Athletics: Morpeth's man of steel

The Anniversary: 34 years ago Jim Alder ran further in two hours than anyone before - or since

Simon Turnbull
Saturday 10 October 1998 23:02

JIM ALDER was surprised to learn that his name remains in the world record books. It can be found on page 264 of the 1998 International Athletics Annual, beneath those of Florence Griffith Joyner and Marita Koch, in the section headed "long-distance world track bests". It records that, on 17 October 1964, Jim Alder of Great Britain ran 37.994km in a two-hour race at Walton-on-Thames. In 34 years no one has managed to cover a greater distance in two hours of running on a track.

"I had no idea it was still a record," Alder said last week. "There aren't many two-hour races these days, but if I were a top marathon runner today it would gall me that a 58-year-old Brit still held the world best."

It was the very fact that Alder was galled back in 1964 that drove him to his record run. It was his response to being left at home as non- travelling reserve for the Olympic marathon. He lost a place in the team when he missed an international match in Czechoslovakia after banging his left knee on a steeplechase barrier running for Morpeth Harriers in the Tyneside Track League. Thus, while Basil Heatley, Brian Kilby and Ron Hill prepared to chase Abebe Bikila through the streets of Tokyo, Alder chased the clock, in the metaphorical sense, around an ash-track in sylvan, suburban London.

"I had no thoughts of world records when I lined up that day," he reflected. "I just treated it like a club race: get stuck in and do your best. I actually missed the 15-mile record during the race by two seconds. No one told me I was close to it. It wasn't like today, with pace-makers, trackside clocks and giant screens. A timekeeper just leaned over at the start of one lap and said, 'By the way, you've just missed a world record'.

"I remember I cried in the showers afterwards. I'd been on world-record marathon pace for two hours on an ash track, wearing a pair of Dunlop Red Flash. It's no use talking about what might have been, but I would have been an outside hope for a medal in Tokyo. You only hit those purple- patch days four or five times in your career and it's all about timing them right. I got my first one wrong and it could have cost me an Olympic medal."

Alder was an angry young man that afternoon, as well as a frustrated one. Two labourers were building an extension to the pavilion and he relieved the mental tedium of circling the track by calculating how many bricks they would lay on each lap he completed. They felt the brunt of his verbal wrath when they downed tools to watch him.

"I was fuming," Alder recalled. "Being a bricklayer myself, I knew they were getting paid time and a half for working on a Saturday. I was running round the track for nothing and they were getting paid for watching me. I was struck by the irony of it and I wasn't very amused." Alder laughs at the irony now. He also laughs at the memory of his finest two-and- a-bit hours. They came two years after his record run at Walton: when he dramatically won the Commonwealth Games marathon in 1966, despite losing the lead after being misdirected at the entrance to Kingston Stadium.

Alder emerged on the Jamaican track to discover Coventry's Bill Adcocks some 50 yards ahead of him with 300 yards remaining. A lesser spirit would have buckled. Alder just put his head down and went for the line. He overtook Adcocks and shouted "Geronimo!" as he breasted the tape.

Geronimo Jim was a real-life tough of the track, and of the roads, in the 17 years he spent as an international runner. An orphan from Glasgow who made Morpeth his adopted home, Alder was the man who inspired Brendan Foster, who in turn inspired the running boom which gave the North-east its record-breaking Great North Run.

He can still be found pounding the roads of Northumberland most days. "Just jogging," he said. "I'm too vain to stop completely. I don't want to put on weight."

What weight Alder has he puts behind Morpeth Harriers. As a coach, he has guided Mark Hudspith to a Commonwealth Games marathon bronze and has helped his beloved club to success on the national distance-running circuit.

Today, he will be interested to discover if any of the latter-day world-record chasers can beat the clock in the Chicago marathon. Their incentive for doing so is a cool $100,000.

All Jim Alder got for his ground-breaking run at Walton-on-Thames was a bronze plaque - and the inscription of his name in the record books for 34 years.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments