Guest Blogger Bob Ford looks back
July 14th 1965 – Bislet, Oslo
I was 13 years old, standing amongst a chanting and athletics-mad crowd of several thousand Norwegians, witnessing one of the great runs of all time. This run would resonate within me for many years after that balmy evening in Oslo.
1962 – My Introduction to Running
I had already begun to have an interest in running, having watched my older brother train at the Merchant Taylors school track. One evening in 1962, a tall, gangly man appeared and started chatting to my dad, who introduced me to Mike Wiggs, one of Great Britain’s foremost middle distance runners. That evening, as a 10-year-old boy, I ran my first ever time trial, mentored by the long striding international; 440 yards in 110 seconds. My running career had begun.
Moving to Norway 18 months later was a huge turning point for me. Now I got really stuck into athletics. We lived in Tåsen, a suburb of Oslo, 15 min from the city centre and the Frogner Park Stadium. In the summer, this arena was my training ground for running. It was there that my father befriended Thor Helland, a world class 5,000m/10,000m runner and holder of the Norwegian national records. I spent many after-training sessions listening to this wonderful man, who modestly regaled me with his racing stories. Many times the name of Ron Clarke came up and I was fascinated by what Thor said of him.
I had been to the Bislet stadium on a few occasions, for both athletics meetings and speed skating competitions. Indeed, one winter Bislet hosted the world championships for speed skating and I witnessed the world 10,000 metre record being broken. Little did I know that only a few months later I would witness the astonishing performance by Clarke over the same distance.
The race was not meant to happen
I found out later that the Norwegian promoter of the meeting wanted Clarke to race against Bob Schul, the Olympic 5,000m champion, over the shorter distance. Clarke stood his ground. He felt in great shape and wanted to have a go at the world record for the 10,000m. Clarke was convinced that he had the best possible opportunity to go for the world record. Bislet’s fast, flat cinder track, plus a supportive knowledgeable crowd in stands close to the runners and perfect weather made the conditions ideal.
Jim Hogan, the soon-to-be European Marathon champion, agreed to run with Clarke. But a third runner was required to make the race legal and to ratify a record. Hogan and Clarke went searching and at the last minute they were able to draft in a young Danish runner, Claus Boersen.
The race was on
From the gun I could see that the Dane was out of his depth as the other two runners settled into a hard and steady pace. Hogan ran on the shoulder of Clarke for the early laps, the first of which took 64 seconds. I felt this race would be a strange one to watch and resigned myself to it becoming boring and repetitive. On the latter point I was correct, it did become a bit of a procession. But what an extraordinary procession and most certainly not boring. Very early on Clarke seemed to up the pace, noticeably beginning to move away from Hogan. Clarke was like a very well-oiled machine and one that circumnavigated the track smoothly, effortlessly and relentlessly. Clarke’s head was level, his arms relaxed and he ran with impressive cadence.
The highly knowledgeable crowd had become increasingly aware that something great was unfolding. People started chanting their encouragement, which rapidly increased in volume and followed him round, section by section; a rhythmic vocal form of a Mexican wave. I had never experienced anything like this before, even though I had seen probably 90% of the world’s best athletes over the previous couple of years at Bislet. The atmosphere was electric, the crowd responding to every step he took; the chant in rhythm with each stride. Clarke seemed in a world of his own, head up and totally focussed. It all seemed effortless.
Astonishingly, Clarke broke the stadiums 5,000m record as he passed through 12 and a half laps. He went on to lap Boersen twice and Hogan once. This machine of a man had me transfixed. With an average lap time of 66 seconds for the 25 laps, Clarke crossed the line in 27 min 39.4 sec. A mind boggling 34.6 sec inside the world record, he was the first man to break 28 minutes.
The chanting had carried him down the home straight and reached a crescendo when he broke the tape. Then pandemonium broke out.
Many experts say that this run was one of the most defining in athletics history and set new standards.
A new era had begun … and my love of athletics was now most certainly set in concrete.
Note: The record has been broken 16 times since that wonderful evening in 1965, the last time in 2005 by Bekele, 1 minute 22 seconds quicker than Clarke’s time.