That old man runner, he just keeps racing along

Bob Peart is 72. He will leave 27,000 people in his wake next weekend

Bob Peart was 47 when he became a runner. He was 50 when he ran his first marathon. Next Sunday morning he will be attempting to complete a third successive victory in the Flora London Marathon - at the age of 72.

The grandfather of three is unlikely to threaten Khalid Khannouchi, the fastest man ever to have taken up the challenge of the marathon, at the front of the 30,000-strong field. If he runs to form, though, Peart will leave 27,000 marathon men, women and Mickey Mouse fancy-dressers in his wake. In doing so he would not just win the veteran runners' prize in the Over-70s section for a third year but also strike another winning blow against the stifling forces of ageism.

In last year's race Peart finished 2,621st in 3hr 13min 15sec. His time, as a 71-year-old, was faster than the national records of Bhutan (3:25.10), Laos (3:37.26), the Norfolk Islands (3:47.41) and Tonga (3:15:21). He has also run 2:58.35 as a 67-year-old, 2:48.41 as a 62-year-old and 2:38.47, his best ever, at the age of 53. And, for the record, he has won his age-group section in 40 of the 41 marathons he has contested to date - including eight victories in London, four in New York, two in Boston, one in Chicago and one in the World Veterans' Games.

It's little wonder the genial Geordie septuagenarian could not help laughing when he cast his mind back to his non-running days as a fortysomething Post Office training officer in Kenya. "I did actually run in the Post Office sports day out there because I used to organise it every year," he said, relaxing with coffee in hand after a nine-mile morning run on the riverside paths next to the bungalow he shares with his wife and No 1 supporter, Christina, on the banks of the Wear at Fatfield. "I've got a picture of me somewhere, running with my suit on. I was in the old folks' race. The locals called me mzee Peart. It's a respectful term, but it means old man."

It was not until old man Peart returned to his native Newcastle in 1974, after 12 years on Post Office secondment duties in Africa, that he became a serious runner. Seven years later, at the age of 53, he ran in the first London Marathon. He was back home and asleep in bed that night when the organisers rang to say he had won the prize for the first veteran home in the Over-50s category.

A week today he will be back on the victory trail in London, if not quite as prominently as two other former employees of the Kenyan Post Office: Tegla Loroupe, the fastest woman ever to take up the challenge of the marathon, and Joyce Chepchumba, the defending women's champion.

"I've read that they took up running when they were in the Post Office in Nakuru," Peart said. "I wasn't a runner when I was out there. But, there again, if you're asking where my fitness comes from, I've lived at 5,000ft for 12 years - at altitude. So you could say I've had the advantage of some of these African runners. Perhaps that's helped, but I think the main thing is that I've always had an active sort of life.

"I was born the youngest of nine, in Benwell in the west end of Newcastle, and I was always trying to tag along with my older brothers and sisters. When they went picking in blackberry week they'd say, 'You're too little. You won't keep up'. I used to say to myself, 'I'm determined to keep up'. I cycled for miles every day too - I started off as a boy messenger for the Post Office in Newcastle when I was 14. And when I went into the Forces in 1945 I played hockey for the RAF Egypt team. So I've always been pretty active.

"I'm sure there are other people out there in their 50s and 60s who could be runners but who are maybe a bit hesitant. I used to think I wasn't good enough to be in an athletics club - foolishly, as I'm sure a lot of people today do. But anyone who's in an athletics club will tell you that the most important people in that club are the people who run at the back. I have the utmost respect for a person who comes at the back in a race.

"There's one particular person in Durham City Harriers. He's overweight. He wouldn't mind me saying that. But he runs in all the local races. I keep saying to him, 'You're going to beat me one day, you know. You're catching up'. He tries as hard as anybody at the front. And I have the utmost admiration for him. People looking at him would say, 'He's not a runner. He's too overweight to be a runner'. But he gets out there and he has a go."

Not that Peart enjoyed such encouragement in his early running days. "I'd come into work in the Post Office in Newcastle on a Monday morning," he recalled, "and there would be these headlines cut out, 'Runner dies in marathon'. All these pot-bellied Geordies would be saying, 'Hey, Bob, there's another runner died there'. I got a bit sick of this, so I started going through the papers myself to see if anyone had died of a heart attack at St James' Park. They stopped slagging me in the end."

Twelve years after his retirement, the former Post Office executive is still in first- class condition, clocking up 70 miles in training each week and looking to finish inside 3hr 15min next week. Beyond The Mall, though, he has no particular finish line in sight.

"I just hope to keep going as long as I can," he said. "I'm grateful for every day I'm able to get out for a run and enjoy it. Sometimes when I've had a bad run I think to myself, 'There are plenty of people would do anything in the world just to walk a little way round this course, never mind run round it'.

"Some people do say to me, 'You're stupid doing this'. And I say to them, 'I tell you what, I'd rather wear myself out than rust out, sitting in my chair watching television'."

If those armchair critics look hard enough next Sunday morning they might just spot a remarkable marathon runner - Bobby Robson's senior by five years - wearing out 27,000 younger souls on the long and winding road from Greenwich to The Mall.

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