The midnight race against the clock in Sunderland

The midnight race against the clock back in 1970.
The midnight race against the clock back in 1970.

What Kevin Carr doesn’t know about athletics is probably not worth knowing.

He was a very good runner himself and also a technical official at the London Olympic Games.

Kevin Carr at the 2012 London Olympics.

Kevin Carr at the 2012 London Olympics.

He has been the Echo’s athletics correspondent for 36 years and is still a Sunderland Harrier after 56 years. In fact he is the current chairman.

But today, he is in the Echo for another reason.

He’s revisiting a famous race which was held in Sunderland in 1970 and still has some unanswered questions.

It was summer 1970. The best athletes in Wearside were all set to pit themselves against the clock ... the town hall clock.

I remember it clearly. I had just been to the Commonwealth Games at Edinburgh and arrived home at Humbledon at about 11pm after driving back. I made a late decision to run the race which was due to start at midnight

Kevin Carr, keen runner

The challenge was quite simple. Set off from the Gas Office corner, and run the length of Fawcett Street in less time than it takes the Town Hall Clock to strike for the 12th time.

Experts reckoned the 367-yard distance would have to be run in about 38.5 seconds for the competitors to win the challenge. A tough ask but was it possible?

And there was an extra twist - because it was held at midnight.

And in another development, it was the last time the race would be held because the Town Hall Clock itself was being removed.

A younger Kevin Carr in action.

A younger Kevin Carr in action.

What happened next was dramatic, especially for Kevin who had spent the day driving back from Scotland.

The date was Thursday, July 23, 1970.

Kevin said: “I remember it clearly. I had just been to the Commonwealth Games at Edinburgh and arrived home at Humbledon at about 11pm after driving back.

“I made a late decision to run the race which was due to start at midnight.”

But it was not just a matter of driving to the venue. He ran the three miles just to get to the start line!

“It was a bit chaotic,” remembered Kevin, but he did have one advantage.

“I was then aged 25 (now 71) and could run a bit, being a member of Sunderland Harriers and having won some middle and long-distance titles.”

So Kevin lined up with the other athletes and a massive crowd to watch them all.

Alongside him were other serious challengers including Rev W.J. Taylor, vicar of St Mark’s church in Millfield - at 41 he was thought to be the oldest man in the race.

Dr Alan Lillington, a former international runner, was also in the line-up, as was 13-year-old Stephen Maskell, accompanied by his 14-year-old sister Jacqueline, who was the only female to take on the men.

Many of the runners were raising money for charity.

Traffic was stopped and as the clock struck midnight, the Mayor Coun WO Stephenson started the race.

The crowd cheered as the runners passed the Town Hall. And they were greeted by a blast from Professor Stanley Thompson, of the Scottish Academy of Music, on the trombone.

The cheers grew to a roar as the field reached the traffic lights and Burton Corner.

Paul Chapman, a 21-year-old hairdresser, was in the lead, but Kevin was close behind in second. Dr Lillington was in third.

But who won and did any of them beat the clock?

Paul was the winner and Kevin followed him home. And did they beat the clock?

Maybe we will never know. The roar of the crowd was so loud, no-one could hear the clock’s final strokes.

The Sunderland Echo report on the event later concluded: “The attempt must go down as a failure. After a dubious start, the leading runners were assessed to be about 35 yards off the end of the street at the 12th stroke.

“Indeed, had they been faster, they would have been unable to approach the true finish line, because the last 15 yards of the course was occupied by the crowd.”

Still, hundreds had turned out to watch it all, including Kevin, who is still a keen runner to this day.

Were you a part of that historic day? Were you racing or did you watch from the sidelines? Tell us more. Email chris.cordner@jpress.co.uk