Ann Sayer

Years 1960 Women’s European Rowing Championships (8o 4th)
1962 Women’s European Rowing Championships (8o 5th)
1964 Women’s European Rowing Championships (8o 6th)
1965 Women’s European Rowing Championships (Team Manager)
Clubs University of London Women’s BC, United Universities Women’s BC
Height 6′ 0″ or 183cm
Racing weight  151lb or 68.5kg
Born 1936

Ann is on the left at the photo at the top of this page (which is from her personal collection) of the GB eight at the 1962 Women’s European Rowing Championships. Behind her are Frances Bigg, Daphne Lane, Marg Chinn, Jill Ferguson and Marrian Yates.

Right from the beginning of her rowing career in 1955, Ann kept incredibly detailed training diaries which recorded every outing, who was in the boat, the weather, what work they did, and her impressions of the outing. These have, of course, been an incredibly valuable source for this website.

Getting into rowing

Ann got into rowing in an unusually calculating way. “When I went to university [Bedford College, part of the University of London], I thought, ‘I want to do something a bit energetic,'”  she explains. “I’d hated sport at school so I wanted to take up something where I wouldn’t be at a complete disadvantage because other people had done it, whatever it was at school… so I looked at three sports. I thought of swimming, and fencing and rowing. I went swimming a couple of times… but I didn’t like the chlorine up my nose and it was cold! And I went to the rowing and gradually got drawn in. I never got to the fencing.”

She continues, “At Bedford we used to go out, I think it was a Wednesday afternoon, in a tub pair on Regent’s Park lake. And the person who introduced me to rowing was Margaret Miskell, now Murdie… So she’s got a lot to answer for actually!”

The Boat Club Freshers’ Tea in October was obviously a powerful recruiting tool (student clubs take note) as, by the third Saturday of term, Ann had graduated from Regent’s Park lake to the UL Boathouse at Chiswick.

1956 Bedford College

Bedford College rowers 1956. Ann is the tall one in the middle of the back row, and her future UU and GB team-mate Zona Howard is in the striped blazer in the front row. (Photo: Zona Hardy’s personal collection.)

By March of her second year, 1957, Ann had gained her purple and in 1958 she was in the university’s first eight, although was missed the club’s win at the Women’s Amateur Rowing Association Head of the River Race (what is now WEHORR) as the event clashed with a field trip to Appleby for her geography course. She noted that this was a first win for the club’s new boat which was called ‘Dick Franckeiss’ after their coach. She later used this same boat at the European Championships in 1962.

The eight that year also contained three members of the crew which had represented GB at the Women’s European Rowing Championships in 1957: cox Joan Hiller, and rowers Sheila Beningfield and Marrian Yates. She noted her overall impressions of being in a boat with them in her diary:

“Inspiration of rowing behind three internationals; Joan (cox), Sheila (stroke), Marrian (7). Constant worry and trying hard, lest would lose place in boat…

Willing listening to Dick, never thought to dispute him in anything – made the crew what it was, plus of course Sheila and Marrian.

She didn’t lose her seat, and went on to record her first Headship win at the WARA Head of the River Race in 1959 – as well as the next five races too.

International career

After graduating in the summer of 1959 she went to work for the Geological Survey and joined United Universities Women’s BC where she was a core member of that quite small group throughout their international period from 1960 to 1965. She was in the crew when it was an eight in 1960, 1962 and 1964. When they only sent a four she went as a supporter in 1961 to Prague, about which she remembers having a good time being a tourist, and as Team Manager in 1965 to Amsterdam.

1962 Ann Sayer and Daphne Lane Copyright Photonews Ltd 4400-9

Ann (left) and Daphne Lane pretend to be doing something important with a rigger for a photographer at Weybridge in 1962. © Photonews Ltd.

After three years at the Geological Survey she got a job at BP where she remained for the rest of her career. “I was very happy with what I was doing at work,” she says, which was, conveniently, very compatible with her lifetime of sporting activities.

Full accounts of Ann’s international years can be found here:

1960 | 1962 (UU’s finest hour) | 1964 (with weight training)

Later rowing

After 1965, she remembers, “I didn’t do anything much at all. I got unfit. I also got ill at the same time and I couldn’t distinguish much between being ill and being unfit but I didn’t like it, whatever it was! But I got my health sorted out and the very next year I went on an alpine mountaineering holiday. And that was the start of the mountaineering, mountain walking and rock climbing which I did.”

The UU group did carry on rowing domestically too. Ann was in their B crew for the Head of the River Fours in 1967 and in 1968 she persuaded then to do the Boston Marathon, which they completed in 5 hours, 17 minutes and 58 seconds. “Everybody hated it except me,” she remembers, “Because I didn’t know at the time that I had an ultra-distance gene which came out later.” More on this shortly.

1968 Boston Marathon pennant

In 1970, like many of her United Universities friends, she qualified as an umpire, and did her fair share of that but in terms of her own sport, she switched her attention to long-distance race walking.

Recent photo of Ann Sayer

Ann in 2016.

Long distance walking

“I got a lot of enjoyment [from rowing],” she says, “And I got a lot from working hard for other people. I’m not the sort of person who would necessarily always work hard for myself but I’d certainly bust a gut for the crew. I prefer to be part of a team. Which then makes it a bit peculiar that when I took up long distance race walking it was just me… But one can do it purely on one’s own without any pressure of anybody else around. You’ve got to be very patient. That was one of my strengths, I think, being patient.”

Readers of this page who are rowers (let’s say 99% of you) know all too well that there’s a lot more to rowing than the Boat Race on TV, but that’s all your average colleague at work knows about the sport, and it’s even worse for long-distance walkers. Those of us who were around in the 1980s will remember the cricketer Ian Botham walking from Land’s End to John O’Groats (for ease of typing, this is referred to with the widely-used abbreviation LEJOG from now on) and that’s pretty much the only ultra-walking event we’re aware of. At least the Boat Race happens every year.

We are, however, literally ignorant. There’s a whole world of long-distance walks, races and accolades out there, which Ann got into with a lot less calculation than she did rowing. “I drifted in via mountain walking,” she remembers. “The Long Distance Walkers Association had been started in 1972, and I was told about it and the second event that I did with them was the annual 100 mile event (their website records her as finishing their 1974 event in 35 hours 26 minutes, the fastest of the three women who completed the distance and 19th overall). And I went from there, and I used to do a lot of LDWA events of 20 miles, 30 miles, 50 miles, that sort of thing.”

Centurion walking

She continues, “And then a couple of years later I did another of the LDWA 100 miles, and I think it was after that I thought, ‘What shall I do next?’ I’d heard of these people who walk 100 miles in 24 hours – I’d read about them in a Sunday newspaper… so I found out about them and I discovered, of course, that women don’t do that sort of thing. But that didn’t stop me.”

People who walk 100 miles in under 24 hours are called a lot of things, but the official designation in the sport is ‘Centurions’, and Ann became – unofficially – the first female British Centurion by completing a walk in the Netherlands in 21 hours and 46 minutes. Take note of that word ‘unofficially’, by the way.

In October that year, Ann and another woman completed a 100 mile walk in Bristol;  Ann’s time was a brisk 20 hours 37 minutes. The event had courted controversy before it even started because the organisers had said they would permit the wearing of trousers – it was the British autumn, for goodness sake – but this was against the Race Walking Association’s rules (which were even more official than the etiquette of rowing at the time when blue skin was apparently felt to be character-building). A compromise was eventually reached which permitted the offending leg-wear during the hours of darkness (because this was when it was coldest or because no one would see it, or perhaps both?).

Compromise also proved to be necessary when it came to publishing the results because it was not ‘permitted’ for women to be named on the main results sheet (which puts the ‘struggle’ to get women’s rowing accepted by FISA in the 1950s into perspective) and in the end, a separate sheet was published with the women’s times (both of them). This still left the issue of recognising the fact that they’d met the requirement to be Centurions. Amazingly, good sense prevailed in the end (after a suggestion that a new and separate list of female Centurions be drawn up) and Ann officially became Centurion number 599.

Sports nutrition wasn’t particularly advanced then, although Ann hit on what are now known to be quite good solutions mostly by chance; “Tinned fruit, tinned rice,” she says, “Occasionally I’d have a Mars bar or something as well… In the Netherlands I drank milk the whole way round.”


After all this, inevitably, says Ann, “I thought what else? Let’s do something else! There were a group of fairly like-minded people and supportive people in the LDWA and LEJOG came up but I thought, ‘I’m not sure that I’m ready quite for this,’ so the year before I did the British three peaks which is where you walk from Fort William foot in sea, up Ben Nevis, up Scafell Pike, up Snowdon and down to the sea at Caernarvon – it’s exactly half the distance. I did that OK and broke the existing men’s record at the time. And then the next year, 1980, I felt ready to do LEJOG.”

A 13-day walk that literally covered the length of Britain took a lot of planning and Ann is incredibly grateful that she didn’t really have to do any of this. “I had an amazing support team. I just walked and they looked after everything else and fed me. There were some people who loved planning so they worked out all the route. They got all the support team together. And a lot of people came for a couple of days so altogether I think I had about 16 people supporting me who came for two days here and two days there.”

When it came to the walk, she says, “I wanted to do a sensible distance each day. As I said I’m quite patient. I didn’t want to try and get it all done in one day because you can’t. And people who do, fail, and so I used to have a proper night’s sleep every night. I’d walk 60 miles in the day… get up quite early before it was light and start off walking. So, you know, boring really, because all I did was walk at about four and a quarter miles an hour all the time. Actually it was faster in the morning – nearer five miles an hour. But I’d have a proper night’s sleep in a bed in a B&B or someone’s friend that had been organised by the support team. And because I was walking at such a regular speed they’d know exactly where I’d be within a mile or two at half past six at night so there wasn’t much motoring about really because I had accommodation fairly close to the end of my day’s walk every day.”

She got quite concerned about a tightness that had developed in her foot quite a long way into the walk, but still far enough from the finish to be an issue. “I thought, ‘Mmm this is very annoying.’ I was in the middle of Scotland, and I realised I must go and try to get this looked at. And I tripped up the step going into the support wagon because I couldn’t lift my foot up properly, and that cured it!”

She wore what was state of the art footwear for the time – Nike Waffle trainers, which had “a minuscule amount of padding”. “I had two pairs and wore them alternate days,” she remembers. She didn’t get blisters because, “From my walking coach I got this fiendish combination which was really, really yukky but it had served him well – he’d set a 100 mile walking record in I think it was 1936 – and it was to coat your feet in lanolin. That’s real lanolin, not lanolin cream or something really nice; lanolin itself is very nasty. Then you covered the whole thing with animal wool, and then put a sock on.”

Although her training for her 100 mile walks had mostly just involved getting the miles in, she realised that LEJOG was an altogether different challenge and sought the advice of the LDWA, who recommended she join an athletics club and get some walking coaching. So she joined Essex Ladies – one of the top clubs at the time for track and field, where a young Sally Gunnell was also a member. “I’ve got no idea how much I improved,” she admits, “A quarter of a mile an hour it doesn’t sound much but if you’re doing it all day it’s several miles and it’s several hours’ worth.”

Her time of 13 days, 17 hours and 42 minutes put her in the Guinness Book of Records and she was awarded an MBE for services to sport in 2005.

b/w photo of Ann Sayer with Norris McWhirter

Ann with Norris McWhirter (founder of Guinness World Records) at the launch of The Guinness Book of Records 1996 in which Ann featured as the oldest British female athlete after she’d competed in a 200km race in France in 1994 aged 57. (Photo: Ann Sayer’s personal collection.)

In more recent years, Ann was involved in many aspects of life in Teddington where she lived, including leading walks for Walking for Health, acting as a volunteer guide at Strawberry Hill House, and working in the visitor information
centre in Bushy Park. She died in 2020.

© Helena Smalman-Smith, 2017.