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Thursday, 31 July 2014

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Jos Naylor: the iron man

Jos Naylor: As much a part of Wasdale as the dry stone wallsPictures: John Story

IT’S like Paradise – absolute magic and priceless,” said Jos Naylor, MBE. I spoke to the Wasdale Valley’s best- known inhabitant the morning after a spectacular thunderstorm which bathed the valley in a wet kind of awe-inspiring beauty.

“There’s not a cloud in the sky,” said Jos. “The trees have just started to leaf, the sun is shining and the colours are coming out everywhere. This is a great part of the world and just to see all these glorious landscapes and skyscapes make it good to be alive.”

One of the world’s greatest- ever mountain runners was feeling happy for another reason: he’d just adopted Spy, his latest running buddy. The others are Sam, Titch and Fly, who can’t see and hear much these days but like the rest will greet you on arrival at Low Greendale.

Jos Naylor has a lifetime’s love of dogs, not just for gathering in the sheep but as faithful, vital and loving companions to share his joy of the outdoors.

Only a week or so before bringing Spy into the homestead (spirited away from his farming son, Paul) Jos was out scaling yet another of the fells with Chance.

“We were out running together and Chance disappeared. I just thought she was being a bit lazy and dropped off behind. I had to go home without her. Next day I went back and found Chance lying on a path. She’d suffered a massive heart attack and died without a struggle or anything. I took her home and buried her – it was a heart-breaking thing.”

He went on: “Chance was rather a strange but a very clever dog. If there was a car coming round the corner she’d know if there was a dog in it. It didn’t matter if there were 50 cars, Chance would run out of her kennel and bark at the car with the dog. We never knew how she knew – it’s a complete mystery.”

Was there one collie that stood out above all others?

“Well, I had an old dog called Lassie. He could run flat out all day whether it was hot or cold... so much energy and never got tired of his job. Mind you, Lassie was a bloody old rogue: he had a habit of disappearing into the valley. One day I found him having a picnic with two or three elderly ladies who were sitting with a table cloth on the grass feeding him all these little titbits.

“We’ve got Spy now. She’s four year old and never really worked, but she’s full of life and more of a dog for playing – a cracker.”

This is Jos Naylor, the essence of an unassuming, contented and gentle man. More so than the phenomenal athlete whose prodigious feats of mountain endurance running elevated him long ago to legendary status, inspiring many to run up fells for fun as much as competitive sport and to raise money for charity.

Jos has what could almost be called a communion with fells and mountains, a camaraderie with nature, which even more profoundly has helped him discover the meaning of life – in his case, one that transcends sporting achievements, however extraordinary.

Jos says he’s gone off religion. “There’s too much religious hatred in the world and I’ll tell you what: when I die they can bury us in that bracken out there, it’s as simple as that.”

The veteran sheep farmer puts his faith in his fellow man, family and the rugged surroundings that have sustained and inspired him into his 70th year.

His running career has been a triumph of the spirit and is of such stature that on Sunday June 11 Olympians Steve Cram and Brendan Foster will be among those paying tribute to Jos in the Shap Wells Hotel, Penrith, at a Variety Club of Great Britain lunch designed to raise £10,000 for children’s charities.

In the 1970s Mr Naylor was awarded the MBE for his services to sport and charity — for him the two have always run hand in hand. He has been honoured by two universities (Manchester and Lancaster) and has had songs written about him.

“It’s rather strange but I was driving through Glasgow after a race in Scotland and the clutch cable went on’t van. I found this la’al garage, ran across the road and said: ‘Does anybody know the number of the AA?’. This lad said: ‘I’ll tell you it now, Jos, it’s in me head.’ I said: ‘How the hell d’yo know you call me Jos?’ And he replied: ‘Every bugger in this part of Glasgow knows you’.”

Jos Naylor’s fame as a sportsman has spread far and wide but it’s a wonder he could ever run at all. During his boyhood he was bothered by a bad back. “By the time I was 20 if I saw one bone specialist or osteopath I must have seen 100, but nobody was any good for me until I came across a surgeon called Lloyd Griffiths in Manchester Royal Infirmary. He removed two discs from my back and, although I was used as a guinea pig for a couple of weeks, Lloyd put me right. He also said that if I wanted to be an athlete my potential was one in a million.”

In next to no time Jos Naylor became known as King of The Fells or The Iron Man, breaking record after record over distances and times which seemed to be beyond human endurance. But by the same token it also seemed that had he transferred to the track he could have done even more.

Jos admits: “While Lloyd told me that I had all the attributes of a top athlete I don’t think I exploited them to the extent I could have done.”

So could you have become an international road runner and even made the Olympics? “I can’t say about the Olympics because there’s a lot of luck involved, but at my peak I think I could have fared well. From time to time I used to train with John Kirkbride (Whitehaven’s miler at the Munich Olympics) and John was wanting me to do marathons. He kept saying there were no really top marathon runners about in the country and that I had a chance of winning practically every one of them.”

So why didn’t you then? “Well, I had too much work on, like having a thousand ewes to lamb.”

Being so wiry and eight-and-a-half stones wet through, you were built like a Kenyan, so could you have run with the Kip Keinos of the marathon world?

“Yeah, I might have been able to match them, it’s just determination and holding the pace. The thing is they trained hard and put the miles in, whereas I often had to run without doing any training. It was the races that made me fit and working the sheep. There was no sponsorship for road running in those days and then one of my knees got wrecked, leaving me without any cartilage at all.”

Driven by mental and physical toughness, incredible fitness and willpower, the scaling of 72 peaks in 23 hours 10 minutes, starting and finishing in the Lake District on a red-hot day in 1975, is the achievement that Naylor rates as his greatest, more than 100 miles and a climb of 37,000ft, higher than Mount Everest. On top of countless Ennerdale Horseshoe, Wasdale and mountain trial race wins, another memorable feat was the Lake District meres and waters – all 27 of them.

“With all the climbing I managed to do it in 19 hours 14 mins, 20 seconds, but I was also seeing the best of Lakeland on a beautifully sunny weekend... it was like floating on air.

“When I got home there was nothing I liked better than a can or two of Guinness. I always loved the stuff but I’ve got a bit of prostrate trouble now so I can’t sup as much.”

With the soothing black velvet Jos found it easy to switch off after a race, but was he easy to live with?

“No problem: he was right back to normal,” concurred Mary, his wife of 43 years.

It looks as though you combined this love of fell running with a passion for nature?

“Yeah, while I wanted to win I just used to enjoy the Lake District – it’s the most beautiful place in the world even in the most adverse weather. Coming back home at night you’d see some of the most breathtaking sunsets and then the Isle of Man would be there in the background. I have run five Manx marathons and I’ve always said I would go back and do it again.

“On other days it was great to see a lot of deer about but the most fantastic thing was in the early 80s when we’d come round Birkcrag, up behind the house, and see a golden eagle sitting on a stone. We had golden eagles there for three or four years; in 1981 snow covered the nest and there was no hatching, but the following year there was.

“But do you know what happened? They got shot. They were killed by the pheasant men, it was tragic. The eagles were doing no harm: you have to give something back to nature.”

So what about valley life today?

“It’s changed a lot since the National Trust took over in the 1960s. Wasdale Head was renowned for its walls, but around a third of them have come down which is contrary to what the Trust were put in power to do.

“With Defra, there are so many regulations and English Nature took a lot of sheep off the fells. It’s just a mix-up altogether. Our bird life has suffered because you’re not allowed to leave a dead sheep out for the ravens, buzzards and crows. Now the buzzards seem to be going with the mice which the barn owls were living on; the buzzards are also dying out and there’s not so many ravens about because there’s no carrion for them to feed on.”

Any views on fox hunting? “Well, Paul has lost 20 or 30 lambs and for a young fella it’s heartbreaking. Foxes worry lambs for worrying’s sake. I like to see hounds working but country life is being taken away from us.”

These days Jos rises at seven o’clock every morning, does a few exercises to keep his body supple and then goes out with Sam, Titch, Spy and Fly, full sister of Chance.

“Fly is losing her sight and starting to go deaf but apart from that she’s in good health and goes out twice a day but can’t go on the fells any more.”

It’s on those fells where Jos Naylor has one running ambition to fulfil: to conquer Seatallan, near his house, 70 times in his 70th year. Since April he’s already completed 33, with a 2,500ft climb and one-and-a-half hours each.

Last word from Jos: “It’s nice when you can go out, cover those miles and call a place home, isn’t it?”

Yes, especially when home is in Paradise re-visited.

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