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In Harry's name

07 April 2011

Harry Green

When 31-year-old investment banker Paul Winks sets off from Blackheath next Sunday on his first London Marathon he'll have a special family member in mind, someone close to his heart whose memory inspired him to take on the unique marathon challenge to raise money for a worthy cause.

There's nothing unusual in that, of course; hundreds do the same very year. Unlike most of them, however, Winks has never even met the person he hopes to honour by crossing the finish line in The Mall less than three hours later, for it's his great grandfather, Harry Green, who died nearly 80 years ago, a remarkable runner who became one of London's first ever marathon champions exactly 100 years ago.

For Winks and his family, 2011 marks not just the 30th anniversary of the London Marathon but a century since Green won the Polytechnic Marathon, an annual international race from Windsor to White City that set the standard for future marathons around the globe.

Organised by Polytechnic Harriers following the dramatic 1908 Olympic race, it was a true precursor of the event founded by Chris Brasher in 1981, giving Green, and the Winks family, a special connection to the marathon's history. Indeed, the Sporting Life Polytechnic trophy is still presented every year jointly to the men's and women's London Marathon champions.

When Green won on 27 May 1911 he was a 24-year-old rising star from Streatham, a member of Herne Hill Harriers who the New York Times described as being "in fresh condition" when he crossed the finish line after two hours 46 minutes, ahead of the American Michael Ryan.

Green went on to run for Britain at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, a notorious race marred by the first ever Olympic death when Portuguese runner Francisco Lazaro fell victim to the 45-degree heat. Green was the first Briton home that day, and on his return to London he set a world record for 26.2 miles, clocking 2:38:16 during a 50-mile race around the track at Stamford Bridge stadium.

Later he broke the world record for two hours, but his heroics weren't confined to the athletic field for Green signed up and fought in the First World War, receiving a Distinguished Conduct Medal for service in Gallipoli. The war finished his athletic career, however, and he ended his days running a newsagents in Streatham. He died of pneumonia aged 47.

It's an incredible story and, not surprisingly, Green's deeds became family legend. For Paul, however, the true significance of his great grandfather's achievements didn't strike home until last summer when he was chatting to his dad, Green's grandson Phil Winks, about his own ambition to run London.

"There had always been stories in our family about this guy," says Paul. "But it was only when dad mentioned that 2011 would be 100 years since he won that I suddenly thought, ‘Somebody should honour that.' After all, not many people can say they have a champion in the family. I just thought it should be marked."

A former rower, a man who's completed six Ironman triathlons and the occasional cross country skiing event, Paul seems to have inherited some of his ancestor's taste for endurance. By his own admission, he's not the sort to duck a challenge. No sooner had the notion clicked in than his quest to run in Harry's name became an overwhelming goal.

"It took about a nano-second to go from a vague feeling to a definite plan," he says. "I'm one of those people, I suppose. I always set lofty goals. I'm a nightmare for my family; they never know what I'm going to come out with next.

"It's funny, though, my dad's side of the family are not ones for patting themselves on the back, so I'd not heard much about Harry before. There are not many people alive who knew him.

"But as soon as I found out I thought I'm going to tell everyone I can. I want his story to be known."

Paul's first challenge was to get a place, and that's when another family connection played its part. Paul's aunt, Gill Grinstead, Harry's grand-daughter, passed away last summer after working as a life-long volunteer for Guide Dogs for the Blind. It seemed only natural for Paul to run for the charity. He asked and, not surprisingly, they signed him up. He's already raised more than £2,500.

"When we were young, she always had guide dogs living with her," he remembers. "I grew up adoring animals, and I think the work they do is incredible. The power of the animal kingdom to give someone their life back is remarkable."

Paul set about training with gusto, switching from the varied disciplines of triathlon to what he calls the "monotony" of pure running. He ran in the evenings after returning from the City to his home in Surbiton, and then when the bad weather kicked in he put in mammoth two and a half hour sessions on the treadmill in his local gym.

"I became a bit of an object of suspicion," he says. "I'd be there for hours in a pool of my own sweat. But with marathon running you just have to get the miles in.

"I've never really been a runner," he adds. "I've always been a cyclist who runs to finish a triathlon. But those were for fun compared to this. This is the first time I've done something really seriously, to really be successful at it."

Paul's completed marathons before, but only as the third discipline of an Ironman event, and never quicker than four hours. His target now? Two hours 46, of course. Despite the odd niggle and slightly creaky knees, he's determined to do it.

"I refuse to say I can't do it," he says. "All you need is two legs and a heart and you can do anything. Look at Harry - he was just an ordinary guy and they didn't know anything about training then, or nutrition. They didn't have any of the stuff we have. I mean, they ran in leather shoes. I just think if he could do it, then I should be able to.

"The fact that someone died in that Olympic race shows they really were taking enormous risks. They were pioneers. So when I look at him and the struggles he went through, I just think it's incredible what he did.

"They knew all about suffering then, they really did. I think I've had a bad day if my train's late into Waterloo."

It was that same sense of honour and respect which led Paul to decide not to run in costume, much as he was tempted by 1911-style baggy shorts and flat shoes.

"I thought about dressing up but I want it to be more pure than that," he says. "I suppose I want it to be me, as Harry Green's flesh and blood, doing my absolute best in a marathon to honour him and what he did."

He will carry a few mementos, though - a t-shirt printed with Harry's 1911 race number and the Herne Hill Harriers' flag, plus a photo of Harry with the Poly trophy slotted into his pocket.

His wife, Dee, will be there to cheer him on, as will dad, the man who first put the idea in his head.

"We have a typical father-son relationship," says Paul. "We don't talk much about emotional stuff. But I know this means a lot to him. It's honouring his sister as well as his grandfather.

"I know that anything can happen in an event like this so I'm not going to predict too much, but it really would mean a lot if I can match Harry's time and finish as fresh as he did."

Whatever happens, thanks to his great grandson's efforts, Harry Green's name will live again on 17 April 2011, 100 years after his own finest hour.