Mountain man is big news

OLYMPIC GAMES: Simon Turnbull talks to the runner who put his house on Olympic success
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Peter Whitehead's work-mates had good reason to laugh when he announced he was quitting his job to chase his Olympic dream. "I was 28 and I hadn't run for my country," he recalled, casting his mind back to the day he handed in his notice at the newsagents at Leeds-Bradford Airport. Three years later, his dream is about to become reality. A week today he runs for Britain in the Olympic Marathon in Atlanta. Not only that; he will line up as one of the medal contenders.

The transformation has been remarkable, but when you talk to Whitehead you can understand how he has made it. The conviction he will take with him to the start line next Sunday was just as strong when he made the decision to give up his job and become a full-time runner. It was so strong that he put his house on making the Olympic team.

"That was always my target," he said. "I ran 2hr 28min for my first marathon in London in 1992 and the plan was to keep improving until I made the Olympic team in 1996. But I ran 2:17 in Berlin in September 1993, which was four minutes slower than I'd hoped. I said to my wife: 'This isn't good enough to make the team. I need to be a full-time runner.' She said: 'Go for it. Pack your job in and we'll remortgage the house.'"

The following spring Whitehead improved by four minutes and gained selection for the European championships in Helsinki. Lesser souls might have been content with a token appearance at major championship level at the age of 29. Not Whitehead. He finished a modest 27th, six minutes behind the victorious Spaniard Martin Fiz, but the experience merely strengthened his resolve to compete on even terms with the world's elite.

So in November 1994 he borrowed pounds 1,500 from his mother, bade farewell to his loyal wife, Sandra, and headed for altitude training in Albuquerque. It was a gamble which paid off at the world championships in Gothenburg last summer. Whitehead finished without a medal in fourth place but he chased the gold in the company of Fiz, the Mexican Dionicio Ceron and Brazil's Luis dos Santos until his challenge faded in the 23rd mile. It was the most inspired run by a British marathon man at world level since Charlie Spedding took bronze in the 1984 Olympics.

There was no secret to Whitehead's medal-less success. He had clearly reaped the physiological rewards of training at high altitude, which can significantly boost a runner's red blood cell count. Not surprisingly, he has spent most of the past 12 months preparing for Atlanta 5,800ft above sea level in Albuquerque. He shares a house there with the Belgian runner Eddy Hellebuyck and earns his living on the United States road racing circuit. It has meant living apart from his wife for several months at a time but it is a sacrifice both are prepared to make. "It's a once in a lifetime opportunity," Whitehead said. "Training at altitude has made all the difference to me. It's just something I've got to do. And it's not forever."

Whitehead started his athletics life as an 800 metres runner at school in Southport and turned to cross country when he moved to Leeds at 18 and joined the Skyrac club. In New Mexico he trains at 10am and 4pm and covers up to 130 miles each week. His schedules are faxed from Leeds by Brian Scobie, the Scottish coach who in 1989 guided Veronique Marot to the British women's marathon record.

The hard work has already paid off in Atlanta. Whitehead improved his 10km personal best to 28min 7sec in the Peachtree road race, which took in part of the marathon course, in Atlanta on 4 July. It is the fastest time by British runner this year and Whitehead scored the psychological bonus of beating one of his Olympic rivals, the Mexican German Silva, the winner of the New York Marathon for the past two years.

"I know I'm as quick as the likes of Silva," Whitehead said. "Whether I'm as strong we'll find out on the day in Atlanta. I'm not worried about the conditions or the course. I've handled the heat, the humidity and the hills before. I'm going with a positive mental attitude. I know, after the world championships last year, that I can finish in the top three. I'll be disappointed if I don't get a medal."