Canavan’s column - June 13, 2013

1976'LOCAL'Tom Benson signs autographs at Preston railway station
1976'LOCAL'Tom Benson signs autographs at Preston railway station
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234 miles without the loo .... now that is endurance

The extraordinary life of Tom Benson came to an end this week, a fella who would make a terrific subject for a film (though given Tom Cruise would probably get the part, then maybe it’s not such a good idea after all).

Tom - Benson, not Cruise - was from down the road in Preston. A boxer in his youth, he joined the army and was injured during the Suez Crisis in Egypt in the 50s.

But it was then, at least in my eyes, that his life got really interesting - he became a long-distance walker.

This aroused my interest because, unless I’ve had more than seven pints, I consider myself pretty good on two feet.

For the last couple of years I have flown to the Isle of Man to compete in something called the Parish Walk, an event for slightly insane people.

The idea is to do a lap of the island, which amounts to 85 miles, in 24 hours.

For the last two years I have trained for months in advance of the event, pounding the streets of the Fylde in a pair of shorts and wearing a rucksack, and getting harangued by passing teenagers.

Despite all the training I have failed both years, dropping out at the 52 mile stage on each occasion (the fact that there is a cafe at the 52-mile point offering hot mugs of tea, carrot cake and a complimentary rub-down from a 21-year-old Swedish lady called Agnetha is pure coincidence).

So it was with this thought in mind - my failures - that I read, open-mouthed, the walking achievements of Tom.

During the 70s and 80s, the fella set six world records, one of which will never be beaten because the Guinness Book of Records later deemed it too dangerous.

This was when Tom - and I had to read this twice to believe it - walked 234 miles round the Aintree Grand National course (without, and this is perhaps the most impressive part, even a toilet break ... Paula Radcliffe take note).

Apparently for each of the mammoth walks he did there were times, usually around the 200 mile mark, when he would hallucinate and once admitted to seeing “fish swimming on the grass”.

Tom was aged 43 when he first attempted to set a world record, in 1976, when he walked 309 miles in 174 laps of Moor Park.

It took him five days and nights. Even that paled into insignificance with his sixth world title and his ultimate effort - 414.8 miles, again around Moor Park.

Having dabbled at this long-distance walking malarkey I cannot emphasise enough what a mind-bogglingly impressive feat that is. Quite why you’d want to do it I have no idea - I mean walking for five days straight, you’d miss at least three episodes of Corrie - but to actually achieve it is immense.

The physical challenge is one thing, but mentally it is just as tough, maybe even harder.

To keep on walking, mile after mile, through days and nights, blisters on both feet, muscles screaming ... words fail me.

Tom, who passed away at a hospital in Devon, aged 80, I hereby doff my cap to you. Fantastic.

Holes in sacks, angry parents, a well done sticker .... Sports Day gone crackers

If proof were required that the world has gone well and truly bonkers, it came this week when I talked to a schoolteacher friend of mine about sports days and how they now have to be non-competitive.

Now I’d heard about this. I’d read in the papers how schools weren’t allowed to have winners any more, just in case little Johnny got all upset after finishing fourth in the egg and spoon race.

But I didn’t know the extent of the madness.

Everybody - or at least in the school where my friend works - has to win, so the sports day is now called ‘A Practice Skills Session’, where parents watch their little darlings throw and catch things, everyone gets a sticker and a pat on the back, and told how brilliant they are.

This was done for many reasons, one of which was because schools were sick of abusive parents on finish lines screaming that their child pipped an opponent for third place.

If schools do dare to hold anything approaching a competitive race then it cannot be dangerous in any way at all (well it can, but they leave themselves wide open to being sued).

So for the sack race, for instance, a hole is cut at the bottom of the sack so the childrens’ feet can stick out. What happens is they effectively run while inside a sack - which sounds a damn sight more dangerous to me than jumping.

I mentioned this in the office and it sparked a lively debate (so lively it almost ended in a scrap between two colleagues after one particularly contentious point).

One of my co-workers felt the non-competitive route was great for when you make things a competition, he said, it puts 80 per cent of the kids off. Keep it non-competitive, he argued, and it means every child takes part in sport.

I understand and accept that argument but to me it just seems another step towards this namby-pamby society we seem intent on creating, where kids are protected from the real world at all costs - ironic as with the internet they are far more savvy than us oldies ever were.

I really don’t see a lot wrong with having races on a school sports day and having - dare I say this? I think I do - winners.

I always finished fourth or fifth in anything I did but like to think I’ve coped quite well and not turned into some kind of manic depressive, sat in a bedsit wailing about not winning the egg and spoon race in 1983.