The Blaydon racer lost to history in dark blue shadows A brief account of a forgotten World record
Brendan Foster wasn’t the first athletics World record-holder from the North East when he ran his 7:35.2 for 3000 metres at the Gateshead Stadium on 3 August 1974 – not even by a century or so. Jack White, a nationally-renowned professional runner known as “The Gateshead Clipper”, had achieved the fastest ever performances for two miles, three miles and six miles during the years 1860 to 1863. White’s six-mile time of 29:50 set on 11 May 1863 on the uneven cinder-and-earth 200-yard-circumference track at Hackney Wick, in London, was not beaten by another Briton for 73 years – and his successor was also a North-Easterner, Alec Burns, of Elswick Harriers.
There no doubting Jack White’s ability in that Victorian age because he won dozens of top-class races from half-a-mile to 10 miles during a career that lasted from 1857 to 1870, and Brendan Foster himself readily recognised the exceptional talent of his predecessor of long before. Foster provided the foreword to a booklet about White published in 2007, saying that White’s six-mile time “was one which many well-trained club athletes would find difficult to emulate today in designer spikes and on all-weather tracks”. Foster may not be so readily aware that a contemporary of his from the same region of England had set a World record the year before Foster’s 3000 had established Gateshead’s reputation as an athletics centre of excellence.
Furthermore, the legacy of World record-holders from Oxford University is an abiding one, even if its halcyon days as an athletics power are but a distant memory. Lovelock, Bannister, Chataway, Hemery are the obvious names that come to mind – Keating is one that doesn’t. Yet Joe Keating remains the most recent member of that select and studious group, and he achieved his record only a year after graduating from St Peter’s College in 1972. He had not made any major impression as a runner while at Oxford, and he did not ever take part in the Inter-Varsity annual cross-country race, but then the standard was rather higher in those days as the winner for Cambridge in 1971, for example, was a future Northern Counties’ champion, Chris Garforth, of Gateshead Harriers.
Keating’s college, incidentally, had an athletic heritage from its very beginnings. It had been founded in 1929 by the Bishop of Liverpool, whose twin sons, Christopher and Noel Chavasse, had both competed at 400 metres in the 1908 London Olympics. Christopher became the first Master of the College until he was appointed Bishop of Rochester in 1940. Among the most notable of the graduates is Ken Loach, now into his 80s, the television and film director famed for his social realism, whose most notable work includes “Cathy Come Home”, “Kes” and “Looking for Eric”.
A St Peter’s undergraduate, John Godding, had won the 1966 Inter-Varsity cross-country race, and the college provided three members of the university cross-country team during Keating’s years there, but then a mere 7½ miles jaunt across the fields would have been no more than a gentle warm-up for him. Already in 1970, still aged only 21, he had made his marathon debut of 2:35:17, and by 1972 he had improved to 2:24:26 in the Maxol international race in Manchester, though that only got him 42nd place on a day on which the first 24 finishers – 18 of them Britons – beat 2 hours 20 minutes. As Ron Hill and Neil Shuttleworth pointed out in their excellent history of marathon-racing in Manchester, published in 2003, “This had been the greatest depth of marathon running ever seen in Great Britain, probably the World”. Yet even this classic distance presumably wasn’t far enough for Keating because he was to achieve his World record in an event that, if it is to be compared, for instance, to Bannister’s first sub-four-minute mile back in 1954, was 40 times lengthier and required some 3¾ hours of further effort.
Joseph Keating, whose full initials were “J.A.C.”, was born on 19 November 1948 and came from the town of Cramlington, nine miles north of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Cramlington’s most notable citizens otherwise over the years have been mostly professional footballers, and no doubt Keating had his share of the game while at school. However, his World-record achievement was of rather different magnitude than 90 minutes of chasing a leather ball as he was to run 40 miles on the cinder track at Epsom, in Surrey, in 3hr 49min 32sec during the morning and early afternoon of Saturday 28 April 1973 (from 9.30 a.m. to just before 1.20 p.m., to be precise), and Keating won by more than half-an-hour.
Understandably, 40-mile track races have never been a frequent occurrence – apart from anything else, they required a great deal of planning beforehand and organisation on the day – but they had a long if intermittent history. The first noted performance had been as far back as 1884 when J.E. Fowler-Dixon (a future athletics journalist of renown) had recorded 4:46:54 in Birmingham on the decidedly out-of-season date of December 29. It took more than 80 years for a time of four hours to be approached as John Tarrant, the famed “ghost runner” from Salford Harriers, achieved 4:03:28 in a hastily-arranged event on the Maindy Stadium cinder track, in Cardiff, on 5 November 1966, and a year later (4 November 1967) Lynn Hughes, of Newport Harriers, improved that to 3:58:53.2 at the same venue.
Jeff Julian, of New Zealand, who was one of the World’s leading marathon-runners of his era (2:14:38 in 1963), ran 3:53:36 on an all-weather track in Auckland on 3 May 1969, and later the same year, 13 December, this record was reduced to 3:49:49 by a very fine Scottish distance-runner, Alistair Wood, who had also produced the fastest ever marathon by a Briton of 2:13:45 in 1966 and had placed 4th in the European Championships in 1962. Wood’s 40-mile race had taken place on the new all-weather track at Pitreavie, and the weather had been entirely as would be expected in Scotland at that time of the year. The start had been delayed an hour for the surface to thaw !
Keating’s record-breaking run at Epsom was given far less coverage by “Athletics Weekly” than the AAA national 12-stage road relay taking place the same day at Allestree, Derby, where the combined efforts of Ian and Peter Stewart plus 10 other members of Birchfield Harriers produced a winning time of slightly longer duration – 4hr 6min 10sec. Others in relay action that day included Jim Alder, David Black, Bernie Ford, Roy Fowler, Mike Freary, Colin Kirkham, David Moorcroft, Gerry North and Allan Rushmer. So it was little wonder that “AW” gave them preference.
So it’s a delightful surprise all this time afterwards that Keating’s accomplishment of 44 years ago has been brought out of almost total obscurity by the recent appearance on youtube of a primitive but highly entertaining film of the race which is so absorbing that even the lugubrious commentary and the totally irrelevant musical accompaniment can be ignored. The Epsom track had no spectator accommodation and the recorders and time-keepers were gathered cozily under temporarily erected tarpaulin covers as the runners interminably circled the track in front of them, and only the tail-enders were dampened by the rain which had threatened throughout the day. Keating had taken part in another of the brief series of annual 40-mile races at Cardiff’s Maindy Stadium on 28 October 1972, when there had been 32 starters, of which eight others also ran at Epsom, and he had won by almost exactly 20 minutes in 3:51:55.
Keating was by now a prolific distance-runner who in the six weeks leading up to his Epsom 40-mile race had taken part in the South Shields 20 miles (18 March), the Orion 15 miles through Epping Forest (24 March) and the Finchley 20 miles (14 April). At South Shields he had finished only 16 seconds behind a future GB marathon international, Dave Cannon, in 1:43:19. In the famed annual Finchley event Keating had placed 6th in 1:44:10 as John Jones, of Windsor, Slough & Eton, had won in 1:42:21. Originally a member of the Blaydon Harrier & Athletics Club, Keating had moved to the London area after graduating from Oxford for further studying and to pursue his career as a teacher. Yet for the Epsom race he curiously wore the black-and-yellow striped vest and black shorts of his former club even though he had joined Ealing & Southall the previous year.
He ran two remarkably even opening 10-mile “splits” of 56:27 and 56:33 to reach halfway on 3:46 pace, apparently unconcerned that Cavin Woodward – another hugely prolific distance-runner of that era – had set off fast and was still in the lead by a long way in 1:50:16. Certainly, the youtube film shows Keating running strongly with a firm stride and arm action, and another 10 miles in 57:52 enabled him to pass the tiring Woodward and reach 30 miles almost five minutes ahead (2:50:52 to 2:55:32). Don Turner, who also took part in the race, provided the report for “Athletics Weekly” and noted feelingly that “Woodward then retired, leaving Keating out on his own and going through a rough patch. However, he got going well enough to realise that he still had a chance, and spurred on by enthusiastic refreshment attendants he succeeded by a fine margin”. So fine, in fact, that he beat Alistair Wood’s record set in 1969 by only 17 seconds.
The leading finishers in the Epsom 40-mile track race were as follows: 1 Joe Keating (Ealing & Southall) 3:49:32, 2 Don Turner (Epsom & Ewell) 4:21:18, 3 Don Davey (Leamington) 4:24:27, 4 Mick Casse (Cambridge H) 4:25:40.
Still full of energy a week after the Epsom 40-miler, Keating ran what would remain the fastest marathon of his life – 2:21:46 for 3rd place to Jim Mouat (Hillingdon) and Tom O’Reilly (Small Heath) on 5 May at Rugby. It’s a sobering thought that Keating’s marathon time ranked 35th fastest in Britain that year – 43 years later, in 2016, it would have been 21st. As for the 20-mile distance that Keating also savoured, that seems to have been swept away in this day and age in favour of the half-marathon, and one can’t help thinking that the latter is not anywhere near the same adequate preparation for the full marathon. Within a month of his fastest marathon, Keating raced the distance twice more, finishing 4th in 2:28:20 as Cavin Woodward, of Leamington, set a record 2:23:43 on the dauntingly hilly Isle of Wight course, where Keating had won the year before in 2:28:22. Then he was 32nd in the Maxol marathon in Manchester on 3 June in 2:25:25 (Woodward 16th in 2:19:50).
Tireless as ever, Keating took part on 28 July in the annual Woodford-to-Southend event, sponsored by the Road Runners’ Club and Southend Corporation, which covered 37 miles 600 yards, and he pulverised the course record by more than 11 minutes, winning in 3:38:45, with Woodward just over three minutes behind. Even though continuing his studies at London University’s Imperial College and teaching part-time, Keating still managed to fit in between those commitments 125-to-140 miles a week in training. The Woodford-to-Southend race, like so many other ultra-distances on the road, including London-to-Brighton (up to 56 miles), Liverpool-to-Blackpool (48½ miles), Exeter-to-Plymouth (44 miles), Edinburgh-to-Glasgow (also 44 miles) and Isle of Man (40 miles), has long since disappeared from the calendar, and increased traffic density is largely to blame. But with the collapse in interest in serious marathon running – 186 Britons sub-2:25 in 1985, 38 sub-2:25 in 2016 – would there even be enough entries to make such races worthwhile in the very unlikely circumstances that any of them were revived ?
Keating very nearly deprived Alistair Wood of another record in the London-to-Brighton race on 30 September, which that year was just over 52 miles in length. Cavin Woodward was again the pacemaker, but Keating led at 30 miles and was less than a minute down on Wood’s record-setting schedule, but he then seemed to ease off and was 2½ minutes slower at 39 miles before picking up the pace in the last six miles and finishing in 5:11:30, which was only 28 seconds slower than Wood had done. Woodward came in a little over five minutes later.
As if he hadn’t done enough already during 1973, Keating took on an even more extended challenge in the form of a 24-hour race on the Stompond Lane track at Walton-on-Thames, in Surrey, starting at 6 o’clock on the evening of Saturday 3 November, Keating was one of 15 competitors, and that most enthusiastic of press reporters, Tom Pollak, vividly set the scene beforehand in his subsequent coverage for “Athletics Weekly”: “Attendants and competitors arrived and soon they had pitched their tents along the back straight to convert the midfield into something that resembled a base for the Foreign Legion”. At 50 miles Ron Bentley, a 43-year-old steel-company director and a member of Tipton Harriers, led by a long way from Keating (6:08:11 to 6:36:34), but the latter had been suffering early on and retired after completing just over 100 miles in 18½ hours. The redoubtable Bentley was reduced to a walk for most of the last hour, shrouded in blankets. Yet even so he set a new World record of 161 miles 545 yards (259.603 kilometres).
Keating’s 40-mile record was eventually beaten – but only narrowly – nine years later by another ultra-distance stalwart, Don Ritchie, who ran 3:48:35 at the Copthall Stadium, Hendon, on 16 October 1982. Of course, these times achieved by Keating and Ritchie are not exceptional by 21st Century international standards, and there are now any number of Kenyans and Ethiopians who – if they gave their minds to it – could run a comfortable 20 minutes faster, but it is very unlikely to happen. After all, there is no obvious commercial advantage, and the idea of a dozen or so dedicated amateurs setting out to run 160 laps of a track simply for the pleasure of it is altogether quaint in 2017, when the common man’s (or woman’s) ambition – commendable as it is – seems to extend no further than plodding round 10 kilometres in something marginally under the hour.
Joe Keating – presumably by now concentrating on his teaching commitments – took part only occasionally in ultra-distance races during the rest of his competitive career, though he was not far off his marathon best with 2:23:49 at Harlow in 1975 and 2:23:53 for 5th on the Polytechnic Harriers’ Windsor-to-Chiswick course two years later. He is deserving of greater recognition. He is not mentioned even on the Blaydon Harrier & Athletics club website, and Brendan Foster, if he knew of it, would no doubt be one of the first to acknowledge Keating’s forgotten talent.
Note: The youtube film of the Epsom 40 miles can be accessed at www.youtube.com/watch?v = ØrXz9gwZN 8&feature = youtu.be.