Val Brockwell

From a very early start in a chest of drawers to early lunch personal bests and tough fell races such as the Swaledale Marathon. Here Val Brockwell shares her running memories and more.

Please tell us a little bit about yourself, ie. where you grew up, family etc.

I was born in Barnet, North London, about 10 minutes after my brother, and 70 years to the day before the 2020 Brighton Half Marathon. All of a sudden my parents had three children under 2. Dad was a classics teacher in the local grammar school, and Mum was a (busy) housewife.
Tim and I were 5 weeks early and very small, born in the dining room of our flat, and I’m told it was snowing outside. The midwife wrapped us up in one blanket, back-to-back for warmth, and put us in a big wooden drawer taken from my parents’ chest of drawers, her makeshift incubator. The NHS was in its infancy then, so the option of whisking us to a warm neonatal ICU didn’t arise.

When did you first start running?

My first attempt at racing was at age 5. According to Mum, I was way out ahead in the school’s 50, or maybe 25, yard dash, but then I stopped dead just before the finish line and let everyone go past me. Two teachers were holding a skipping rope ‘finish tape’. Mum (a nifty runner in her youth) asked, a bit crossly I thought, why I’d stopped. Me, tearfully: “I thought the rope would hurt me”. Nobody told me they would drop it to the ground.

Fast forward to age 11, and grammar school sport consisted entirely of things a person with zero hand-eye coordination can’t do – tennis, rounders, badminton, lacrosse. Yes, lacrosse!! All very scary. One PE teacher’s report comment caused amusement in the family: “Valerie must overcome her fear of hard balls.”

So I didn’t get the opportunity to run at school, and was too busy socialising at uni to even think of trying it, although I always loved watching athletics on TV and kind of instinctively knew I would enjoy it if I tried it.

Eventually, two very small kids and a divorce later, I decided to start running to get fit and because I knew I’d like it! As a single mum, the challenge was finding the time, and/or a willing baby-minder.

How many years have you been running for?

I think my first half marathon was in 1982 (the Robin Hood), so I reckon I have been running for 39 years, with a few breaks here and there for injury.

I’ve never lost the joy I feel for running over those 39 years. I’ve always preferred off-road running, and my training is and always was a tad haphazard. I’ve never once followed a training schedule. I did embark on one once when I’d entered a half marathon, but stopped after 3 days as it completely sucked all the pleasure away. Having said that, in my 30s and 40s I was running A LOT, just for the joy of it, not necessarily doing races.

Aptly enough, Stewart and I met at a running club in 1990, so we both did loads of running over those years. We both loved taking part in orienteering events and long tough fell races, such as the Edale Skyline, the Swaledale Marathon, the Stretton Skyline – the sort of races where there’s nothing so namby-pamby as marshals or route markings, or chalked circles to show you where the trip hazards are, it’s all down to finding a sensible route yourself with map and compass.

Of course, Stewart was generally either at or near the front of the field, and I wasn’t. Which in all honesty was probably a good thing, as I could usually (but not always!) see people in front of me and didn’t need to try so hard with the map and compass. We’ve both now had to give up such arduous events due to old age and knackered knees.

It’s never been so much about the racing for me (Stewart doesn’t get this at all), it’s just about the running, I’m not even sure of my PBs. Though actually I do know I ran five 1:37 half marathons in my late forties. Maybe if I’d done a bit of specific training I would’ve got that down to 1:35… PBs for me are more likely to be for things like “earliest time I’ve ever eaten my lunch when working at home” (10.05am).

I’ve never kept records, or put things on Strava, or any of the things most runners thrive on. But what could be better in life than running in the English countryside? Especially with like-minded friends. I hope to do it into my 90s, fingers crossed. I might even have another go at the Brighton Half Marathon, despite the tarmac, the next time it falls on my birthday. According to google, that will be in 2025.

When did you join the Hedgehoppers and what made you become a regular?

When I arrived in Brighton I searched ‘Brighton running clubs’ and PHH wasn’t listed!! I first joined BHWRC and was enjoying a beautiful Sunday morning run on the downs with Sally Washington when she regaled me with tales of running with her lovely hoppers on a Tuesday evening. I think this was probably 2013 or 14.

When she mentioned the Tuesday run on the downs every week through the summer I thought ‘that sounds like the club for me!’ I was made to feel very welcome on my first few runs, particularly by Griz, Sim, Marilyn, Sally and Peter. I became a regular because of the friendliness, and the gorgeousness of running on the South Downs.

It’s great being a hopper – for friendship, fun, all types of running, socialising, and ooh la la, Zoe’s cakes, especially those with plenty of gluten, butter and eggs.

What’s the longest distance you’ve ever run?

I’m not really sure as it wouldn’t have been a race. In the olden days when Stewart and I ran for Holme Pierrepont Running Club, every year, at May Bank Holiday, about 25-30 of us did a club relay over one of the UK’s long-distance footpaths – just for the fun of it.

We did the Pennine Way, twice, the Cambrian Way, the Coast-to-Coast, the Alternative Coast-to-Coast, the Cleveland Way, the Cotswold Way, the South Downs Way, and one year we devised a Land’s End-to-Nottingham route, almost all on footpaths. Half the fun was that from Feb to May we would have many sociable weekends away, camping or B’n’Bing, carousing*, and recceing all sections of the route in preparation. Sometimes we would recce our own section and other people’s sections one after another, so maybe 30+ miles on a good day. A wonderful way to explore parts of the countryside you might otherwise never see, and spend loads of time in pubs.
* ask Stewart about the Old Peculier!!

Favourite running memory, ie. that WOW moment?

Almost 40 years of running means many memories… some of the strongest in all honesty being of spectacular falls and ignominious face plants. And I guess this is a bit of a strange memory to choose. It’s maybe not my favourite one as such, but for me a memorable achievement all the same: it happened during one of the above-mentioned relays. We were doing the Pennine Way. It was 1992 and mobile phones weren’t really mobile so no-one carried one. I had volunteered to do a night section (for the added excitement), and so, under our club rules, had a running companion, Frank.

Frank wasn’t much good with a map and compass, and I’ve had my silly moments. Stewart was doing the previous leg, in daylight, and then Frank and I were due to take over and run over Saddleworth Moor – those of my vintage may remember it as a favourite haunt of the moors murderers.

As night fell, a very thick fog descended and it was literally zero-visibility as Frank and I were due to set off on to the featureless, pathless peat moor. Head torches merely served to reflect the fog back at us. Stewart appeared through the gloom, handed over the relay sash, and said “be careful it’s treacherous out there!”

Well, it took us about 4 hours to cover the 7-8 miles to the next changeover in a remote car park, every step through the peat groughs dependent on my iffy skills with the map and compass, and how I got us there I’ll never know. Stewart was unusually emotional as we approached, I think he was beginning to wonder whether he’d ever see me again. What a sense of achievement though – unforgettable. I think this might well be Frank and me looking very tired but relieved after we’d finished:

Favourite running event and why?

These days it’s probably the Downland Devil 9, or any of the downland WSFRL races. They’re reasonably laid back and the terrain is fab.

Do you have a nickname and how did you come by it?

Amongst running friends it always used to be Auntie Val, and that was simply because, even 30 years ago, most of my fellow runners seemed to be a lot younger than me!