Out in the Persian Gulf in Doha, they are getting ready to launch a new era for track and field this coming Friday with the first of the IAAF's series of Diamond League meetings. Up in the north-east of England, meanwhile, as another top-level outdoor track season gets underway, they have an enduring gem by the name of Jim Alder.
He was called "Geronimo Jim" in his heyday. An orphan from the Glasgow Gorbals who settled at Morpeth in Northumberland, he was one of Britain's distance-running greats in the 1960s – a hard-school marathon man who could have been drawn from the same pen as Alf Tupper, the comic-book hero known as "The Tough of the Track". Tupper would put in a full day's shift as a welder in the northern town of Greystones before hitching a lift to London and beating a southern toff in a big race at the White City, shouting "I've run 'em" as he sprinted to victory. Alder worked as a bricklayer and would cry out "Geronimo" whenever he crossed the finish line to win a race.
A month short of his 70th birthday, Geronimo Jim can still be found laying bricks, for the building company he runs in Morpeth. His name can still be found in the world-record section of the International Track and Field Annual – in the list marked "Long Distance World Track Bests". The furthest distance ever covered in a two-hour track race, 37.994km (23.608 miles) was achieved by Alder on 17 October 1964, wearing a pair of Dunlop Red Flash trainers, at an ash track at Walton-on-Thames. It was the day after Harold Wilson's Labour party sneaked into power by four seats, ending 13 years of Tory rule.
After 45 years and seven months in the record books, the veteran Morpeth Harrier has bittersweet memories of his finest two hours. Alder only ran in the Road Runners' Club event because he had been left at home as a non-travelling reserve for the marathon at the Tokyo Olympics. "I cried in the showers afterwards," he recalls. "I'm not saying I would have won a medal in Tokyo but you only have these purple-patch days three or four times in your career and I'd had one – running at world-record marathon pace for two hours on an ash track at Walton – while the Olympic marathon was taking place in Tokyo. I'd got my timing wrong."
It was very nearly a similar story in the Commonwealth Games marathon in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1966. Alder arrived at the stadium in the lead but found no officials to guide him into the arena, thanks to an impromptu visit by the Duke of Edinburgh. When he finally made it on to the track, the native Scot found England's Bill Adcocks some 50 yards ahead of him with 300 yards left. A lesser soul would have buckled. Alder merely put his head down, went for the line – and won, bellowing "Geronimo" as he breasted the tape ahead of his rival.
In 30 years of covering the athletics beat, one of the most treasured memories is of visiting Geronimo Jim on the 25th anniversary of his world record, persuading him to put on an old cine film of that 1966 Commonwealth marathon, and watching him shriek like an Apache as the dramatic denouement unfolded. "Go on, my son, you can do it," he screamed, leaping to his feet on his sofa as he started to chase down Adcocks on the screen. At the moment of triumph, he leapt on to the floor in celebration, whooping his victory cry.
The old warrior only jogs the occasional mile these days. "My pulse-rate is 39 but I have a problem with my heart racing straight up to 160 when I exercise," Alder says. "I might need a pacemaker to regulate it." Still, he remains an inspiration to all – not least the group of budding distance runners he coaches at Morpeth Harriers.
"Do you know," he ponders, "if I was a top British distance runner today, it would really irk me that a 70-year-old man sitting up in Morpeth has still got a world record. I know they seldom run two-hour races now but it's still a record. It would be great if somebody could put up a prize and some of the top Britons had a go at it. I'd love to see somebody else get it. I've had my day."