Swansea Harriers: The club of London Marathon heroes

By Gemma Ryall
BBC News

Image source, Getty Images/BBC

There might have been a record 40,382 runners taking part in this year's London Marathon but it was two Welsh men who grabbed all the headlines.

Josh Griffiths stunned Britain's elite men by crossing the finish line in two hours 14 minutes 49 seconds on his marathon debut to qualify for the 2017 World Championships in London.

Meanwhile, just over half an hour later, Matthew Rees encapsulated the sporting spirit of the event by helping fellow runner David Wyeth across the finish line after he collapsed exhausted 300m from the end.

Both heroes - and both members of the Swansea Harriers Athletics Club.

For club president Barrie Owen it was a remarkable and proud moment, especially as road running "was almost unheard of" in Swansea when he founded the club back in 1962.

Image source, Swansea Harriers
Image caption,
Swansea Harriers' Senior Men's team 1972

"I was involved as a voluntary leader for a boy's club in the Cockett area of Swansea at the time and one of the activities was athletics," said the former head teacher of Gors Junior School.

"But there was very poor organisation of athletics in Swansea at the time. In things like the Welsh championships, there were only about half a dozen runners involved.

"And there wasn't road running like you have now. It was mainly track and field and cross country.

"So we decided to start a club and it just grew naturally. I was the only coach then, even though I'd never really done running. I was more into rugby.

"But some of the boys were keen to do more and because there wasn't much in terms of help for them and races - no leagues or fun runs like today - we decided to start something."

Image source, Swansea Harriers
Image caption,
Swansea Harrier Nigel Adams wins the 1991 British 10k Road Championships

The 11 runners aged between about 17 and 30 would meet to train on a grass running track at the King George V playing fields off Mumbles Road - next door to the club's current training ground at Swansea University's sports village.

They organised an event along Swansea promenade - "I think it was about a mile for under-16s and under-18s," said Mr Owen - and also a race from Mumbles to St Helen's rugby ground in Swansea city centre - with the finish coinciding with the end of a rugby match.

"I suppose running wasn't like it is today - it was far from as popular as it is today - but the event went well," Mr Owen added.

Media caption,
Matthew Rees helped David Wyeth up The Mall to the finish line of the London Marathon

Over the years, the club grew and became more successful.

"It was quite a gradual thing, " said Mr Owen, 83, who still coaches track and field about three evenings a week.

"But it's certainly within the last 10 years that the numbers have shot up - I think the focus on keeping fit and obesity has helped and we now get a lot of children taking part," he said.

The club now has the highest number of members it has ever had at more than 700, making it the biggest club in Wales and one of the biggest in the UK.

Image source, Swansea Harriers
Image caption,
Swansea Harriers ladies 1974

Children can join from the age of nine - although many drop out between the ages of 15 and 20 - and the oldest club member is 86.

The Harriers' 40 coaches - all volunteers - regularly attend the latest training courses and all specialise in different areas of athletics, from track and field, to cross country and from road running to fell running.

They also have a number of high profile members, including Dai Greene, the former World, Commonwealth and European 400m hurdle champion, as well as former Commonwealth and World Championship 1,500m medallist Hayley Tullett, and cross country champion Dewi Griffiths.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
400m hurdler Dai Greene is a member of the Harriers

One of the coaches, Andrew Jenkins, said it was the high calibre of athletes that keeps driving Harriers on to success.

"We are a community club but we tend to have runners of an intermediate and above level - those who can do 10k in 50 minutes or less," he said.

"Having all these talented athletes training together helps raise their game.

"We also have a good combination of experienced coaches and excellent facilities. We have indoor facilities thanks to our being at the university, and a lot of clubs don't have that.

"And because all athletes and disciplines are different, we have what I call bespoke training."

Image source, Swansea Harriers
Image caption,
The Swansea Harriers team in 1969

For new marathon star Josh Griffiths, who was the first British runner to cross the finish line in London, it is also about the support offered by his club mates.

"The atmosphere down in Swansea is amazing," said Griffiths, 23, from Cross Hands in Carmarthenshire, who joined the Harriers in 2011.

"Everyone wants each other to do well."

Indeed, Griffiths was with Rees and their fellow Harriers before the marathon started - and he is keen to get back training with them when he returns from Cardiff Metropolitan University in the summer after completing a master's degree in sports coaching.

"It's a real team atmosphere there," he added.

And after the spotlight of the London Marathon, the Harriers are braced for even more members - and success.

"I wouldn't be surprised if we get more people," added Mr Owen.

"As long as we can cater for them, everyone is welcome."

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