Sunday, August 28, 2016
Guest Article...The Life and Time of Dave Bedford by John Walshe
There is no doubting the popularity of the 10km distance on the road but running 25 laps around a track is a different matter. Sometimes the 10,000m can be a boring affair but, as the Irish championships last June showed where just five seconds covered the first three, it can also be an enthralling contest.
At the end of May, the ‘Night of the 10,000m PBs’ at Parliament Hill track in London also proved that the event can be both fruitful for the competitors and entertaining for the fans. On a Saturday evening, six 10,000m races were held culminating in the British championships and Olympic Trials. Amongst the large attendance at that London extravaganza was a man who knows a thing or two about 10,000m running and whose greatest moment came all of 43 years ago.
Before the advent of the Coe/Ovett/Cram era, British athletics was at a very low ebb. The man credited with bringing the crowds flocking back to venues like the White City and Crystal Palace was the imposing six-foot tall Dave Bedford, his distinctive long hair and drooping moustache matched by the famous red socks he always wore. With his bold front running – and sometimes even bolder predictions – he was the one they came to see.
Born in Hendon, NW London, on December 30th, 1949, Bedford’s earliest running performances didn’t set the world alight, as his 73rd place at the National Schools cross-country testifies. But by the age of 17 he already had shown his appetite for the longer distances when recording 31:24.2 for six miles on the track, a time he reduced to 29:15.8 the following year.
In March of 1969, he won the International (later to become World) Junior cross-country title at Glasgow. In fourth that day - and leading the Irish team to silver medals behind England – was John Hartnett from Ballyhooly who would go on to take the individual title himself the following year.
A month later, Bedford sensationally made the headlines when he broke the UK 10,000m record at the Southern Counties championships. Going through 5000m in a personal best of 14:14.4, he reeled off the second half in 14:10.0 to knock 1.6 seconds from Mike Freary’s national record. His 28:24.4 was also the fastest ever by a 19-year-old. Two 5000m PBs and a UK record for 10,000m in the one race wasn’t a bad return on a cool April evening.
However, his form didn’t continue into the summer and he failed to gain selection for that year’s European Championship. But the following February came a performance that without a doubt nowadays would certainly deserve the moniker of ‘awesome’. The Southern Counties cross-cross championships were held at Parliament Hill, near to where the recent ‘Night of the 10,000m’ took place. Although having turned 20 five weeks before, due to the age-groups then in existence Bedford was eligible for the junior six-mile race but decided instead to mix it with the big boys over three laps that made up the senior nine-mile distance.
Against some of the top internationals of the day, Bedford quickly dominated the field of 577 to come home a clear winner, finishing with 55 seconds in hand over the second-placed runner. And then, a mere 20 minutes later with just a change of number and vest, he lined up for the junior race. Confessing to feeling ‘dead’ on the first hill, he was soon in command and finished with an ever bigger winning margin of 61 seconds to take his second title of the afternoon. As if 15 miles of cross-country racing wasn’t enough, Bedford admitted afterwards that he had also ran five miles that morning, along with 3-4 miles warming up.
To put it into context, it should be noted that this period of the late 1960s and early 1970s was the era of the huge weekly mileage. When New Zealand coach Arthur Lydiard first advocated 100 miles a week as part of the winter base-building for his athletes from 800m to the marathon and following the Olympic success of Peter Snell (two 800m and one 1500m gold medals) and Murray Halberg (5000m gold), it soon became commonplace. But while Lydiard also placed equal emphasis on hill work and track sharpening, it was the weekly mileage that caught the imagination. The thinking went ‘if 100 miles a week is good, surely 130, 140 – or, in Bedford’s case up to 200 - miles a week is better’.
Just four days of a typical Bedford winter week from that period tells its own story. Monday: (am) 8 miles; (lunch) 6 miles; (pm) 16 miles – all on road. Tuesday: (am) 8 miles; (lunch) 6 miles; (pm) 14 miles including 30 x 200 hill and fartlek. Wednesday: (am) 8 miles; (lunch) 6 miles; (pm) 16 miles including 5 x one mile efforts. Thursday: (am) 8 miles; (lunch) 6 miles; (pm) track session – 12 x 400 (62 sec with 200 recovery), 12 x 300 (47 sec with 100 recovery), 12 x 200 (32 sec with 100 recovery).
Although variously described as a student and sales clerk at the time, he was essentially a full-time athlete considering the amount of time spent training. He once quipped, as he headed out the door for his third (or maybe fourth) session of the day that he met himself coming back from the previous run!
Of course with such huge mileage, injury was never too far away and Bedford spent long periods out of action and consequently missed out on important championships. The summer of 1970 brought him his first AAA 10,000m title on the old cinder track at White City, his 28:26.4 just two seconds outside his best. That race took place on a Friday evening and he again showed his amazing powers of recovery when turning out the following afternoon to win his club’s Shaftesbury ‘10’ in 47:55, knocking 23 seconds from the course record held by Bill Adcocks, a 2:10 marathon man.
The winter that followed brought victories in both the English National and International Cross-Country events and then in June he set a European record over 5000m of 13:22.2. The following month, on a sun-scorched afternoon at Portsmouth, he almost added the world 10,000m best. It was a GB versus France fixture and also incorporated the trial for that year’s European Championships. As the large field went through the opening lap in 71 seconds, Bedford – clearly not happy - took off. Covering the second 400m in 59 seconds, he eventually ended up lapping the entire field at least once and despite badly blistered feet crossed the line in 27:47.0, the second fastest ever recorded.
Only one man – the legendary Ron Clarke – had broken 28 minutes at the time and the Australian had achieved his world record of 27:39.4 six years before in the cool of a Scandinavian evening. A video clip of that epic Portsmouth race can be viewed on Youtube, as indeed can be many of Bedford’s performances.
That August brought the European Championships in Helsinki and the odds-on favourite for 10,000m gold was Dave Bedford. On the opening night of the championships before a crowd of 40,000 in what was described by Brendan Foster (who would finish third himself in the 1500m) “as the best race I have ever seen in my life,” Bedford tried all he could to break the field, but to no avail.
With a lap to go a group of five were still together and with 300m left Juha Vaatainen send the home fans wild as he covered the last lap in 53.9 to win in a time of 27:52.8 with the Englishman having to settle for sixth in 28:04.4. Just as Vaatainen was swept off his feet by the ecstatic Finnish fans, Leevale’s Donie Walsh was heading out on his final circuit enroute to an Irish record of 28:52.6.
Down but not out, Bedford did however have one more high that autumn when, in only his third-ever 3000m steeplechase, he set a UK record of 8:28.6 at Crystal Palace.
After a quiet winter, the Olympic year of 1972 dawned and the pressure from the British press and public on the Shaftesbury Harrier to bring home at least one, if not two, gold medals, was intense. But once again Bedford didn’t make things easy for himself. The AAA Championships and Olympic trials took place at Crystal Palace in July and on this occasion the 5000m was on the Friday night with the longer distance scheduled for Saturday afternoon. Although selection was assured over 5000m, Bedford decided not alone to run but to make an attempt on Ron Clarke’s world record of 13:16.6. After a first lap of 61.6, he was ahead of schedule until 4000m but at the line was an agonising .6 of a second short, although he did set a European best of 13:17.2.
Behind him in second was Scotland’s Ian McCafferty in 13:19.8 with Ian Stewart – who had won the 5000m at the Cork City Sports a few weeks before and who would go on to take the bronze medal in Munich – third in 13:24.2. Such was the standard of British running at the time that 19-year-old Dave Black ran 13:28.0 in fifth and yet didn’t make the Olympic team.
But the drama didn’t end there. Barely 19 hours later Bedford returned to produce a time over 10,000m that only he and Ron Clarke had bettered. Apparently oblivious to the heat, as in Portsmouth the year before, he reached halfway in 13:47.6 (inside the Olympic standard for that distance!) before delighting the near 20,000 crowd with a final time of 27:52.8.
Onto the Olympic Games in Munich, and even here Bedford didn’t take the easy route as Emiel Puttemans and himself both broke the Olympic record in their 10,000m heat when clocking respective times of 27:53.28 and 27:53.64. But the final was somewhat a repeat of the Europeans the year before. Bedford again led most of the way, but couldn’t shake off his pursuers. Despite tumbling to the track approaching halfway, the latest of the Flying Finns – Lasse Viren – got back on terms and wound up the pace with 600m to go to not only win but to finally break Ron Clarke’s world record with a magnificent time of 27:38.4.
Bedford again slipped back to sixth and he fared even worse in the 5000, coming home 12th as Viren claimed the second of what would turn out to be four Olympic distance golds. On his return to England, Bedford was again lambasted by the British press, but he still held an ace up his sleeve which he would play with dramatic effect the following summer.
On the weekend of July 13th/14th, 1973, the AAA Championships again took pride of place at Crystal Palace. On this occasion the 10,000m returned to its traditional Friday night spot. Although the crowd was only 3,500, those fortunate enough to be there witnessed a unforgettable 10,000m where Dave Bedford finally achieved greatness as he knocked almost eight seconds off of Viren’s world record to set a new global mark of 27:30.8, a time that would stand for four years.
To the legion of club runners who hero-worshipped Bedford, the magnitude of that performance was brought home in emphatic fashion the following week when Editor Mel Watman wrote in Athletics Weekly: “Imagine 25 x 400m in 66 seconds average WITH NO RECOVERY INTERVAL!”
Although he would return 12 months later to retain his title in slow tactical race, that night was effectively Bedford’s farewell to world class athletics, while still only in his mid-20s. In later years he would become the public face of the London Marathon, first as event director and now as the man in charge of the elite fields.
Shaftesbury Barnet Harriers) all his life, Bedford even brought his own little touch to that event as each year the pacemakers tasked with taking the leaders through halfway in world record schedule all wear the distinctive black and white striped vest of his club.
In one of his earliest interviews, Bedford was asked if he admired any particular athlete. He replied: “At one time I used to like Jim Hogan’s running, partly because he was a very controversial character – I like controversial characters – but also he had guts and said what he thought.”
Hogan was the Irishman who famously declared for Great Britain and won the European Marathon of 1966. When he returned home to his native Limerick in retirement, Bedford still kept up his contact and visited Hogan at the Maria Goretti Nursing Home in Kilmallock where he spent his final days.
When Hogan passed away a year ago last January, Bedford also travelled over for his funeral. On a cold winter’s day, the little country church of St John the Baptist in the village of Athlacca in County Limerick was packed to capacity for the Funeral Mass. Dressed in a long black coat with bowler hat by his side, Dave Bedford cut a sombre and imposing figure as afterwards he posed for photographs alongside the plaque that honours his great friend’s achievements.
The hair and drooping moustache may now be of a different hue, but the dignity, respect and admiration that Dave Bedford commanded as a one of the all-time distance running greats was still very evident for all to see.