Brian Oliver ©ITG

Two athletes at the 1969 European Athletics Championships in Athens were decades ahead of their time, one for doping, the other for his diet.

They were the Dutch decathlete Edward de Noorlander, who finished sixth, and Ron Hill, the legendary runner from Accrington who became Britain's sixth gold medallist when he won the marathon, 50-years ago this week.

Three East Germans and two Soviet athletes finished ahead of De Noorlander and, given what we now know about undetected steroid use at the time, all five may have benefited from using turinabol.

The West German discus thrower and chemist Brigitte Berendonk more or less said as much within months of those Championships in Die Zeit. She would later become a leading researcher and writer, with her husband Werner Franke, about state-sponsored doping in East German sport.

But it was the Dutchman who made history when he was found to have taken amphetamines.

The first Olympic Games drug-tests the year before had not snared any athletes, so De Noorlander became the first track and field athlete ever disqualified from a major championships for doping.

Hill, like De Noorlander, was looking for an advantage over his rivals by means of what he put into his body – but his landmark victory was all about innovation, not malpractice.

He jumped up, did an airborne scissor kick and punched the air in the ancient Panathenaic Stadium as he crossed the finish line 35 seconds clear of the Belgian Gaston Roelants, who had led for most of the way.

Given the era, it was the sort of spectacular leap more associated with Mick Jagger on stage with the Rolling Stones than an international athlete.

The run meant so much to Hill, not just because he had taken his parents, wife and two sons to Athens to watch him, but because it was a "eureka moment" for a man who took a scientific approach to his running.

Hill had prepared for the race by using the Saltin-Hermansson diet, better known as the glycogen depletion diet or, nowadays, carb-loading.

"I was definitely the first runner to try it – nobody else had even heard of it," said Hill at his home in Hyde, Cheshire, half a century later.

Elite marathon runners have used it ever since Hill's famous Athens run.

Ron Hill wins the European Championships in Athens in 1969 ©Ron Hill
Ron Hill wins the European Championships in Athens in 1969 ©Ron Hill

When marathons became mass-participation events years later, it also found favour with club runners who stuff themselves at pasta parties the night before the race.

It was a groundbreaking moment for helping runners to get through the wall of fatigue that so often slowed them down after 18 to 20 miles.

Hill, 81 this week, had a big influence on what runners wore as well as what they ate.

He was an innovator throughout his running career, which was a very long one given he went for a run every day of his life between 1964 and 2017. He finally ended his "streak" when he suffered severe chest pain during a run.

Dave Bedford, the former 10,000 metres world record holder who was race director of the London Marathon for 12 years, said Hill was "a trailblazer".

"I studied science at grammar school and never had a clue what I wanted to do," said Hill.

"I ended up getting a scholarship for university in Manchester and, because I would run to work and back, came to realise that a lot of things were not right with running equipment.

"I worked on vests, shorts, tracksters, long-sleeve tops, shoes too…

"I experimented a lot."

Hill, who has a PhD in textile chemistry, set up a successful clothing company that he sold in the 1990s.

He brought the string vest into fashion, redesigned running shorts, invented tracksters that sold more than three million pairs, put his research into elastomeric fibres to good use, and had stern words for New Zealanders and any other runners who wore black.

"Black garments can be many degrees higher in temperature than white in sunlight," he said.

"I always maintained it was suicide for New Zealand marathon runners to run in their traditional black vests, whatever the weather."

His work in sports textile design has been acknowledged by the Royal Society of Chemistry.

Hill's experiment with his diet has been less well documented, not least because only one journalist knew the story behind that victory celebration in Athens back in 1969.

That writer was Chris Brasher, the 1956 Olympic steeplechase champion and, later, co-founder of the London Marathon, who was sports editor of The Observer. Like Hill, he founded his own sportswear company.

"It was such a revelation, I couldn't resist telling someone," said Hill.

"So I explained what I had done to Chris Brasher, stupidly, and he put it in The Observer.

"That's how everybody else found out about the diet.

"I just couldn't wait to tell somebody about it, but I should have kept my mouth shut."

Hill has difficulty remembering precise details of his races nowadays, as he is suffering from dementia.

Ron Hill on top of the podium with Gaston Roelants, left ©Ron Hill
Ron Hill on top of the podium with Gaston Roelants, left ©Ron Hill

He says his wife, May, is doing a fantastic job of caring for him during times of stress and frustration.

"I must be very difficult to live with at times," he said.

"It's like I put my memory in my pocket one morning without realising there was a hole it in.

"My memory just slipped out through the hole and I know I'm never going to get it back again."

The frustration comes through clearly as he speaks.

Hill is still able to provide a detailed account of that 1969 race, though, in his meticulously kept diary.

He wrote down the details of every race, every run, every overseas journey (he has run in 100 different countries), every moment that made up one of the most celebrated athletic careers in British sporting history.

He also wrote a two-part autobiography, The Long Hard Road, which will cost you the price of a very expensive pair of running shoes if you can find it for sale online.

Using his diary, his autobiography, an interview with Hill from six years ago that was used in The Commonwealth Games: Extraordinary Stories Behind the Medals, and the recent visit to his home, here is an account of how he came to experiment with the diet that would sweep the world of long-distance running.

Early in 1968 he received a letter from Martin Hyman, a distance runner for England at the 1958 and 1962 Commonwealth Games, passing on information about Swedish scientists' experiments with trained athletes, mostly skiers.

Throughout the 1960s a group of research scientists published several papers on glycogen storage (or supercompensation as they called it) in the body, with titles such as Muscle Glycogen During Prolonged Severe Exercise and A Study of the Glycogen Metabolism During Exercise in Man.

Most runners would never have been aware of or taken an interest in the Swedes' work, but these papers put Hill on the road to changing the way marathon runners prepared for and ran their races.

The Swedes measured glycogen content – the stored form of glucose in the body – after the athletes pedalled on an ergometer for hours, at 75 per cent of maximum effort, often to the point of exhaustion.

When the athletes were fed a high-protein diet for a set period in the days before their exertions, followed by a high-carbohydrate diet, they were able to cycle for far longer.

A carefully planned change in diet, complemented by rigorous training at the right times, could effectively increase the storage of energy in the muscles by huge amounts.

The experiments were not thought to be of any great significance to marathon running because the duration of a race was less than the time the Swedes spent on their bikes – but Hill made some calculations and thought it could be adapted.

If marathon runners were going at 100 per cent effort rather than 75 per cent, like the skiers on their bikes, the time scale would fit with the Swedish scientists' experiments, Hill reckoned.

Ron Hill was a pioneer for several marathon innovations ©Getty Images
Ron Hill was a pioneer for several marathon innovations ©Getty Images

He though the benefits felt by the skiers in three hours of ergometer work might be applied to marathon runners who worked their body even harder for two-and-a-quarter hours – and he was right.

Runners had always hit "the wall" at around 18 to 20 miles, or about two hours into a race.

Hill realised that "the wall" was the point at which the muscles had run out of glycogen.

As he explained in The Long Hard Road: "The muscles got stiff and tired, the pace dropped, and that was because the body was having to metabolise fats and maybe even protein, the muscle tissue itself, to get energy, and very inefficiently at that.

"Now, if that point could be delayed from two hours up to two-and-a-quarter hours..."

The simplified formula for the diet was four-and-a-half days of fish and meat, followed by two-and-a-half days of pasta and potatoes.

It may be known as glycogen depletion, or carb-loading, but its official title, according to Brasher, was the Saltin-Hermansson diet, named after two of the Swedish scientists.

Hill first tested it before Athens, in the Maxol Marathon in Manchester in July 1969.

That race, started by the Manchester United manager Sir Matt Busby, was the trial for the European Championships.

The marathon world record holder of the time, the British-born Australian Derek Clayton, was there, as was Olympian Bill Adcocks.

Hill prepared by having a haircut, and he was wearing the lightest possible clothing – ultra-light shoes, string vest and brief shorts – to reduce the weight he carried. He also had a lukewarm bath "to soap away any body oils that would prevent me cooling in the race".

He won easily, with Clayton nearly two minutes behind in second place.

Many years later, Clayton looked back on Manchester as the toughest marathon he ever ran. Hill, conversely, had run without hitting "the wall".

He was going to Greece to represent Britain, and the diet was going with him.

So were his family – parents Allan and Eva, wife May, who always travelled with him overseas, and sons Steven and Graham.

Steven can remember one part of the journey, on a Saturday at Stansted Airport, where there was a delay during which Ron took off for his daily run, this time around the edge of the airport.

"I ran around the country roads for two-and-a-half miles," said Hill.

An important part of the race preparations, besides the diet, was trying to get accustomed to the heat.

"I was sweating a lot at the start, absolutely knackered, my legs felt dead," Hill recalled.

"It was so hot the road was melting.

"Every time you lifted your foot a tiny bit of tar came with you and it was click, click, all the way.

"I started at the back of the field, and a group at the front soon made it a race.

"I quickly decided not to do that and would stick to my own ideas."

Ron Hill on the track at White City in London ©Getty Images
Ron Hill on the track at White City in London ©Getty Images

Roelants went into the lead, but Hill always had him in his sights.

Unlike today's elite marathon runners, he took nothing during the race, despite the heat – no water, no energy gels.

"I had taught myself not to drink during a race," he said.

"I did all the drinking I needed before the race, and I would just rinse my mouth with a sponge.

"I clearly remember seeing Gaston Roelants take a drink up ahead, I could see water splash on the road and I thought 'he's weak'.

"After 22 miles, people at the roadside kept throwing petals.

"I took the lead with about a kilometre to go, just before the run into the ancient stadium.

"Just after that a car did a u-turn on the road and nearly took me out, but I managed to dodge it.

"I ran into the stadium and won the race, my mother and father were there, my friends, my children, and I thought what a fantastic happening for me."

It showed when he celebrated at the finish line, winning his first major championship in great style in 2 hours 16min 47.8sec, from Roelants in second place and Jim Alder, the 1966 Commonwealth Games champion, two-and-a-half minutes back in third.

That was eight minutes outside the world record, then held by Clayton, but given the conditions it was an outstanding run.

He followed it up by winning the Boston Marathon in record time in April 1970 and, when the weather was friendlier in July of that year, he showed how fast he could go by winning the Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh.

His gold medal time of 2:09.28 was not beaten for four years, and many – including the Association of Road Running Statisticians – believe it should be logged as an official world record.

The existing record, set by Clayton in Antwerp three months before Hill's Athens victory, was disputed as it was believed the course, which was never measured, was 500m short.

"Had athletics been a bit more organised in those days (the International Association of Athletics Federations would not measure the course in Antwerp despite complaints) he would without doubt have had the world record for the marathon," said Bedford.

"Ron should have had the world record."

Hill, of course, used the glycogen depletion diet again for the Edinburgh race, but word had got around and some of his rivals did too – though not as efficiently as Hill.

"In Edinburgh I remember seeing Jim Alder reading detailed sheets of what he should be doing – Chris Brasher had helped him – and I couldn't believe it when I saw him eating a plate of chips," said Hill.

"I don't think he completely understood it.

"Still, he finished second so good for him.

"As for others, I think news of the new diet took a while to reach some of them, especially the Aussies."

Ron Hill in 2019 with wife May ©Ron Hill
Ron Hill in 2019 with wife May ©Ron Hill

Alder describes Hill as "a brilliant runner, a brilliant man".

He had a poor record in big races, most notably the Olympic Games, and did not really click until 1969, said Alder – after which "we only won when he wasn't at his best and we were". 

"He was a pioneer, an analytical scientist, he was ahead of his time," he added.

Bedford said: "He was a trailblazer, especially with the marathon.

"Had he been running today he'd almost certainly have moved to the marathon earlier than he did.

"In those days you tended to move to the marathon when you weren't quite quick enough over 10,000m any more.

"Ron's innovations absolutely changed the way everyone dressed when they ran – you can see it now.

"There are other brands but his was the first brand and everyone copied it."

Ron and May – both of whom have roads named after them in Accrington – go for a walk every day now that his running days are over.

He is returning to Athens in November, with his family again, to hand over his 1969 trophy to the Marathon Museum.

Looking back over his remarkable career, all of it as an amateur, Hill said: "I did everything I could to be the best in the world.

"I couldn't train full-time, couldn't train at altitude, couldn't afford back-up support – I only ever had two massages in my life – and when I was injured I just had to run through it.

"I never made any money at it, but you can't take away the gold medals."

Asked about his influence on other runners, on what they wear and what they eat – even now – Hill said: "I've probably had quite an influence but I leave others to decide.

"I'm happy to have achieved what I've achieved. It's a pity it's ended."