Floppy mohicans and pre-race cider: Gary Devine, the punk fell runner

The Leeds punk rocker lived a double life, interspersing band rehearsals and punk gigs with twice-daily runs, despite the occasional arrest and moshpit injury. A new book tells his story

When Gary Devine was picked to run for England, the manager took one look at him and asked: “You’re gonna represent your country looking like that?!” Devine had turned up with shocking pink hair, holes in his jeans, a worn out band T-shirt and unlaced Doc Martens. Not that such a punky image stopped him becoming British fell running champion, after a race up Ben Nevis, the UK’s tallest mountain, in 1990. “Years later the manager told us that Gary had changed his life,” smiles Debbie Devine, Gary’s wife and coach. “He said ‘I learned not to judge a book by its cover.’”

Thirty one years on, Devine’s wonderful and often very funny story is told in a new book, Faster! Louder! How a Punk Rocker from Yorkshire Became British Champion Fell Runner. Author Boff Whalley was previously vocalist/guitarist in Leeds anarcho-punk band Chumbawamba, but is a fell runner too. “I got into it after seeing Gary win a race and recognising him from punk gigs,” he says as we all convene on Zoom. “It made me think ‘I could do that’. But Gary’s story is more extreme than mine. It needed writing.”

Devine grew up in hilly Ilkley, where he thought it was “quite normal” to run up and down the moors. “There was a big running section at our school,” he explains. “About 40 or 50 of us would go out on a lunchtime.”

He was still a schoolboy when a friend of a friend lent him Dead Kennedys’ 1980 Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables album, and his passions turned upside down. “A seminal moment in my life,” he grins. “It was a completely different world. I wanted to run, but I wanted punk as well.” After seeing the Damned and 13 other punk bands at the 1981 Christmas on Earth festival at Leeds Queens Hall, he plunged into the scene with the same intensity as he went fell running.

He dyed his hair blond and shaved it into a mohican (which would flop down, to considerable amusement, during rainy races). He played bass in a Leeds band called Pagan Idols and sprayed Anti-Pasti and Crass on his leather jacket. Subsequently, he turned vegetarian, much to the chagrin of his builder father. “He thought runners needed steak. He’d buy one and get my mum to cook it – he’d never have cooked – but when it was put down in front of me I went: ‘I’m not eating that!’”

Gary Devine and punk pals in 1988.
Gary Devine and punk pals in 1988 Photograph: PR

Eventually, Devine moved into a squat, where he could lead a double life: band rehearsals twice a week, punk gigs twice a week at Leeds punk venue Adam & Eve’s or the university (“where we could get in free by sneaking in through the women’s toilets”) and training for fell runs twice a day. “I was unemployed for long periods,” he says. “So you get plenty of time to rest.”

His lifestyle of cider, Mars bars, parties, “a lot of curry and a bit of pasta” wasn’t exactly the stuff of sports science, but back then fell running’s drinking culture was all part of the camaraderie. “Before races, we’d all pile into a van, all chatting and drinking, with a cassette player playing punk stuff like Discharge or Chron Gen,” he remembers. “We’d get to the race site, put the tents up and go to the pub. If it was a normal race you could easily have four cans of cider in the van and then another four pints in the pub the night before. If it was an important race, I’d just have two or three, but most of us drank the night before races then, so it was a level playing field.” The boozy outings came between punishing timed circuits or brutal runs up inclines such as Otley Chevin. “You had to be really disciplined as well,” Whalley explains. “You couldn’t drink eight or nine pints before a championship race. You’d get nowhere.”

Initially, Devine found that punk offered a release from training, but gradually he realised the two worlds aren’t as different as they seem. As Whalley puts it in Faster! Louder!, both involve “escaping rules and regulations to a place of freedom. Fell running was nonconformist, maverick, separatist … or possibly just plain weird”.

Devine won one race while sporting a shiner from a flailing dancer at an Anti System gig and first ran up Ben Nevis wearing a T-shirt reading: “Every six seconds an animal dies in a British laboratory.” After he was thrown into a police van and charged with affray when a Conflict gig ended in a riot, he got some extra training in by running home from court. Then, aged 23, finishing third in a particularly competitive Ben Nevis race was enough to secure the championship, at which point he collapsed exhausted on the finish line. “So I didn’t go ‘Yeeeeeaaaaaah!’ or anything. It felt strangely becalming.”

Now 55, Devine lives in the French Alps, where he manages a sun and snow holiday business with Debbie and still runs almost every day. In some ways, though, he’s still a punk. “I still love the music,” he grins. “The other night I went: ‘Alexa, play Chaos UK!’”

  • Faster! Louder! is published by Great Northern Books.

Contributor

Dave Simpson

The GuardianTramp

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