The short time I got to run with Chris was a lesson in living boldly and leading through example.
Chris showed up to run club for the first time in January, having found his way to Toronto in order to get his son settled for school and as part of a general globe trotting phase he’d been in since retiring after 40 years in the military and prison service in the UK”–40 years working for the Queen” as Chris describes it. I learned this running alongside Chris that Saturday morning. One day, if I could keep my act together, I’d awe some young clown shocked to find himself going stride for stride with someone 30 years his senior and not finding it all that easy.
The comparison to a master like Ed Whitlock would be obvious, but not entirely accurate. While in Toronto, Chris could certainly be counted on to show up at any race and take the top spot for his age group, including 1st at the Sporting Life 10K, and to astound anyone with an incredible athleticism for any age. Ed, however, confessed that running was often a chore. Chris seemed to relish the camaraderie of a group run and couldn’t resist jumping into a new race or experience, whether it was living out of a van for a few days on a Ragnar Relay or running a 30K race on a whim.
Maybe Chris is more of a bald-pated, bearded, English Joan-Benoit Samuelson, having more and more fun with running as the years go by and excited to share it with others.
The younger among us might have shown up hagridden in order to do penance for our sins, but Chris was always fresh and ready to lead the pack. There was no doubt, too, that Chris would have set the pace on a night out as well. “Once you start running, it’s adrenaline and I believe there is such a thing as a runner’s high. Once you make a habit of it, when you can’t run, it’s torture,” Chris explains. For Chris, running is privilege rather than punishment. “I see sport as a healthy addiction and I’m a very active person who can’t sit still very long.”
As he approached retirement, Chris’ sense of adventure manifested itself in traversing the Pacific Crest Trail running along along the American west coast from the Mexican to Canadian borders and his first 100K race. “Before that race, which was the Run for the Stones, the longest I had gone was a 40 miler,” Chris says. “I took a spill at Devil’s Dyke around 10 miles in after picking up someone who had already fallen and it almost took my teeth out.” Not wanting to be pulled from the race, Chris bolted from the medical tent to continue his race.
When it comes to his search for adventure, Chris figures, “It may have come from an experience I had as a kid in Canada. A group of six of us went to some cliffs and at the bottom we knew there was some soft sand so wondered if we could jump off. I just launched off the edge and ended up waist deep in sand.”
“I knew it was an adrenaline rush that I’ve sought ever since. I’ve read books where people have a similar experience and something gets in your head,” he adds.
At the age of 19, Chris moved back to the UK to join the Royal Air Force, which turned into two decades of constant change and adrenaline seeking. Chris confesses, “I started getting a bit of an adrenaline rush and just kept looking for that high whether it was from a run or a race or parachuting, which I did for a while. I’m always working for a buzz.”
Chris’ time inthe RAF, “…was my first time properly abroad and included two tours in Germany for three years at a time and then to Belize. I was also in the Falklands after the conflict, but no one told me that the winters there were so harsh with winds reaching 80 km/hr.”
There was some running in high school, but the RAF is where Chris first took it seriously. “In 1979, I was running with the Lincolnshire League for my very first cross-country race where I raced Steve Jones and Julian Goater,” Chris recalls. Goater represented England as part of the team that took home the gold at the 1979 World XC Championships in Limerick and Jones would of course subsequently hold the world marathon record.
When Chris transitioned into a career in the prison service, running became a matter of calm and clarity more than adrenaline and competition. In his role as an officer, Chris saw an opportunity to serve as an example and support for inmates.
HMP Grendon, where Chris served as an officer, was classified as a therapeutic prison where doctors, officers, nurses, and counsellors worked directly with inmates through a variety of programs focused on rehabilitation and preventing re-offending.
“About 5 days a week we would run in small groups. I got a lot out of that and it felt worthwhile,” Chris says. “We would all sit down together and talk about every aspect of their lives including their crimes and victims. A lot had been abused in the past, which made it hard work at times.”
Chris relates one particularly harrowing incident where, “Not long after I went to Grendon, I was working on nights and one of the inmates was having an issue and we had to take him out to the hospital. He had cut his wrists and wrote ‘Welcome to Hell!’ in his own blood.”
Whether running in a group or by himself, for Chris, “I just needed to get out after something may have happened at work and I found that it would clear the mind. I just needed to do something and felt better after only a few miles and it allowed me to process things.”
From serving his country for 40 years, Chris represented this year at his second World Police & Fire Games. Held every two years, the event invites active and retired members of police and armed forces as well as firefighters and the prison services to compete in “just about every event that you’d see at the Olympics as well as a crossfit competition.” Other events include dodgeball, a stair race, and arm wrestling.
At this year’s games in Chengdu, China, Chris competed in cross-country, the 5,000 and 10,000m on the track, and the half marathon. “For most of the events, the heat caused a huge struggle for the Westerners,” Chris recalls. “The day of the cross country races, the 5K race went first and by the end of it all the ambulances had been called into service so they delayed the start of the 10K race. I honestly just wanted to get it done safe.”
By the end of the games, Chris did end up on the podium after all, with a second place finish in his age group for the 5,000m on the track and a third place finish in the 10,000m. “I thought I would be lucky if I could still be running in my 60s,” Chris says, “but I’ve kept in touch with some people who competed in the running events in their late 70s, so I still have something to shoot for.”
Running is an interesting world to enter in early adulthood, the way I did. It’s a good way to meet the people you want to be when you grow up. I never got the impression that Chris was driven by restlessness or a desire to prove anything to anyone, just that he saw how lucky we are to explore the world and people around us through movement and a little bit of daring. It was something you could find anywhere, whether stationed on a continent you’ve never visited, on a temporary stay in a new city, or in the places we’ve been told are void of hope.