Chris Jones visited Highgate Harriers at their Parliament Hill home to see the club in action on a training night and meet some of the club’s volunteers.
Highgate are one of the oldest clubs in the country, they were founded in 1879 and were one of the original members of the AAAs when the body was formed the following year. They also boast one of the earliest ever AAA medallists, one of their members, T.A. Murphy, placed second in the 7 miles walk at the inaugural AAA Championships in July 1880.
These days the clubs still have a special connection with the AAA championships. They host the innovative Night of the 10,000m PBs which includes the England Athletics 10,000m championships where the historic AAA trophies are presented. The event this year will also include the British Championships and Olympic trials.
While Ben Pochee’s innovative spirit has been at the forefront of the development of this event Ben has always stressed the wider contribution of many others in the club in not only coming up with ideas but also in putting in the essential leg-work that it takes to make the event happen.
But on the night Chris visited rather than the pop-up bars, food stalls, DJ booth and crowds of spectators which the Night of the 10,000m PBs includes it was a far more regular set of activities in full swing. Among those to welcome Chris to the track were President Henry Dodwell and Graham Norris.
Graham explained how he became involved in the club. “My son, Anthony, joined. He started as a sprinter and now is a thrower who still competes for the club.”
His son’s involvement led to Graham becoming part of the volunteer set up, “They brought me in as Youth Support Coordinator. The club had identified that the youth set-up of the club could be improved. We didn’t have that many youngsters and had problems with communication with those we did have.”
Graham set about putting a number of new ideas in place to make the young athletes section run more smoothly – ensuring the club could keep tabs on who had joined and who had not yet done so, collecting member details effectively, and developing new means of communication such as newsletters.
“If you get good building blocks in place everything else follows,” he said. He also found there was value in him acting as a go-between or bridge between parents and coaches. This meant parents could have their questions answered and give information to their child’s coach without having to try to have those conversations while coaches were also trying to get sessions underway, a move that made life easier for parents and coaches. He joked, “So now I stand here drinking coffee and talking to the parents.”
While his son is now well into the senior ranks Graham’s involvement is still going strong, “I’ve just stayed with the club, the atmosphere is great. Everybody pulls together.”
Parents becoming active in volunteering in athletics due to their children’s involvement is a common story in many clubs. One of the Highgate volunteers Chris met was Muriel Doolan, along with her daughter Bella. Muriel’s five children have all been involved in the club and Muriel herself now helps out on training nights by serving the refreshments.
Henry introduced Chris to one of the longest serving club stalwarts, Jack Bayliss, who was busy with his group of distance runners. Jack said, “I’ve been coaching for 50 years – I first started coaching in 1966. I joined the club back in 1955. I started out as a middle distance runner – the 880 yards and mile as it was then.”
Among the athletes he has coached over the years is Keith Cullen who had a 5K best of 13:17.21.
Henry explained that the club’s distance squads have grown and seen athletes from other clubs heading across to the Parliament Hill track to join in sessions as the depth and quality of the groups have grown.
The club have enjoyed a great deal of success on the endurance scene. A few days after Chris’s visit the men’s team claimed the Southern Cross Country title and Svenja Abel took silver in the women’s race (As well as the efforts of the athletes on the course the club also had volunteers involved in setting up the event on the notoriously tough Parliament Hill course). Highgate’s men were silver medallists in the 2015 ECCA National Cross Country Relays after an epic battle with Morpeth (who took gold by just 1sec). The club took silver medals at last year’s ERRA 6-stage road relays and won the SEAA 6 stage relays. The women’s team has also proved prolific, in particular with a series of wins in the strong Metropolitan Cross Country League.
Highgate Harriers are not just about endurance though, and senior coaches Juliet Kavanagh and Greg Smith oversee sprints, hurdles and jumps sessions for Seniors. Club member Simeon Williamson was part of the GB sprint squad at the London Olympics, and many of the track team compete at a high standard.
Henry explained that the club has also worked over recent years to expand its base of available coaches. This has seen the club able to have qualified coaches available to go into the schools in Camden to support teachers who want someone with more specialised skills in athletics to assist in delivering the sport to pupils. As well as improving the provision of athletics to youngsters in the area this has also seen funds coming in for the club with money also going to those coaches who deliver the sessions.
The changes over recent years have put the club in a healthy position. On Tuesday nights the activities for young athletes includes a group who do more endurance/ cross country based work heading out for a session in their high vis vests. There can also be young athlete groups seen in action doing their activities on the hill that is so familiar to many cross country runners.
For those Highgate members aged 11-16 there is a track and field group that covers sprints and jumps, throws coaching available, as well as two middle distance groups. As the athletes get older they are integrated into the senior groups. At that stage their training becomes more event and individual specific.
Henry spoke to Chris about ways the club would like to develop in the future, including how the club could improve its facilities. However, one of the challenges it faces is around the regulations on buildings on Hampstead Heath meaning a new building cannot be added unless one is taken down. While the club has clearly brought in a number of changes over recent years they are still looking at how they can continue to evolve and improve their provision for members.
Chris commented, “Even on a cold, wet and windy evening the enthusiasm on display at the club was infectious. Knowing about the work of the club in holding the Night of the 10,000m PBs meant I was already aware that the club has some great innovators amongst their members and volunteers. It was good to be able to see how some of this enthusiasm and commitment is active and very much in evidence on a ‘normal’ club night.
“Speaking to Graham, Henry and others at the club it is clear that while they have already undertaken some very good work they are still actively looking at how they can continue to improve the club’s offering further. It gave me some useful insights to hear about how the club has developed as well as the challenges they have faced, and continue to face, in the work that they do.”
Kate Jenrick, Club Secretary, said, “The club has seen a healthy expansion in Membership over the last few years across all age groups. An increased number of coaches (including several coaches under 25 who are still training and competing themselves) has clearly helped the young athlete membership base.”
Ben Pochee added, “While we've enjoyed sublime team & individual performances, not to mention earned the right to host the Rio Olympic 10,000m GB trials - the cause for greatest celebration is how we now have many more people embracing ownership of their club by taking on key volunteering roles and ensure our success becomes truly self sustaining.”