Athletics: Magical memories of those olden Holden golden days

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The Independent Online

Buried deep among his mountain of medals, trophies and memorabilia, Jack Holden has a long-yellowed newspaper clipping dated 17 June 1951. "The Old Fox is Dead", the headline proclaims - somewhat prematurely. His marathon-running days might have come to grief on the road from Windsor to Chiswick some 53 years ago, but the Old Fox is still going strong, if a little slower these days.

"It's a funny thing," Holden says, reaching his chair with the aid of his Zimmer frame. "I had one of my little accidents only the other week and my grandson said to me, 'Well, there's one thing about it, grandad. No matter how many times you fall you never hurt yourself. You just get up again'." It was ever thus with Holden. He was the hard man of the marathon, the hard man's race. When his shoes started falling apart in the rain in the 1950 Empire Games marathon in Auckland, he tore them from his feet and ran the last nine miles barefoot. His feet were cut to ribbons by the finish. He won by four minutes and five seconds.

Holden was 42 at the time, an astonishing age to win in itself. He was 43 when he won the European title in Brussels later the same year. He finished 32 seconds clear of the Finnish runner Veikko Karvonen."I can remember Karvonen coming up to me after the race and asking me my age," Holden says. "When I told him he said, 'But you're older than my father!' "

The Old Fox chuckles at the memory. So does his daughter, Joan, and his son-in-law, Brian, with whom he lives in Papcastle, a Cumbrian village near Cockermouth, the birthplace of William Wordsworth. A Black Country man born and bred, and still bearing the delightfully distinctive brogue, Holden is two months short of his 97th birthday. He happens to be the oldest surviving winner of the Morpeth to Newcastle road race, the oldest surviving road race on the British athletics calendar, which celebrates its centenary today.

This half-marathon was first held on New Year's Day in 1904. It has been won by some of the all-time greats of British distance running: by Jim Peters, who broke the marathon world record four times in the 1950s; by Holden, Dunky Wright and Jim Alder, who all won the Commonwealth marathon title; and by Mike McLeod, the Olympic 10,000m silver medallist in 1984. The list of entrants who have finished further down the field is equally illustrious. It includes Steve Jones and Derek Ibbotson, who both broke world records (at the marathon and the mile, respectively); Ron Hill and Ian Thompson, who were both (like Holden) European and Commonwealth marathon champions; and Charlie Spedding and Tom Richards, who were both Olympic marathon medallists.

For Holden, the race down the old Great North Road holds a particularly special place. He announced his retirement after dropping out of the 1948 Olympic marathon in London but was coaxed back into training by his wife, Millie, who persuaded him to make a comeback in the 1949 "Morpeth". "The Olympic marathon was such a disappointment," he reflects. "I ought to have won that out of sight, but I bathed my feet in permanganate of potash and I overpickled them. The skin was so hard it just blistered. It was impossible for me to keep running. I had to drop out.

"The Morpeth to Newcastle was my first race after that, and the first person I bumped into was Tommy Richards, who had won the silver medal in the Olympic marathon. There was a chap standing with him and he said to us, 'Whichever one of you wins tomorrow it'll not be by much'. I said, 'I'll tell you this: I don't know who's going to win, but I'll die before anybody beats me on the road'."

The next day Holden led from start to finish, winning in a course-record time. He also won the race in 1947 and 1950. According to Jim Peters, who broke his Morpeth to Newcastle record in 1953 and who succeeded him as Britain's leading marathon man, Holden was "a ruthless runner, starting with the absolute determination to kill the opposition right from the off". It was a natural reputation, given Holden's steely Black Country roots. From Bradley, near Wolverhampton, he was one of nine children and left school at 13 to work at a foundry. He started his sporting life as a boxer before entering a three-mile handicap race staged by a publican in Wednesbury. He was given a scratch mark but had caught the other runners by halfway. "The prize was a pig, a live pig," he recalls. "I took it home and we killed it and ate it. There were nine of us. Times were hard."

Having brought home the bacon, Holden very nearly lost his amateur status before his athletics career had begun, but he joined Tipton Harriers and poured his heart and soul into his running."My background did help," he says. "My father worked at the same foundry as me, and at dinner time I'd go to the section where he worked and get a sledgehammer and smash pig iron for training."

Between 1933 and 1939 Holden smashed the opposition four times in the International Cross Country Championships, the forerunner of the World Cross Country Championships. He lost his foundry job in the Depression and, after serving in the RAF in the war, he worked as a groundsman for Palethorpe Butchers. In the evenings, he pounded the roads of Wolverhampton, Bilston and beyond, laying the foundations for a marathon career that yielded 14 victories in 17 races. "I was the first to run 100 miles a week in training," he reflects. "All at night, after I'd finished work. Jim Peters wrote to me asking for help, and I told him he had to do more and more miles. They all copied me."

When Peters caught and passed him in the 1951 Polytechnic Marathon, on the road from Windsor to Chiswick, Holden finally decided to hang up his racing shoes. "I'd made a vow to retire as soon as another British runner came along and beat me," he recalls. "I intended to keep it." As a marathon man, the Old Fox was indeed dead. As an inspiration, though, he lives on, battling through his nineties with his personal centenary in sight.

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