Track Stats - Geoff Saunders

“Think it over and put it right”: the races of Geoff Saunders

Harold Ogden, who described his races of the 1940s and 1950s in a previous issue of “Track Stats”, outlines the achievements of one of Britain’s finest cross-country men

Geoffrey Boothby Saunders was born on 25 January 1929, the son of a doctor. He was evacuated to the Lake District during the Second World War and had his first taste of cross-country running on the fells at Patterdale, winning a race. In January 1943 he went to Repton School, where his fame had gone before him and he was greeted by a master with the words, “So you are the runner!” He ran cross-country for the school and in 1946 he not only won the Northern schools’ title from Rodney Butterworth and David Law but led his team to victory.

Whilst at Repton, his performances had been noted by Derby and County AC, and so he was asked to join. His first race was in the youth road-race championships, which in those days was a handicap event, in the autumn of 1945, and whilst he did the fastest time of 22min 12sec he wasn’t crowned youth champion, as this went to Eddie Hardy (off 30sec). However, in the National youth cross-country championships of 1946 Saunders won easily, though I often wonder what would have happened if Butterworth, after winning the East Lancs and the Northern, had competed.

Saunders left Repton in July 1946 and joined Bolton Harriers, as his father was then practising as a doctor in Bolton. After running well in the club events that autumn the youthful Saunders, still only 17 years old, was asked to run for the first team in the Manchester AC 20 miles road relay, and starting the 2nd lap in 8th position he ran a great stage, moving up to 3rd with a time of 17min 36sec. Apparently, the course record was from 1933, held by the Olympic steeplechaser and International cross-country champion, Tommy Evenson, at 17:07, and so he was in good company. Saunders also ran for Bolton against his old school in a match which became an annual event – no doubt due to him – and press cuttings show him winning easily over eight miles and described as “an 18-year-old Bolton schoolboy triple English champion and one of Britain’s outstanding hopes for the 1948 Olympics”.

His record in the East Lancs cross-country championships amounted to three junior titles and four senior titles (and perhaps only Ron Hill can claim better). He also won the Northern junior in 1948 and 1949 and he was 2nd in the Northern senior in 1951 and 1952 – on the latter occasion in terrible snowstorm conditions behind Walter Hesketh. In the 1950 senior he was spiked by Frank Aaron, which ruined his chances in the National, finishing 33rd. Though he won the National youth and junior titles, he never won the senior, and his best position was 3rd in 1951, but that year he became International champion at Newport and after this event was invited to take tea with Mayor of Bolton. Today he could well have received a knighthood!

Saunders had gone into the army for his national service, becoming a Lieutenant, and had won the army three miles title on the track in 1948 and 1949, with a time of 14:53.6 on the first occasion, and the cross-country title in the same years. In cross-country races during 1949 he beat Hesketh and Aaron (the latter by 46sec in a representative match) and won every race so easily that he was the first junior to be chosen for the full England team in the International. The race was in Dublin and he was the first Englishman home, in 5th place behind the likes of Mimoun, Pujazon and McCooke, who were all seasoned internationals and Olympic runners.

Jack Crump tried to persuade Saunders to run the steeplechase, but as a specialist cross-country runner who also took part in road races he did not perform to his best on the track. He tried the event three times at national level, registering 4th, 3rd and 4th behind such runners as Holt, Betts and Disley, and at a lower level he won the Lancashire and Northern titles in 1949. He also ran the six miles on the track occasionally at local level, and John Kay, of Wirral, beat him in the Northern championship event of 1948. I remember one road race over 6¾ miles at Crosby, in Liverpool, in 1952 when Saunders was 2nd to Fred Norris, with Ken Gates 3rd, Johnny Green 4th and Alan Parker 5th (I was back in 20th).

Saunders had to finish with athletics in 1953 when he took a position as pharmacist with Boot’s the Chemist in Heswall, on the Wirral, and was required to work on Saturdays. Ironically, while the Bolton club were Northern champions in Saunders’s day, they only won the National in 1954 after he had retired. To sum up, Geoff Saunders is a shy person and doesn’t seem to care about events 50 years or so ago. He is now living in Essex, and all his records are in his country home in Chester. In 2001 the Bolton club contacted him and he sent various information to them, which had been given to him by the former secretary, Frank Morris, in 1950. I myself spoke to Saunders for half-an-hour in 2005, and whilst he was quite forthcoming with details of his early days he wouldn’t commit to putting anything down on paper.

Footnote: Geoff Saunders was featured in an “Athletics Weekly” questionnaire in January 1951 and stated that he was 5ft 8in (1.73m) tall and weighed 10 stone (63kg). He said that he trained three times a week in the evening for between half-an-hour and an hour and took part in a club run or a race each Saturday, and he provided some wise advice for fellow-runners: “Make sure you really enjoy your sport. If you can honestly say that you are looking forward to your next training session – very good, go ahead. But if you have a feeling that you will be glad when the next session is over, well, there must be something wrong with your method of training. Think it over and put it right”.

Saunders’s best three miles time of 1948 ranked him 17th for the year in Britain and was outstanding for a 19-year-old, but he was not a serious contender for an Olympic place at 5000 or 10,000 metres. In 1949 he won the Northern two miles steeplechase at Fallowfield, Manchester, in 10:21.0, which was a commendable performance and was actually the fastest time of the year by a Briton.