Juliet Collins talks to one of the club’s longest-standing and best-loved members.
I remember it so well – a November night in 2000 and my first Serpie run. As I puffed along Bayswater Road, someone asked a genial man in his early sixties to show me the route, and he kindly took me under his wing. We chatted easily as we ran, and before I knew it, I’d run my first Three Parks. I couldn’t have anticipated then that we’d repeat the experience countless times over the next decade, or that my companion and guide that first autumn evening would become one of my dearest friends. The man was Keith Evans.
Eighteen years later, I’ve finally persuaded Keith to let me interview him for Serpentimes, and we’re sitting on my sofa in Bristol, beers in hand.
Born in Manchester, a year before the start of WWII, Keith grew up in Stockport. His family wasn’t sporty, and although Keith enjoyed watching team sports, he never excelled at them.
Then one day the headmaster sent the whole school out on a run and Keith finished in the first three. “I found I could run”, he says, commenting that he thinks there are a lot of people who run because they weren’t good at other sports. He started doing cross-country regularly, and did consistently well. He got his school colours, and took up athletics in the summer months, specialising in the mile and 800 yards. He’d found his niche. “Suddenly you become a sportsman at a school, and your life changes”, he says, his face still lighting up at the memory.
In 1954 Roger Bannister ran the 4-minute mile and became an instant hero for the 15-year old Keith. Inspired, he persevered with his running, and ran a couple of races with the Stockport Harriers.
Fresh out of school, Keith started an apprenticeship with a portrait photographer. But he was dying to get into film, which he says, rather wistfully, wasn’t easy in Stockport in those days. So he wrote what he describes as a “boy’s letter” to a small film studio in Manchester – the only one outside London at the time. To his delight, they took him on immediately, and he entered “the whole circus world of the film business”. He stayed with the studio for a year, and learned quickly.
National service interrupted Keith’s emerging film career, but it didn’t stop him running. He spent two years as a wireless mechanic in the RAF, and he ran for the force. “That was great”, he says. But back in civilian life, organised running hadn’t really taken off. “Runners were almost looked on as freaks”, Keith explains. And once he left the RAF, his running tailed off completely.
Life was picking up on other fronts, and it wasn’t long before Keith got taken on by Granada television in Manchester, where he spent more than a decade, working first on documentaries then on live current affairs. “It was a wonderful time”, he recounts, working with people ranging from pioneers of the documentary form to up-and-coming young journalists like the young Michael Parkinson. And a daily live show brought frequent encounters with the legends of sixties rock and roll, especially the Beatles.
Keith made a lot of London-based friends and he started to visit. It was the swinging sixties, and it felt exciting and new. Before the decade was out, he’d decided to make the capital his home. He lived briefly in Richmond, but after a short marriage, he rented a flat in Little Venice. “I was just passing through”, he says, laughing. More than 45 years later, he’s still there, and has watched the city grow and change around him.
When Keith arrived in London, Ken Loach and Tony Garnett had just made the influential Cathy Come Home, and were looking for an assistant director for a new film. They specifically wanted someone from outside the world of feature films, and Keith fitted the bill perfectly. The film, which needs no introduction, was Kes. Within two years, Keith became the assistant director on another of the 20th century’s iconic films: Get Carter. It was, he admits, “an amazing period”.
By then Keith had become a keen skier, and played a bit of tennis – which he describes, with a chuckle, as having been “rather Monsieur Hulot style” (a reference to his favourite Jacques Tati film). Meanwhile, running was an increasingly distant memory. But in his late 30s, Keith decided he ought to get fit. He tried swimming, but was less than enthusiastic. Then he remembered how much he’d liked running. He felt self-conscious running in the street. Few people did in those days. So he laced up his pumps (“running shoes” weren’t really a thing in those days), drove to Regent’s Park and ran round for 20 minutes on his own. He kept up the habit for a decade.
Then in 1981, on holiday in Holland, Keith turned on the radio and stumbled on the commentary on the inaugural London Marathon and his interest was piqued. Life as a freelancer was tough. The film work had run out and Keith found himself going through a difficult time. A friend had joined a new running club, which met in Hyde Park, and he encouraged Keith to give it a try. He didn’t look back.
In its early days, the club was centred on the Saturday morning run, starting by the bridge with exercises, and continuing along the Serpentine. Keith’s first race was the “Twickers 8”, which evolved into the Cabbage Patch 10 – still his favourite race. In fact, 10 miles is his favourite distance. It stretches you more than a 10k, he explains, but not as much as a half marathon.
Keith’s running went from strength to strength, and it wasn’t long before he won the Tom Hogshead. “I found in the Serpies something similar to what I’d found at school”, he says, and he suddenly looks quite emotional. “I found I could do something well, and enjoy it”. He says he sees it in the club every week – people who’ve suddenly found a new world, a new life.
Socialising with runners helped Keith kick his cigarillo habit. In 1989 he ran his first marathon, in London. He enjoyed it so much that he ran it six more times during the 1990s, peaking at 3:30. And it wasn’t just road marathons: he was running the hilly, cross-country Seven Sisters marathon most years too.
Keith’s last marathon was New York in 2001. It was just after 9/11, and it left a lasting impression. He says the city really embraced the runners, and he felt as if he belonged. The weather was perfect, and Sinatra’s “New York, New York” rang out at the beginning, as hundreds of doves were let off.
Relays have provided particular camaraderie, and Keith especially loves the Green Belt and Welsh Castles weekends. They epitomise the club in so many ways, he explains. “The strongest support the weakest, and vice versa”.
I ask what his happiest running memories are. He doesn’t hesitate: crossing the finish line of his first marathon on Westminster Bridge with a friend he’d trained with all winter. They were both new to the club, and the whole experience was very bonding. A couple of years later, Keith went to her wedding in Boston. “That’s another thing about being a Serpie”, he says, “You end up travelling all over the world”. The first time he ran the Three Parks was very satisfying too. People, he remembers, used to talk about it almost as if it was equivalent to climbing Mount Everest, so it was great to find he could do it.
I can’t resist asking; has he had any embarrassing running moments? “Meeting you” he says, with a roguish grin. Pah! Oh, and he turned up one Wednesday night without his running kit, and there was nothing for it but to run the Three Parks in his underpants. Good heavens, Mr Evans! Amazingly, only one person commented.
When he’s not running, Keith loves cinema and theatre. He travels as often as he can, and follows current affairs assiduously. I’ll never forget cycling with a group of Serpie friends in France years ago. We noticed that Keith was missing. Someone turned back, and eventually spotted his bike by the side of the road. That led to Keith, who was running frantically across the fields, chasing pages of his Guardian newspaper, which had escaped from his parcel carrier.
Keith’s made life-long friends in the club, many of them young. “Not having my own children, I find that fantastic” he says. And he values the fact that he’s never experienced ageism from younger club members. The club’s obviously grown hugely since Keith joined, but he hates it if anyone suggests that it’s worse for that. “Things change. That’s life. And I just see young people around the club getting as big a thrill as we got”.
2018 was a big year for Keith, with a milestone birthday in June. He feels sad that since he’s inevitably slowed down, he runs on his own most of the time, and he really misses the camaraderie. That’s one of the reasons he enjoys the handicap so much. “You see other runners, and you still have a chance of winning.”
No one who was at Keith’s 200th handicap in October 2017 is likely to forget the cheers as the familiar, much-loved figure crossed the finish line. Standing on a bench afterwards, glass of prosecco in hand, cutting a rakish figure in his Serpie cap, he made a speech. He recounted how he’d been going through a bad period when he started running, and knew he wasn’t alone in that. “I was going through a bad period again last year” he said (he’d been having serious health problems), “and being able to see that 200 has kept me going”. He thanked the club for always having made sure it was inclusive, and “the wonderful way I’ve been incorporated, even though I’m getting slower”.
I cast my mind back to that November evening all those years ago. Keith may be grateful to the club, but there are many, like me, who are grateful to Keith for having encouraged them so warmly in their early days of running, for having helped them to realise that running was something that they, too, could do and enjoy. Without his encouragement and congenial company, that first run and so many others would have felt a lot longer.
Eighteen years on, and it’s a soggy November evening in Bristol – more than 100 miles from Hyde Park. As I sit typing this, back on the sofa where we did the interview, a text pings up. It’s a very happy Keith. “Did you see I won the handicap?!” Mr. Evans, you’re an inspiration. Here’s to many more. And thank you.
Juliet Collins became a Serpie one dark November evening in 2000. She moved to Bristol in 2013, but keeps in touch with her many Serpie friends, and occasionally appears at the club’s monthly handicap. When she’s not running, she’s singing, reading or travelling.