When someone asks me what I consider to be the best ever performances of my career my reply is that there are four ! The first is winning the National Cross-Country Championships in 1966. The other three are : 2. Winning the European Marathon Championship, Athens, 1969, on the Marathon to Athens course;
3.Winning the Boston Marathon, 1970, the first Briton to do so, in a course record time of 2:10:30, taking over 3 minutes off the old record; Running 2:09:28 to win the Commonwealth Marathon title, Edinburgh, !970.
Cross-Country running was my first love and I joined Clayton – le – Moors Harriers in 1953. I first ran the National in 1955, as a youth at RAF Cardington and was 174th out of 362 finishers. I was not disappointed, just exhausted and watched Gordon Pirie streak away from the huge field to win the Senior title. I saw him receive his winner’s medal. He was in another world. However, seven years later, 1962, I managed to finish 7th in Blackpool, a race in which my fellow Lancastrian, Gerry North outsprinted Bruce Tulloh in the last 40 metres to take the title. 1963, in Cambridge, suffering a sore throat, bad chest infection and aching limbs I could only finish 15th in a race won by Basil Heatley.
In 1964, I was 3rd in Leicester behind Mel Batty and Mike Turner but had the pleasure of beating these two in the International Championships in Dublin Where I surprised myself with second place. 1965 I got 5th place on a snowy, muddy Parliament Hill Fields in a race won by Mel Batty. The 1966 National was held on a hilly 9 mile course in Graves Park, Sheffield. In a dramatic last sprint finish after I had almost capitulated I out dipped Liverpool’s Mike Turner who had deprived me of a hat trick of wins in the Northern Counties three weeks previously.
1967, in the National at Norwich, I woke up with a sore throat and could only manage12th place but 7th Englishman as New Zealanders were running as guests. 1968 was my finest year as a cross-country runner. I won the Lancashire Championships, the Intercounties, the East Lancs. (a hotbed of international runners), the National at Sutton Coldfield from Mike Freary by 27 seconds, and, suffering a severe head cold and chest infection, was second in the International in Tunisia to Mohammed Gammoudi by a mere 1.4 seconds on his own turf.
These were my successes at the National and I was rewarded with team wins in the International each of the 6 times I ran plus Captaincy of the England Team on the last four occasions. Vast disappointment came in 1969. The National was held at Parliament Hill Fields. Three weeks before the Northern Champs were held in St. Helens. I had picked up a cold and ‘flu after a race in France the week before and my neck was stiff painful and swollen. I could only manage 11th place. I suffered for three weeks after that with illness and a sore leg. The conditions were very muddy but after the first of three laps I had got up to 6th place.
I began to lose some ground on the second lap, the hill and the mud testing whatever fitness I had. I was still 7th entering the last lap but had company. At 7.5 miles , the distance of the International race I was still 8th and theoretically in the England team but I had used up all my energy and runners began to file past leaving me 15th at the finish. No-one asked me what had gone wrong. I had to go to the presentation as Bolton United Harriers had finished third team. I waited to hear the England team announced : the first seven past the post : Tagg, Taylor, Wright, Turner, Richardson, Baxter, Freary- then incredibly Tim Johnston who had not run because he had ‘flu., Andy Holden, winner of the junior race – fair enough. Reserves G.Stevens and D.Atkin. I was disappointed I didn’t even make it as a reserve!
The National has always been a great spectacle and the sound of over a thousand runners’ feet pounding the turf is something to be experienced to be believed.
In 2011, to celebrate the 45th anniversary of my first win In the National, I “ ran” at Alton Towers. There were only 3 of us from my club Clayton Le Moors in the pen and I could remember the days when I was in Bolton United Harriers and club members fought tooth and nail to get into the team of 9 runners.
As I alluded earlier all the best individual runners were there as finishing in the first 9 was usually rewarded by a place in the English Team for the International Cross-Country Championships. The 2014 National is imminent, 22nd February at Wollaton Park, Nottingham. There is a huge entry for the Senior men. Perhaps the first 9 will be selected for a resurrected International Cross-Country Championship at the same venue on 22nd March. If I were an athlete focusing on the London Marathon 3 weeks later I would not think twice about running that International if picked.