The Brasher Interview

(from The Observer, probably in early 1981, making her born in 1948?)

Leslie Watson is a beautiful woman with a magnificent shape which is famous throughout the world of long-distance running: famous because its beauty brings a smile to all men who run with her.

She is 32 years old, 5 feet 4 inches tall, weighs 8 stone, and she has run 47 full marathons, plus two London to Brighton races (each of 54 miles 460 yards), plus one 100 kilometres race. She has even run two marathons in the same weekend. Is it any wonder, therefore, that we men who occasionally venture into the supposedly muscle-pounding, gut-wrenching realms of marathon running regard her with awe and with love?

She comes from Glasgow, from Sauchiehall Street, the only daughter of a doctor and a dancer. Her father was a university boxing Blue, her mother a professional dancer who specialised in Russian Cossack dancing. Leslie does not know why she started to run. “When I was only five, I used to arrange races with my friends after school, or after dancing classes. They always beat me so I went on and on, race after race, until eventually I outlasted someone.”

When she was ten, one of her school friends who was a member of Maryhill Harriers told her that there was a girl as slow as Leslie in the club, so she joined and thus began her athletic career. There is no doubt that she was an athletic scrubber – a scrubber being a person with little or no talent. Bruce Tulloh was a scrubber. So was I.

Scrubbers need a certain amount of luck and Leslie was lucky to find that the scrubbers of Maryhill Harriers were looked after by a P.E. teacher called John Anderson. While others trained the potential champions in the club, John made his girls work hard – so hard that complaints were made to the Scottish Women’s Athletic Association that this man was damaging the girls permanently. The damage he caused was to get three of them – Margaret Crawford, Cathy Kelly and Leslie – into the Scottish cross-country team. Leslie, at the age of 18, became the Scottish Mile Champion. And John Anderson became the Scottish National Coach.

By now she was training also to be a physiotherapist and shortly after she qualified she came down to London to take a job at St George’s Hospital, Hyde Park Corner. Six months later she resigned because she found it impossible to live, and impossible to go training, on her Health Service salary. Now she has her own practice, hard by Harley Street and Wimpole Street: an independent, successful woman.

She ran her first marathon when hot pants were fashionable. “I wore them but really I was a little too fat, so one day when I saw an advertisement for the Masters and Maidens marathon it crossed my mind that marathon running might be slimming.”

At the time she was doing some running, but no more than 20 miles per week in a good week, although she did go for one very long run of about 20 miles, very, very slowly before the Masters and Maidens “just to feel what it was like”.

That marathon would have been the end for most people. She started out far too fast, recording a personal best for five miles (29 minutes), and she was wearing light unpadded shoes which covered her feet in blisters. But she finished in 3 hours 31 minutes “knowing that I had run a stupid race and knowing that I was unfit. But it was certainly slimming!”

That marathon, the Masters and Maidens marathon, was also a landmark in the history of British sport. It was organised by a man called Alan Blatchford, the originator of challenge walks in the south of England. His events were for everybody, male or female, honoured knight or street cleaner, professional or amateur. He set a challenge and hoped that everyone who attempted it would enjoy themselves. But some athletics officials did not like this approach, and besides, it was forbidden for women athletes to run against men.

So the second time that Leslie ran in the Masters and Maidens she entered as Julie Kemp. But by now she was becoming famous in the sport as the pretty lady who always had a smile on her face and loved marathon running. And so it was inevitable that her real identity leaked out. The result: a warning that if she did it again, she would be banned from all athletics under Women’s AAA laws.

She says that people in this country seemed to be frightened of authority. “I have a Canadian friend who says that if such threats had been uttered in Canada, the whole Canadian team would have turned out in the next race and challenged the authorities to ban them all.”

But now, thanks to people like Leslie Watson and Alan Blatchford (who died, tragically, three months ago at the age of 44) sense has prevailed and women are allowed to compete with men – sometimes. Medically there was never any reason for not allowing women to run whatever distance they chose. The American College of Sports Medicine has issued a statement recommending “that females be allowed to compete at the national and international levels in the same distances in which their male counterparts compete.”

The discrimination against women was a social relic of the Victorian age, when women were regarded as the weaker sex, always having the vapours. But now there are thousands of men in Britain who have proof that women like Leslie, utterly feminine and delightful, have bodies which can outrace them and minds which never give in.

So I, who have run only one marathon, asked Leslie, who has run 47, for some advice. She said, “Don’t be put off psychologically by the distance. It’s not such a phenomenal way if you start slowly. I can remember a friend of mine, Barry, saying to me before my first marathon ‘Anyone can run a marathon – it’s just a question of at what speed.’ I agree – anyone can run a marathon if they are healthy, wear good shoes, and do a little training.”

What sort of training is she doing for the Gillette London marathon in March? “The problem about the race,” she said, “Is that it is so early in the year. I tend to use early marathons as training runs, just because I am a very lazy trainer. That’s why I would advise everybody to try some races at various distances – especially women who seem frightened of racing.”

“And as to the training itself, it is always better when you have some company. I’m now doing some speedwork with another marathon runner, Caroline Rogers, but a typical week in August this year would have been: 12 miles on Saturday, 20 miles on Sunday, 6 miles on Monday, nothing on Tuesday, an easy 9 miles on Wednesday, 12 miles on Thursday, and 6 miles on Friday. Mark you, that’s about the best week I’ve ever done – 65 miles.”

“The basis of my training is to try to concentrate on two long runs – one on Sunday of 20 miles or over, and one on Thursday of up to 15. But I wouldn’t recommend that to anybody who is only doing 20 miles a week at present. Gently, gently does it, and never get put off by the thought of the distance.”