The winners who weren't: Trail-blazer who broke the rules

Simon Turnbull talks to the first lady of British distance running, Scotland's Dale Greig
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Dale Greig always was a running pioneer. The morning she set off on the London to Brighton road she did so with a map in her right hand. "I was worried about going off course," she recalled. "I had to start on my own, an hour before the other runners, because women weren't allowed to run with the men." Women, in fact, were not allowed to run full stop; not officially, at any rate. It was only in 1979 that the supposedly weaker sex were deemed strong enough to stay the 55-mile distance from Big Ben to the Esplanade in Brighton. Greig, though, was a woman before her time. It was in 1972 that she made her ground-breaking, not to say rule-breaking, maiden voyage of discovery.

"It was an experience," she mused, a quarter of a century on. "I'd been to watch the race once or twice before so I had some idea of the route but I still needed a map. The men caught me after 14 miles or so anyway, so I had them to follow for most of the way." Perhaps to the surprise of the athletics authorities, the Scotswoman did not fall apart along the way. The Road Runners Club, organisers of the annual ultra marathon, allowed her to cross the finish line and recorded her time, 8hr 30min 4sec. As far as the official results were concerned, however, her run never took place. She was strictly a ghost runner.

It was nothing entirely new to the printing consultant from Paisley. Back in 1964 she became the first woman to break 3hr 30min for the marathon distance. Far from trumpeting the feat, the Women's Amateur Athletic Association reprimand- ed the organisers of the Isle of Wight Marathon, Ryde Harriers, for allowing her to compete, albeit with an ambulance trailing her round the course. The Women's AAA have held a marathon championship race since 1978 and just to get Liz McColgan to line up in three of the last four, incorporated in the London Marathon, cost a reputed pounds 450,000.

Greig has been as significant a figure in British athletics as McColgan, yet she is not even a forgotten heroine. She was never hailed as one. Even in her day her name and her deeds were barely mentioned. Not that she reflects upon her lot with the slightest trace of rancour.

"Life is all about timing," she said, "about being in the right place at the right time. I just ran for fun and I don't regret that at all. I really enjoyed it. It just happens to be a different sport now. There was never any thought of making money in those days and, running in the marathon or the London to Brighton, it was just a matter of getting round the course. Today the women are racing these distances, racing really fast. I must say I admire them."

Ingrid Kristiansen has held the women's world record for the marathon, 2hr 21min 6sec, since the 1985 London Marathon. There were no official records in Greig's day - just "bests," as performances in unrecognised events were strictly termed -- but her time in the 1964 Isle of Wight Marathon, 3:27:45, was the fastest recorded by a woman for the classic 26 miles 385 yards. It was bettered a month later - the New Zealander Mildred Sampson clocked 3:19:33 in the Auckland Marathon - but it stood as a British "record" for 11 years.

Greig was 60 in May. She has been a non-runner for more than a decade now. "I had an accident in a swimming pool in the early 1980s," she said. "I cracked bones in my feet and I haven't run since then. It seems such a long time ago that I ran in the London to Brighton. I must admit I'm amazed that anyone remembers it."