It was our prep school cross-country, November 1947; the few of us who were serious athletes were running through the streets of Saltburn-on-Sea, back towards the school. There was me, the Robinson twins and a boy called Firth. One of them asked, Shall we walk for a bit?
Im not stopping, I replied, and I carried on and won. From that point I thought of myself as a runner, and since then Ive run eight or nine hundred races and covered 100,000 miles in racing and training.
So what have I learnt deep down in 50 years as a runner?
Enjoy your running As I was small and skinny, with no eye for a ball, running was the sport I enjoyed most. And competitive running is a challenge, a performance. You get nervous, you get scared, the adrenaline floods your body and the memories never leave you. In that first race, the others were just as good as me, maybe better, but they werent enjoying the effort. Even then, I felt that it wasnt worth doing unless I was trying my hardest.
Never give up I never doubted myself, but it was many years until I won another race. I was a slow developer, with not much natural speed. I was good at cross-country, but at the back of the school team, and I never got my colours, which rankled a bit. So I carried on running when I left school and went for my two years of national service.
When I was posted to Hong Kong, I found that there was plenty of time for sport, and the standard was so low that I could do well. I trained with renewed enthusiasm, wearing a groove around the football field, racing the trams in the streets of Shau Ki Wan. In that year, aged 19, I broke five minutes for the mile at last, although I didnt beat 60 seconds for 400m. I was second at the Minor Units Championships that gave me a real boost and then had a real breakthrough, winning the Hong Kong 5000m in a time of 16:16. This, I thought, will probably be the pinnacle of my running career.
Train with friends when you can Even so, I still felt something hadnt clicked. When I finished my national service, I joined my local athletic club in Barnstaple and started following Franz Stampfls training schedules interval training every day and at first I improved very quickly. My mile time came down to 4:36, my three miles to 14:37, and I even did 58 seconds for 440yds.
The real fun started, however, when I went to Southampton University, aged just 21, and joined the cross-country club. There, I was able to share my enthusiasm with others. There were only 10 of us in the club, and we won the UAU Team Championships twice in three years. I used to jog out to a course the day before with a can of whitewash to mark out the arrows, and on race days I would run out there and put the flags round the course, then run the race, then pick the flags back up and run back. I loved it.
My highlight at Southampton was a fifth place in the Inter-Counties three miles, where I ran a PB of 13:46, only 10 seconds behind the winner, Steve James. (This was from training no more than about 35 miles a week.)
Take your chances On the basis of that, I entered the AAA Championships, but after taking my final exams and enjoying the traditional celebrations afterwards, I wasnt expecting much from the rest of the season. However, I had paid my entry fee and I hadnt got anything else on that weekend, so I took the train to London and the tube to White City. I warmed up in my jeans and sweater, as I had lost my only tracksuit and couldnt afford another one, and I ran in bare feet.
Nineteen-fifty-nine was a low-key year no big games and the three miles lacked the big stars, Pirie, Ibbotson and Eldon. The pace was level, not too hard, so I went with it. At two miles the group was getting smaller, and I was still there. Peter Clark put in a burst and got a gap open. I went after him, and suddenly it was just the two of us. I was feeling the strain with 600 metres to go, when he said, You go on, Bruce, and waved me on. Like a scared rabbit, I ran the last lap in 60 seconds flat, clocking a PB of 13:31. I had achieved my dream of winning a British vest, and a decade of running round the world lay ahead of me.
Last month I wrote about how I came to love competitive running, and what those early years on the way to the top had taught me. Enjoy your running, never give up, train with friends, and take your chances thats what I condensed the first 12 years into. Here are the lessons I then went on to learn:
Always set yourself goals The ambitious runner runs to prove himself. For years, I had dreamed of getting an international vest, and I finally achieved that in 1959. But even though we had regular foreign matches, I found that I still had more to prove. The next goal was to make the Olympic team. Yet when I achieved that, I discovered I still had some way to go by international standards, so I set my sights on getting a medal in the next European Games. This meant increasing my training and getting used to fast races. With help, I reduced the British three-mile record and got within two seconds of the world record.
Remember, no one is unbeatable In those days, athletes from the Iron Curtain held the upper hand. The Russian number one, Bolotnikov, had broken the world 10,000m record. He was a real iron man tall, muscular, shaven-headed, reputed to run awesome distances in training. However, over 5000m I felt that I could beat him if I could hang on to him. I thought out different plans for the European 5000m to cover all eventualities; it turned out to be a slow, tactical race, and by kicking hard with 700 metres to go I was able to break open a gap and stay in front but I would not have done so had I not believed I could win, and planned to do so.
Everyone can use a coach After that, there was only one more goal the Olympic gold but here my luck ran out. In 1964, a month before the trials at the AAA Championships, I picked up measles, and the virus stayed in my system for months. Maybe this was inevitable, but years later, looking through my training diary, I saw that I had definitely overtrained. On four consecutive days, for example, Id put in: 20 x 440yds; 3 miles fartlek and 16 x 440yds; 8 x 880yds and 7 x 330yds; and 8 x 1100m. Only an athlete driven by ambition would fail to see that this was overdoing it. I didnt fully recover for months, and of course, I didnt get selected for the Olympics. This was a time when I really needed a second opinion.
Mix your training I retired from serious athletics in October 1967, equalling my PB of 13:12 for three miles in my last race. In 11 years, I had run 603 races, an average of 55 a year. In that time I had only one short period when injury stopped me from training regularly. This owes something, I think, to training a lot on grass and sand, and to running in bare feet, which strengthens the muscles of the foot. I had 12 different training activities then. They varied from 20-mile slow runs to 15 x 100m fast strides, and included fartlek, hill climbs, road repetitions (up to 5 x 2200m), weight training, running in boots and a lot of track intervals. The more you train the whole body, the less likely it is that a part of it will break down.
Accept that nothing lasts forever By the time I had finished my international career, I had become a teacher, a job thats given me 30 years of satisfaction. Over the years Ive always found new challenges running across America, teaching in Kenya, writing books and one thing has always led to another. Writing books led to writing for RUNNERS WORLD, and teaching naturally blended with coaching. I no longer have anything to prove as a competitor, but as a coach there are always new challenges.
So what does it all mean? When youre young, you should put everything into your training, and go as far as you can. If you dont try, youll never find out. When you get older, you must accept that you are not going to make any dramatic improvements. You run for personal pride, but you also run for health, for survival, and above all, for fun. Winning or losing should become less important than enjoying the moment the autumn sun, the wind on your face, and, above all, the freedom of being a runner. Whitmans words remain as true as ever:
Afoot, light-hearted, I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path leading wherever I choose.
Its time I went out.