Meeting Charlie

by mphcrawley

Two fifty-one AM, August the 13th 1984. A living room in Darlington, in darkness apart from the flicker of the television. My coach is on his feet. ‘Fuck me,’ he says. ‘Charlie’s going to win the Olympic marathon.’ The leaders have just hit the twenty-two mile mark and Charlie Spedding has stormed through the last drinks station without hesitation, in the lead. Charlie who lives just down the road, who he’s has trained with for years. Charlie who runs all the same routes he does, one of many Gateshead harriers putting in a hundred miles a week on the streets of Durham, Darlington and Gateshead. Charlie didn’t win the Olympic marathon, but he did finish a remarkable third. Distance runners from the North-East brought back two bronzes from the Olympic games in Los Angeles, with Mike McLeod claiming his in a five-way sprint for the line in the 10,000m.

Thirty years later, the grainy VHS footage of that race still never fails to send me out of the door for a run. I’ve watched the last few miles many times. Charlie barrels through a leafy twilight, his long shadow doing battle with that of John Treacy of Ireland. The crowd lining the roadside is four deep, waving American flags and balloons. The helicopter shot of the course reveals the geometry of suburbia – clipped lawns and swimming pools. An incongruous setting, I always thought, for such a heroic run. Charlie’s gaze is fixed an indeterminate distance down a Roman-straight road. Years of hard work are condensed in that look: this is, his expression says, his time. The next fifteen minutes will define his career. In spite of his fatigue, he has a straight-backed, still-shouldered poise.

He retains his good posture, I notice as he enters the cafe in which we’ve arranged to meet. He is shorter than I expected but has a compact, chesty power. I have arrived so early that I have already finished a black coffee when he strides in, on time. This doesn’t help to settle my nerves. Thirty years on, Charlie is still the last British man to have won an Olympic medal in the marathon. While I wait I calculate that his fastest time for the distance works out at the same 4.53 per mile as my best 10km. I feel faintly embarrassed to have asked him to meet me.

I wave vaguely before I remember that he hasn’t the faintest idea who I am. Since I started running ten years ago, Charlie’s has been an enigmatic presence. I knew that he still lived in Durham, that he used to train on the same disused railway lines and riverbanks that I now run on. He makes frequent but unelaborated-upon appearances in my coach’s training diaries (’22 miles with Charlie’) and anecdotes. I’ve read his book, From Last to First, and marveled at its first-hand account of a sports psychology learned intuitively through years of experience. It portrays a man with an exceptional ability to harness his physical talent with an incredible mental strength. For a decade, then, Charlie has influenced my running. But this is the first time we have met. I want to talk to him about cultivating a positive attitude towards racing, a subject to which he dedicates large sections of his book. Marathon runners, they say, need to be as strong mentally as they are physically.

His answers to my questions are considered and direct, his advice concerned mainly with the importance of self belief. The longer the race, he says, the more the mind comes into play. ‘When you stand on the line, you can’t be intimidated by the other runners there – and in a big marathon there will be a lot of them. I used to tell myself that half of the guys I was racing would already be out of the race before the gun had even fired. They would have been ill or injured in the weeks before, or else they would already have defeated themselves inside their own heads. If I could tell myself that, I realised, I only had to beat half of them and I thought I was capable of doing that!’
‘At some point in a marathon, it’s going to get really hard,’ Charlie says, leaning across the table , a glint in his eye. I feel like this is the big lesson. ‘When it does, you’re going to have to tell yourself, in a firm voice, that you won’t slow down. That you decided, sitting here in this cafe, that you could run this pace. That you can run this pace.’ Easier said than done, I think, but I decide to decide what pace per mile I’m going to run early and convince myself that I can maintain it for 26.2 miles.

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Seeking to Experience a Different Life a.k.a. Fuck you Real World, Let’s See How Fast I Can Run a Marathon.

There are a lot of factors behind my decision to run a marathon; I’m not that fast; I seem to get better the longer the distance I run; I’ve always assumed that the marathon is where I would end up; My coach was a marathon runner, and I grew up listening to his stories. The language through which the marathon is evoked intimidates as much as it inspires. Men ‘blow up’ in the marathon. They ‘crack’, like madmen. I remember watching one of the big city marathons as a young runner. Steve Cram was commentating on a group of Kenyans barreling along at a pace of four minutes fifty seconds per mile. One of them was vomiting copiously without breaking stride. ‘This is the marathon’, Crammy said. ‘These are hard men’, his voice mingling awe and revery. The marathon has an epic romance unparalleled in any other event. As the great Emil Zatopek put it, ‘if you want to run, run a mile. If you want to experience a different life, run a marathon.’

I also haven’t found a job yet, so this is the perfect time to focus all my energy on a marathon. I might as well ‘experience a different life’ rather than just experience unemployment. Following a frustrating few months of applying for jobs and even unpaid internships and getting nowhere (I have a degree in English and French literature and a masters in International Development if anyone wants to offer me a job starting on the 14th of April!), it seems clear that the current economic climate wants me to run the London marathon. So for ten weeks, job applications are on hold, I will be doing a few shifts in Start Fitness in Durham, and I’ll be running more than ever. For the first time, my coach has typed out (and colour-coded) a fairly intimidating-looking training schedule. I will try to update the blog more often once I start marathon training.