The Journal today launches a feature examining some of the unheralded moments that shaped the modern North East sporting landscape. Mark Douglas looks back to the day, 40 years ago this August, when Brendan Foster emerged to become a genuinely world-class long-distance runner
THE look of pain etched on Brendan Foster’s face is the first thing you notice.
A long way from his nearest competitor, Foster is a man on his own, entirely engrossed in a private battle against the clock. His legs are pumping and the trademark sideburns flapping the in the summer breeze. Then you hear the crowd: a wave of emotion lapping around the grandstands as the Hebburn man digs in for one last shot at immortality.
But this is not Foster’s iconic 3,000 metre run at Gateshead, a memory that is 39 years old. It is the year before when he stepped into world-class company for the first time by smashing Lasse Viren’s two-mile record at Crystal Palace.
It is less celebrated but no less important for it. The Foster legend is deeply engrained in the North East sporting conscious, but his epic run in London in the summer of 1973 is well worth re-evaluating as it hits its 40-year anniversary.
“I wish my legs felt like it was yesterday!” Foster tells The Journal after a bit of prompting.
“That was a long time ago but yes, it was a turning point. It was when things started to come to fruition over that longer distance. That was Crystal Palace – there was then Gateshead the following year, which is 40 years next year.
“It’s probably not the one that people would automatically think of when they think of what I managed to do during my athletics career, but it was an important one and I do remember what a hard run it was. The crowd really helped me on.
“It was a world record, it was a fantastic day for me. It’s what it was all about really, I had been training really hard to be the best I could be and to have that world record mark is always a really, really big moment for any athlete.”
It was also the record that came very much against the odds for the Hebburn-born runner, who had taken a conscious decision to abandon the middle distance runs after a fifth-placed finish at the Munich Olympics in 1972.
He was already famous and celebrated in the North East by then, of course. But the summer of 1973, when no major competition was taking place, gave him a unique opportunity to make his mark at a world level.
The two-mile mark is less commonly run over these days, but back then the competition was fierce. Finnish great Viren had broken the record in Stockholm in 8mins 14seconds but Foster, who had been working hard over the winter, wanted to take a run at it – and force the world to take notice in the process.
The portents were not good, though. Foster could not persuade any world-class mile runners to join the field to keep the pace for him so had to turn to a 1,500m runner and a Briton who competed at the steeplechase. For the first mile, Foster was able to sit in behind one of them – Tony Simmons of Luton. He made fantastic pace over a mile before dropping off to leave Foster needing to dig deep into his own reserves of mental and physical fortitude.
“When you’re running for a fast time or a world record you are, by definition, going up against yourself, and I was that day,” he recalls.
“It was a case of running as hard as I could, concentrating as hard as I could and in some areas getting support from the crowd. The roar from the crowd that day helped, if I remember.” The pain on Foster’s face as he edges towards the line is clear, and for half-an-hour it was to feel even more numb.
The time was given as 8minutes 14.2seconds – 19.2 seconds ahead of nearest rival Chris Stewart but an agonising two hundredths of a second off Viren’s time. Foster had missed the mark, and bemoaned as much to reporters. “It’s a lost world record,” he had said.
Salvation arrived 30 minutes later when electronic photography technology was re-studied. 8minutes 13.8seconds was given as the time – a new world record. “That is great – I did not think I’d done it,” Foster said. Back home, it was vindication for a region justifiably proud of Foster. The Journal asked Morpeth’s world-class distance runner Jim Alder to pen a few reflections on the achievement.
His summary is fascinating: “For Foster, this is one of life’s great moments.
“The realisation that no person has ever run faster over this distance takes time to sink in, long after the race had finished.
“Brendan is far more talented than I, and to have knocked no less than nine full seconds off Ian Stewart’s British record, with a virtual time trial, hints at form that is yet untapped, and in Brendan Foster the North East has a man every bit as capable of accumulating records as the legendary Australian Ron Clarke, who amassed well over a dozen record between 1963 and 1970.”
Unbelievably, Foster has never re-watched the race. It is actually on YouTube if you search for it – and it’s well worth a look for anyone curious enough in a piece of largely forgotten North East sporting history.
“I suppose one day, in my old age, I might get a tape of it out and actually have a look at it,” he said.
“I believe in looking forward rather than back, I’ve always done that in my athletics career and I still do now. But yeah, it stood for five years so it wasn’t that bad.”
A year on Foster was to electrify the North East again in a race that everyone remembers. It is 40 years since he broke the 3,000m record and when reminded, there is a gleam in his eye.
“Do you know I hadn’t thought about it. Maybe I should have a think about doing something to mark it,” he said.