British men just cannot go the distance, says Spedding

Awful record will be shown up in today's Great North Run.
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The Independent Online

There are so many wonderful lines in Charlie Spedding's autobiography, he probably didn't need to wheel out the one about the last British winner of the Great North Run being a Kenyon.

In any case, it is becoming rather hackneyed now and it is likely to be some time yet before someone will pop up at the front of the world's biggest half-marathon to stop us harking back to 1985, the year Steve Kenyon of Salford Harriers provided the last British men's success.

It is also likely to be quite a while before a British distance runner emerges with quite as masterful command of the full-marathon distance that Spedding had. The bronze he won in Los Angeles in 1984 remains the only medal gained by a Briton from an Olympic marathon since 1964. How he came to earn it, aged 32, is an inspirational tale brilliantly told within the pages of From First To Last, Spedding's self-written, self-published autobiography. UK Athletics ought to buy a job lot and give a copy to every aspiring young distance runner.

Come to think of it, any athlete could not fail to benefit from the wisdom, insight and sheer inspiration to be gleaned from the story of the County Durham lad who finished last in his first race, on school sports day, who almost died when an Achilles tendon operation went badly wrong in 1975, and who spent several years on the international fringes before an epiphany moment over a beer in a Newcastle pub transformed his thinking and helped him become an Olympic bronze medallist, a London Marathon winner (also in 1984) and England's fastest ever marathon runner – the 2hr 8min 33sec he clocked in the 1985 London Marathon remains unbeaten and stands second on the British all-time list behind the 2:07.13 of Welshman Steve Jones.

Now 57 and running a pharmacy at Wallsend on Tyneside, Spedding also tells in his book of how a school-mate called Tony Blair (yes, that one) used to bend the rules in break-time football and recounts a visit he made as a guest speaker to a local psychiatric hospital that might have been drawn from the script of One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest. Inevitably, he also considers the sharp decline of British distance running, which will doubtless be underlined again today by another mass of Kenyans and Ethiopians at the sharp end of the Great North Run.

"There's not one straightforward, simple answer," Spedding says. "There are several factors, one being one that is often discussed outside of athletics, about children not being anywhere near as active as they were 40 or 50 years ago. Also, when I was at school and got interested in running, I joined the local club and went along to the local road races and was amazed at how fast and fit the men were and I wanted to be like that. Teenagers in the same situation now see people running the big road races either in fancy dress or they're trying to lose weight, and it's just not seen as a serious sport. It's just not seen as a cool thing for teenagers to be involved in. And I think that's a major problem."

Certainly, while the number of fun runners in British road races continues to boom, the numbers of high-class – let alone world-class – male British distance runners is in steep decline. In 1984, there were 75 sub-2hr 20min British marathon runners. In 2009, there are just five. The fastest is Andi Jones with 2hr 15min 20sec, good enough for 321st place in the world rankings, behind 169 Kenyans.

"That's not just a good year and a bad year," Spedding says. "That is a complete change in the sport. I think it'll be quite embarrassing come the 2012 Olympics to not have any British competitors in the men's distance-running events.

"The women are doing better because they have Paula Radcliffe and Kelly Holmes as recent world- beating role models, but among the men there's nobody to aspire to and it's going to take something exceptional to turn that around. But I think we should try."

The best of the British men should certainly try a drop of Charlie Spedding's inspiration. Like a pint in a Newcastle pub, it could go an awful long way.

'From First To Last' by Charlie Spedding (CS Books, £8.99) is available from