I can’t remember when I discovered that I could run fast, but once I did, so did others. It was not before I went to England in 1961, and it was clearly before I left primary school in 1966. A friend from those days, whose daughter contacted me on Facebook a dozen years ago, reminded me of some highlights: “You was (sic) a great runner. I remember you running at White City Stadium; we were all cheering you on; of course, you won.” There you have it.
I was a sprinter, and most of my running life was doing nothing longer than 100 yards (and later 100 metres). My speed on the track would later come good too on the football field, but I was asked to be a midfielder in my primary school days (playing #6, left half (back), as it was then): ‘Midfielders (originally called half-backs) are players whose position of play is midway between the attacking forwards and the defenders. Their main duties are to maintain possession of the ball, taking the ball from defenders and feeding it to the strikers, as well as dispossessing opposing players.‘
Funnily, it was perhaps my speed of recovery that my coach exploited, as I remember we had some pretty good forwards back then. (I reverted to that role as my career went into my late-30s and 40s, and even played sweeper in the team where I was player-coach–about which I will probably write soon). One of my idols in that positon was a Scottish player, Dave Mackey, who played for Tottenham Hotspur, and became famous for an iconic incident with another (wee) Scot, Billy Bremner (Leeds United) on the first day of the 1966 season, where they had a to-do:
That was never me, but I channeled a lot of the inner ‘Don’t mess wi me, wee laddie!’ mentality as a forward who would give it to you rather than just take it.
But, back to running. Let’s get a few things straight: my days of bragging about my prowess are long gone, though it was fun to outrun my children for many years, but I now suffer with sore knees, and had I known then what I know now… 🙂 However, I do have some significant awards in my history. My family are supposed to treasure those into perpetuity.
I’d love to take a time machine back to the 1960s-1970s to take a few pictures of me running, because there are none that I have ever seen; it wasn’t much of a thing back then, though I have a vague recollection of being featured in Athletics Weekly once as a youth, probably in print rather than with pictures. (Searching their archives a few years back turned up nothing.) So, you have to imagine me running to the line like these international athletes, back in the 1960s, straining for the tape, head back. For the longest while, I had few recollections of losing races, and was a start-to-finish winner, most times.
But, the joy of running and winning was tempered by the conditions: hard cinder tracks, or soggy tracks if it had rained heavily; spikes that were fixed and often caked with that broken-up brick. Please do not fall in your lunge for the tape, as it could put you out of action for some time. I learned that from playing football on the same surface during my primary school years.
It’s funny how White City features in my history as it was the premier international standard track in London until the Crystal Palace was built. Its association with my football team, Queens Park Rangers, is separate but interesting. But, sadly, I can find nothing tangible from those days. 😦
When I went to grammar school, the major inter-school events were also held at White City for my early years, and the school also had a lot of events at Parliament Hill Fields, near Maida Vale (which, again, oddly, has found its way back into my current life). My grammar school had its playing fields in Mitcham, south London, and that’s where we would train, on grass, or run cross-country on Mitcham Common whenever the weather was too bad for athletics (in the Spring/Summer) or football (in the Autumn/Winter). But, I was good at cross-country and often placed in those races–odd for a sprinter, in those days (more on that, shortly).
But, I was a star in west and north London. My star hit its high point, though, at Crystal Palace in 1969. The stadium had been opened in 1964, on land where there was once a football ground (record attendance had been a massive 100,000+). This was something, else:
Well, I got to grace the track in the annual London Schools Athletics Championships, representing my school and myself. I was nervous as a kitten–unusual, for me–but, I made it through to the 100 metres finals, easily. Fortunately, for me, my main rival over the years, a boy named Roy Evans (from Dominica, taller and stronger than me) was running the 200 metres, where he was the favourite (as far as I could recall). I was fancied, but… My parents were in the stands, watching me run for the first time ever, with seats along the home straight. Cut to the chase: I won in what was then a championship record time. Thrilled? Wet my pants, thrilled. After grabbing the tape, which was real, not electronic in those days, I went to find my parents. My father was dead calm, as I recall, but my mother couldn’t stop herself saying and screaming “Bway, yu can run! Weh yu get datde speed from?”
After that, I was feted and hailed at school assembly for bringing it success; we’d had a few champions, but each got their accolades. I was then due to represent London in the All-England Championships, but as I’ve already written what happened with that (and Roy) is in my box of regrets.
I had been recruited to run for Hillingdon Atheletic Club by then, and that club had its share of stars to whom I could look up to, including David Hemery (who had won the 1968 Mexico Olympics 400 metres hurdles, with a world record time). This was the stuff of dreams to have him on the track, alongside me training.
The club had other internationals in the senior squad and going to meets and competing with them as juniors and sometimes seniors was a true apprenticeship.
To put my efforts into context: Champs is big business in Jamaica, which now has 2.8 million people. London then had a population of 8 million; so I was competing in a world three-times the size of Champs 🙂
That was my biggest schools event victory. I ran in county and regional events for my club and snagged honours, there, too. I soon realized, however, that the short sprint competition was too fierce. I moved to 200 metres, but was never too hot off the bend. My coach, then said, try the 400 metres: the training was brutal and I hated him to my core for that suggestion. Then, I won my first major race over the distance in the Middlesex County Championships, running a tactically awful race that saw me last off the final turn and somehow, lactic acid build-up was delayed and my flat speed saw me to the tape first as others seemed to tread water (I’d later live that feeling, too 😦 ). That’s it! I was officially a 400 metres runner. I took a 3rd place in that event in the schools senior event before I left grammar school.
But, again, my cohort of 400 metres runners nationally included the likes of Steve Ovett and Sebastian Coe, both of whom were great sprinters before they moved to middle distance. Once I was beaten by Ovett in the National Juniors over 400 metres (he’d won the English Schools Junior at 15 in 1970), I knew the writing was on the wall. Several Olympics and World Championships and World Records later from them and I knew I had read the tea leaves correctly.
I gracefully bowed out of serious track just before university, though I dabbled a bit in my first year, but I was not in really good shape for sprinting and had dedicated myself to football–which I was playing at university. So, as they say, I hung up my spikes. I had had a good run, literally. 🙂