This afternoon British race-walking stages its most prestigious event for 15 years, the European Athletics Association grand prix at Leamington Spa. Don Thompson, Britain's most celebrated race-walking son, will not be there to see it. Forty years after he walked to gold for Britain at the 1960 Olympics, the sexagenarian is still going strong - and fast enough, he hopes, to complete a 24-hour race in France today.
"I've just been looking at the rules and regulations and unless you do 90km in 12 hours you get thrown off the course," a slightly concerned Thompson said before setting off in the Bar-le-Duc One Day Race south-east of Reims at 5pm yesterday. "I could be having a good race and suddenly the officials will be out in front of me, waving flags, pulling my number off and saying, 'That's your lot, Thompson'."
Whether anyone would have the heart to halt one of the heroes of the Rome Olympics is another matter.
Thompson walked into the affections of the watching world when he scuttled into the Stadio Olimpico, wearing a French legionnaire's hat and sunglasses, en route to the 50km title.
The Italians were captivated by this curious-looking little Englishman, an insur-ance clerk from Cranford in Middlesex. "Il topolino," they called him - the little mouse. They were even more intrigued when Thompson revealed that he had prepared for the heat and humidity of Rome by hauling heaters, hot water and boiling kettles into his bathroom and exercising in steaming temperatures of 100F.
It was an ingenious home-made method of acclimatisation, which was formulated after Thompson had wilted in the heat of Melbourne at the 1956 Olympics and failed to finish. It was not his only innovative method of preparation.
"I was watching the Boat Race on television the other week and they were talking about this new thing called visualisation," Thompson said. "I was thinking: 'Well, that's nothing new', because I went to the Lake District on holiday before the 1960 Olympics and I used to go walking over the hills and have glorious daydreams of myself in the 50km in Rome, visualising the whole race. It was more of a pleasant daydream than an actual exercise in 'How I'm going to win the race', but it was visualisation, I suppose."
The man ahead of his time is 67 now, a self-employed gardener living at Hythe in Kent and a veteran long-distance walker. "I've done 150 marathons, approaching 100 half-marathons and a lot of 24-hour races," Thompson said. "I wouldn't call it race walking. It's fast strolling, really."
It's still really impressive, though - for someone who was born in January 1933, a month before Bobby Robson.
Don Thompson set off for France with another 24-hour test of endurance already in mind. It could not be a more appropriate one, either, considering the Captain Barclay Millennium Challenge is being staged at Newmarket on 12 and 13 August in memory of the man who started the great British walking tradition.
It was at Newmarket in 1809 that Captain Robert Barclay-Allardice walked 1,000 miles in 1,000 hours. He drew crowds of 10,000 to a specially measured mile track on Newmarket Heath and collected a 1,000 guinea wager at the end of his marathon 42-day feat.
Not that the Captain was short of a bob or two. He was the last Laird of Urie, the Barclay family seat near Stonehaven. It was the same Barclays who became bankers, or something phonetic-ally similar in the opinion of those who lost the fight against the closure of the company's outpost operations in recent weeks.
Captain Barclay was a fighting man too. Five days after completing his Newmar-ket walk he embarked with his regiment for the Walcheren Expedition in the Napoleonic Wars. One hundred and ninety one years later, his epic walk is to be commemorated by the event bearing his name this August, organised by Ron Wallwork, who won the 20-mile walk at the 1966 Commonwealth Games in Kingston, Jamaica.
"We haven't got 42 days to stage a 1,000-hour race," Wallwork said, "so the main challenge we've set is to walk 1,000 furlongs in 24 hours - that's 125 miles."
There is likely to be another variation, too. Back in the nonisotonic days of the early 19th Century, Captain Barclay was fuelled along his way by a potent combination of pheasant and port.
Race walking has attracted many a colourful character in the wake of the ground-breaking Captain Barclay. There was George Larner, for instance, who revealed rather stark training methods after winning the 3,500m and 10-mile events at the 1908 Olympics.
"When circumstances permit, all clothing should be removed for a run round a secluded garden, especially if it is raining at the time," he advised. And he was a Brighton policeman.
Then there was Ugo Frigerio, who, prior to the Olympic 3,000m race in Antwerp in 1920, approached the band conductor in the middle of the arena and handed him several pages of sheet music which he asked to be played. Accompanied by his favourite tunes, the Italian led from start to finish, pausing briefly in the closing stages to admonish the musicians for not playing at the correct tempo.
And there was Abraham Stoker, the 6ft 2in red-bearded Dubliner who won the five-mile walk at the 1868 Civil Service Championships in London. It was a brave judge who disqualified him after the race for "lifting" - breaking contact with the ground. Abraham Stoker, civil servant and race walker, became better known as Bram Stoker, author of Dracula.Reuse content