FEATURE: Running for 40 years - Matlock Athletic Club goes from strength to strength

When you're surrounded by some of England's most beautiful towns, villages and scenic views, donning a vest and running around them perhaps might not tempt as many as the thought of merely taking a leisurely stroll.

Wednesday, 16th March 2016, 3:52 pm
Updated Wednesday, 16th March 2016, 3:56 pm
Runners at the start of the Winster Hill Race in 1988
Runners at the start of the Winster Hill Race in 1988

But for 40 years, athletes from near and far have used the tough terrains and fabulous backdrops the Derbyshire Dales has to offer as the setting for their athletic exploits, and it’s mostly thanks to one organisation.

Formed in 1976, Matlock Athletic Club has gone from strength to strength ever since to become one of the best reputed clubs in the country.

It now boasts 150 members, not bad given its formation involved just a handful of gentlemen sat around a table at the Matlock College of Higher Education.

Current member Jan Forrester (left) is presented with a prize by former Olympic athlete Ann Packer in 2015.

One of them was the club’s first ever chairman, Brian Howitt, along with other early committee members, namely secretary David Millington, treasurer Clive Russell and fixtures secretary Malcolm Taylor. Other founder members included Steve Pearson, Neil Forrest, Dave Sprakes and David Mitchell.

“It was around the start of the jogging boom,” said Howitt, now 81-years-old and a life member of the club he helped to form.

“I was teaching languages at the college and quite a lot of students were keen runners as well as the lecturers. We had people who were members of the Derby and county clubs but eventually we thought we’d try to form our own.

“College principle David Udall became our president and we’d use the college as a headquarters as long as students could have free membership. It developed from there.

Matthew Parris was a high profile member of Matlock AC.

“We had quite a lot of members as both track and field were popular, hence the ‘athletic’ element to the name which has stuck even though we really just cater for runners now.

“That became the case because often students would leave for pastures new once they’d finished college and numbers began to drop, so we thought fell running and cross country were the way forward, particularly given our surroundings meant that aspect was very popular.

“It’s great that it’s carried on and on. Lots of dedicated people do a lot of hard work to hold it together. That applies to the administration side of it as well as the coaching. For years we had a superb qualified juniors coach in Randall Tassell who inspired a great deal of success.”

Matlock AC’s current base is the Arc leisure centre in Matlock, although in common with the club’s previous homes such as Sherwood Hall, it doesn’t have a track to utilise.

Current member Jan Forrester (left) is presented with a prize by former Olympic athlete Ann Packer in 2015.

Howitt added: “Things have really taken off since the Arc was built. There are great changing facilities and it’s right on the doorstep of the countryside so it’s very well-placed.

“We also have a good system in place that means juniors can not only run for us but also bigger clubs too if they wanted to receive track training and have a proper coach, which works well for us as in the past we’d lose members to bigger clubs due to our lack of a track.”

A key moment in the club’s history also came in its first year with the creation of the White Peak Marathon, now the jewel in Matlock AC’s calendar which sees the club host and run the event and its members officiate and often take part alongside runners from all over the world.

David Mitchell, who runs the well-renowned Scarthin Books in Cromford, was the man who came up with the idea.

Matthew Parris was a high profile member of Matlock AC.

He said: “Before Brian Howitt proposed founding the club, I used to see him and other college runners pounding up Wellington Street past the window of the College bookshop when I was working to set up the shelves.

“At an early meeting I proposed the White Peak Marathon, having run a map measure from Ashbourne to Parsley Hey to Cromford and read off 26 miles. I measured the course for the first year by calibrating my bicycle and then counting revolutions of the pedals along the length of the trails.

“It originally started just north of the Ashbourne tunnel and finished at Black Rocks, necessitating a few hundred yards and back beyond the actual Parsley Hey junction.”

Now running along the High Peak Trail from Thorpe to Parsley Hay and back down the Trail to finish at Matlock Rugby Club in Cromford, the event has become one of the most popular on the UK athletics calendar and provides valuable income for Matlock AC’s coffers.

Only the Foot and Mouth Disease outbreak of 2001 saw the event cancelled and with the White Peak Half Marathon also now incorporated into the event its popularity continues to thrive.

Brian Howitt adds: “It’s so popular because there are no roads involved so it’s quite unique. It really appeals to those who are very fit because it’s not a marathon in which you can easily drop out given you’re often out in open countryside!

“For the same reasons, we can’t have thousands running it due to its location and the fact the public are often out and about on the route.”

The club has had its brushes with fame too. One of its early members was Matthew Parris, once the Conservative Party candidate for the Derbyshire Dales and now a renowned journalist and political commentator who, despite by his own admission having joined the club to boost his public profile, was in fact one of its most talented members, with Howitt adding; “Matthew was one of our best ever marathon runners.”

Current club treasurer Ian Milne says that despite one or two tough periods, the future for the club looks bright.

He said: “In 1992 we had a membership of 20 and had a major struggle to provide officials and support for the White Peak Marathon.

“We were then badly affected by the foot and mouth outbreak. We suffered from a loss of membership and a financial loss on the White Peak Marathon which had to be cancelled, and we had a major deficit for that year.

“This continued into the following year and in 2013 we instituted the White Peak Swift Half and ran the two events together. We could now publish via the internet and Runners World, and although we still had a low membership the combined events became even more popular with entries from all over the world.

“There is no doubt the day of the White Peak brings in some £30,000 to the local community at 2016 prices, each year.

“Now we have a membership of 150, with 50 juniors who train under the supervision of our qualified coaches every Monday. The White Peak Swift Half is fully booked the day we open the entries and the Marathon shortly afterwards.

“While people are interested in long distance events, especially off-road, Matlock AC will always have a prosperous future.”

Club chairman Craig Allen added: “The club is in a fantastic state. We have a great junior following with some really talented athletes and coaching is superb throughout.

“We have several events being planned for 2016, including a 40th anniversary event on June 25 and the usual big club races.

“We always encourage new members, regardless of ability, experience or whether they’re interested in competitive running or just the social aspect.”

Meanwhile, Howitt, as co-founder, remains very proud of his creation.

He said: “I expect a bright future as we have lots of younger folks involved in running it now.

“I’m very proud, as are most connected with it, and I hope it will continue to bring great joy to so many.”