History Of The VCCL
By Keith Lofthouse
The foundations of the Victorian Cross Country League were poured in 1933, when an enterprising group of runners and trainers approached the Victorian Athletic Club with the purpose of forming a club dedicated to running cross-country races during winter. The organizers, led by Dick Logan, were driven by a desire to promote distance running, which had been dominated by the big sprints of the time. It was felt that cross-country running would improve the fitness of track-runners as well as helping to provide a congenial social environment for athletes, sharing a common interest, and a convivial ale or two. The same ideals still hold today.
A committee was formed under the presidency of Pat Sheahan, with Joe Bull, Bill Bowtell, Ted Seedsman and Dick Logan as his deputies, and Logan filling the roles of official handicapper, starter and timekeeper.
On May 20, 1933, following a five mile pack run, the fledgling club held its first cross-country race at Maribyrnong over 1000 yards (914 metres). In pouring rain, the 13 starters set-off with Harry Logan leading the charge, until within sight of the finish, when Maurie Sheean took over and surged clear to beat D Plowman by a decisive few seconds, with Jack Oates third, followed by Harrick, Anderson and Stephens.
Sheean collected £10 (pounds) for his efforts, a tidy sum in those days, and he went on to further success in professional ranks, winning races from 880 yards to two miles in events staged at half-time in VFL games. In later years, after serving with the RAAF during WWII, Sheean became the VAL's handicapper.
Within a week, word had spread about these hardy athletes, who had braved the elements in their 1000 yard slog, and 40 runners turned-up the following Saturday, for an event run in two packs, one for the novices and the other for more experienced athletes.
The elite event was won by a "foreign invader", Gordon Bayne, a former amateur middle-distance champion in his native New Zealand, who won narrowly from Jock Logan, Bill Bowman and Maurie Sheean, holding his form from that historic first run. The first year was a modestly successful one, but it was another five years before Bill Bowtell and Ted Seedsman decided to expand on the idea to form the Runners And Trainers Association.
Again, when it used to rain in Melbourne, conditions were appalling on November 4, 1939, when the new club staged its first marathon in teeming rain and stinging wind, starting at the Showgrounds, stringing out to Maribyrnong and Deer Park, before starting the grinding return. There was a shock in store when the bedraggled runners arrived back at the Showgrounds - the place was locked and patrolled by army guards, as it was a restricted area at the time.
After a frantic wait, the grounds were reopened 10 minutes later and the determined athletes were allowed to complete the final lap, Bernie Bourke saluting first in 2.47.38, with Bill Bowman second some seven minutes behind and Jack White third, about two minutes in arrears. All broke the existing Australian professional marathon record of 2.58.10 and were rewarded with coffee and sandwiches provided by the army at a gathering afterwards. The post-race social, of course, has now become a hearty VCCL tradition.
War intervened, but the spirit of cross-country running was kept alive by Terry Hosking, who organized handicap pack runs, and the Runners And Trainers Association melded into the Professional Athletes Association, then The Professional Cross Country Club of Victoria in 1955, and renamed the Victorian Cross Country League in 1970.
John Cleland was president of the club from 1983 to 1988, and in line with the VCCLs recent policy of naming races after its living legends, the John Cleland Handicap was a 2007 season highlight at the popular Two Bridges course.
Past presidents include Andy Salter, Stewart Petersen, John Toleman, Harold Black, Ted Paulin, Les Mollard, Dean Paulin (Ted's Son) and Jim McLure, an 18-year committee veteran and club legend himself. Ted, now into his seventies and still competitive, was president from 1969 to 1972 and won the Norm Charles Cup when it was a seven-miler in 1967. Now raced over a testing 10k course at picturesque Lysterfield, the race maintains its status as the premier event on the VCCL calendar well into its fifth decade of existence.
Norm has painstakingly kept a photographic record of this prestigious event and will proudly and happily show the album for anyone who wishes to see it.