Robert Heron, (Rab north of the border; Rob south), showed early promise in 1966 at seventeen years of age. Running for the winning team, Dundee Hawkhill Harriers, this stocky red-haired athlete won the East District Youths Cross Country Championship. In addition that year, he was in the top eight in the Scottish Schools CC in Perth ; and in the summer, when the Scottish Schools held their track championships at Westerlands, Glasgow, he finished the mile third in 4.29, three seconds behind Robert Linaker but well in front of the fourth-placer, Colin Youngson, from Aberdeen Grammar School. Rab became a student at St Andrews University and was chosen in November 1966 to run for Dundee Hawkhill Harriers on Stage 4 of the Edinburgh to Glasgow Relay. He also ran this race for them from 1968-1971; before switching to Aberdeen AAC, winning silver in 1972 and bronze in 1973.
Rab and Colin maintained an occasional rivalry (and were always evenly matched, ending up only seventeen seconds apart in the Scottish all-time marathon rankings, although Rab was the superior ultra-runner). At this early stage in their careers, Youngson finished ahead of Heron in the 1968 Scottish Universities 3 miles track championship, but Rab outsprinted Colin in a 1969 inter-university cross-country fixture. That year, Rab represented Scottish Universities against a Scottish Cross Country Union select.
By 1972, Rab Heron, by now a keen writer and also a rock-climber, was studying Librarianship at Robert Gordon’s Institute of Technology in Aberdeen. From Sunday the 9th to Thursday the 13th of April that year, he took part in Aberdeen AAC’s first attempt at the John o’Groats to Land’s End ten-man relay. Unfortunately the team finished half an hour outside the record. However Rab, who was paired with Colin Youngson, revealed a masochistic sense of humour and seemed almost to enjoy the exhausting, frustrating experience, which might explain his later successes in ultra-distance running! Rab later made his marathon debut with fourth in the SAAA event (2.35.19).
In early April 1973, a much fitter Rab was paired with the inimitable Alastair J. Wood in AAAC’s successful second Jogle, which this time broke Reading AC’s record by half an hour. Here are extracts from the Journal of Robert Heron.
“Our Van (Number One) takes over about the Lybster area from 2.50 to 4.50 p.m. and goes to not far short of Brora. Alastair and I both go well, high exposed roads hail-swung and wind-blown, warm, black showers. Berriedale Braes we demolish in 200 metre sections – blithe as bastards. Wood gets most of the other hills, but doesn’t mind. Watching him bowl along, you are conscious of greatness. 24 miles in the two hours, a hard session, but we are buoyed up and absorb it well.”“We take over once more. The next few runs are fast. Through black, snow-deep Inverness-shire – Kingussie, Newtonmore, Dalwhinnie (the link-car hovering silent and menacing and white as the proverbial albatross) – our van’s headlights throwing black running-men shapes all over the trees and bushes and hills. Quietly crunching we advance to Drumochter Pass, a green dawn breaking behind us over the hills on the left. Knife-cold. A panorama of snow-hills rolls beside and in front of the woolly-hatted Wood. At or near the summit we change-over. Eat, drink, wash and try to sleep. A good session again.”
(Much later, in Devon) “In a lay-by, at this early hour, trying half-heartedly to warm up, only one hour for this last run before preparations for the final ‘sprint’. Behind us a big red sun rises sluggishly out of cloud, a sponge soaking up blood, misty with distance and cold; in short, a beautiful morning. We run to 8 a.m. through Taunton and into Tiverton, winding country road and light work-going traffic. A rustic roadman calls “only ninety-seven mile” and I grin.”
“Through Penzance. The link-car takes me through a one-way system to take over lest the van is held up, while Gordon Casely on his bike leads the runner through. It works, Joe Clare heaves into sight and I run for the last series of hills. Joe and I alternate at around 100 metre intervals till Wood and Innis Mitchell arrive – when they do, we demolish the last of the hills and it’s all over bar the running of it. We are so close now, we know we’re going to do it, it’s all been worth the effort and the constant friction with the co-ordinators, the tired legs are gone, replaced by fine prancing limbs, we can turn round and do it all again going north. For fifteen minutes we go out and try to show the other five how to sprint. Wood does the last of these hilarious orgies of speed. John stops the already stinking van (brake rubber) a last time, we file out and run together, hold hands, the others join in. Casely is blowing up his bagpipes, there is a little cheering, we run en masse right to the main door of the Lan’s End Hotel, elated. I am tired, Steve Taylor is emotional, I shake hands with Colin, embrace Steve, pat Martin Walsh’s leg, there’s a photographer, an alderman and his wife. Wood is elsewhere, we don’t speak, it doesn’t matter. Bill Donald arrives chanting “seven o nine fifty-eight” or something, which doesn’t matter either, we did it the hard way, now it’s past, finished.”
That toughest of training sessions quickly led to the fastest time Rab ever achieved for a marathon. He gives full credit to the Jogle as being the main factor behind this new level of fitness. In winning the Edinburgh to North Berwick race on the 12th of May, simply running away after the five-mile point, he took an amazing eighteen minutes off his PB in recording 2.17.07, which topped the 1973 Scottish rankings. Second and third in that race were another two Aberdeen AAC Jogle runners: Steve Taylor (2.23.17) and Graham Milne (2.24.18).
Later, on the 23rd of June, in the SAAA Marathon over the 1970 Commonwealth Games course, starting and finishing at Meadowbank Stadium, Rab finished third in 2.21.15, behind Donald Macgregor (2.17.50) and Jim Wight (2.18.24) both of whom were selected for the Christchurch Commonwealth Marathon in early 1974. Rab had averaged 80 miles per week in training for six months. After the leading pair moved away at 20 miles, he was left to run in alone, his nylon Reebok marathon shoes bruising a foot and producing a big blood blister on a little toe. Liberal smearings of nappy rash cream were effective in preventing painful friction in other sensitive areas – such as his wide-mesh, heavy-duty cotton string vest from Millets!
In late June1974, Rab Heron’s wife Marjory gave birth to their second son, in the early hours the day before the SAAA Marathon in Edinburgh. Rab remembers the headwind on the way out, with the leaders sheltering behind Sandy Keith. After the turn, Rab and Don Macgregor eased away. “We ran together, trying tactical bursts every now and then, until 23 miles or so, when the wily Don finally got away to win.Afterwards, in the pub opposite Meadowbank, I saw Scotland being eliminated from the World Cup.” Donald Macgregor won in 2.18.08, with Rab Heron running 2.19.18 for his silver medal, well in front of his AAAC team-mates, Colin Youngson and Sandy Keith. Rab had been averaging 90 miles in training, including fartlek and repetition running three or four times a week.
In August 1974 he made his debut in the Two Bridges 36 mile race (from Dunfermline, over the Kincardine and Forth Road Bridges, and finishing in Rosyth). Rab came in a valiant second (3.32.04), to Jim Wight of EAC (3.26.31), who back in January, had run in the Christchurch Commonwealth Games marathon. In his first ultra, Rab had maintained a steady pace with his experienced friend Alastair Wood. Athough unable to catch Jim Wight, they had beaten other stars like Don Ritchie, Don Macgregor and Mick Orton. Then Rab moved away to defeat Alastair by 39 seconds! Aberdeen AAC naturally won the team award.
Rab had a great record in the Two Bridges classic, with four second places. He recorded very good times: 3.24.22 in 1978, behind top ultra-distance athlete, Cavin Woodward; 3.25.34 in 1979, behind Andy Holden, a British international at cross-country, steeplechase and marathon; and 3.26.54 in 1980, behind Holden’s 3.21.46, which was the fastest time ever recorded in the 28 editions of this excellent event. Rab was undoubtedly one of Britain’s very best ultra-runners.
Not long afterwards, Rab and his family moved south to Bognor Regis. In 1975 he ran 2.20.40 in the AAA Marathon in Stoke. Unfortunately, in 1976 his running was impeded by constant injury.
Battling back to fitness in 1977, and now representing Brighton and Hove AC, he decided to give a local event a real go, to check whether it was worth continuing with the sport. Well, he certainly went on to prove that it was! On the 25th of September, he stood on the start-line, next to Big Ben, for the famous London to Brighton 52 and a half mile race. His rivals included another ex-Aberdeen AAC athlete, Donald Ritchie (now Forres Harriers) and his main challenger, former winner Cavin Woodward (Leamington).
The Road Runners Club magazine report of this race is fascinating. Woodward, as usual, set off fast, but could not draw away from five others, including Rab Heron. By ten miles, Rab had moved into the lead in “an incredible 56.04”, more than 40 seconds clear. He held this gap to 20 miles and was well ahead of Alastair Wood’s 1972 record schedule (marathon time 2.29.52). By thirty miles, Rab had a lead of one minute but by 40 he was beginning to flag a little, and on the notorious rise of Dale Hill he was eventually overtaken by Don Ritchie. The Forres athlete finished strongly in 5.16.05, the fourth fastest of all time, with Rab Heron “who had led for so long” coming in “a very gallant second in 5.19.47, the 7th fastest of all time, having had a wonderful debut run in this classic race”. Cavin Woodward was third in 5.23.36.
Nowadays, still keen on rock-climbing and also caving, Rab has retired with his wife to live in West Yorkshire and to enjoy work part-time in the mobile library service.
What follows is Rab’s own account – humorous and inspiring it is a first-class account of how an athletics career developed.
1964 – 1970 Building 40-50 miles per week
Born in Dundee in December 1947, I went to Morgan Academy in 1960 and ran my first race at the school sports in June 1961 – the one mile open handicap. Six years’ worth of boys lined up, with the first year receiving a lap start on the sixth formers. This handicapping was over-generous and from the gun I found myself alone and in front and stayed there – dead easy. However, my sporting career began as a swimmer with Dundee’s Arnhall SC – dabbling with cross-country at school because I couldn’t get into any football team (I REALLY wanted to be Willie Henderson or Charlie Cooke). Things became more serious after my first road race in April 1964 when the school entered a team for the second Dundee-Newtyle race for youth groups and I was included. This was my fifth race but I had already developed the tactic of starting slowly and gradually coming through. Dead last up the long steady hill at the start of the nineish mile journey, running with team-mate Allan McClue (previous winner in 1963) we began to eat through the field. Leaving Allan, with one bold guy still ahead, I caught the fading leader at the top of the long fast descent to the finish and found myself alone again. Running freely, enjoying the feeling, I finished in 48:40 taking 70 seconds off the record. I also sustained my first injury (to my right hip) and a bad case of jockstrap rub which necessitated my wearing a pair of my mum’s silk drawers to the evening dance and presentation. With more regular training, basically group fartlek, and steady running, often solo, I further reduced the record to 45:25 in 1965, leading from the start – the last year the race was held.
A report on the 1964 race appearing in one of the local papers prompted Ronnie Coleman, a stalwart of Dundee Hawkhill Harriers, to write to me offering fame and stardom as a club member. I succumbed, joined the Hawks, and condemned myself to a life of pain, misery and disappointment. This was enlivened by my association with a fine bunch of young laddies who, in different combinations, formed a successful youth team. Norrie McGowan, Vic Cammack, Iain Graves, Roy Robertson and myself won every relay we entered in 1965, Eastern district team champions, but failed to win the National, finishing third. We were all to some extent under Coleman’s wing, and he took a personal interest in what I was doing so that I never felt I was groping in the dark when it came to training. He would always leaven his advice with a qualifying “but please yourself”. And he instilled in me an appetite for repetitions up hills, long and short, which stayed with me all the way. As did the pure enjoyment of running laps in parkland or woodland settings like my beloved Camperdown Park, (one of the first places I went training with Ronnie Coleman), Balgay Cemetery and Victoria Park in Dundee – plenty hills to toil up and long downhills to stretch out on. The bigger world of junior, then senior athletics, revealed me as an undistinguished club runner for the Hawks and St Andrews University. Running for Scottish Universities vs Scottish Cross Country Union in December 1966 in Edinburgh I finished second last – a feat replicated in 1969 in the same city, but representing the Union. I did, however, win St Andrews cross country championship four years in a row, and gained a double blue in athletics and cross country. During the St Andrews sojourn I trained regularly with a bloke called Donald Macgregor, who was always helpful with advice, and good company when he decided to stay with you rather than disappearing up the road if he was feeling good. And Fergus Murray was another to bounce ideas off and provide regular encouragement.
I married Marjory Radcliffe in 1970 and entered a period of more focused effort. Another Hawk, Harry Bennett, no longer with us, was qualifying as a coach at the time and without being formally coached myself, simply having discussions and exchanging ideas I began to think more about training. Also, I would go for regular long slow runs, mostly off-road, with Phil Kearns , during which we would natter about training and racing. Incidentally, Phil, a PE teacher in Dundee, taught a wee lassie called Liz Lynch, coached her for a while before giving the role to a now fully-qualified Harry Bennett – and the rest is history.
1971 – 1986 Consolidating 70-80 miles per week
Moving to Aberdeen for a year in 1971 to attend RGIT School of Librarianship brought me into closer contact with the late Alastair Wood. I became a second claim member of Aberdeen AAC at this point, becoming first claim by 1972. Hitherto the bulk of my training was simply steady running, enough to win Spean Bridge-Fort William in June 1971, and finish second to Wood at Alves-Forres in October. Many previous conversations with Phil Kearns had concerned preparing for and running a marathon. Talking to Wood and others like Steve Taylor and Donald Ritchie began to sow the seed of racing marathons. In Aberdeen in October 1971 I introduced a pre-breakfast run of five miles to my routine – “to train the brain, not the body” quoth Wood – raising the weekly mileage from about forty to about eighty. In December at the Hawks’ road championship I missed Kenny Grant’s record for the five miles by one second over a toughish course. Meanwhile, something, somewhere, had put the idea into Steve Taylor’s head of having a crack at a north-south relay record for a ten man Aberdeen team, and I volunteered for JOGLE in April 1972. I did not enjoy myself initially, having to run through a cold and finding it hard (as we all did) on non-recovering muscles. However, buoyed up by cellmate (rather van-mate) Colin Youngson’s ebullience and humour I rediscovered a rhythm and stuck it out, and we managed to set a north-south record, narrowly missing the absolute best time.
Just over a month later I won an open 5000m on the new Balgownie track (15:12.8) apparently setting a stadium record because Andy McKean’s winning Scottish Universities time had been slow because of tempestuous conditions. I hope that my mark has been comprehensively slaughtered, and rightly so. My reputation has never been based on middle distance running. Third at Spean Bridge-Fort William behind Sam Downie and Willie Day was my preparation for the SAAA marathon, my debut in June 1972. This was won by Wood, myself fourth behind a distant Colin Youngson in 2:35:19. I put my listless performance down to it being a week after final exams at RGIT. Heavy legs, reluctant brain, long stretches of boring soreness – was it always going to be like this? I finished the year as part of the disqualified AAAC team finishing second in Edinburgh-Glasgow (Ian Stewart being ruled ineligible). And 22nd for SCCU vs SUSB at St Andrews. “A bit nippy for you” quoth Doug Gunstone, referring to the fast flat course.By now living in Arbroath, I joined the JOGLERs again in April 1973. Partnering Wood and feeling altogether more energetic, I was much happier than the first foray. We set an absolute record of 79 hours 8 mins. More significantly for me, five weeks later I won Edinburgh-North Berwick in 2:17:07, my wife and nine month old son Robert cheering me on. This was the start of regularly using the bleed-out/carbohydrate loading diet until I got fed up with it in the mid 1980s. The only ill-effect was a monstrous blister on the sole of my right foot which Jimmy Mitchell hacked away at post-race with the bluntest surgical scissors he could find. I never realised that Steve Taylor in second place had been so badly affected. I was healed and ready for the SAAA marathon in June and put in a workmanlike if uninspired performance, finishing third behind Macgregor and Jim Wight. This was also the trial for the Christchurch Commonwealth Games and I missed out with the wild card selection of Lachie Stewart to fill the third marathon slot – he failed to finish; I’m not bitter. By the way, our second son, Stuart, was born in the early hours of the morning of the day before the race. Four days before the race I had been playing on a boulder in Glen Clova, warming up to go climbing with my old mate Jim Braid – the thought suddenly hit me that a fall could affect my chances in Saturday’s race. From then on, running became the priority, and I would not tie a rope on for another twenty years. A third with a legal AAAC team in Edinburgh-Glasgow closed that year, where the bulk of the racing had been undistinguished track meetings in the NE and Scottish leagues.
In February 1974 I had my best National finishing 28th at Coatbridge, with AAAC third team. I lined up for the SAAA marathon honed and bronzed – honed anyway – and despite high confidence could not overcome The Don, finishing second in a pleasing 2:19:18. People who didn’t know me knew my name. I did overcome him in August in the Two Bridges – sounding almost apologetic when I caught him on the Forth Bridge and he told me he’d blown up. I caught Wood too and stayed with him until just before the finish where he let me in ahead of him to finish second behind Jim Wight in 3:32:04. Third at Walton-on-Thames in a Road Runners Club 30 mile track race behind Mick McGeoch and Ritchie brought the curtain down on distance running. I had a bad first leg in Edinburgh-Glasgow, AAAC seventh team – this being my final race as a Scottish domicile. Bognor Regis here we came.
At Bognor Regis College of Education I was almost adopted by Goff Hine, lecturer in PE and interested in exercise physiology, who from the beginning took an avuncular interest in my running and used me oft-times as a lab rat in physiological testing. He introduced me immediately to a young first-year PE student, Mike Gratton, of future London and Commonwealth marathon fame – I taught him all he knows. We trained together, mainly long steady runs on Sundays, for the next three years of his course, and became Brighton & Hove AC team mates. In February 1975 we were members of a four man road relay squad who took the Round Butlins race record from a team that had included David Bedford and Brendan Foster, and two others. We must have had greater depth with Dennis Dorling and Bob Pateman of whom you will not have heard..
My introduction to big English road races was the Finchley 20 in April. A four-lap hilly course, Trevor Wright winning easily, myself seventh in 1:44:55. Then the AAA marathon at Stoke in June, where I ran with the Don for the last five miles, and failed to get under 2:20 just ahead of him in fourteenth place. I also picked up a niggly groin injury which persisted throughout 1976, though I helped Brighton to a team win in the Southern Counties cross country championship in January at Parliament Hill, finishing fourth scorer in 32nd. Getting over the injury, I then fractured my ankle jumping a stile on a Boxing Day run. By February 1977 I had recuperated enough to help Bognor College win a third Butlins relay in a row – which turned out to be the finale for this fine wee event.
At some point I decided it would be a great idea to test my recovery from all the troubles by doing London-Brighton, so after second in the Sussex 10000m championship in Bognor in May I set to work knowing I had the best part of five months to get myself ready. Alternating weeks of 100 miles fairly easy and 80 miles fairly hard, alternating hard and easy days building up to two hard days and an easy day, and a regular Sunday run of 25 miles over a hilly course – I got my body, and my mind, into good fettle. Come the day I went off too fast, of course, but by the time I was dead only Ritchie could catch me and it was downhill all the way to the finish – not that that makes any difference. I nearly burst into tears when I miss a drinks station – just as well Marjory is in the car feeding me drinks every mile and a half. You don’t see the sea until you actually turn on to Brighton seafront, then the sweet relief. 5:19:47. I didn’t have a qualifying time in order to enter and was allowed entry on past form and my assurance that I was fit – I think I did OK. You used to get a bath that would have served as a sarcophagus for any self-respecting pharaoh, where you could lie and drink tea with six sugars (not stirred because you didn’t like it too sweet) and watch the tendrils of blood coil upwards from mangled toenails. And electrical activity in the muscles that would still have them gently twitching two to three days post-race. I know what to do next time I’ve got a bad injury – I’ll get ready to do London-Brighton and lose to the best ultra-distance runner on the planet. The really satisfying part was being able to carry the strength forward into the Portsmouth 5 in December to finish fifth in 25:05, “like a bounding stag” quoth an unknown Navy runner.
In May 1978 I won the Chichester-Portsmouth in 1:25:28 with a tactical move involving very narrow single lane roadworks and getting in front of a bus to keep a buffer between myself and the chasers. By the time they could start to work together to nail me I had a cushion that would not yield. At the Poly marathon in June I ran OK for third in 2:22:31. And in the Two Bridges in August I tried to run away from the field, but was caught by the irrepressible Cavin Woodward. My time of 3:26:22 was nothing if not workmanlike. And London-Brighton in September was a disaster. While leading having opened a considerable gap I was crippled with stomach cramps and diarrhoea, the pain of which, I was told later by a physiologist, would have diverted blood away from the working muscles to the area affected by pain. The strain of regularly shitting streams of cocoa behind the shelter of my support car’s open door became too much and my legs stopped working anyway. I got to about 38 miles and then called it a black day.
The 1979 Sussex 20 championship at Worthing saw a very small field set out to run the four very flat laps in misty rain and wind. At the end of the first lap I moved gently to the front to do some of the work only to see a brash Iain Beauchamp, newly elected to the British Marathon Squad, go bounding past as if to punish and belittle my temerity. His cocky gait got my goat and, acting on impulse, I took the lead again with destructive intent, hit him hard, and opening a gap quickly , kept it that way to the end in 1:48:21 – the first of my three wins in this championship. I have only hazy memories of the Isle of Wight marathon in May. My diary says that Martin Knapp won it, and that I was third in 2:25:50, the course hilly but not impossibly so. Another date with the Two Bridges saw Andy Holden win ahead of me in August, my time being 3:28:05. Then, suffering the after-effects of a heavy cold and coughing my way down the road, with piles as well, and having had a big toenail removed four days before, London-Brighton developed into a really slow drag. Despite having developed a certain callousness to fatigue, and an ability to suffer that made my mother wince, after leading for a lengthy period and trying to hold myself together calmly, my legs were not up to it and I gave in to the attacks of Allen Kirik (USA) and Martin Daykin. My 5:47 was still a disappointment – and serious intentions notwithstanding, I never returned to the Brighton road again.
In 1980 I left Brighton & Hove AC for Bognor Regis & Chichester AC and began an involvement in the Southern athletics league lasting eleven years, doubling in 1500 and 5000m. My personal highlight was being nominated Captain for the day at Ealing in 1982, and feeling morally obliged to support the team by filling spots in the 200m and steeplechase – cometh the pressure, cometh the man. I returned to the Two Bridges to record my fourth runner-up spot behind Andy Holden again – I hadn’t planned this race until we took a last-minute family holiday in Scotland and I thought I’m going to be there anyway … And 3:26:54 wasn’t bad going, I suppose. Again, despite serious intentions, that was the finale for me. To round off the year, feeling fragile, I ran SLH 30, mainly because it was there. Don Faircloth, record holder, made light work of the four laps of leafy suburb around Old Coulsdon. I got myself into a stupefied state to finish second and had to be helped back to the changing rooms – my wife on one arm, a guy called Andy (over the moon because he was helping Rab Heron to walk after a race) on the other. You needed to get out more, Andy, and I needed more mileage.
Subsequent injuries and a meniscectomy in January 1982 brought a fallow period for road running, but I did manage to win the Sussex 10000m championship barefoot on the grass track at Bishop Otter College Chichester, where I worked in the library, in 1981 and 1982. I came back to the road properly in March 1983 in the Sussex 20, now having become an open race attracting a field of four hundred plus (26 had lined up in 1979). A fevered three miles in 15:02 set the pattern for a torrid four laps. As the field gradually melted away from the front and Martin McCarthy (later to run 2:11 in London) eased away in the third lap, I put myself into the gap and prepared to die stoically. The bold leader stayed away, I stayed clear with desperate men behind me for second in 1:45:02. So to the first Dundee marathon in April 1983 – my first race in my home town since the Kingsway relays in 1974. Macgregor was rampant, I was off the pace languishing in about sixth place in the drizzle. Around twenty miles a lone wee auld wifie says “Come on Rab – Lochee’s waiting for you!” Galvanized, the surge I produced brought me up to third in 2:21:26. I would never race in Scotland again. At this point, after having trained almost exclusively alone since Mike Gratton graduated and left Bognor in 1977, I ran into, first, Trevor Swann, then later Dave Parsons, both of whom became regular training mates on thirteen to seventeen mile Sunday runs. Also, the pair of them helped immeasurably when I was really struggling to stay motivated during and after injury. Lads – you are not forgotten.
I won my third county road championship at Worthing in March 1984 – 1:44:47, a personal best behind Martin McCarthy again and again in similar circumstances. Weathering the storm of the early pace, watching them drop away, watching McCarthy go then going into the gap, defending my territory, legs caving in trying to sprint for the line. I had been experimenting with sessions on grass doing 6×5 minutes fast, 3 minutes slow, or 10×3 minutes fast, 1 minute slow as well as my usual hilly or undulating laps, which seemed to be working well. From this point on, however, I began to be trammelled by niggling groin injuries, but had two busy years. I was helped through this period by Ken Scutt, a physiotherapist who practised at the bottom of my road, keeping me going on and off for sixteen years. I ran the Gosport marathon in March 1985 at Fareham, finishing a tired third in 2:31. Winning at Worthing in September in 2:28:07 – an attack on the only hill (a railway flyover) saw me enjoy running alone for the last twelve miles. And second at Harlow in 2:22:14 in October. Back to Gosport for second in 2:26:38 in April 1986. Second on the Isle of Wight in May in 2:31:22. And, injury becoming chronic, signing off with second at Worthing in September in a painful 2:32:11. After which all engines stopped, and I began a period of trying to get well.
1988 – 1991 Restoring 50-60 miles per week
I don’t have a diary for 1987. I was directed to what was considered to be the best NHS sports injury clinic in the south at Southampton General. Other than establishing that I had many problems associated with the lower back, nothing positive was to be gleaned. Fortunately I was then to meet a young PE student at college in Chichester, Sue Lanham, herself a promising middle distance runner, who directed me towards her osteopath brother-in-law in Woking. Ron Johnston’s initial consultation pinpointed a tilted pelvis which responded well to manipulation and a lengthy period of rehabilitation. Johnston was to bring me back from the dead (his words) more than once – a larger than life wee man. By Easter 1988 I could resume jogging , gently, on grass. To ensure gentleness and restraint my wife and daughter, Emma, insisted on accompanying me for several weeks, acting as an automated braking system. By September I was able to win my first race on grass as a veteran at the Parklands races in Chichester. And more tellingly, my first road race coming back , first vet in the Portsmouth 5 in December (39th overall). At this point I began to experiment with back to back Saturday and Sunday runs of thirteen to fifteen miles, straight out of bed, running only on Maxim taken before leaving the house. This was an idea adapted from conversations with Peter Keen (to become head of British cycling, and now performance director of UK Sport) at that time a lecturer in sports sciences at college. Later, I had another idea pinched from Chris Boardman’s book on cycling involving sprinting uphill to exhaustion – the theory was rock-solid, the practice was definitely not enjoyable, and was subsequently abandoned.
I ran my only half marathon in June 1989 to further test the recovery. My attitude previously was half a marathon was only half a challenge. The Rother Valley half was run on the Graffham estate of Lord Young, who took on the starter’s role, letting off an elegant shotgun that was worth more than our family home. Fourth overall and first vet indicated that things were on the right track. The jigsaw was completed at Harlow in October, which was the only race I ever started with a clear plan. On a day of howling cool wind the plan was to stay away from the early pace, then see what could be done later. At the end of a short five mile lap the leaders were out of sight. Starting the first of two ten mile laps I was joined by Noel Thatcher, a partially-sighted paralympian, who was going to stop at fifteen miles and was happy to share the work with me. He was training to be a physiotherapist so we had a blether about injuries and I warned him about obstacles in our path – and, on a sudden, at the end of that first long lap, lo! the leaders, and the weight of the wind. Bidding Noel cheerio and thanks I crossed the gap and blended in. Other than a muttered “Where did he come from?” there was no other reaction. Sensing reluctance to change the pace on the part of the group I upped it myself into the wind, gradually reducing a group of eight to myself and two others. Up an incline, into stronger gusts, alone, two miles to go, the cycle escort says “Nobody’s going to catch you.” 2:34:06, plan works, first vet and outright winner. In the car on the way home I waited for the old familiar pains in the groin to come seeping back like they had always done three to four years earlier. They didn’t. What turned out to be my last marathon was at St Albans in December 1990. I was fifth overall, first vet in 2:30:45. I had good results from simple carbohydrate loading and using Maxim before and during the event. This knowledge was never developed in competition , until adapted for the later north-south relays. I also ran my last Southern league 5000m in June 1991 but continued with road relays with Chichester Runners (which had absorbed Bognor & Chichester AC). For example at the Southern vets at Aldershot in September 1991 I ran the first leg for the A team, followed by the fourth leg for the B team. Similarly in March 1995 at the county championships in Horsham I ran the second leg for the vets, then the second leg for the seniors forty minutes later.
1992 – 1998 Declining 30-40 miles per week
Early in 1992 word began to circulate around Bognor’s small band of mature runners that Len Jones, (now no longer with us) who had lost all three of his wives to cancer, was planning a fund-raising event for Cancer Research Campaign. A north-south relay was proposed, and at the first meeting when my previous experience was revealed my brains were extensively picked. When asked what actually running it was like I could do no better than quote the late A.J. Wood – “Good at the beginning and good at the end – a bit of a drag in the middle.” As my father had driven a support van in the second Aberdeen effort, I asked my younger brother Tom if he would like to be involved. He said yes, and was recruited as driver/reserve runner. Thus our vehicle was to be crewed by the Fabulous Heron Boys and the Krazee Gang which came together on three occasions – north-south in May 1992 reaching Land’s End in 5 days 1 hour 11 minutes – south-north in May 1995 reaching John o’ Groats in 5 days 1 hour 9 minutes – south-north-south in October 1997 finishing in 10 days 5 hours 8 minutes. Of the days in the mobile lunatic asylum I recall much pain from the recurring injuries in the pelvic area, much laughter, serious internecine warfare , and a wee brother who smiled all the time as he did half my stints as a good reserve should. The liberal use of glucose polymer powder was a major factor in recovery, and in alleviating the muscular soreness that had bedevilled Aberdeen’s JOGLEs. So liberal that we were sticking to the floor of the van as if velcroed to spilled solution.
I ran my last race at Rushmoor Arena, Aldershot, in May 1998 – my favourite relay course for the National vets’ championships. I did the fourth leg in 21:35 gaining 6 places on a day when the best anybody else could do was keep the status quo and Chichester finished thirtieth team. I met Mike Gratton and we had a wee run together around a couple of laps. We did not talk about old times. The sun shone, there were hundreds of runners about, all over forty, most of them having a really good time. I never dreamed that this would be the finale, but the thought had crept into my head as I warmed up that I was here to do a job for the lads – there were no butterflies, no buzz of anticipation, no qualms of trepidation, I was totally calm. I went out on the road and did the work for the team as efficiently as I could, not for medals or prizes but to squeeze the very best performance out of my body that could be managed on that day. And the cheering and the shouting might just have been for me. Who knows?