The Birth of the Scottish Marathon Club

The April 1984 issue of the Magazine contained an article with the above title by Alistair McFarlane and the story is indeed a fascinating one.   Although the two main figures in the club were Dunky Wright and Jimmy Scott there were others as will become apparent.   Now, on to Alistair’s story.

“This year sees the fortieth anniversary of the founding of the Scottish Marathon Club so it is perhaps an opportune time to recount the story of the birth of the club.   The SMC has grown numerically from a handful of enthusiasts in 1944 to around 500 members at the present time and I am sure that many newcomers will be interested to hear of the environment in which the club was conceived and the problems of being a distance runner during the War. This article has been based on one written by John Softley in 1978 and on more recent material supplied by founder member Alex McDonald.

But first let’s hear how the late Joe Walker remembered the early days as he wrote in 1978 – ‘the first meeting of the Scottish Marathon Club was held on 14th February 1944 in the Central Halls, Bath Street, Glasgow.   My recollection of the important occasion was that I travelled by train from Stirling to Glasgow and because of the war, the black out restrictions and the dim light in the railway carriage it was impossible to read.   Travelling in the evening from places outside Glasgow was difficult and this affected the attendance.   There was no difficulty in deciding to form a club but there was considerable discussion of the conditions of membership.   It was finally agreed that all applications for membership must be first claim members of other clubs and must have experience of running in road races over 10 miles. The objective of the club was very quickly decided – to foster marathon running throughout Scotland – thus the name of the club followed logically – the Scottish Marathon Club as against the Scottish Road Runners Club.   As a consequence of the club’s objective it followed that the club would bring pressure to bear on the SAAA to organise a Scottish Championship Marathon Race.   This was done when the first of the annual championship races was held in 1946 from Falkirk to Old Meadowbank, Edinburgh.   The race was won by Donald MacNab Robertson (Maryhill Harriers) with a time of 2: 46:02.   At the first meeting of the Marathon Club Duncan McLeod Wright, Maryhill Harriers was appointed Chairman and Roddy Devon,  Motherwell YMCA, Secretary and all others present were members of the Committee.   Unfortunately the Minutes of the very early meetings of the club no longer exist nevertheless they would not tell of the background to the club’s formation, something which I hope will interest younger members.   Duncan McLeod Wright, one of Britain’s outstanding marathon runners, competitor at the 1924, 1928 and 1932 Olympic Games (finishing fourth at the latter Games), winner of the first Empire Games Marathon in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, in 1930, won one of the qualifying marathon races  to be used for selection for the 1936 Olympic Games and was advised that it would not be necessary to compete in any of the other selection races to gain his place in the British team.   Because of his age he decided to retire from competitive athletics.

When the Second World War began in 1939 he was appointed Sports Officer to a Home Guard Battalion and as a consequence became interested in keeping himself fit.   One of the ways of doing this was to gather together persons who were interested in cross country running in the winter and road running in the summer.   The enthusiasts for road running came from all over the West of Scotland and muster runs were held in Glasgow, Stirling, Greenock, West Kilbride, etc.   From his business contacts he knew many persons responsible for campaigns to collect savings for the war effort in different parts of the country and he was able to coax the organisers of these campaigns to have a road race incorporated into their publicity arrangements.   eg Stirling, Hamilton, Bridge of Allan or encourage sports promoters to incorporate a road race in their Sports Programme.   eg Shotts, Lennoxtown, Kilbarchan, Milngavie and Port Glasgow  or help to have road races such as Perth to Dundee revived.

The heavy programme of muster runs  and races each year soon wore out the soles of our sandshoes (gym shoes) which were the athlete’s normal footwear.   The replacement of these shoes required the purchase of new ones but the biggest problem was that one was required to surrended in addition clothing coupons.   Each person’s annual supply of clothing coupons was very limited and it was difficult to spread them over the normal clothing requirements without having to allocate some for additional needs.   As the War wore on it became more and more difficult for each athlete to allocate coupons for sandshoes and thus road running would soon have ceased for the duration of the War.   However Duncan managed to obtain for us replacements for our worn out sandshoes – the standard issue having brown canvas uppers with a very thin rubber or composite sole and heel.   To protect the heel Jimmy McNamara who was the oldest member of the group and a full time member of the A.R.P. obtained a supply of the pads used to reinforce the worn by Fire Brigade personnel.   The pads had to be amply smeared with vaseline otherwise the friction between the heel and the pad generated so much heat that the heel became badly blistered and if the blister burst the material of the pad adhered to the skin with very painful results.

From the foregoing it can be readily appreciated that the friendship which existed amongst the group of road running enthusiasts during the War years had naturally a desire to form a club which would enable road runners of the future to have the same kind of friendship.   As you will have gathered the late Dunky Wright was a man much admired by all and Alex McDonald takes up the story in the same vein….”there is no doubt that the resuscitation of athletics in Scotland in the middle war years was due to the dynamic enthusiasm and drive of the one and only Dunky Wright.   In 1943 he chaired a meeting to be called in Glasgow for representatives from all clubs which were still operative in the Midland and South Western Districts and, as a result, the ‘temporary’ Scottish Cross Country Association was ‘constitutionally’ formed.   ‘Temporary’ because it had pledged itself to disband as soon as the SAAA and NCCU resumed command and ‘constitutionally’ because its chief constitutional aim was to present Scottish Athletics in a healthy a state as possible to the post war era.   Perhaps the most positive indication of its success lies in the fact that in 1946 Scotland was in a position to host the first post war international cross country championships at Ayr Racecourse.

Let me make it clear that the SCCA did not of itself give birth to the Scottish Marathon Club but it was the members of that Association – again with Duncan Wright in the driving seat – who created the SMC on February 14th, 1944.   The first muster run was held from Pollokshaws Baths on 7th April 1944 and the second from Auchmountain Harriers’ (my club) pavilion in Greenock on 28th April 1944.

When I joined Auchmountain Harriers aged 17 in the 1929/1930 cross country season the ‘old timers’ of the club declared that if a runner trained oftener than three times a week he was in grave danger of going ‘stale’.    This theory had of course been exploded in the outer world and Dunky Wright was I think the first Scottish disciple of Paavo Nurmi who pioneered fast even paced running and more – much more – concentrated training but only the great ambitious enthusiasts imbibed in that practice at that time.

During the War most of us were fortunate if we could indulge in three training sessions a week and many were too tired by overtime working to attempt it.   After the War of course the Zatopek standards of dedicated perpetual slogging, the individual study of body building for the job in hand and of artificial film loops with sensible diets, etc, etc became musts for the ambitious athlete whose twice a day, six days a week training became commonplace.

One wonders what one missed?   In ’33 aged 20 I ran 10 miles at Hampden under 55 minutes, took half a minute off that in ’38 and was only 20 seconds slower in ’46.   What might I have done with today’s training and knowledge?

But I thoroughly enjoyed it all the way and met a host of great guys like Duncan Wright, Jim Morton, Joe Walker, Roddy Devon, Jimmy Scott, George Pickering, Jimmy McNamara, Andy Blair to name but a few.   Friendships such as these are far richer prizes than things that glitter.   It would have been nice to have climbed some higher mountains but the Scottish Marathon Club was – and I know still is – as great a friendship club as it is an athletic club and long may it continue that way!