CEO Club Visit - Leighton Buzzard AC
Chris Jones headed to the Bedfordshire club to find out more about their activities. He visited Vandyke School where the young athletes and a throws session took place there, and found out this is just one of the venues used by the club.
Chris was met at the school by a group including the Chair Andy Inchley, Vice President Richard Inchley and one of the coaches Fiona Towell. While the school hosts the young athletes’ section of the club, aged 9 – 17, the senior sessions for the club normally take place a few miles away at Tiddenfoot Leisure Centre. It is these two venues where the club base themselves for most of their training having not got their own facility.
However, it quickly became apparent with the sports hall, an area of the car park, part of the pathways outside and a generator being fired up to provide some lighting for a throws area on the playing field that the club make creative use of whatever space and resources are available to them.
Coordinating a lot of the coaching work among the Junior Athletes is Nick Clay who was involved in coaching one of the activities on the evening Chris attended. While some of the younger athletes stayed in the sports hall for activities led by Fiona Towell and Anna Mead the older athletes were involved in a number of different sessions outside.
As they walked Chris around to show him the different activities taking place Andy and Richard explained more about the history and activities of the club as well as some of the challenges it faces.
The club was formed in 1976 during the running boom and quickly established itself across competitions in cross country, road running and track and field athletics. The club celebrated its 40th year in 2016 with an event in Leighton Buzzard featuring international long jumper JJ Jegede which was covered by England Athletics here. Chris was told that, as with most clubs, Leighton Buzzard have had their ups and downs over that period, but is currently the strongest it’s ever been in terms of membership, variation in standards and diversity of competition.
The club has around 200 members at present. This is fairly evenly split between the under 18 section and seniors. The club is involved in cross country and road running events across the age groups and it also now has an increasing presence in track and field competitions including involvement in the East Anglian Track & Field League.
The club is involved in the organisation of one of the events in the British Athletics Cross Challenge series - the event held at Milton Keynes which is incorporated into the Chiltern League. The league is the one that the club is a member of and its involvement in the league is not limited to the organisation of that one event and competing in the races.
Richard is also the Treasurer of the League and a familiar face in many circles, in particular with regards to cross country. He has been the Bedfordshire men’s county team manager for around 30 years, is chairman of the Beds AAA, and is now the President of the English Cross Country Association for 2017-18.
Leighton Buzzard AC also host the Leighton 10 road race which is a key source of income for the club and helps to support its range of activities. This event has been building and developing since it was created in 1981.
One of the challenges that the club faces is that it has never had a formal home. In the 1980s and 1990s training was done using the track on the RAF base on the edge of the town. This, however, required special permission and, as a cinder 440-yard track, was often in poor condition. The base was closed for development in around 2000 with the track no longer in use.
It was explained to Chris that the club’s junior section train on Tuesdays and have training on Thursdays too. The Senior sessions, which are usually at Tiddenfoot Leisure Centre, take place on a Wednesday and, more recently, a Monday too. Andy explained that a key reason for this timing is that almost all of the coaches and volunteers involved in operating the junior section of the club are also runners themselves. So the different training nights is how they enabled people to both coach and run with the senior section of the club themselves. Andy and Richard explained that while this serves an important purpose it can also be a challenge as the two sections of the club really only come together for fixtures such as the cross country league races. The club has specifically started encouraging older juniors to start attend Monday sessions to address this but, they said, it’s not an ideal situation.
As with many clubs there is a challenge with recruiting and retaining coaches and other volunteers for the junior section of the club. Andy said that understandably many of the coaches move through with their children so there is a tendency for them to commit for these years where their children are involved, but then cease to be involved when their children have moved on.
Chris, Andy and Richard were able to discuss facilities and how it might be possible to improve what is available to the club. Other topics included the extent to which young athletes are also involved in other sports and the impact of this on the extent they are able to represent the club. They also raised how sitting right on a county boundary means that for county championships they see their athletes split across two counties rather than all being able to all compete at the same event. This is something that they have raised with UKA with regards a possible UKA rulebook update.
Among the successes the club have enjoyed from individual athletes are club president, Gail Duckworth, becoming world masters champion in 2012 over 1500m and 3000m. She has represented England masters a number of times and was ranked as UK number one F60 last year. At the other end of the age spectrum Nicola Sykes came through the younger age groups of the club and won the Southern Cross Country Championship as an Under 15 before going on to represent England.
Andy explained, “The club is very much at the heart of the community and draws members from many of the surrounding villages to Leighton Buzzard. The focus is strongly about participation rather than elite competition, although clearly we aim to bring athletes to their full potential while retaining a sense of fun.
“We spend a lot of time discussing how hard to push some of the youngsters to keep them engaged. If they are pushed too hard they may be put off for life, but equally if they are not pushed enough they may not improve which can be just as discouraging.
“Where the club a really strong, is in team events, particularly within the senior section. In the last cross country league fixture we had over half of the paying membership out either running or volunteering.
“We have very few athletes near the front of the races but do have a strong team because we all turn-out where possible. We are the smallest club in Division 1 of the league but usually finish in the top half of the table because of our depth and commitment.
“We also take part in as many relays as possible as this brings the club together very well, particularly if it finishes near a pub!”
As the young athletes’ session ended a throws specific session was held. And one of the athletes taking part in this who Chris met was Nick Stonehouse. As well as competing the club in league events Nick became Westfield Health British Transplant Games champion at discus this summer. Nick only took up the sport late last year after having required an emergency liver transplant. This had come after he had also lost his 12-year-old daughter, who was a discus thrower, to a sudden illness a few years previously. Nick spent some time talking to Chris about how his life had been affected by these events, the role athletics now plays in his life and how this has been shaped by what he has experienced over recent years, the work of transplant sport, and the importance of organ donation.
Chris said, “Speaking to Nick put many things in life and in the sport into perspective. It also served as an invaluable reminder of how the sport plays an important role in so many different people’s lives for such a wide range of reasons – some of which can be totally unexpected when you are watching the activities from a distance.
“I have always believed it is the people in our sport who make it what it is, and the conversations at Leighton Buzzard really underlined that.
“With every club I visit I see volunteers and club members working with dedication and skill to provide the best possible service and environment for their club members to enjoy the sport and achieve their very personal goals. At Leighton Buzzard we saw how the club is innovative and creative in how it uses the facilities available to do this.
“From time-to-time I meet people who tell me about their experiences which show the full depth of impact and value being part of an athletics club can have. That was certainly the case at Leighton Buzzard and it highlighted the value of what is done by the volunteers at the club, and so many others across the country.”
To add your name to the NHS Organ Donor Register please see www.organdonation.nhs.uk/register-to-donate/register-your-details.