A Brief History of Wigan Harriers Endurance Group by Dave Collins
With much talk about membership numbers passing the 100 mark, quite a few of the more recent recruits have been asking about how Wigan Harriers Endurance Group came into being. It’s hardly an enthralling epic of passion, skulduggery and heroic deeds, more a case of how a chance encounter spawned a success.
In 2010, a split was developing at Wigan Phoenix – not the first to occur, but this one involved quite a few more members than previous divisions. These weren’t great times, and everyone involved undoubtedly looks back at that period with some regret. “Was there really a fight at one of the sessions?” Actually, and unbelievably, there was. Graham Millington had only been to a few training sessions, and went home to tell wife Sandra that perhaps running clubs were more her thing than his. Anyway, attempts were made to heal the rift but a group of runners became increasingly frustrated and disenchanted by aspects of the way the club was being run. One or two had already jumped ship to neighbouring clubs, but for others there was a desire to remain Wigan based. England Athletics will, quite rightly, not sanction the formation of a new club simply because a split arises at an existing one, so the discontent rumbled on.
In the summer of 2011, Dave Waddington and Andy Eccles were attending an England Athletics coaching course, where they met current Wigan Harriers coach, and then Harriers chairman, Darren Borthwick. Darren was keen to re-establish road running at the club, which had ironically stopped many years earlier when the “road runners” broke away to form Wigan Phoenix! It was the perfect solution for all concerned. The discontents found a club in the centre of their town, and the club got a core of experienced road runners to build from. In June 2011, about 12 Phoenix members resigned from the club and joined Wigan Harriers. In order to differentiate them from the track and field athletes, the name “Wigan Harriers Endurance Group” was coined.
Training during that first winter was tough at times. With only a dozen or so members, the sessions had to be carefully structured to keep everyone together. The challenge was in attracting and keeping new members. Business cards were printed with the club details, and these were thrust upon unsuspecting runners round the borough. A glossy leaflet was produced, featuring photographs of aging, underdressed people, who looked like they needed a good chippy tea. A major step forward was the setting up of the Harriers blog by Graham Millington in early 2012, populated by some literary classics from Graham – if you haven’t read them then delve into the blog archives.
Would you really use this to advertise the club?
The Group did their best to get the famous black and red vest recognised again on the road and cross country scenes by entering plenty of local races. Despite only just having enough members to field complete teams, in the first season back in the Mid Lancs cross country league, the women’s men’s and men’s vets teams were all promoted from their respective divisions. In September 2012, the club entered the Northern road relays for the first time in over a quarter of a century, fielding one men’s team of 6 and one ladies’ team of 4. The summer of 2012 also saw the launch of our very own race, the Amberswood Trail Race, which helped to introduce the club to a wider audience and raised its profile.
Despite all of these initiatives, few enquires were received and when new people did come to the training sessions, they were often daunted by the standard of the core group, who were all decent club runners. It was really proving difficult to attract runners of “all abilities”, which had been one of the primary aims when setting up the Endurance Group. However, the tide very slowly started to turn. Shona Taylor became the first non ex-Phoenix runner to take the plunge and join the Harriers. A trickle of defectors from Phoenix, and a few “brand new” club runners increased the membership at the end of 2012 to the heady heights of 27.
Fast forward just over two years, to March 2015 and the Northern Road relays held at Liverpool’s Sefton Park. Unbelievably, Wigan Harriers fielded three men’s teams in the 12 stage event, and 3 ladies’ teams in the 6 stage race; a total of 54 athletes! Six months down the line, and the current club membership passed the 100 mark for the first time in its very short history.
A Harriers explosion – just a few of the Harriers at Sefton Park!
So what has been responsible for this increase in numbers and surge of interest? Obviously no single factor can explain what has happened, and hard work, dedication and the “team spirit” embodied by everyone who joins up is undoubtedly at the root of it. Taking stock, there are probably three really telling inputs to the success; perhaps these shouldn’t be revealed in case other people copy them! The Parkruns have introduced a lot of people to running, and since their inception the wider Harriers club have regularly had people running and supporting them. The Harriers Endurance Group built a reputation as being a stepping stone to the next level of running, with qualified coaches, safe routes and a welcoming attitude to all runners, irrespective of ability. Secondly, Richard Noone did a fantastic job in establishing our relationship with the Joining Jack Charity as the local running club who they use to help them with marshalling and organising the Wigan 10K. This afforded a great opportunity to advertise the Group via leaflets and the big screen. Finally, and becoming ever more important, is the informal relationship with the WLCT running groups. Paul Carter and his entourage, have been selfless in taking new runners to a level where they are up to club sessions, and then guiding them to the Harriers.
As more people have attended the sessions, the range of abilities has broadened, and runners have become less likely to get isolated. The myth that running clubs are elitist has been dispelled and the belief that “I’m not good enough to join a club” has all but disappeared. It is so inspiring to turn up to training sessions and see a huge group of athletes warming up, doing their drills and then getting stuck into the session. Encouragement and advice from everyone involved, handshakes and a clap at the end.
It’s the present and future that matter, but at least you are now aware of the past!