be over for the summer, but he had to stay in Australia to pass an exam or something.” Chipping shifted his gaze to the third and burliest of the group, a young fellow with a broad chest, a swarthy complexion and sleek dark hair brushed straight back. “Know him?” he asked. Alf’s excitement grew. “I’ve placed him,” he burst out. “I saw him running in the sprints when I was over at Brussels for the European Games. Yes, he’s Peter Vurmi—the chap from Finland.” A pompous policeman came over. “You can’t park that hand-cart here,” he snapped. “Okay, Cecil, we’re just off,” said Alf and got hold of the handle again. But he had pushed the truck only a few yards when he pulled up with a jerk at the sight of another athletic young man who had come out of a shop and joined the others. “Well, chase me, that’s Ken Bakerson,” he gulped. “The high jumper,” said Chipping. “That’s him!” exclaimed Alf. “He can clear six feet six any time he feels like it. I’d like to know what all these chaps are doing here at this time of the year?” “Maybe they’re having a do at Granton Hall,” suggested the plumber. “Charlie, I guess you’re right,” Alf said. Granton Hall, a large house on the outskirts of Greystone, had been turned into an athletics coaching centre. “Maybe they’re having some kind of winter coaching stunt with lectures or something,” added Alf. “They can keep their lectures. They’re too blooming highbrow for me.”


With thaw and frost alternating, Alf and Chipping spent some busy days. In mid-week the thaw won. The snow melted so fast that the streets were awash and then came a deluge of rain. On Wednesday evening, as he stood in his doorway and looked at the rain, Chipping remarked, “You won’t!” “What?” asked Alf. “Run at Kempley on Saturday,” said the plumber.

“The fields are low-lying. They’ll be flooded. “It’ll be a wasted week-end if I don’t have a race,” replied Alf dolefully. “Then you’re not minding what I told you?” exclaimed the plumber. “Oh, I guess maybe I’ll cut the cross-country races out later,” Alf said, but he had an uncomfortable feeling that Chipping was right and that these ten miles cross-country races and the training for them, were not suitable for a track man. Alf was sopping wet when he got to his canal boat home. He let his clothes dry on him in front of the stove and fried himself some sausages for his supper. As he had no wireless to listen to, or anything to read, he turned early into the bunk, sleeping in his shirt under a couple of blankets. Daylight was filtering in when he woke up, stretched and yawned. Then he jerked up on his elbow. He could hear the lapping of water, he could hear creaks. He felt the old craft was moving. Alf thrust his legs out of the bunk and uttered a yell of surprise when he found he was nearly knee-deep in water. He waded to the door and hauled it open. “Lummy,” he gasped. “I’m off for a cruise.” It was no doubt the rapid thaw and the deluge that had filled the basin had lifted the boat off the mud in which it had rested for so long. While Alf had been asleep it had drifted to the middle of the basin, twenty or thirty yards away from the wharf. Alf scrambled out. He looked towards the bow and saw it was under water. “I’m sinking,” he muttered. “The old hooker’s sinking—and I’ll go with it unless somebody comes along pretty sharp.” But warehouses backed on the wharf and the only moving thing was a dog. Alf plunged back into the cabin. His idea was to salvage his belongings. He rammed his clothes, after putting on his trousers and overalls, into his fibre suitcase and lifted it onto the roof of the cabin. He fetched out the biscuit barrel, won as a prize for running, in which he kept his bit of margarine and lard, and the mug he used for his tea. The only other trophy of the track he could get at was a cruet. Alf climbed up on to the roof and crouched there while the canal boat sank lower and lower. There was a small boat tied up to the wharf but nobody in sight to man it and row to his rescue. He hollered but there was no reply. The Tough could swim, but not well. But it looked as if he were not going to get any option. In case the necessity came, he knotted his bootlaces together, tying the biscuit barrel and the cruet to them, and hung his boots round his neck. Alf could hear the distant roar of traffic, but for all the help he got, he might have been sinking in the middle of the Pacific. The boat sank till water started to creep across the roof of the cabin. Alf took a deep breath and slid into the freezing water. Pushing the suitcase ahead of him he struck out clumsily for the wharf. It was his toughness that enabled him to resist the cold and to keep going, but by the time he reached the steps and climbed out, he could not have stood much more. His limbs were blue with cold and his teeth were chattering. The wind howled round him as, with water dripping from his soaked clothes, he hurried to the plumber’s. The first thing he saw was a note for him on the mantelpiece. Chipping had written— “Follow me along to Granton Hall with the hand-cart. I’ve had to go off without you as the warden wants to see me.” “You’ll have to wait a bit, Charlie,” muttered Alf as, with shaking hands, he struck a match and lit the gas fire. “I’m going to dry out a bit, and have a cuppa tea and a bite, before I start work.” When, in due course, Alf pushed the hand-cart up the drive of Granton Hall, Chipping came to meet him. “What’s been keeping you, Alf?” he asked. “My home sweet home got sunk this morning,” said Alf, and described what had happened. “That was a bit of bad luck,” exclaimed the plumber. “You’ll have to go into lodgings.” “Not if I can blooming well help it,” declared the Tough. “I don’t get on with landladies. But what’s the job here, Charlie?” “There are lots of jobs to do,” Chipping answered. “They all come about through the big building at the back of the house, that used to be a gymnasium, being turned into an indoor sports arena with track and everything.” Alf blinked. “An indoor arena with track!” he gasped. “We’re going round there now,” stated the plumber. “Our job is down the cellars, but there’s nobody to stop you having a look-see.” Alf took the hand-cart along at a gallop. At the rear of the house loomed the large structure that had been built originally as a private theatre and subsequently turned into a gymnasium. Now, apparently it was undergoing another conversion. The doors were open and Alf walked in. He slithered to a stop and his eyes open wide at the sight of the running-track, banked on the curves, that had been constructed round the interior of the building. It had a composition surface such as used on the best outdoor tracks but, inside it, was a smaller wooden track. At one end of the building was a balcony backed by a number of glass-fronted cubicles. A hugh clock had an unusual face—with three hands, one for minutes, one for seconds, and the third for recording tenths of a second. Metal standards that were topped by what looked like box-aerials stood at regular intervals round the track. Within the oval there was a jumping pit with other equipment of which Alf could not get the hang at all. “Lummy, Charlie, it looks as if the lucky blighters are going to get in some winter track practice here,” exclaimed Alf, his eyes gleaming. “Maybe this explains it,” said the plumber. “Explains what?” asked Alf. “Why Cal Marrow, Frank Ferris, and the other top-notchers are in the town,” said Chipping. “They’re here to keep themselves in trim during the winter.” “Ay, that would be it,” replied Alf. “Gee, but don’t that track look like a dream! D’you say we’re coming up here quite a lot?” “Yes, and that reminds me, we ought to be down in the cellar connecting up the heating apparatus,” Chipping said. “Okay, I’ll come along,” said Alf. “But I’m having a run round that track before I’m much older.” “I don’t see that there’ll be anyone to stop you so long as you pick your time,” replied Chipping.


Alf and Chipping had not guessed right when they thought the indoor arena was merely for winter training. That afternoon quite a number of newspaper reporters visited Granton Hall by invitation, and assembled in the main hall of the house.

The Warden of the centre, Commander Harold Churcher, who was a former Olympics relay runner, came in. He was accompanied by a middle-aged man with a shock of unruly grey hair and a thin, precise-looking individual who wore rimless glasses. Then several athletes wearing the ties and badges of some of the most famous clubs in the world, entered and formed a group at the side. There were whispers among the reporters. They had recognised the man as Professor Hugo Dane and Professor Lee-Latham, two eminent scientists. Commander Churcher was the spokesman. “We have brought you here to give an outline of important, not to say vital, experiments that are to be carried out at Granton Hall during the coming months,” he stated. “These experiments will form the first real scientific inquiry into athletics, and we hope at the end to be able to answer many questions that are baffling us at the moment. We shall be concerned with tests of human endurance, of human speed, with problems of stamina, of diet, and breathing, to mention but a few.” He paused for a moment while the reporters made notes. “We hope to learn a great deal,” but then he went on. “More than that, our experiments may well lead to greater athletic performances in the future. We have constructed an indoor sports arena in which we shall be able to make our tests under perfect conditions and with the help of the most-up-to-date apparatus. It will, for instance, be possible to measure and record the speed of a runner at any point in a race. It will be equally possible to record the exhaustion he is feeling. It will be possible to establish the rate of movement that best suits a man. We also anticipate some extraordinary results from artificial pacing.” “You’re making a real science of running, then?” exclaimed a sporting journalist. “Yes, this will be a laboratory for athletes,” chuckled Commander Churcher. “Professor Hugo Dane and Professor Lee-Latham will be resident here for most of the time, and we shall have the help of some of the outstanding athletes of Europe and America to serve as subjects in the experiments. From time to time we shall issue statements of what we are doing, and some, at least, of the events will be seen by you newspaper reporters.” After more questions had been asked and answered, there was a move to the indoor arena. Professor Lee-Latham took some of the reporters into one of the glass-fronted cubicles to show them the recording instruments. “Frank Figgis is going to run a lap of the track—two hundred and twenty yards—for us,” he said. “His progress will be measured by a series of photo-electric cells placed at ten yard intervals round the track. You will be able to watch his speed on this dial, which looks rather like a car speedometer. At the same time his run will be recorded on this other instrument—the speedograph—by a pen drawing a line on a piece of graph paper fixed on to a revolving cylinder.” The newspaper men watched with interest. Down below, Figgis was stripping off his track suit. Commander Churcher, who had stayed below, pressed down the master switch. A red light glowed above the clock to indicate that all the apparatus was alive. Nobody noticed faces peering out of the half-open doorway that led down to the cellar. Alf and Charlie Chipping were having a look. Frank Hamilton, the track coach, took up his position by a stand to which the starting-pistol was fixed. A reporter was curious about this. “Why doesn’t he hold the pistol?” he inquired. “There is an electrical lead from the pistol so that we can record the precise instant at which it is fired and so ascertain how fast the runner responds,” explained Lee-Latham. Hamilton used the customary words of command. “Get to your mark. Get set!” At the crack of the pistol it seemed as if Figgis hit his stride instantly, but Lee-Latham pointed out there was a lag of half a second before he was really on the move. As Figgis sped round the track, the needle on the recording dial flickered and the pen traced his course on the graph paper. “Ah, he has done the distance in the good time of twenty-one and nine-tenths seconds,” exclaimed Lee-Latham. “You will notice from the recording that he attained his maximum speed between the sixty and eighty yards posts, where his speed was eleven and a half yards per second.” On the cellar steps, Chipping gave Alf a tap on the shoulder. “We’d better get on with our work,” he said. Alf gave a nod. “Ay, the fun seems to be over,” he replied. “But the next time we come along here I’ll bring my running-strip.” “That’ll be to-morrow,” said the plumber. “By the way, Alf, where are you going to hang out now your boat has sunk? There isn’t room round at my house.” Aw. I’ll doss down at the shop till I find a place,” answered Alf.


On the following morning Cal Marrow strode round the track. He was running the mile and the scientists watched his progress on the instruments. As he completed the eight laps and flashed over the timing strip, the clock recorded four minutes ten seconds. Lee-Latham pointed to the graph.


“It is a splendid piece of running!” he exclaimed. “You will note that the first quarter-mile was a shade the fastest, that he then had two even quarters and, thanks to his finishing spurt, clipped a tenth of a second off the final lap. It was a rhythmic, even effort—” “The only way to run a race is evenly,” said Hugo Dane in his gruff voice. “The runner who goes in fits and starts will never set up a good time.” The indoor arena emptied as the scientists and runners went away to their lunch. Hardly had the outer door closed than up popped Alf from the cellar followed by Chipping. He took off his plumber’s clothing and threw it over a barrier. He was wearing his running kit underneath. “What are you going to have a go at?” asked Chipping. “The mile, pal,” said Alf. “Here! Let me start the clock. I watched how he done it,” exclaimed Chipping. “Okay,” replied Alf. Chipping pulled down the master switch. A few moments later the Tough sped away over the starting strip. After the rough, wet, sticky going of cross-country running, it felt grand to have a fast, springy track under his feet again. Chipping watched Alf and he kept an eye on the clock. “Buck your ideas up, Alf,” he shouted after the Tough had run a quarter of a mile. Alf was warm now. He had been working in the cold cellar all morning and had started rather chilly and cramped. He went hard for the next 440 yards. On going into the next lap he felt a twinge in the calf of his right leg. It slowed him right down. It was just a touch of cramp and it went as suddenly as it came. With a quarter of a mile to go, the Tough glanced up at the clock. “Lummy, have I been standing still?” he thought and whipped himself into a tremendous burst of speed. Chipping shook his head. “He won’t keep this up,” he growled, but Alf did and the clock was on four minutes seven and a half seconds as he finished with a spurt that took all his wind and left him tucked up and panting. Chipping shut the master switch and the clock hands returned to zero. In the middle of the afternoon Commander Churcher and the two scientists returned to the indoor arena to prepare for some more running. They climbed the steps to the balcony and entered the cubicle. “I was very impressed by the even nature of Marrow’s running,” remarked Dane. “He showed a fine sense of the pace judgment essential for running a fast mile and—” An astonished cry broke from Lee-Latham. “Look at this!” he exclaimed, and peered at the speedograph. “What’s happened? It has recorded a mile in under four minutes eight seconds. “It looks more like a record of an earthquake,” gasped Dane, as he studied the erratic line. The quarter-mile timings at which they stared indicated a sluggish first quarter, a lightning second, a slow third, and a jet-propelled final. “It’s all wrong,” declared Le-Latham. “Nobody could run such a mile.” “No, no, it’s impossible,” agreed Dane. “The apparatus must have been left on and something shook the instrument and caused it to revolve.” “Yes, that’s what happened,” said Lee-Latham. “All our athletes were at lunch. Nobody has been having a private trial. We had better check up on the instruments before we start the afternoon’s programme—” Dane turned his head in a listening attitude. “D’you hear hammering, Churcher?” he asked. “Can you hear a clanking sound?” Churcher nodded lightly. “The plumbers are working in the cellar,” he said. “That’s all it is.” “That may explain it,” said Lee-Latham. “Their knockings may have started off the speedograph.” “Quite likely,” agreed Dane. He gave a gruff laugh. “We’ll blame it on the plumber.”


The Tough of the Track (1st series) 32 episodes appeared in The Rover issues 1244 - 1275

The Tough of the Track (2nd series) 30 episodes appeared in The Rover issues 1295 - 1324

The Tough of the Track (3rd series) 10 episodes appeared in The Rover issues 1331 - 1340

The Tough of the Track (4th series) 12 episodes appeared in The Rover issues 1350 - 1361

The Tough of the Track (5th series) 20 episodes appeared in The Rover issues 1404 - 1423

The Tough of the Track (6th series) 22 episodes appeared in The Rover issues 1434 - 1455

The Tough of the Track (7th series) 13 episodes appeared in The Rover issues 1460 - 1472

The Tough of the Track (8th series) 22 episodes appeared in The Rover issues 1503 - 1524

He’s in the Army Now (9th series) 31 episodes appeared in The Rover issues 1543 - 1573

The Tough of the Track (10th series) 22 episodes appeared in The Rover issues 1646 – 1667


© D. C. Thomson & Co Ltd 

Vic Whittle 2005