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.

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