Athletics: Great north runners follow trail of history

Simon Turnbull finds Morpeth has a place reserved in athletics' heart
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THE RACE to stage the first major athletics event of the new millennium will be won by the sport's governing body. The International Amateur Athletic Federation Rome Millennium Marathon starts with the blessing of the Pope in St Peter's Square 30 minutes after midnight on Saturday. It will feature a world-class field, with Tegla Loroupe, holder of the women's marathon world record, among the entrants. It will not, though, be the first sporting fixture of the 21st Century.

As the new year dawns in New Zealand ahead of European time, that distinction will be shared by a Millennium Marathon in Hamilton and a caber-tossing competition in Waipu which is being billed as the first world championship sports event of the third millennium. For history and tradition, however, none of the high- profile sporting happenings around the globe can equal the race in the North-east of England that will start - as it has by tradition for almost a century now - at 1pm on the first day of the first month of the new year.

The Morpeth to Newcastle Road Race has been an annual fixture since 1 January, 1904, though its roots can be traced back to the middle of the 19th Century and one of the forgotten heroes of pedestrianism, as racing for wagers was rather misleadingly known.

Jimmy Rowan, who raced under the sobriquet The Little Black Callant, because of his slightness of build (5ft 4in, 7st 8lb) and the colour of his costume, won the world 10-mile championship in 1858. He died six years later, at the age of 28, from the combined effects of tuberculosis and alcoholism.

He was buried in an unmarked pauper's grave in Gateshead but the memory of his running deeds lived on. At the turn of the century, when Newcastle Harriers decided on a route for their annual end-of-year club race, they chose, as the Newcastle Journal recorded, "the same track on which the great Jimmy Rowan was wont to train".

That club contest, held on the turnpike road between Morpeth and Newcastle, evolved into the Morpeth to Newcastle open road race. And over the past 96 years some of the all-time greats of long-distance running have first- footed down the Great North Road, on a course that was extended from the original 13.65 miles to the present 14.1 miles to allow the runners to finish at Newcastle Civic Centre.

"When you think of the people who have run the race, it's like a who's who of distance running," Jim Alder mused. Alder himself, winner of the Commonwealth Games marathon in 1966 and holder of the world two hours record since 1964, won the race five times. Other names inscribed on the Journal Trophy include those of Duncan McLeod-Wright, the Scot who won the inaugural Commonwealth Games marathon in 1930, Jack Holden, the Wolverhampton groundsman who won the Commonwealth and European marathon titles in his forties, Jim Peters, who transformed the marathon in the 1950s, and Mike McLeod, the Tyneside runner who won the Olympic 10,000m silver medal in 1984.

As an orphan from the Glasgow Gorbals brought up by a Morpeth family, Alder was inspired to take up running by the sight of the plimsolled Peters smashing Holden's course record by four minutes in 1953 (with a time of 67min 6sec).

"He was ahead of his time, that man," Alder, now 59 and a member of the race committee, reflected. "A hell of a bloke."

That Alder himself happens to be one hell of a bloke was confirmed beyond doubt on 11 August, 1966. That was the morning he lost the lead in the Commonwealth Games marathon when he arrived at Kingston Stadium in Jamaica to discover the stewards had abandoned their positions to greet the Duke of Edinburgh. He took a wrong turn in the car park and was eventually pointed in the right direction by one of the Scottish team officials, though he still had to overtake Bill Adcocks on the track before regaining the lead and claiming his famous, dramatic victory. The official was Duncan McLeod-Wright - or Dunky Wright, as he preferred to be known in later life.

"Yeah, it was Dunky who put me right that day," Alder said. "He won the Morpeth six times and he always used to say to me, `You'll no' get my record'. He was right. I won it five times. So did Mike McLeod. No one else has won six."

Alder has, however, had a hand in four other victories. As a coach with Morpeth Harriers, he has guided Mark and Ian Hudspith to two victories each. The Hudspith brothers will be in the 1,000-strong field next Saturday, as will Jill Boltz, who, under her maiden name, Hunter, set world-best times for 10 miles and 15km.

"It's great to see the entries up," Alder said, "because the race nearly folded two years ago. If it hadn't been for our sponsors, Lite-On, we wouldn't have made it to the new millennium, but hopefully we've turned the corner now. It really is a unique race - not just because of the runners who have won it. The list of people who have run it and failed to win is awesome too."

It is indeed, including as it does three men who have achieved the European and Commonwealth marathon double (Ron Hill, Ian Thompson and Brian Kilby), two men who have won Olympic marathon silver medals (Charlie Spedding and Tom Richards) and two men who have broken world records (Derek Ibbotson and Steve Jones). The 999 new millennium also-rans on the road from Morpeth to Newcastle could hardly be following in more famous footsteps.