Race Walking Footwear
After seeing my first walking race at Manchester’s White City stadium in 1957 and dabbling with the event over the following year I drifted into the discipline. The Bolton Harriers’ Hon. Secretary Frank Morris, who had done some race walking before an industrial accident curtailed his athletic career, encouraged, and gave me advice like, use your hips and keep your arms low and have a heel on your shoes. My footwear at that time was a pair of flat-soled white canvas tennis shoes. The outcome of a visit and chat to my local cobbler, Mr.Bromley, which would be the first of many in the ensuing years, was the addition of a layer of crepe, to create a heel on the tennis shoes.
My first race walking shoes were made by J.W.Foster who had his workshop on Deane Road in Bolton and one of the country’s top athletic shoe makers. His black leather shoes with a broad stripe of snake-skin, along with a wafer thin strip of leather twixt sole and heel, which enabled the shoe to be doubled in half, were the hall-mark of his walking shoes. Another feature in all the leather walking shoes was a substantial heel counter to stabilise pronation. Bolton was also the home of ‘Walkers Tannery’ who produced the hard-wearing Dri-ped Oak leather, which was not much thinner than a centimetre, and was used for soles and heels.
Harold Whitlock’s Shoes had a microcellular sole and heel, which reduced considerably the jarring experienced with the stouter more rigid leather footwear. The seamless leather uppers also made them easier to wear in.
The other leather shoes I wore were made by G.T.”Sandy”Law & Son Law of London, much favoured by southern walkers and worn by Stan Vickers when winning the European 20km championship in Stockholm in 1958, notable for the seam centred on the uppers to allow plenty of toe room.
The paper outline submitted to the shoemakers when ordering a pair, meant that the maker could select the appropriate last, but another thing all leather soled shoes had in common, was the need to ‘wear them in’.
I think it was the continentals who led the way forward with the trainer-type shoe. Adidas with a variety of models and Puma initially. They were simply running shoes, still had leather or suede uppers, but not the pronounced heel. Walking versions started to appear, the broad fitting Asics Tiger, Reebok, Walsh’s, Hunt and Gola. With the exception of the latter two I raced in them all at some time, but my favourite was the EB. Eventually, leather uppers became fabric, less specialised and in the end, I think most walkers used any trainer that was comfortable, to some extent durable and reasonably priced.
Joe Foster’s sons Joe and Jeff, split from their father in the early 1960’s and founded ReeBok in nearby Bury. Jeff took part in the New Year’s Eve Novelty event in 1967. Norman Walsh another northern shoe maker, (famous for making bespoke wrestling boots for celebrities like Jacky Palo and Big Daddy), also served his apprenticeship with Joe W.Foster, before going it alone and successfully too.
I had personal dealings with both, being employed by Reebok for a short time in late 1967 and 1968, at a time when my employer of several years, reneged on a commitment he made to me following my Kingston success.
As for Norman, well every time I got selected, I would receive a message from him, and it was always the same – You’d better get up here and get measured for a new pair. Norman was oh so laid-back, and athletes, hockey and rugby players were always welcome to pop in and see him. I can still picture the seemingly disorganised workshop in the middle of a terrace on Derby Street, Daubhill; lasts everywhere, brand new rolls of leather with off-cuts strewn about and the combined smell of leather and adhesive.
Of course, elite athletes will always want the best, but I have raced domestically in ‘Hush Puppies’ and Olympian Bob Hughes wore them at least once in international competition.
More footwear memories to follow from Guy Goodair, Greg Smith and others.