One of the driving forces behind the recent Virtual Road Relay Championships, Tonbridge AC coach Mark Hookway has British endurance and club running in his heart.

In recent years Tonbridge have been a permanent fixture at both the National Cross Country and Road Relay Championships with wins and podium places from every age group from U13 to seniors.

The most recent being the 2020 National XC where the senior men and U13 girls both won to show the depth and range the Kent club has. In recent weeks it has been the Virtual National Road Relays where Tonbridge were 6th in the Women’s 6 stage and 3rd in the Men’s 12 stage.

So how did the VRR Champs come about?

“It started with a conversation on Facebook or Twitter, an idea to replace the National Road Relays on 4th April, but it ended up being a lot bigger than we expected”

Over 5000 runners entered, in local parks, along UK coastlines, around tiny carparks and even at altitude in the US to represent their clubs and be part of the inaugural Virtual National Road Relay Champs last week.

“Initially we expected about 3-400 people. James McCrae led, with great support from Jonny Currie and Massi Dendani, and they asked my opinion on a few things, but we really had to do things by the seat of our pants at times.”

“Open Track contacted us and really had to do a lot of work on the fly to make it work with the big numbers, but they were fantastic.” The full results can be seen here and there’s performances from 13:38 all the way up to 53:46, which is great to see as everyone could get involved.

The event, which has already raised over £9,300 for NHS Charities Together did invoke some criticism but the majority saw the benefits and it certainly brought plenty of enjoyment to the runners involved.

“We moved it to a window of a few days to stop people potentially congregating in the same place,” highlighted Hookway, “everyone might have gone to a local parkrun route or car park. Matt Bergin set up the Just Giving page to add the charity aspect too.”

We need to trust the next generation

“One thing it showed me was there is a mass of passionate, very capable people in their 20’s who deserve a chance to push this sport forward,” said the Tonbridge coach. “We have data analysts, app builders, film makers and a whole host of distance runners who can bring those skills into our sport, help with engagement and getting people interested in distance running.”

People are clearly willing to give their time and expertise to the sport we all love, but sometimes these people are not given the chance to make the difference they can. Many want the sport to remain the way it was “in the good old days”.

“The Tonbridge Twilight Meeting last August were the first since the mid-80s. We found an old programme and someone came to me with the idea. As long as I didn’t have to do all the hard work I wanted to help.”

“We had 12 people come together from the club to make that happen and we all met around a dining table, discussed it and everyone had their jobs. Then we all went away and got on with it.”

Photo: Andy Peat

Even the bus driver is excited

Talking to Hookway it’s clear the community around Tonbridge AC is something he’s very proud of, and rightly so. It’s this club mentality and the trust in each other that allows progress to happen. It’s also why the club are a regular feature in any club relay or XC championships.

“When we go to the National Cross country its not just about the six scorers. We have 200 people travel and maybe 140 of those are running and the rest supporting.”

“Everyone is involved, whether they’re at the front or finishing 1800th, it’s a team effort and they feel part of a Championship winning side. Even the bus driver gets excited.”

It’s obvious that Hookway plays a major part in the success of his club and a lot of that is down to how engaged the athletes stay. “When they move away for work or university I work hard to stay in touch.” and it’s working.

“For the Virtual Road Relays there was a lot of banter on the club whatsapp group. Close to the deadline there were some who hadn’t run yet but they knew their responsibility to the club, but also their club-mates.”

Putting in a shift for the club

One shining example of this is US-based James West. The 3:35 1500m man had an absolutely storming start to 2020 and the Corona virus epidemic certainly put a spanner into the works for his final NCAA year in Oregon.

Now training at altitude in the US, the speedster knew he’d struggle to contribute for the A team in this relay, but still gave it his all and helped the Tonbridge B team to a podium spot.

It reminds of the the quote from US basketball coach John Wooden, ““A coach’s primary function should be not to make better players, but to make better people.” At Tonbridge it feels like the coaching is an embodiment of that. They all work together to be better.

“I was proud of the club, they all got involved. We’re a club that focuses on the championships and they get that,” smiles Hookway, “and whilst it is an individual sport in lots of ways, in my experience, a great requirement is to feel part of something.”

And that is what is clear, from the virtual relays, the championship winning teams and the individual runners achieving remarkable results, Hookway is making sure they feel part of something bigger.

In a time when we might be physically distant from each other, we need to work together and come out of this stronger as a running community if we want our sport to survive.

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