Google+ Running in Cork, Ireland: Guest Post by John Walshe : THE REMARKABLE TONY SIMMONS

Wednesday, November 21, 2018


In this guest post, John Walshe looks back on the career of Tony Simmons who was one of the top runners in the UK back in the 1970's. The article also recounts how in one race, Tony Simmons ran a huge negative split and still won the race. Food for thought?


The programme for this year’s Cork City Sports contained an article on the meeting of 1978 which took place, for the one and only time, at Páirc Uí Chaoimh. The reason for the move being that the Mardyke was in the process of changing to an all-weather surface while the CIT arena had yet to be developed.

Steve Ovett, then in the early years of a famous career that would bring Olympic medals and world records, was the main attraction. The previous year at the Mardyke, Ovett had defeated Eamonn Coghlan over one mile, 3:59.1 to 4:00.8, before going on to Midleton the following night where he beat John Treacy over 5000m.

Conditions at Páirc Uí Chaoimh on that July evening weren’t conducive to spectacular times with a blustery wind and a grass track that lacked the manicured surface of the Mardyke. Over the final lap of the mile, the famous Ovett kick came into play and the 22-year-old was untroubled when winning in one of his slowest ever times of 4:08.3.

Another visiting runner who tasted success that night was Tony Simmons in the 5000m. After Neil Cusack led for the opening mile, Simmons took over and built up a big lead over favourite Gerry Deegan. The Luton runner crossed the line almost one hundred metres clear, just scraping inside 14 minutes with his time of 13:59.4.

Tony Simmons was one of a number of top-class British distance runners who performed with distinction on all surfaces during the 1970s and his career was certainly marked by longevity and consistency. Born in the town of Maesteg in Wales on October 6th, 1948, in 1963 he established a world best mile time for a 14-year-old of 4:29.5. Some 25 years later, aged 40, he was still capable of running 23:51 for five miles on the road.

In the years between, he would post impressive PBs of 13:21.2 for 5000m and 27:43.59 for the 10,000m and compete at Olympic, European and Commonwealth level. At the 1974 European Championships in Rome, he was narrowly beaten (four-hundreds of a second) by Manfred Kuschmann of East Germany in the 10,000m.

Two years later he finished fourth over the same distance at the Montreal Olympics. After winning his heat in a swift 28:01.8 three days before, Simmons’ time in the final of 27:56.4 was just 1.4 seconds behind Brendan Foster’s bronze – the only British medal won in track and field at that Olympiad. Simmons later admitted he hung back to avoid carrying one of the chasing pack to within range of Foster.

But it was the year of 1975 that Tony Simmons achieved what every English runner strived for in those days – victory in the iconic nine-mile National Cross-Country. The fact that it was held over his home course at Luton made it all the more sweeter, as he moved away from Bernie Ford with a half mile to go to add his name to an illustrious roll of honour.

His diminutive build – standing 1.70/5’ 7” tall and weighing 56kg/124lb – seemed ideally suited to the marathon and later that summer it looked like he was on for a fast time at the AAA championship at Stoke-on-Trent when opening up a lead of almost two minutes after 15 miles. However, after succumbing to the dreaded cramps in his hamstrings at 22 miles his race was at an end and he was forced to drop out.

So when 1978 came around, Simmons was again prepared to have another crack at the classic distance. But it was a few build-up races to the marathon that caught the imagination, one in particular which certainly could be described as ‘remarkable’, as the title to this article suggests.

Twenty miles was a popular distance back in the day before the half-marathon came into vogue, seen as the ideal stepping-stone from the 10,000m (and 10-mile) to the full marathon. The most famous race over the distance was the Finchley ‘20’ in April, usually acting as the Inter-Counties championships. Held over a four-lap course at Ruislip in West London, it had a chequered history with the course record of 1:39:01 having been set by Bill Adcocks in 1972.

First held in 1933, the race had an unbroken sequence and even World War 2 failed it to halt its progress. It was ironical, then, that this year’s event last March succumbed to the Artic weather that prevailed and for the first time in 85 years it failed to go ahead.

With the AAA Marathon scheduled for Sandback in Cheshire on May 7th, Simmons felt he needed to do a ‘20’ in preparation but only decided to do the Finchley race an hour before the afternoon start on Saturday April 15th. His coach at the time, Harry Wilson (who also advised Ovett) told him not to run, so a compromise was reached. Simmons would run the first half at a ‘training pace’ and then he could race the second 10 miles. And that is exactly how it turned out.

At the end of the first lap, Simmons was back in 76th place. His time of 27:30 put him two minutes and 20 seconds behind the leading group headed by former winner Harry Leeming, the second fastest-ever over the course with his 1:39:18. Over the next five miles Bill Padgett went into a narrow lead over Dave Clarke, passing the halfway mark in 50:27. Simmons at this stage was three minutes in arrears, his 53:35 moving him up to 41st place.

Simmons switched into overdrive on lap three, picking off the runners one by one and the result of his 24:19 lap was that he was now in fifth, one minute and 45 seconds behind leader Clarke. With about two miles to go, Simmons passed Clarke and strode home an untroubled winner by 57 seconds in a time of 1:41:55. Negative splits may be the way to run, but Simmons’ 10-mile clockings of 53:35 and 48:20 certainly took it to a new level!

On the three-lap course at Sandbach, Simmons finally proved that he could run a fast marathon when taking the AAA title in 2:12:33, then the sixth fastest on the all-time British list. On June 24th, 10 days before he ran in Cork, he set what was then considered a world best time for the half-marathon when he ran 62:47 at Welwyn Garden City.

However, at the European Championships that September in Prague, Simmons could only manage 2:15:31 for 13th place, well behind Leonid Moiseyev of the USSR who won in 2:11:58. Maybe, like a lot of runners before and since, the marathon distance just wasn’t for him.

But, as he proved over a long and brilliant career and especially during that spring and summer of 1978, from the roads of Ruislip and Sandbach to the playing field of Páirc Uí Chaoimh, Tony Simmons was certainly one remarkable athlete.

John Walshe's full index of articles can be seen here...

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I used to train with Tony so many years ago during the short period when I worked at Vauxhall Motors of Luton, and to this day found him to be one of the very nicest people which I've ever met.

I followed his impressive running career with interest and for me one of his most remarkable runs was his win in the 1971 Nos Galan midnight race in Mountain Ash, Wales. The record he then set still stands to this day and in setting it he left the great David Bedford trailing in his wake by twenty seconds!