Don Thompson was getting ready for his summer holiday last week. He was not packing his sun cream and his swimming trunks. "No, I'm not going anywhere hot," he said. "I'm going somewhere probably quite cool, almost guaranteed to rain - to the Lake District. I'm going to the Ramblers' Centre in Buttermere. I shall be doing some walking."
And the genial septuagenarian has done a good deal of that in his time. Back in 1960, Thompson walked his way to a gold medal at the Rome Olympics. When he scuttled into the Stadio Olimpico to win the 50km race walk, the Italian public were captivated by the curious little Englishman, an insurance clerk from Cranfield in Middlesex, wearing his sunglasses and his French legionnaire's hat. "Il Topolino", they called him - the little mouse.
They were even more intrigued when Thompson revealed the homespun ingenuity behind his success. Haunted by the memory of the 1956 Games in Melbourne, when he wilted in scorching temperatures and failed to finish, he had prepared for the heat and humidity of Rome by transforming his bathroom into a makeshift acclimatisation chamber.
"There was an electric heater attached to the wall and I thought, 'Well, that won't provide enough heat'," Thompson reflected. "I had to boost the humidity too, so I got a Valor stove and put that in the bath, because there was no other place to put it really. It was a very small bathroom. There wasn't much room after the bath and the washbasin.
"I boiled a kettle downstairs and put that on top of the stove. Then I switched on the wall heater, lit the stove, shut the window, shut the door and let it all heat up for half an hour. Then I went in and did a few exercises for half an hour. I couldn't do any real mobility stuff because there just wasn't enough room.
"Half an hour was more than enough. I was feeling dizzy by then. The temperature was about 120F. I thought, 'This is doing me good. It can't possibly be as hot as this in Rome'.
"It wasn't until several years later that I realised I wasn't feeling dizzy because of the heat. It was carbon monoxide from the stove, which was fuelled by paraffin. There was no ventilation. I was getting carbon monoxide poisoning.
"It didn't worry me at the time. I thought being dizzy probably meant I was getting close to my limit. I thought that by doing that for half an hour, when I got to Rome it would feel relatively cool. When it came to the race, I wore clip-on sunglasses to cut out the glare of the heat and make things feel cooler still. I just tried to pretend that the sun and its heat wasn't there."
It worked. After four hours, 25 minutes and 30 seconds of toil, Thompson won by a margin of 17 seconds. His methodology might have been a bit on the basic side, but he was a man ahead of his time, not to mention his field of rivals.
Since Wednesday last week, the first wave of latter-day British Olympians have been sweltering away under the Mediterranean sun at the British Olympic Association's acclimatisation camp at Paphos on the west coast of Cyprus. Among their number is Tracey Morris, the relative novice who has made it into the marathon team alongside Paula Radcliffe. A fun-runner not so many months ago, prior to her departure she did much of her training on a treadmill in a special heat room at Leeds University, her weight and fluid loss constantly monitored by a physiologist.
"It just shows how times have changed," Thompson mused. "I should think the heat will be a problem in Athens. The conditions will probably be much the same as they were in Rome. It's on a similar latitude. Having this hot-weather acclimatisation in Cyprus can only help." Indeed. Every summer, Athens suffers fatalities caused by heat. The average temperature in August is 82F and the humidity is 50 per cent.
Thompson expects the conditions to be somewhat milder when he tackles the next test of his own continuing competitive agenda: the Active Amps 10k road race at Richmond Park on 21 August.
Seven months past his 71st birthday, the Rome Olympian still works, as a self-employed gardener based at Hythe in Kent, and is an active member of Folkestone Running Club. "Until two years ago I still did long-distance walks," Thompson said. "Then I was in a 24-hour race in Blackpool and my pace got slower and slower, from four miles an hour to two. The stand at the Stanley Park track looked bigger and bigger, and each lap seemed more like a mile than 400 metres.
"Since then, I've just concentrated on fun-running. I ran in my last half- marathon back in June. That was my 151st. I was only going to do 150, but as I'd done 151 marathons I wanted to make it equal to that. Now I'm just trying to bring up the number of 10km races I've run to the 100 mark. I've done over 100 10-mile races and I want to get my century for 10km. I'm up to 76 now, so in a year's time I should be there."
All this from a man who was born in January 1933, a month before Bobby Robson. Whichever way you look at it, Il Topolino remains a little marvel. His golden glow still radiates, 44 years after he beat the heat in Rome.Reuse content