Whitehead the worthy

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The Independent Online
PETER WHITEHEAD produced the best ever world championship performance by a British marathon runner here yesterday.

In a highly competitive race won by Spain's European champion, Martin Fiz, the 30-year-old from Leeds finished fourth, in 2hrs 14mins 8secs, after being among the leaders for two-thirds of that time. Britain's more fancied runner, Richard Nerurkar, was seventh. Whitehead, who covered his shaven head with a peaked cap as temperatures rose into the 90s, has been an Englishman Abroad for the last seven months, training at altitude in Albuquerque. "It's no coincidence the top five here were all full-time athletes who train at altitude," he said. "It's the only way to compete these days."

Whitehead, who left his job in a shop at Leeds-Bradford airport 18 months ago to pursue running full time, had to rely on his wife Sandra, who works in a Leeds bank, and his mother Dorothy to finance his stay in the United States. When he returned last April to finish 12th in the London Marathon, he was highly critical of the support he and other distance runners had received from the British Athletic Federation.

While Fiz and his Spanish colleagues are funded throughout the year at high-altitude camps by their governing body, which receives government support, Whitehead is in a different category. He received a pounds 600 BAF training grant for this race.

Money is easier now he is regularly winning races in America. But his domestic arrangements are not. He last saw his wife in May, and will return now to see her at home in Leeds. "It's a very difficult situation," he said. "But she has supported me 110 per cent. Despite not getting a medal, I'm very pleased. As far as I'm concerned, I will get a medal at a major championship. The heat here didn't affect me - I've run in far hotter conditions in the States."

Fiz was running only his fifth marathon since giving up a promising football career - he played alongside Ernesto Valverde, who went on to play for Barcelona. "In the marathon I feel like a fish in water," he said. "I do not suffer when others suffer." Here, more than anywhere, he proved the truth of that. After he and the Mexican Dionisio Ceron, had broken the rest of the field with five kilometres to go, Ceron pulled 25 metres clear.

But Fiz maintained his rhythm and as Ceron, a double London marathon winner, faltered a mile and a half from the finish, the Spaniard swept by. Ceron eventually took the silver, but appeared as never before at a finish - a staggering figure who had to be assisted from the track. Fiz, who clocked 2:11.41, felt he had finished stronger, "just like my friend Indurain" (he shares the same coach, Sabino Podilla, with the Tour de France winner). "When Ceron sped up I had to let him go, but I never gave up," Fiz said. "I held my pace, and that's why I was stronger. Next I'll take Atlanta."