taken from The Hotspur issue: 1030
The stories behind the famous sporting headlines. Told for the first time by NORTON LEYLAND - Ace Reporter.
NORTON LEYLAND TELLS YOU ABOUT THE GREATEST CROSS-COUNTRY RUN HE EVER SAW – AND IT STARTED AFTER THE RACE HAD FINISHED.
The Gypsy Runner.
name’s Norton Leyland, and I’ve been reporting on sporting events for a good
many years now. I recently had a letter I found it hard to answer. A reader of
mine asked me who was the greatest cross-country runner I ever met. Well, I’ve
got no doubt about the man I’d nominate. The trouble is, I never knew his name!
I came across this unknown champion a year or two back, in the
The Championship Race.
We got the snow that the clouds had threatened. It came down heavily on Friday. By Saturday morning the storm had died out, but several inches of snow covered the countryside. In places the roads were almost impassable, and the cross-country course looked more suitable for Commandos than runners. That didn’t deter the competitors. I saw the teams setting off for Steeple Farm, where the start was to take place. I had decided to station myself at the finish, so I drove off in that direction. I had some difficulty in getting through the snow, and I saw more than one car abandoned in the ditch. But I crawled along in a stream of vehicles carrying spectators and officials, and I finally got there. Despite the weather, a large crowd was gathering round the finish. My press card came in useful, and a steward directed me to a reserved space. On the way there I caught sight of the gypsy lad. He was in a good position against the ropes, next to the press enclosure. I shivered when I saw he still wore only a shirt and slacks. “Hello,” I said. “I’m glad you managed to get here.” “I am interested to see these famous runners,” replied the gypsy. “You’ve done some running yourself, haven’t you?” I asked. “Competitive stuff, I mean.” “No I have never raced,” said the gypsy. It was getting near the time for the start, and I wasn’t able to continue the conversation. I had to begin making notes for the article I was going to write. But as I forced my cold fingers to scribble, my mind went back to the young gypsy again. He was as hard as a barn door because of his open-air life. And he was a natural athlete, I was convinced of that. It showed in his lithe movements. Even more it had been evident in that cross-country run of his to Darnley. Then a stir among the officials brought me back to earth. It was almost , the starting time of the race. We all stared across the fields in the direction of Steeple Farm. The start was out of sight from here, but when the runners got away a rocket would be fired. That would be the signal for the officials to set their stop-watches running. I had my stop-watch ready in my hand. It had been a habit of mine for years to make an independent time check at sporting events. I’ve been doing it for so long that it’s become an automatic habit with me. We stood in silence, waiting for the rocket signal. It was two minutes past two, and the race had not started. There must be some hold-up at the other end. Another minute ticked away. Then the rocket soared up and exploded in a red flare, I clicked my stop-watch on. With the tension eased for a moment, people began talking. Now we had to wait again. That increased the excitement. People were speculating about who would be in the lead. The name Ted Maybury was mentioned most often. He was my choice, too, but I couldn’t see him breaking any records in conditions like this. My stop-watch ticked on. Twenty minutes, thirty. The runners should be over halfway now. Thirty-five, forty. The tension was increasing. Any second now we should be able to see the leaders. A shout went up. The leader was in sight. We could see him striding over a field below us. Even at that distance the lanky figure and rangy stride were unmistakeable. Ted Maybury was on his way to his third successive victory. Maybury was out on his own. His stamina was amazing. The rough going had slowed down the rest of the field, but Maybury was ploughing through the snow like a machine. Far down the course the rest of the field were beginning to appear. But Maybury was out alone at the finish. He came pounding down a lane of cheering spectators, and I snapped off my stop-watch as he crossed the line. He had covered the nine miles in 45 minutes 19 seconds, only two seconds outside his best. It was a magnificent achievement. I pushed forward to join the crowd congratulating him. Maybury was leaning on somebody’s shoulder gasping for breath. He smiled his usual modest grin as hands thumped him on the back. “Well run, Ted!” exclaimed one of the officials. “You made it look easy! And after the snowfall we were wondering whether the race ought to be held or not!” “It nearly wasn’t,” panted Maybury. “A fire broke out down at Steeple Farm just before the start. That’s why we were delayed getting away.” “You mean Steeple Farm’s on fire?” exclaimed the official. “Not the farm,” said Maybury. “A caravan parked nearby.” I was shoved aside. The gypsy lad came thrusting to the front. He grabbed Maybury’s arm. “You said a caravan was on fire?” he exclaimed. “Yes, a gypsy caravan—” began Maybury. He took in the young fellow’s appearance, and stopped. “Is it yours?” he asked. “My grandfather was in it,” snapped the gypsy. “Is he safe?” “They said an old man had knocked over a lamp inside,” answered Maybury. “That’s what started the fire.” He hesitated. “I don’t know if he’s hurt or not.” “He is blind,” said the gypsy, “I should not have left him for so long. I must go to him.” He gave Maybury a hard, straight look. “He was trapped inside, is that not so?” Maybury stammered. The direct question had embarrassed him. “I don’t know all the details,” he said. “You are trying to spare my feelings,” said the gypsy. “But I understand what you are trying to say!” He turned, and the suddenly silent crowd parted to let him through. I stood in front of him. “My car’s here,” I said. “Let me take you.” “The roads are blocked,” said the gypsy. “I shall get there quicker on foot.” I stepped aside, and the gypsy started running. He set off down the course Ted Maybury had just followed, passing the runners who were still coming in. I watched his slim figure go striding over the snow towards Steeple Farm. Then I realised that I had automatically started my stop-watch again.
The Way Back.
I pieced together the story of that run later on, from the accounts of the stewards along the course, and the people down at Steeple Farm. The gypsy lad went down the slope from the finishing point almost like a sprinter. He ran with a smooth stride that covered the ground with the least expenditure of energy. His feet never came far off the ground, and his knee action was slight. He had the perfect long-distance style. Stragglers were still floundering along the course. The gypsy strode past them in his shirt and slacks and rough shoes. The steward at the first check-point was astonished when the gypsy raced past him. The young fellow was driving through the snow, and his dark face was set. He went up a bank out of the field in a rush. The runners coming down had turned the surface into something like a slide, and the gypsy clawed his way over the top. The track twisted uphill over a sloping field that had plough furrows hidden under the snow. The watching steward saw the gypsy fall once, but he was up again at once. He went racing on, and over the crest of the hill. The run down on the other side was just as difficult to negotiate. The gypsy plunged at it in a headlong rush. The steward at the turn at the bottom saw him come slithering down without a check. The gypsy went round the turn and down the rough cart track at the bottom without a glance at the steward. The official told me about it later. “I’m certain he didn’t even see me,” the steward said. “His eyes seemed fixed on something in the distance. I’ve never seen anybody run like it. He looked as if he was miles away.” That steward was right. The gypsy was miles away in his mind—at Steeple Farm, where his blind and helpless grandfather had been trapped in a blazing caravan. All along the course the stewards saw him race by. They were all experienced judges of running, and every one of them was amazed at the gypsy’s headlong pace. “The snow might not have been there,” one of them told me afterwards. “He ran like a man on firm going on a summer’s day! There seemed to be something behind him urging him on.” There was no slacking of his pace over the second half of the course. He was driving towards Steeple Farm with every ounce of strength he possessed. Only his own muscles could get him there quickly, and he was willing them not to let him down. He had passed all the stragglers now, and he was by himself, a lonely figure racing over the snow. The stewards near the start were leaving their check-points and walking back to the farm, their job done. The gypsy strode past them, his eyes unseeing, his lean body concentrated on its task. Steeple Farm was in sight. A wisp of smoke still curled up over the trees. The young gypsy thrust forward faster when he saw it. He came striding over the beaten snow towards the farm, and the crowd gathered there saw him coming. The farmer recognised him, and told the others who he was. Sympathetic expressions came to the faces of the onlookers as they watched the gypsy racing towards them. His stride was as firm and certain as when he started. He had covered nine miles of snow-covered country at his fastest speed, but he was still running strongly. The crowd was silent as he raced into the courtyard in front of the old stables. He looked round, but nobody seemed willing to be the first to speak. The sudden chiming of the clock in the stable tower broke noisily into the stillness.
The Unknown Champion.
was the farmer who came forward and took the gypsy’s arm. “Your grandfather is
in here,” he said gently. He led the young gypsy into one of the stable
buildings. Lying on a tarpaulin in the straw was the body of a frail old man.
“I’m sorry,” said the farmer. “We got him out at last, but it was too late.”
The gypsy nodded. For a moment he did not speak. “He died a few minutes ago,”
he said, at last. “Is that not so?” “Yes,” said the farmer. “He tried to say
something, but I couldn’t make out what it was.” “He was calling me,” said the
gypsy. “I heard him.” The farmer startled, looked at him. The gypsy bent by his
grandfather’s body. “I heard him as I was running,” he said. “I tried to reach
him in time, but I failed.” Silently the farmer walked away, leaving the gypsy
alone in the stable. Outside the silent crowd was beginning to drift away. They
had all gone by the time I reached Steeple Farm. I had finally got through the
lanes in my car. The gypsy had been right in saying he could do the journey
quicker on foot. But I was determined to hear the end of the story, and I had
struggled on. The farmer met me, and he told me about the death of the old man.
“The caravan was an old gypsy one of wood,” he said. “It flared like a torch. I
think the old man knocked a lamp over that had been left burning to warm the
place a bit.” Then another gypsy caravan came lurching up to the farm. It had
two horses harnessed to it to drag it through the snow. Two elderly men were
with it, and they gave the farmer and me a grave salute. “We have come for the
body of our brother,” said one of them. The young gypsy came out of the stable,
and all three spoke together in Romany, the language of the gypsies. Then they
went into the stable. “How did they know of the death?” I asked the farmer.
“There’s nothing the gypsies don’t know,” he answered. “They haven’t got
telephones or radio, but news travels as fast among them as if they had. Don’t
ask me how they do it! These two probably heard of it from some of the
spectators at the race, though.” The three gypsies came out, carrying the body
of the old man carefully. They laid it gently in the caravan, and the young
grandson came round to us. “Thank you for your kindness to us,” he said to the
farmer. “Now we are taking my grandfather for a Romany funeral.” He shook hands
with the farmer, and then with me. The caravan lurched away. The young gypsy
was walking silently behind it. The farmer shivered suddenly. “It’s cold,” he
said. “Come inside and have a hot drink.” We didn’t say very much until we were
sitting with welcome cups of tea in front of us. The tragic ending to an
afternoon of sport had had its effect on us. “The young gypsy,” I said. “What’s
his name?” “I’ve never really known it,” said the farmer. “I’ve always called
him Manny. Short for Romany you know.” A car drew up outside. A sergeant and a
police constable were in it. They had heard about the fire, but the snow had
prevented them from getting through any earlier. “Anybody hurt?” asked the
sergeant. “The old man was killed,” said the farmer. “I’d better have a look at
the body,” grunted the sergeant. “The gypsies took it away,” said the farmer.
The sergeant stared at him. “What!” he said. “They can’t do that! There’ll have
to be an inquest. Why did you let them take the body?” “I couldn’t stop them!”
protested the farmer. “It was nothing to do with me. You know gypsies like to
do things their way.” “They’ll do things according to the rules and
regulations!” snapped the policeman. “We’ll have to catch them up. How long
have they been gone?” The farmer glanced at the clock on the wall. “Over half
an hour, I should say,” he answered. “I remember the stable clock was just
chiming half-past three when the grandson arrived, and the caravan turned up
probably half an hour later.” The policeman bustled out, looking somewhat
annoyed. I hardly noticed them go. I was thinking about that chiming clock. I
pulled out my stop-watch, the one I had set going at the moment the young gypsy
started out on his nine-mile run. “I’ll bet they don’t catch them,” grunted the
farmer. “The gypsies will see to that. They don’t like interference to their
customs. The old man will get a burial according to the gypsy fashion, with no
inquest or police procedure.” “Yes,” I said vaguely. I looked at my watch
again. “Are you sure about that stable clock? That it was chiming the half-hour
when the grandson got here?” “I’m positive,” said the farmer, in surprise. “And
your stable clock is accurate, isn’t it?” I persisted. “Of course it is,”
snorted the farmer. “It’s never a second out. Why?” “I want to have a word with
the grandson,” I said. “I hope the police find the caravan.” But they didn’t.
The young grandson disappeared with the caravan. Somewhere in
© D. C. Thomson & Co Ltd
Vic Whittle 2007