Hampshire Runner

He Pants in Hants

Category: Greats

All the truly great runners are called Steve

Yes, all the truly great runners are called Steve (or Paula!)

Steve Prefontaine.  Why him?  After all, he wasn’t that successful – some US records and a fourth place in the Olympics (1972 5,000 metres).  But there was something about Pre, something magical, mystical, mythical even, that communicated itself to fans, to the public, even across the Atlantic to a fledgling teenage runner in Croydon.

He would always run from the front and try to burn the others off; any picture of him running shows his eyes narrowed in intense, zen-like concentration and effort; they said that, when he stepped on his home track in Eugene, Oregon, the sun would invariably come out; he lived in a caravan at the foot of a mountain; he rebelled against the archaic amateur rules of the time; he looked like a pop star; he was a pop star to US track fans – they shouted, “Go Pre,” through his every race; and he died young, crashing his car after drinking perhaps too much beer, after winning his last race, defeating Frank Shorter in a near US record 5000.

I only saw him race once – ironically, in the one race he didn’t finish – the Coca Cola 2 miles at Crystal Palace in 1974, where Brendan Foster deployed his trademark mid-race burst to gain a winning lead.  But he was my first running hero and I remember him still.

Steve Ovett.  The man who could do anything.  On 26th July 1974, Ovett then still a junior of 18, turned out for his club and ran four races, the most impressive being a 21.7 200 metres on cinders.  As Athletics Weekly pointed out at the time, he was the reigning UK Junior Cross-Country champion!  In later years, he would do things like winning a half-marathon if his 800 metres race was cancelled.  Oh, and he won Olympic 800, European 1500 and Commonwealth 5000 metre golds, and set 1500, mile and 2-mile world records.  I was there at Crystal Palace in 1978 for the last of those: he passed Henry Rono halfway down the finishing straight, slowed to wave to the crowd, who proceeded to shout at him, so he would speed up and break Foster’s record by two tenths.  I like to think it’s partly my record.

Steve Jones.  The vest outside the shorts.  The crew cut.  The pacesetting – he ran 1:01 for the first half of the 1985 Chicago marathon, slowed down, and eventually missed Carlos Lopes’s world best (2:07:12) by one second.  Jones had set the previous world record the year before at Chicago, and he was the quintessential runner’s runner, doing things like winning two local 10km races in the same day.  Not only was he one of the very few who could accomplish something like that; he was the only one who would think of doing it.

Steve Cram and Steve Scott.  The British prodigy and the American testicular cancer survivor who holds the world record for the greatest number of sub-four minute miles (137) raced each other often.  Brendan Foster once said that if nobody trained at all, Cram would win every race because he simply had the most talent of any runner in history.  When they came first and second in the inaugural World Championship 1500 in 1983, Said Aouita was third and Steve Ovett fourth.  The commentators reckoned that Said was Moroccan for Steve.

Steve Spence.  The American marathoner got the best out of himself in training intelligently and relentlessly – and hanging back from the early pace in steamy Tokyo – to sneak a bronze medal at the 1991 Worlds, but that is not why I like him.  On 11th May 2016, Spence ran a sub-five minute mile for the 41st consecutive year.  His daughter, Neely (born the day that Steve ran Boston in 1990), was first American woman in the 2016 Boston Marathon.

Steve Smythe.  From sub-5 to sub-3.  Putting that feat in the shade perhaps is Steve Smythe, who on 19th February 2017 ran the Seville Marathon in 2:56:16, 40 years and 119 days since his first sub-three marathon – a world record span.

Steve Moneghetti.  The Australian marathoner set a world half marathon record at the Great North Run, and won Commonwealth bronze (1986), silver (1990) and gold (1994, being interviewed, completely composed, about five seconds after finishing).  He also finally got a World Championships medal – a bronze in Athens 1997 – and, most impressively of all, finished 30th in the World Cross Country in 2004 at the age of 41.

Etienne Gailly.  Grainy youtube footage shows the muscular Belgian paratrooper entering the London Olympic stadium first in the marathon of 1948, but he has nothing left, and Cabrera of Argentina and Tom Richards of Great Britain pass him on the track.  He stops and walks.  Officials shout to him and wave their programmes.  He staggers.  The fourth-placed runner can be seen in the distance.  Somehow he makes it to the line to claim the bronze.  He is stretchered off.

Steve Till.  The talent of Ovett or Cram, the commitment of Gailly, Prefontaine or Jones, the longevity of Scott, Spence, Smythe and Moneghetti – Steve Till can boast none of those, but is honoured to recognise, articulate and celebrate the special qualities of these running Steves.

Sally Gunnell: the only way is gold

“Are you Sally Gunnell?”

My son had qualified for the National Schools Cross Country championships in 2009, and I had walked across to a remote corner of the course to cheer him on, when I thought I recognised a lady standing there.

“Yes, I am.”

I took the liberty of thanking her for all the excitement she’d given athletics fans like me over the years, then we chatted about that day’s races and about her and Linford Christie and Colin Jackson – the big three of British athletics in the early 1990s.  She was there supporting her own son who was running the same race as mine, and then she said something that was very revealing.

“You know, I am having absolute kittens standing here watching my son.  I can’t even imagine what my mum and dad went through in Barcelona.”

Sally Gunnell, from Essex, made her name at 100 metres hurdles, indeed she was Commonwealth champion in 1986, but perhaps realising her limitations at world level at the shorter distance, she switched to 400 hurdles in 1987.  She progressed quickly and set British records at both distances in 1988, coming fifth at the longer event in the Seoul Olympics.

She worked hard and sacrificed a lot.  Her birthday is 29th July, often falling in the middle of a major championship.  I remember hearing that she allowed herself just one small glass of wine by way of celebration, when it did.

By the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, she was ready to fly.

How nervous were her parents?  How nervous was she?  Very is the answer, and it’s understandable not just because it’s an Olympic final and you want to perform to your potential.  I think, in addition, that the 400 hurdles is unique in requiring the athlete to perform technically difficult manoeuvres whilst experiencing increasing levels of lactic acid and therefore fatigue.  (This is perhaps why Ed Moses was so revered.)

One can imagine the feelings going through her mind – I have to get every single hurdle perfect – and I know it’s going to blooming well hurt.

She was only ranked third going into the Olympics, but she fought off the challenge of American Sandra Farmer-Patrick and won gold, repeating the victory in the next year’s World Championships in Stuttgart – this time with a world record.  She completed a remarkable set in 1994 by winning Commonwealth and European golds.

Linford got Olympic and world golds, but not the world record.  Colin achieved world golds and the world record, but no Olympic win.  Sally did the lot.

Kip Keino: the African trailblazer

“How can they run so fast after running so far?”  I was 11, watching the 1968 Olympic 5,000 metres with my mother.  Mohammed Gammoudi of Tunisia and Kip Keino of Kenya were sprinting down the final straight, Gammoudi eventually prevailing by two tenths of a second.  I was hooked.  What speed!  What endurance!

Abele Bikila of Ethiopia had won the 1960 and 1964 Olympic marathons, but Keino was the first Kenyan to make an impact on world athletics.  He had placed fifth in the 1964 Olympic 5,000 and won golds at the 1966 Commonwealths, but Mexico City was to be his real breakthrough.

In the thin air of the Mexican capital, he defeated American world record holder, Jim Ryun, by 20 metres in the 1,500.  And, in addition to that and his 5,000 silver, he also bizarrely contested the 10,000.

In Munich in 1972, he cemented his legacy by winning the 3,000 metres steeplechase, at which he was a comparative novice, and taking a silver in the 1,500 behind Pekka Vasala of Finland.

The Africans were a proverbial breath of fresh in the athletics world of the 60s and 70s.  Keino couldn’t really hurdle – he put a foot on each of the steeplechase barriers – but he made up for such rudimentary technique with his speed on the flat.

Journalists visiting Keino and his compatriot Ben Jipcho (who took silver behind Kip in the steeple) at their training base in Nairobi were amazed to find them constructing their own steeplechase barriers – often several inches taller than the regulation height.

They were seen to be great natural athletes, but they also worked hard, running fast at altitude, to leave visiting westerners struggling in their wake.

Kip Keino won two Olympic golds and two silvers (the same as Sebastian Coe), plus three Commonwealth titles, but it is not for his medals that he is most remembered; it is more for his trailblazing on behalf of the continent of Africa, for the silky grace of his running style, for his uninhibited approach to racing, and for his sportsmanship and dignity as a man.

John Walker: blond mane, black vest, gold medal

In January 1992, my wife and I almost changed our round-the-world itinerary to divert from the South Island of New Zealand to the North.  The reason?  In Auckland, John Walker was going to try to become the first vet (over 40) to run a sub-four minute mile.

In the end, we didn’t – and neither did he, succumbing to injury before the attempt could be made.

He was already the first man under 3:50, and the first to run 100 sub-4s, in addition, of course, to his Olympic gold at 1,500 in Montreal 1976.  (For such a small country, New Zealand has an amazing history in the Olympic 1,500 with Jack Lovelock in 1936 and Peter Snell in 1964 winning gold in addition to Walker, with other medals for the likes of John Davies, Rod Dixon and Nick Willis.)

Walker was something of a popstar runner in the mid-70s, his long blond hair (which Mrs Wardale no doubt remembers!) contrasting with his all-black NZ racing uniform.  He and the other flying kiwis – Rod Dixon, Dick Quax – toured Europe in those years, seemingly winning races and breaking hearts at will.  I remember an article entitled, “Why Walker runs better on a lager,” which somehow encapsulated the group’s work hard, play hard approach.

Walker had burst onto the scene in the Christchurch Commonwealth Games of 1974, winning 800 bronze and then breaking Jim Ryun’s world record of 3:33.1 in the 1,500 with 3:32.5 – the only trouble was, Filbert Bayi of Tanzania had got there three-tenths sooner, leaving Walker with the silver.

He continued to impress and to dominate the longer event, running that 3:49.4 mile in Gothenburg in 1975.  In Montreal, he was favourite but still had to deliver.  He had got food poisoning before the 800 and did not advance from the heats.  In the 1,500, he kicked from 300 out and just held on as van Damme, Wellman and Coghlan came at him.

1977 saw the end of his dominance as Steve Ovett destroyed him in the World Cup.  Walker actually dropped out with 100 to go, and still cannot explain why.  The rise of Ovett and Coe saw him move up to 5,000, with limited success, and the 80s saw him turn his attention to accumulating a century of sub-4s – and winning one last medal – a silver behind Cram in the 1982 Commonwealths.

He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 1996, but still seems to lead an active life, being a city councillor in Auckland and running an equestrian shop with his wife, Helen.

John Walker’s time at the very top of the miling tree was fairly short, but the memories of him from the 1970s – his frequent racing and usual winning, his refreshing attitude and his liking for a beer – will live forever.

My alternative greatest moments in running

There’s a lot of talk about the greatest moments in running, and they usually centre around Olympic gold medals or world records.  But some of the finest, in my opinion, are more obscure than that…………….

  1. Paula pushes Paul: Paul Evans, a 2:08 marathoner, tells of a session in the French Alps when he struggled to keep up with Paula Radcliffe. “I can’t let this girl beat me,” he kept muttering to himself until they reached the top of the climb (and Paula allegedly collapsed.) Paula also deserves a place in this list for her world record for conducting the fastest interview after setting a world record (Chicago 2002.)
  2. Eamonn high: Eamonn Coghlan had been fourth at successive Olympics (at 1500 in 1976, and at 5000 in 1980.) When he finally knew he was going to win a global gold – in the 5,000 metres at the first World Championships in Helsinki 1983 – he didn’t wait until the finish to celebrate. At the start of the home straight, before he had even passed the Russian leader, he clenched his fists and looked skyward, giving heavenly thanks for his ultimate victory.
  3. Bedford’s double: on 7th February 1970, Dave Bedford, while still a junior, won the Southern Senior and Junior Cross-Country Championships in the same afternoon. He had a rest of about 20 minutes between the races, and won the senior by 55 seconds and the junior by 61 seconds.
  4. Ronoburger: Henry Rono, breaker of four world records in 1978, once misjudged the timing of his indoor two-mile race. The starter called the runners to their marks while Henry was still finishing his burger and cola. He put down his lunch, won the race, but missed the world record by two seconds!
  5. Not half bad: Steve Jones ran 1:01 for the first half of the 1985 Chicago marathon. He slowed down, and eventually missed Carlos Lopes’s world best (2:07:12) by one second. Jones had set the previous world record the year before at Chicago.  Jones would also do things like winning two local 10km races in the same day.
  6. Bullet Bob: Bob Hayes probably reached the fastest ever speed achieved by a human in his last leg of the 1964 4×100 metres relay. Michael Johnson may have run a flying 9.20 for 100; Bob ran well under 9. When an American colleague of Hayes’s talked up their chances before the race, his interlocutor said, “But all you have is Hayes.”  “Man, that’s all we need,” came the reply.
  7. Flying Kiwi: Derek Turnbull, a 65-year-old sheep farmer from Invercargill, New Zealand ran 2:41:27 at the 1992 London Marathon. He didn’t train for weeks on end during lambing season, never stretched, never paid any attention to his diet (“just lots of dairy”) nor wore a watch during training.
  8. Zatopek’s curiosity: the training session that is most famous in running circles is when Emil Zatopek ran more circles than anyone else. His 60×400 for successive days is the stuff of legend. Only a fictional character (in ‘Once a Runner’ by John L. Parker) has ever dared copy him!  Zatopek allegedly pushed this up to 100×400 eventually.
  9. The longest kick: records are made to be broken; but they are usually only broken by degrees. When Haile Gebrselassie ran 5000 metres at Zurich in 1995, the pace was good up to 3,000 metres (7:44). But then Haile kicked and ran the last five laps in five minutes to reduce the world record by eleven seconds.  The previous record holder, Moses Kiptanui, who that night had just become the first man to run under 8 minutes for the 3,000 metres steeplechase, when asked what he thought of Geb’s feat, said: “Oh, he’s pretty fit at the moment.”
  10. The man who could do anything: on July 26th 1974, Steve Ovett then still a junior of 18, turned out for his club and ran four races, the most impressive being a 21.7 200 metres on cinders. He was UK Junior Cross-Country champion at the time! In later years, Ovett would do things like winning a half-marathon if his 800 metres race was cancelled.  Oh, and he won Olympic 800, European 1500 and Commonwealth 5000 metre golds.

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