BACK in 1964, The Beatles topped the Christmas charts with I Feel Fine. That week, Ron Hill began a remarkable odyssey which has seen him run at least a mile every day since – defying flu, falls, cancer surgery, a foot operation, and a fractured sternum – to compile a streak of 19,032 consecutive days (52 years and 39 days) the longest by any athlete in history. He covered more than 162,000 miles – sufficient for more than six circumnavigations of the world. Until last Saturday, when he felt anything but fine.
"I thought I might die," he told me yesterday. Gripped by a fierce chest pain, he struggled to complete a single mile at little more than walking pace: 16 minutes 34 seconds. "But I am quite stubborn, so I finished."
The following day, however, Hill's shoes stayed in the cupboard. The textile chemist told website Streak Runners International that it was over. "I have been having heart problems and have been waiting for some time now to have the problem diagnosed and hopefully rectified," he said.
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He was in hospital yesterday for tests, but expects to have to wait a couple of weeks for results. "They told me I might end up on a ventilator, so I am waiting for these results," he added, speaking from his home near Manchester. "They asked me about the pain. I said I'd run 2:09 for the marathon, so I know what pain is all about when I feel it.
"That's all I have been doing for the last three weeks, my heart started to hurt. But I carried on – it was downhill. Over the last 800m the problem got worse and worse. I thought I might die, but I just made it to one mile. I checked on my GPS. There was no other option but to stop. I owed that to my wife, family and friends plus myself.
"My son drove me to the hospital, and I was in pain just walking from the car in the grounds, and they kept me in overnight then let me out." That was yesterday. "I went out and walked quarter of a mile, and it started to hurt again, so I know there is something not right. I am going out again now. I shall just walk quarter of a mile."
Famous in his pomp for racing wearing a string vest, Hill, now 78, is an iconic figure to successive generations of runners, and not just for his durability and irrepressible determination. He competed in three Olympics, won the European marathon title in 1969 (on the Athens course which destroyed Paula Radcliffe), and Commonwealth gold in Edinburgh the following year. In 1970 he also became the first Briton to win the Boston Marathon, taking three minutes from the course record. He set world bests at 10 and 15 miles, and 25 kilometres. He took the first from Ron Clarke (one of 19 the Australian held) and the the other two from Czech legend Emil Zatopek.
Hill's winning time in the 1970 Commonwealth Games (2:09.28) is still the Scottish all-comers' best, just as the time of Jim Alder, the Scot who finished second (2:12.04), still remains the Scottish native record. Given that two Commonwealth Games have since been hosted in Scotland, this is a remarkable feat. Yet Hill was denied even greater honour. His 1970 time in Edinburgh had been surpassed only by Derek Clayton (Antwerp, 1969). But that course was subsequently remeasured and found to be short, causing the Association of Road Racing Statisticians to disregard Clayton's performance, and Hill now features in their world record progression.
I reported the Edinburgh race. On a baking July afternoon, the performances were remarkable. Clayton, who had dismissed Alder as having no chance – "Because he's not a class athlete" – was in the race, and Alder took great satisfaction in passing him. The Australian did not finish.
Hill is not bitter. When I interviewed him before Glasgow 2014 we spoke of how the road-running authorities consider the Belgian course to have been as much as a kilometre short. It had been measured as the average of five cars on the course, inadmissible today. "However, the IAAF [the world governing body] don't want to know," he said.
His was still the era of amateurism. When Hill won Boston in 1970, he recalls: "There was no prize money at all. I got a medal, a bowl of beef stew, and a laurel wreath which agriculture regulations wouldn't let me take out of America."
Last year's winner set a course record, collecting $200,000.
Maintaining his 52-year streak, which until he was 70 averaged seven miles per day, has been achieved in the face of incredible hardship. He fractured his sternum in a car crash in 1993, and was lucky it was not fatal. "That was probably the worst," he acknowledged. "Seeing that car coming head on towards me at a combined speed of 70 or 80 mph. But I'd already run that day, and managed to run the next. My wife, May, went out to do the weekly shop, so I sneaked out and jogged a mile on a flat road. I did not tell her until about a week later!"
The same year he had a bunion operation. "I ran a mile a day for six weeks, in a plaster cast in a specially adapted shoe."
In 2014 he had a biopsy for prostate cancer on the Tuesday, but trained every day of that week, and raced a hilly 10k on the Sunday in 57 minutes. "They later injected me with radioactive iodine, which killed the cancer. I ran through it – no pain at all. I've now been signed off."
He has also survived bladder cancer. "But they did not tell me the surgery might make me incontinent. I asked them for a nappy, so that I would not embarrass myself going home in the taxi. Then I put on some black bottoms and went out and ran a mile. I needed to go and it just happened in my running gear. Thankfully there was nobody around. I'm not worried about that now. I have to go back in three months' time."
It may sound as if the inspirational Ron Hill has had his money's worth from the NHS, yet I reckon the balance remains in his favour. "I have had some wonderful emails this week, from people who say I have inspired them into the healthy habit of running. So I have probably saved the NHS a fortune!"
His continuous challenge – the equivalent of more than halfway to the moon – is over, but as he prepared to take his quarter mile walk last night, Hill vowed: "I shall get back. It might take a long time, but it would destroy me if I could never run again."