By Jonny Laybourn
Head down to one of London’s beautiful parks and commons on a Wednesday at 3.15 pm this autumn, and you’ll likely see about a hundred and fifty students locked in battle over up to eight kilometres of boggy heathland. Among them you might find future Olympians as well as complete beginners and established club runners, all well on their way to establishing lifelong friendships. Friends and family of participants bear witness to the spectacle and brilliance of this niche grassroots event. Hardy and reliable volunteers turn up in all weathers for seasons on end to ensure the races are actually run.
Such utter benevolence is often inconspicuous in amateur sport, however seldom has athletics seen an individual as quietly brilliant as Mike Baggs, the man who served as Secretary of the London Colleges League for 31 consecutive years between 1980 and 2011 and sadly left us at the end of January 2016. It is a lamentable fact that few to no students beginning their university journey and participation in the League today will have known of him. A reality of university sport is that although participation numbers are often thankfully stable, an individual’s own participation is temporary. Clubs change name and kit at the pleasure of their new committee to fit the new club culture. Volunteer commitment is slightly less transient, and thanks to the foundation of the umbrella organisation LUCA last year, is projected to become healthier in years to come. Nevertheless, weekday fixtures hinder long-term commitment of alumni. The people that recognise those that do hang around soon ride off into the sunset, and along come a new batch. Flying under the radar is the unfortunate but understandable nature of the game. When I first met Mike in 2008, I wasn’t familiar with his efforts and nor could I expected to have been. I did however notice the panache in his appearance, with his mane-like hairstyle and giant rucksack. Something perhaps tweaked in me that this was a man that loved our sport.
Mike began his long-term involvement with the League as most others do, competing as an undergraduate at University College London reading Maths in the mid-1970s. Hailing from Dorset, he was an accomplished distance runner with Weymouth St Paul’s Harriers & AC, running in the inaugural London Marathon in 1981 and eventually recording best of 2:26:11 for the distance. He had a penchant for races of an even greater distance, featuring in the London to Brighton and Woodford to Southend events. A prominent League Secretary of the era was Ian Isherwood, an alumnus at Imperial College whose time on Wednesday afternoons we still gratefully receive today. David Rosen, another close friend of Mike as well as League participant and volunteer, recalls Mike telling him he became Secretary following the conclusion of the League in 1980 by unorthodox arrangement. At the time, there were two divisions, the higher of which the men of UCL had just won. Mike, by then having begun his long stint in employment at UCL, had missed the League AGM as he was out training and his team-mates agreed to award him his team medal only on condition that he became Secretary. Having previously been Secretary for a single season as a student, he accepted the invitation. Around this time he unfortunately suffered serious injuries after being hit by a car, which forced his retirement from competition. However, much akin to his hairstyle, Mike’s commitment was unwavering and so began the next three decades, despite 1986 when it is said he tried his hardest to resign.
A dab hand with numbers as a mainstay of the UCL Residences office, Mike was known for his sharp attentiveness and efficiency over his tenure. He would usually assume the position of timekeeper’s recorder at races, sometimes timekeeping and recording himself if officials were thin on the ground. As recorder, he would often perform the difficult task of recognising and noting extra details about finishers, such as clubs and sometimes even names, at the same time as recording times. Richard England, another individual devoting his free time to athletics on weekdays and weekends, today carries out this duty with aplomb and always records the name of Des Rhule, a member of King’s College’s club since 1998, as he spots him crossing the line. Of course, although it nearly always went like clockwork, there would be the occasional hiccup. Runners would fail to return finishing tokens and would go amiss in the results, leading to Mike printing tongue-in-cheek comments among his usual thanks to his fellow officials. Richard recalls Mike actually publishing an athlete’s name as “I Haven’t a Clue” when a witty captain’s unknown teammate became the subject of some rather amusing improvisation.
Mike returned to Weymouth upon retirement, passing the reins to Ming Wang-Koh, and thus concluded half a lifetime’s effort. He was gratefully welcomed back in spring 2014 and 2015 to the final race at Bushy Park, bringing with him on both occasions a huge bag of wrapped chocolates as well as the indelible spirit and memory of his contribution to our League.
We aim to raise £500 to cover the cost of the trophy. All additional funds will be donated to the XC league.