London Marathon: Two decades on, Spedding can't believe he is still the speediest

So where does a retired master of the marathon go, after crossing the final finishing line and hanging up his shoes? To Wallsend, naturally.

So where does a retired master of the marathon go, after crossing the final finishing line and hanging up his shoes? To Wallsend, naturally. Charlie Spedding runs a pharmacy there, in the Tyneside town at the end of the wall that Hadrian's Roman legions built across the far north of England. Not that the Gateshead Harrier ever encountered the marathon foot-soldier's "wall", the point at which the body runs out of glycogen and starts to feel, and act, like one of those toy bunnies with its batteries fully drained.

Spedding strode to victory in the London Marathon in 1984, won a bronze medal in the Olympic marathon in Los Angeles later the same year, and in the London race of 1985 set an English record as runner-up to the Welshman Steve Jones. The record he set that day, 2hr 8min 33sec, still stands 20 years later.

Jones, the British record-holder, has settled in the United States, so Spedding - as well as being the fastest Englishman of all time - can claim to be the fastest marathon man resident in Britain, too. He also happens to be the last British winner of a marathon medal in a global championship - the Olympic Games or the World Championships. He is the only Briton to have done so, in fact, since Basil Heatley took Olympic silver behind Abebe Bikila in Tokyo in 1964.

Now 52, and back in London to work as a summariser for BBC Radio Five Live on the 2005 Flora London Marathon today, the softly spoken, affably self-effacing Spedding is more bemused and saddened about his lasting place in the record books than he is proud of it.

"I can't believe that the English record still stands," he said, before joining fellow London Marathon winners at a celebratory reunion ahead of the 25th running of the race. "I find it amazing that there are very few people even getting near to it. The marathon itself has moved on a long way - Steve Jones and myself ran 2hr 8min that day, and people are now running 2hr 4min - and yet British runners aren't running as fast as we did 20 years ago. I really do find that amazing. There are a variety of reasons for it. If you wanted to go into what's wrong with British distance-running, you could fill a whole paper."

One crucial factor is the absence of the kind of thriving distance-running group that was central to Spedding's long graduation from runner-up in the English Schools' 1500 metres as a 19-year-old to debutant marathon winner in Houston at the age of 31. His training partners in a stable of thoroughbreds at Gateshead Harriers included Brendan Foster, the Olympic 10,000m bronze medallist who will be behind the BBC television mike on marathon duty today, and Lindsay Dunn, who became Spedding's trusted adviser during a running career in which he was ostensibly self-coached.

It took 11 years of patient graft, most of it in the company of the Gateshead group, for Spedding to break through at world level, initially as a 10,000m track runner, finishing fourth in the Commonwealth Games in 1982. It might have been very different, though.

Back in 1976, when he was on the international fringes as a 5,000m man, Spedding had a frighteningly close brush with death. In hospital for a routine Achilles tendon operation, he suffered an allergic reaction to drugs given to him in the preparatory anaesthetising process and went into anaphylactic shock. He awoke on the operating table to find his face swollen, his eyes closed shut, and to hear a room full of deeply concerned medical staff.

"I heard someone come rushing in saying, 'What have you given him?' and this other person reeling off a list of medicine," he said, smiling at the memory now. "I was just a couple of years out of my pharmacy degree and I thought, 'Oh, that's the standard procedure for anaphylactic shock'.

"I knew that if you had a fully blown anaphylactic shock you would die, but instead of panicking I actually felt better, because, having woken up and not known what was going on, I worked out what was happening. Fortunately, the anaesthetist spotted what was happening to me quickly enough. He came to see me a few days later and said, 'If I hadn't noticed for another 30 seconds, 45 seconds, it might have been too late'. So, yeah, I nearly died, but I didn't. I was fine when I recovered."

Spedding recovered from another Achilles operation that went wrong and almost killed his running career to finish narrowly out of the medals in sixth place at the Seoul Olympics in 1988. It was the last marathon he completed.

These days he runs two or three times a week, but is too busy with family life, living with his wife and three children on the outskirts of Newcastle, and with his pharmacy in Wallsend, to be more actively involved in athletics. It is a pity for the sport, because there are few shrewder cookies in the distance-running world than Spedding - as Five Live's audience will discover today.

The London men's winner of 1984 is confident that Paula Radcliffe will emerge as a British winner in the women's race of 2005, though he is not so sure about the impact of a third marathon in eight months upon the long-term future of the world record-holder. "You can only go to the well so many times, and running the marathon really is going to the well," Spedding pondered. "Even if you are the best in the world, it takes an awful lot out of you. And I just worry that running another one now is maybe just diminishing Paula's chances of making sure she wins gold in a major championship."

Spedding's old rival, Steve Jones, held the men's world record but never won a major championship medal in the marathon. He was, however, wise enough to take Spedding's advice four miles from the finish of that memorable 1985 race in London. "We were hammering away at the front," Spedding reflected, "and right out of the blue Steve turned to me and said, 'Charlie, how do you go to the toilet when you're running?' I was amazed, but after a couple of seconds I said, 'Well, I think you'll have to stop, Steve'."

The advice was given tongue in cheek, but Jones chose to follow it, stopping at the side of the road to drop his load, as it were, before catching Spedding and surging to victory. "I didn't shake hands with him at the finish, but that wasn't because he had beaten me," Spedding confessed, recalling the not-so-sweet smell of British men's success in the good old days of the London Marathon.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Sport
CSKA Moscow celebrate after equalising with a late penalty
football

Arts and Entertainment
music
Life and Style
tech

Company reveals $542m investment in start-up building 'a rocket ship for the mind'

News
Bourgogne wine maker Laboure-Roi vice president Thibault Garin (L) offers the company's 2013 Beaujolais Nouveau wine to the guest in the wine spa at the Hakone Yunessun spa resort facilities in Hakone town, Kanagawa prefecture, some 100-kilometre west of Tokyo
i100
Arts and Entertainment
James Blunt's debut album Back to Bedlam shot him to fame in 2004
music

Singer says the track was 'force-fed down people's throats'

Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

IT Project Manager

Competitive: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Chelmsford a...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

IT Manager

£40000 - £45000 per annum + pension, healthcare,25 days: Ashdown Group: An est...

Day In a Page

Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album