Eamonn Martin was the last home-running winner and the six candles on his son's birthday cake next Thursday will be a reminder of how long the unsuccessful streak has grown. Eamonn junior was born three days before his proud father outsprinted Isidro Rico of Mexico on Westminster Bridge. Since then the best of British have been reduced to battling for domestic supremacy in London's annual foot-slog. It is unlikely to be any different a week today, even though Jon Brown - the first British finisher last year, 3min 14sec behind Abel Anton - was an encouraging eighth in the world cross-country championships a fortnight ago. With the world champion (the Spaniard Anton), the Olympic champion (Josiah Thugwane of South Africa) and the world record holder (the Brazilian Ronaldo da Costa) all in the 1999 Flora London Marathon field, the outright winner's trophy seems bound for an overseas destination again.
"I don't think I'll go down in history as the last British man ever to win the London Marathon," Martin mused during his lunch break on Tuesday, "but it's highly unlikely that a Briton will win it this year. Jon Brown is obviously in good form, but he's more of a steady runner than me. He's more predictable. I had the advantage of a hell of a kick, which I hardly ever lost with.
"When I got myself really fit I would go into every race thinking I could win. It wasn't a case of `so and so's better than me'. It was a case of `I'm fit. I can beat anyone'. Obviously I wasn't in that shape all of the time but when I was I really thought I was unbeatable. I don't think Jon enters races quite like that.
"With two laps to go in the 10,000m final at the European Championships you would have said: `Jon's going to finish fourth here'. I don't think you would have said that if I'd been up with the leaders at that stage. You would have said: `Crikey, Eamonn's going to win this'. I had that extra gear which you need sometimes. You can run a marathon or a 5,000m but if you can't break away at the end you're not going to win. And Jon struggles with that."
Martin can still find top gear, as you might reasonably expect of someone who works as a test engineer at Ford's research and development centre at Dunton, near Basildon. Only a major breakdown is likely to stop him producing a record-breaking run on the road from Blackheath to The Mall next Sunday. Having turned 40 last October, the London winner of 1993 will be running his first marathon as a member of the veteran class, and Ron Hill's 20-year-old British veterans' record, 2:15:46, should be comfortably within his range. He might even claim the world veterans' record, if the statisticians can decide whether it happens to be the 2:11:04 the New Zealander John Campbell clocked on the predominantly downhill Boston course in 1990 or the 2:12:44 Ahmed Salah of Djibouti recorded in Monaco two years ago.
The six marathons Martin has run have all been within 2:10:50 and 2:12:44. "I've got to be honest," he said. "I don't really think Ron Hill's time is that difficult to beat. If it was all I was aiming for I would bet my house on doing it. But I'll probably be looking to run more like 2:11 or 2:12 and that's where the doubt comes into the equation. By going for a quicker time, the danger is I might `blow up' and not make it.
"I'm looking to run the first half in 65 minutes and then see how long I can hang on in the second half. My race tactic isn't just to break Ron's record. If it was, I could afford to run a lot easier for the first half. I just think I've got to commit myself and have a bit of a go - not seriously trying to win the race, because that's not realistic - but at trying to be in the first few Britons. I can see Jon Brown beating me, but not too many more."
Martin is certainly in good shape. Six weeks ago he broke Tony Simmons' 10-year-old British veterans' five-mile record by 16 seconds, running 23:35 at Hillingdon. "I'm happy enough with my form," he said. "I'm sure some people thought I had retired in the past two years. I've just had a lot of injuries. I had a recurring Achilles tendon problem and last year I had a knee operation. It wasn't until January that I started hitting some form again."
At his absolute best, Martin has broken the British 10,000m record (the 27:23.06 that stood for 10 years until Brown clocked 27:18:11 in Brussels last summer), won a Commonwealth title (the 10,000m in Auckland in 1990) and triumphed in two big city marathons (London in 1993 and Chicago in 1995). It is fair to say, though, that he is not quite the man he once was.
Since his 40th birthday bash, he has been minus his moustache - thanks to his so-called friends from Basildon Athletics Club, to whom he is a coach now as well as a training partner. "I still see myself as a runner rather than a veteran runner," the clean-shaven Martin said. "When I turned 40 my children said, `Blimey, you're really old now'. But then they came and watched me in a local race at Christmas and I ran away from the field. Lydia, my 12-year-old, said, `Oh, you can still beat 'em, then, Dad'. I said, `I'm only 40, you know. I'm not dead'. I must admit, though, when I look back at all the races I've run over the years, it's been a long time."
It has indeed. It was on 24 March 1973 that Martin first came to national prominence, winning the junior boys' title at the English schools' cross- country championships at Swindon. Runner-up in the senior boys' race that day was a certain S Ovett of Sussex. Martin, a 14-year-old Essex boy back then, has since become a man and now a veteran of his home county. He has lived all his life in Basildon. Jim Peters, though born in London, was an Essex man too. He lived at Dagenham, Chadwell Heath and Thorpe Bay and ran in the club colours of Essex Beagles.
"I think it's fantastic that he's being remembered with a trophy next week," Martin said. "I'm sure he would have been pleased. And I don't think there's any harm in having a prize for the first British finisher. It will help to inspire people. But when someone becomes the best in Britain they've then got to move on and make the next step, which is the really hard one."
It is a step that Jim Peters took in his Woolworth's plimsolls in the 1950s, and that Eamonn Martin made in more fancy footwear on the streets of London six years ago.