To mark the paperback release of Steve Chilton’s book Running Hard: the story of a rivalry on Thursday, I am hosting a guest post from the author as part of a three-day blog tour. Here Steve discusses the process of researching, interviewing and finding a voice.
When I started thinking about my third book (Running Hard) I still felt like I was a novice writer, despite the first two being fairly well received. I also had to write it in a different style to the first two. They were essentially ‘histories’, of the sport of fell running and the Bob Graham Round, respectively. But the third was going to be somewhat different, as I began to realise as I got into it.
Actually, this was far from being a deliberate move. It all started rather randomly. I knew I wanted to write something else, having really enjoyed writing the other two – eventually, having many times thought I just couldn’t do it. For Book 3 I had no particular plan or synopsis to work to, and was scratching around for a suitable angle or subject to take. Then it all rather fell in to place, as I noted in the Preface to the book:
‘I had been wondering about writing something around the amazing events of the 1983 season’s fell running championships for some time when a serendipitous event galvanised me into action. In a moment of idleness, having voluntarily gone down to a three-day working week, I had signed up to a Facebook group (I am, or was, a runner) and saw a posting from a “John Wild”. A reasonably common combination of names, you might think, but the context of the posting led me to believe it might be the noted fell runner of that name. I decided to drop him a private message, pitching my manuscript idea to him in a couple of succinct sentences, with the hope that he might like to cooperate by agreeing to be interviewed. I received a swift response which included the sentiment that John would be “glad to help and revisit that wonderful time”.
‘I had already floated the idea to Kenny Stuart when he attended the paperback launch of It’s a hill, get over it, and received what came across as a cautious show of interest from him. I decided to strike while the iron was hot, and phoned Kenny to tell him about contacting John, and asking him to confirm his own cooperation. With those two verbal agreements in the bag I wrote a fuller synopsis and pitched it to my publisher, and all that is herein follows in some way or other from that initial judicious contact via social media.
‘In my many conversations with Kenny Stuart and John Wild in preparing this book I got a real sense of the mutual respect between these two very different athletes. At various times they both returned to that theme, alluding to each other’s strengths, and to how they had pushed each other to the limit in the 1983 fell running championship season that is the core of this book.’
So, there were my ‘subjects’, and the means of getting a viable ‘handle’ (the 1983 season) for a story I felt I was capable of telling. A friend did say to me that each book was progressively getting narrower in its subject matter – from the whole sport, through the history of a classic event, down to a season – and that surely Book 4 would be around one eventful weekend! Maybe it will.
What fascinated me, and I think sold the idea to the publisher when eventually I pitched it to them, was not the similarities between these two giants of the fell running scene, but the differences. Here was Kenny Stuart, born and raised in Cumbria, and a manual worker whilst running at his peak. He naturally landed in the professional fell racing scene through the local shows. He was top man there for a couple of years and then changed to the amateur code and then took on John Wild, and eventually became the dominant fell runner of his era. John Wild (pictured below at Ben Lomond in 1983) meanwhile was growing up in the (flat) Midlands and taking up track and cross country racing. He had a lifelong career in the RAF and competed in the Commonwealth Games (at the steeplechase), before taking to the fells and being British Fell Champion for two years before Kenny came across. So, two diverse backgrounds and characters, but who fought hammer and tongs for the couple of years that they were on the fells together, both setting course records that are still unbeaten today, over 30 years on.
I have detailed elsewhere the difficulties I had with the governing body of the sport when starting to research It’s a hill, get over it (basically I was discouraged from even writing such a book as the publicity was ‘unwelcome’ by some traditionalists). But I persevered and managed to establish a really good network within the past and present fell running community. This networking now allowed me to talk to some absolute legends who had raced against Kenny and John to get their perspectives. A snapshot of Kenny’s training from July 1985 is pictured below.
I have marvellous memories of sitting in Joss Naylor’s front room chewing the fat (of which he has none!) about those guys, and of a sunny afternoon spent in Billy Bland’s back garden chuckling at stuff he was relating in to my Dictaphone. These guys both have strong opinions but also talk a whole lot of sense. I also spent a fabulous time with Hugh Symonds and his wife Pauline reliving some old times before they gave me a fabulous meal to send be back on my way. Happy days.
I also arranged to interview Jack Maitland – pictured below racing Kenny Stuart at the Carnethy 5 – after he had finished a triathlon coaching session.
Here is a snippet from that occasion of meeting Jack in Leeds from the book:
‘I sat opposite Maitland, watching his craggy face break into frequent laughs as he recalled incidents from his career. He had brought along his own training diaries from the mid-1980s, which proved really useful when we started looking back at races in which he had raced Stuart and Wild in that period. His fresh recollections and pithy diary entries illuminate many of the subsequent events in this story.’
We had such a great chat that I got more information than I could use in the book, so I wrote a profile of him for The Fellrunner. He seems to like to keep a pretty low profile, despite being part of the Brownlee setup, and it was great to share his story (with his approval, and photos). In the profile I noted:
‘Halfway through the interview I could see out of the corner of my eye first one, and then two, Brownlees come and sit at a table nearby. Resisting the urge to halt the interview and rush over to them and ask for a selfie, I did swing the questioning off topic and asked Jack the Coach about working with the two of them.’
Yes, I definitely think talking to all these people (and many others) to get a contemporary, and sometimes different, perspective on the story was both the best part of the research phase and also a huge help in fleshing out Kenny and John’s life stories.
So, what was the major difference about writing this book, as referred to earlier? To me it was having to think ‘biography’. It was two life stories and I felt that I needed to change and write more biographically. Perhaps the greatest change was integrating the material from the interviews into the narrative in as seamless a way as possible. I was conscious in both previous books that the flow kind of stopped each time it came to someone else’s thoughts. In fact the interviews were highlighted as such. I received some criticism for writing ‘too academically’ previously. I hope the story reads more naturally with this book.
I certainly feel that I have found my writing style now (after three attempts). I sometimes say this to people who ask about it. Rather like the way rock bands seem to always talk about their latest album as their ‘finest work’, I do feel I have matured as a writer with Running Hard. Whilst we are on clichés, I suppose at the end of the day it is not for me to say if the book has any merit. You decide.
About the book
Running Hard: the story of a rivalry (Sandstone Press)
Format: Paperback. ISBN: 9781910985946. Publication Date: 19/10/2017. RRP: £9.99
For one brilliant season in 1983 the sport of fell running was dominated by the two huge talents of John Wild and Kenny Stuart. Wild was an incomer to the sport from road running and track. Stuart was born to the fells, but an outcast because of his move from professional to amateur. Together they destroyed the record book, only determining who was top by a few seconds in the last race of the season. Running Hard is the story of that season, and an inside, intimate look at the two men.
About the author
Steve Chilton is a committed runner and qualified athletics coach with considerable experience of fell running. He is a long-time member of the Fell Runners Association. He formerly worked at Middlesex University where he was Lead Academic Developer. He has written two other books: It’s a Hill, Get Over It won the Bill Rollinson Prize in 2014; The Round: In Bob Graham’s footsteps was shortlisted for the TGO Awards Outdoor Book of the Year 2015 and the Lakeland Book of the Year Award 2016. His blog can be found here.