Glory days when North East went the distance

I HAD no idea Charlie Spedding, one of the North East’s best-ever athletes, had just overcome cancer when I talked to him about his new book.

Retired Olympic marathon runner Charlie Spedding at his Fenham home.

Called from Last to First, it details his rise from bottom of the class and last place in his first ever race at Dean Bank Junior School in Ferryhill, County Durham – despite being given a head start at the front of the field – to the podium at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics where he claimed the bronze medal.

It says much about the popularity of Charlie that he first self-published the book a couple of years and it quickly sold out, garnering huge praise for its content from critics across the country.

Spotting a good thing, London- based publishing house Aurum Press are to republish it next month to a much wider audience.

It’s not your average ‘paint-the- dots’ plod through his career, it’s as much about the philosophy that drove him on as well as the experiences he had. Honest, frank and inspirational, it offers a blueprint to how he conducted his athletics career and defined success.

As he puts it in the book, ‘Success is measured by how much I fulfil the talent I was born with’.

The thought didn’t come to him after a visit to a sports psychologist, shrink or athletics guru. Typically it came to him after missing the train to his then home in Durham, sitting in a Newcastle pub with a pencil, pad and pint close to hand. The memory is recalled in Chapter 6, The Beer Drinker’s Guide to Sports Psychology, not a chapter heading you’d expect to find in, say, Sebastian Coe’s autobiography.

Anyway, cancer. Coming to the end of a thoughtful, entertaining chat, Charlie commented: “Perhaps there’s something I should mention and I don’t know whether you want to report it or not but just last week I was given the all-clear for cancer.”

He discovered a lump in his armpit last August and immediately went for medical tests. A biopsy of the lump revealed it to be non-Hodgkin lymphomacorr - Phil, a virulent cancer which can spread rapidly if not caught quickly. Fortunately Charlie had been suitably quick out of the blocks when spotting it and now, after seven months of at times very painful chemo- therapy, he got the all-clear on March 2 after a scan.

Charlie, who now runs a pharmacy in Wallsend, North Tyneside, had a good idea what the lump was, hence the immediacy of his response. Then he applied a formula similar to the one he used when overcoming injuries and achieving track success, along the lines of ‘where am I now, what is my goal and how do I achieve it’.

As a consequence he was pretty confident he could overcome cancer. With good reason.

Despite his inauspicious introduction to running at school, matched by an initial apparent lack of academic ability, he went on to get a degree in pharmacy at what was then Sunderland Polytechnic, while his burgeoning running skills saw him join the Gateshead Harriers running club.

Even then he was forever being hit by injury, especially in his left Achilles tendon. In 1975 he almost died when he had an allergic reaction to an anaesthetic prior to surgery on that tendon.

He began by running the mile and 1500m but soon decided the longer distances were for him. Inspired by the athletes around him at Gateshead Harriers, several of them international distance runners, he committed himself to the sport.

“I just had the feeling this was what I wanted to. It was quite natural to go on from being a reasonably good teenager to international level. If all these people around me could do it, I could do it. If you’re trying to do a sport and there’s nobody around you to push you, it’s much harder to imagine you can get there.”

Charlie Spedding running

While he got an international vest aged 18 as a junior, the step up to the senior level proved a big one. It wasn’t until around 1980, aged 28, that he began to really make his mark and in 1983 he was England’s Amateur Athletics Association (AAA) 10000m champion.

In January 1984, in the run-up to the Los Angeles Olympics, he had a decision to make – to continue with the 10000m or move up to the marathon. As a test he chose to run the Houston Marathon that month his first-ever marathon – and won by the thickness of a vest. A couple of months later he took part in the London Marathon which was also the eliminator for the British team at the Olympics. He won that too. At the Los Angeles Olympics in August, after a titanic struggle, he was just beaten into third place by Irish runner John Treacy with Carlos Lopes of Portugal claiming the gold.

After the remarkable sequence of results, not surprisingly many people wondered why he hadn’t made the move up earlier. Charlie said: “I was only good at the marathon because of the effort I’d put in at 10k. It looked like I was an overnight success but it was down to all those years of effort and development.”

In 1985 he came second in the London Marathon behind Welsh athlete Steve Jones. Now, 16 years on, Charlie’s time of 2:08.33 is still the record for an English athlete over the distance and the second fastest ever by a Briton (behind Jones).

“When I first held the record I wanted nobody to beat it. Now, to be honest, I think it’s about time somebody ran faster.”

At the Seoul Olympics, despite being 36 and having a training regime hampered by injury, he finished sixth. It was the last marathon he was ever to complete.

He has three children, Joe, 22, Catherine, 21 and Charlotte, 16, from his first marriage. Charlie, now 58, lives in Fenham, Newcastle, with second wife Christina, 54, who has four children.

None of his children are following in his footsteps but is there another Charlie Spedding on the horizon?

He has been critical about the paucity of male athletics talent coming through in the distance events dominated by African runners. In the book he wryly points out the last British male runner to win the Great North Run was a Kenyon – Steve Kenyon in 1985 – while the best of the current crop of British marathon runners has a best time around five minutes slower than Charlie’s record.

Come the 2012 London Olympics it seems the British team will have to look for medals from outside the distance events, something unthinkable in the 1970s and 80s in the days of Charlie, Brendan Foster, Mike McLeod, Steve Cram, Steve Ovett and Seb Coe.

Charlie said: “I don’t know why that is. I think perhaps there aren’t as many people involved in the sport as there were. There are other opportunities now.

“Children aren’t as physically fit as they were. I don’t think children play outside as much as they did. They are taken to school rather have to get there themselves.”

However, to break the mould a would-be distance runner wanting to achieve as much as he or she can could do worse than picking up Charlie’s book for inspiration.

:: From Last To First by Charlie Spedding is published by Aurum Press, £14.99. It will be available in all good book shops next month.

Journalists

David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer