What happened when I raced 17-year-old sprinter Ryan Palmer (by Richard Hughes, 41 and three quarters)

After 17-year-old Huntingdonshire Athletics Club sprinter Ryan Palmer had been named Sports Personality of the Year at the Hunts Post Sports Awards in July, the newspaper’s sports reporter Richard Hughes, 41, decided it was a good idea to challenge him to a race!

RYAN Palmer is 17, an inch and a half off six foot, toned and fit. I am 41, five foot six, bulging in most of the wrong places and past my prime. We both have facial hair but that’s possibly our only comparable feature.

My only hope then was that facial hair is an indicator of athletic prowess over a 100-metre sprint. Turns out it isn’t.

At some point, after the Huntingdonshire Athletics Club sprinter had been named the Sports Personality of the Year at The Hunts Post Sports Awards in July, I had a moment of madness, emailed the club’s press officer and vice chairman Wayne DuBose, and asked if I could go head-to-head with the lad. Last Thursday, I did just that.


Earlier this year, Palmer ran 10.78 seconds and became the 12th fastest under 20-year-old in the United Kingdom.

On the other hand, I had not run a track 100 metres since my final year at Queensway Primary School in Torquay in 1982. I remember I finished that race in third behind Justin Urquhart and David Bogg.

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I was seriously unprepared. I had not eaten properly because the plumber fixing my toilet had taken longer than expected, and 10 minutes of stretching in the car park of the St Ivo Outdoor Centre had not really sharpened me up.

As we wandered down the track towards my opponent, looking very cool in headphones, DuBose told me: “Depending on where you are at in your sporting life you should jog two to four laps, do 15 to 20 minutes of stretching, and then do four to six runs of 60 metres, progressively getting faster, until the last one which should be close to top speed.”

So here I was, following Palmer’s instructions as he talked me through his pre-race warm-up, struggling to synchronise my arms and legs as I tried to reflect his movements, thinking: “Why oh why am I putting myself through this?”

As we loosened up, Ryan was very gracious, smiling at the right times and pretending not to notice the complete inability of my body to do what I was asking of it.

And then my confidence grew when he instructed me on how to do a three-point start – and I got it straight away! There was to be no blocks, but the appearance of DuBose with a starting pistol gave the whole scene some kind of gravitas.

“Ryan joined us in 2010,” DuBose had told me. “He wasn’t quite 16 when he started running times that made us sit up and pay attention. By the year’s end, he’d run 11.1 seconds.

“Last year, Ryan made the English Schools 100 metres final, running his first legal sub 11-seconds, and anchored Cambridgeshire to a sprint relay bronze medal.

“This year, Ryan made the national indoor junior 60 metres final where he broke seven seconds for the first time.”

It was in Gateshead in July, in the English Schools Senior Boys’ 100 metres final, that he ran his personal best of 10.78 seconds. That time put him 12th in the national rankings for under 20s. Currently, the fastest British sprinter in Ryan’s age group is Adam Gemilli, the 18-year-old former footballer who reached the 100 metres semi-finals at London 2012. In Barcelona, in July, the Londoner recorded his best time of 10.05.

Two more stats worth considering are these: Usain Bolt won the gold medal at the Olympic Games with a time of 9.63 (an Olympic record), while single leg amuteee athlete Jonnie Peacock, who is from Cambridgeshire, won gold at the Paralympics in the astonishing time of 10.90.


THE moment the gun popped, I knew I was in trouble. I pushed off with my right foot and went for a massive boost with my left. All this did was throw me to the right and by the time my right foot was back on the track to address the balance I was almost out of my lane.

Crossing into another athlete’s lane is a disqualification of course, but somehow I managed to re-adjust and when I finally looked up and considered the distance between myself and my opponent, Ryan was already 10 metres ahead.

I don’t think of myself as unfit: I cycle a lot and play squash once a week, but I probably drink too much and smoke the occasional cigarette. I like to think I eat well but am probably fooling myself.

At 41, with memories of my ‘considerable’ speed down the right wing of a football pitch, I had reckoned I should be aiming for about 15 seconds. In the Hunts Post office bravado had me suggesting 13.24. The editor Andy Veale wasn’t pulling any punches: he was going to be surprised if I managed anything quicker than 18 seconds.

On arriving at the track DuBose had given me a possible time of ‘15 point something’. Ryan, bless him, looked me up and down and said I might manage 13.90! (To be fair, I hadn’t told him about my drinking and smoking.)

At about 60 metres I looked up and saw Ryan just about to cross the line. I felt as if I had been running for about half an hour. Strangely, I had time to think about my stride, about the muscles I was using, and about the inappropriate trainers I was wearing and the uncomfortable bunching up of my socks around my toes.

Did I have more? I tried to increase the power of my strides and immediately began to feel like I was going to lose my balance. A fear of falling forward, crashing to the ground, and the terrifying laughter from watching athletes that would surely follow quickly slowed me down again.

By this time Ryan was way past the finishing line and had turned to watch me. Oddly, my colleague Hywel Barrett, who was supposed to be crouching on the finishing line taking photos, had lost his balance and seemed to be rolling around on his back with his arms and legs in the air like an upside down tortoise.

There was no pain, no lack of breath, just a sudden lack of speed. I slowed down the way Bolt does at the end of a heat. But, unlike Bolt, I hadn’t made that choice. I just had nothing left, nothing at all. I was spent like a clockwork toy whose mechanism had wound right down.


SO, what was my time? Do I really have to tell you? You see, a post-race search of the internet resulted in my discovery of the current ‘masters’ records.

These begin at 35 years of age (Linford Christie, 9.97) and carry on at five-year intervals (Troy Douglas, 10.29 in the over-40s age group), all the way to the over-100s record, which is held by London-based veteran Fauja Singh, who was astonishingly 100 years and six months old when he ran 23.40 in Canada in October 2010.

With an average speed of 13.96 miles per hour, I trailed in 4.69 seconds behind Ryan who, taking it easy, had finished the race in a time of 11.33.

My time of 16.02 would have broken the men’s under-85s record of 16.16, currently held by Suda Giichi of Japan, but not the over-80s record of 14.35 set by American Payton Jordan in 1997.

Enough said.