Great Britain’s Walsh Sports began tinkering with trail running shoes more than 30 years ago.
In a small town in Northern England, many years ago, the Walsh running shoe was born and slowly evolved into one of the great legendary running shoes of the world!
This unique shoe is synonymous with the local sport of fell running and fell racing. (The word ‘fell’ means hill).
Norman Walsh’s handiwork is known by competitive trail and mountain runners worldwide. After all, he’s probably the closest thing there is to being the father of specialized trail running shoes.
Norman was born in Bolton, Lancashire, in 1931. He started work for Foster Brothers Shoes in his hometown in 1945. While working as an apprentice shoemaker, he was asked to make sprinting shoes for the 1948 Olympic Games in London. During the late 1950’s, Norman worked closely with the Foster Brothers’ grandsons, Jeff and Joe. These two branched away from the family business and formed Reebok (but that’s another story!). Norman also went his own way.
In 1961, he formed his own company, Norman Walsh Footwear . He became known for excellent, hand sewn, quality rugby boots-Rugby high and Rugby low. He produced about 30 pair a week, which sold rapidly. “None were made for the shelf”, recalls Norman, “I was working 80 hours a week”. He continued in high quality leather manufacturing until the early 1970’s.
At that time, he teamed up with legendary Lake District fell runner Pete Bland. Over the next five years, they designed and developed their own version of a fell running shoe. One of their early designs had soft black leather uppers and a light chocolate brown wavy- patterned sole. It became the approach shoe for many British rock climbers. Its designed purpose was as an “all round training shoe”. In those days there were very few, if any, shoes bearing that label (description). “I remember doing a custom made size 14 UK trainer. Now that’s big. We simply used a wooden extension onto our largest shoe last” said Norman.
The shoe that took the British fell-running sport to new heights was the ‘Walsh Trainer’. Its color was, and still is, blue with yellow flashes. It had all the requirements for becoming a classic running shoe: no bulk, a great lacing system that gave a tight fit at the toe crease, a thin sole for minimum shock absorption, good heel cushioning for navigating those descents, and made from a quick-drying fabric. These were all the factors that contributed to winning races. Norman added a little rubber cushioning to the front area in the mid-1980’s and this design became known the P.B. Trainer, which is the most popular fell-running shoe of all time.
Enter the Crompton brothers. Dennis and Jon, both keen amateur running and soccer enthusiasts, soon discovered the shoe. “We liked the shoe so much,” said Dennis, “that we offered to buy the company from Norman.” Ten years after their initial offer in 1986, Norman, who was ready to retire and move to a sunnier climate, finally said yes. The Cromptons, with 15 years of sales experience, expanded the business into a very successful enterprise. Within a few years they had taken the Walsh running shoe to new heights even they did not expect. New machines, extra staff, expanded storage facilities.
“Our philosophy is simple,” says Jon. “If we don’t like it, or it’s not fun, then we don’t do it.” They kept up Norman’s tradition for quality, while streamlining production. This has increased output from 120 pair to nearly 350 pair per week.
Their shoes are sold overseas in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and even Norway and Sweden, where they’ve become popular with the Orienteering Fraternity. They have recently expanded into France and the U.S.A.
Oddly enough, the shoes have even become a cult icon in Japan. By adding a red, white and blue Union-jack style upper, they are distributed in Japan at an astounding rate of 500 pair per week!
Many devoted Walsh fans arrive at their 100-year-old factory and declare, “I own the original pair of Walsh running shoes that Norman made.” Since several hundred people claim to own the original pair, Dennis believes that this was “good early-days Walsh marketing strategy”.
Jay Johnson, Boulder, Colorado residents tells his Walsh story. “I spent seven summers on the European mountain racing circuit actually making money! One day in Italy the rain was lashing down as hard as I’ve ever seen. Next day was race day and the course would be extremely muddy. Every racers face wore a frown except the Irish runners. Next day they unleashed their secret weapon- Walsh PB Racers! They won and I called Pete Bland in Kendal, England and ordered a pair to be sent out ASAP! They are truly wonderful”.
Two famous Brits who own Walsh’s running shoes are legendary runner Ron Hill and mountaineer Sir Chris Bonnington. A full listing would be exhausting!
Norman himself has recently moved from the sunny Canary Islands to be back in his beloved hometown, Bolton. “There’s nothing like a good beer, a perfect fish and chips supper and a bet on the horses to cheer you up. What more do I need?” he concludes. Life, indeed, has been very good for Norman Walsh!
Freddie Snalam using Walsh running shoes at Loveland Pass(12,000ft).
Photo by: Maribeth Pili
Freddie Snalam has co-authored adventure guide books about his hometown of Boulder, Colorado as well as Jackson, Wyoming. Currently he is working on a guide to Salt Lake City that has to be done before the 2002 Olympic Games. He sells his Mountain Art through his website www.alpineworld.com.
Fell Running or racing
Fell racing is a two-part activity. First you run uphill, and then you run back down! Occasionally, there is some level running following the contours of a hillside. Every weekend throughout Britain the hills come alive and play a part to these unique race events.
Nearly all fell running races are won on the downward bound. Imagine sprinting down a 45 degree talus or rocky slope. Stopping is not an option! All the great runners who participate in this sport are either naturally adept at running down hills, or practice it to perfection. The technique for running downhill is to lean forward with the knees slightly bent. All of one’s focus should be on the footing (foot placement), with an occasional upward glance to insure proper direction!
How to make a great running shoe: (Simplified version)
- Cut leather/composite materials to shape, using up to 14 parts.
- Sew them together.
- Put these parts, with an insole, on a last.
- Back mould the shoe.
- Finish off the shoe using a four-part last.
- Cut the soles to specifications.
- Stick or glue together the outer and midsole combined, using waterproof adhesive.