April: the start of a summer of sports

For many people, April means April showers, April Fool’s Day, and often Easter.

April sporting events - articleBut to me, for over 30 years April has been synonymous with three of the greatest sporting spectacles the UK offers:

  • The Boat Race
  • The Grand National
  • The London Marathon

As a family we’d gather together huddled around the TV watching the build up, marvelling at the actual event and then celebrating the success.

I’m not ashamed to admit that money did change hands. In the early days coppers did break the bank when I lost but despite this the memories are warm.

The Boat Race: Saturday 11 April 2015

Born in London, I used to love watching the Boat Race, and not just for the rowing.

Oxford and Cambridge boat raceThis annual rowing regatta has taken place since 1826 and has grown into a major sporting event.

As a child, before the days of image saturation, I used to adore seeing the capital’s attractions on screen; trying to remember their names before visiting family in the summer and seeing them for real.

Growing up near Cambridge I could only support one boat, namely the Light Blues.

It didn’t matter that I didn’t know anything about rowing, nor was I ever likely to ‘go up’ to Cambridge or Oxford to ‘read’ anything. I used to think that University was for the wealthy and the smart.

Watching the Boat Race was a family event, a time to come together, that helped highlight that summer was just around the corner.

The memories I hold are fond. I’m not sure how many years I spent trying to learn which side of the river the Middlesex and Surrey stations were before I realised they were just the north and south banks.

We sat together, watched and cheered. The excitement was palpable especially if the Light Blues looked like winning. The race didn’t take long, it’s normally over in 20 minutes (16.19mins is the record held by Cambridge).

It was the build up, watching the sophisticated-looking crowds socialising in the sunshine on the banks of the Thames that kept us entertained.


The 1978 race

One race year I’ll never forget was 1978.

The crews and their boats were nearing the final stretches of the 4.2miles long tidal course just by Barnes Bridge. The commentator exclaimed that the Cambridge boat was taking on water.

In my innocence I thought it was poor preparation that they hadn’t checked for holes. I didn’t appreciate that the choppy waves stirred by the changing tide and the wind had began to wash over the low-laying boat.

Not so slowly the boat with its crew rowing at pull power was filling up. The waves had never looked that big when I’d seen the Thames. Cambridge sank leaving the Dark Blue’s of Oxford to row nonchalantly to victory.

This year’s Boat Race, or rather races, will be held on Saturday 11 April. The men’s elite race will be preceded by the women’s elite race and the ‘Goldie’ against ‘Blondie’ race that features the men’s reserve crews.

It is another fine example of how our female sporting stars are finally earning the recognition that their achievements merit. TV coverage and sponsorship is helping the move towards the equality that women ought to have.

If you cannot get down to the Thames between Putney and Mortlake, and I never have on race day, then pick a ‘Blue’ and join the millions around the world watching on TV. Cambridge currently lead with 81 victories to Oxford’s 78; Come on Cambridge!

The Grand National: Saturday 11 April 2015

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The Grand National

I gamble on horses. I have done since a very early age. What began with matchsticks soon moved to money.

My first-ever bet, to my knowledge, was placed in 1977. I remember it well and I celebrated my winnings like I’d won a million.

I can’t remember how much I won but the bookies would be safe as my 10p each-way wasn’t going to break them. They did take a hit that day as virtually every housewife, child and occasional punter in the country placed money on Red Rum, as the legendary horse bid for his third Grand National triumph.

The Tommy Stack-ridden, Ginger McCain-trained celebrity horse galloped home straight into the record book and the hearts of millions.

The Grand National held annually at Aintree, Liverpool, is the most valuable jump race in Europe with a £1millon purse. It attracts a worldwide TV audience of 600million viewers across 140 countries.

It has come a long way since 1839. Some argue that it is barbaric, as most years at least one horse sadly dies. Described as the ultimate test for horse and rider, the four miles, three furlongs and 110 yards certainly looks daunting, and that’s before you think about the fences that must be jumped.

Horses clearing Brechers Brook

Photo from The Guardian

Bigger than normal National Hunt fences, some have become famous in their own right: Becher’s Brook, the huge water jump; the 90-degree Canal Turn, Valentine’s and The Chair which, despite its design, is not recommended for sitting down upon.

I never envy the 40 runners and riders but I admire the human endeavour and equine fortitude it takes to get round the course, not once but twice.

Although dominated by men, it isn’t a man’s world. Three women have become synonymous with this ultimate test of endurance: Jenny Pitman OBE, who as a horse trainer won the great race twice: 1983 with Corbiere and 1995 with Royal Athlete; Katie Walsh, who as a female jockey came third in 2012 on Seabass; and Nina Carberry who rode Character Building to seventh place in 2010.

I expect that it was character building too!

Nina will be riding First Lieutenant this year and although I haven’t had a bet for a while I might find a couple of quid as she seeks to become the first female jockey to win The National.

This year’s race is on Saturday 11 April and I plan to watch the TV coverage. I’ll shed a tear at every mention of Red Rum’s name, especially when the grand parade passes his statue and others when tales of monumental effort and against all odds achievements are described.

I’ll probably lose all my bets but my bank of memories will have grown.

The Virgin London Marathon: Sunday 26 April 2015


London Marathon

Back in 1981, I sat watching as the inaugural London Marathon started and the 11,532 runners began pounding the streets of London.

The sight was amazing. I couldn’t imagine running that far. Like many I expect, I had measured that distance as a car journey: Cambridge to home, and then back to Linton.

It was implausible.

But I watched as the minutes and then the hours ticked by and the vast majority of runners reached the finishing line. What’s more, most had smiles on their faces. I had tears on mine.

The London Marathon was instigated by former athlete John Disley and former athlete turned journalist Chris Basher who after the event wrote: “To believe this story you must believe that the human race is one joyous family, working together, achieving the impossible. Last Sunday, in one of the most trouble-stricken cities in the world, 11,532 men and women from 40 counties in the world, assisted by over a million black, white and yellow people, laughed, cheered and suffered during the greatest folk festival the world has seen.”

Runners in the London MarathonWow! I secretly held a dream to join them when I was old enough. I was more sporty back then, but the intervening years have taken their toll.

My dream of running from Greenwich Park to Buckingham Palace on The Mall is over but, for so many, the 26.2 miles is an annual feat of endurance that cannot be avoided. I wonder what the original organising pair think looking back…

Now in the top five international marathons it is not the elite race that interests me, rather the everyday folk that participate, each with a story to tell and most raising money for charity.

According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the Virgin London Marathon is the largest annual fundraising event in the world. Runners have amassed over £450m for charities. It makes you wonder how charities survived without three-quarters of the runners collecting donations.

I’ll settle down and watch the colourful coverage on the TV, again, whilst filling with admiration and spilling tears of wonderment.

This year Henpicked author Steph Deck will be running for the second time. I’ll be cheering you, Steph, every step of the way. If your feet hurt, you’ll be able to swim home in the river of tears I’ll shed in awe of you and the thousands of other amazing runners.

The 35th London Marathon will take place on Sunday 26 April 2015.

Good luck, have fun and enjoy to all participants in all these wonderful sporting events.

Here’s Steph Deck’s article: The healing power of running

Mandy Clark

About Mandy Clark

Well into my forties life took a new pathway when my partner and I adopted two beautiful children. A full time mum, with a passion for cricket I am midway through my MA course wondering when I’ll ever find the time to recommence my studies. Happily in a Civil Partnership with Louise and looking forward to getting married soon.