Everyone knows 'wee John McLaughlin'


Having decided to give running 'a go' after failed attempts with rugby and hockey John McLaughlin didn't do too badly. Athletes the
calibre of Thomas Wessinghage, John Graham, Alberto Cova, Ari Paunonen, Eddy de Pauw, Pat Porter, John Robson, Pierre Levisse and Leon Schots at one stage in their respective careers felt the brunt of the 'wee mans' ability! I recently spent an engaging hour running and reminiscing through the surrounding paths of the picturesque Lagan towpath with this very modest and unassuming Northern Ireland distance great.

THE BEGINNING

I was always interested in football but as I attended Annadale Grammar there was no provision for this and it was rugby instead. Well with my physique and stature I was no use to any team and quickly I was off trying out hockey. This was something else I just couldn't adjust to, partially because I wanted to be a footballer. The final alternative as it happened was cross-country.

This simply involved going for a run, there was nothing more to it than that. So week in week out as the hockey lads went along to the pavilion for hockey I went for a run. At this early stage it wasn't really about who was the best and I certainly didn't perceive that I had a talent for running. In between I was happy to still get some football as I regularly represented the Boys' Brigade on a Saturday. When compared to nowadays there was a better structure to the schools' cross-country as we would regularly have matches against other schools such as Campbell College and R.B.A.I. These kept the interest up although at this stage I wasn't taking things particularly seriously.

It wasn't really until an older pupil called Neill Morton who was responsible for the organisation of the cross-country club helped to instil in me a real interest for the sport. Neill had a real passion for running and he showed a genuine interest in the development and promotion of others. He was very determined for the school to do well and with his infectious drive it would. Under Morton's tutelage and without making many headlines I managed to surface in lower sixth form with a second place finish in the Ulster schools' cross-country behind the late John Baillie. The best I ever performed at the Irish schools' cross-country was third behind Greg Hannon and the great Eamonn Coghlan. On the track a third place finish in the 5,000m at the Irish Schools' was my best. At this stage of my development I was probably doing only around 20 miles per week! It didn't take too long to register that although I was getting older I wasn't becoming big in any shape or form! Essentially, I had a physique ideal for running.

In Sept of 1970 I joined a club called Achilles, which before that was Casement. It was at Achilles that I met a very inspirational character in Tom Clarke who coached me throughout my career. He was a great man who was able to enthuse and motivate me. He also had an ability to plan and to tailor the training to my strengths and weaknesses. Naturally the training had now taken on a more serious role and certainly I was devoting the effort in tandem with the thought and application devoted by Tom. I have to say 1971 was a break through year in that I was 19th in the Northern Ireland 'junior' and then remarkably a few weeks later managed to finish 5th in the 'senior'. Explain that one! Actually the run in the junior was a decent run. In the senior I just had one of those runs when everything went right for me and I suppose it was a culmination of my training coming to fruition and to a lesser degree my burgeoning experience. In those there was no World Cross Country it was simply called the International Cross-country championships, it wasn't until the IAAF ratified it in 1973 that it became the World Cross Country championships. So after my fine 5th in the Northern Ireland senior behind Mike Teer I was selected to go off on my first International trip!

It wasn't to Scotland, Wales or England but to the San Sebastian Lasarte Hippodrome in Spain. I call recall that the team manager was the late Cecil Wilson and for a relatively nave 19 year old runner from Northern Ireland the occasion was a fantastic experience. Although also still only 19 first and second place belonged to seasoned juniors Nick Rose and Ray Smedley, athletes that I would cross paths with many times in the future. I finished 46th out of 46 and Eamonn Coghlan finished 18th and John Baillie a fine 26th. Although the occasion got to me on the day I thoroughly soaked up the experience on my first of what turned out to be many foreign excursions. I had certainly progressed a long way in a short time from the fields, surrounding paths and trails of Annadale Grammar to the Hippodrome in Spain! My training continued to go well and fortunately without injury and in 1972 I managed to win the Northern Ireland 'junior' and finish second in the 'senior'.

 

MOST MEMORABLE PERFORMANCES/DISAPPOINTMENTS

I take great pride in the fact that I won three Northern Ireland senior cross-country titles (1974, 1982, 1983). Although I was running well on these three respective years the makeup of the field in those days was far superior than it is of today. The quality was such that on any occasion there were a number of athletes capable of winning. For any runner regardless of their ability as long as they have competitiveness the challenge of testing yourself is always a great motivator. For me being able to challenge myself on the world stage was always potentially frightening, invigorating and painful! My early experiences in the International Cross country were difficult bapticisms- 46th as a junior and then a year later in 1972 as a senior in Cambridge, Coldham Common-98th out of 102. The top three in the 1972 race were Gaston Roelants, Mariano Haro and Ian Stewart. Imagine as a 20-year-old lining up against these athletes over 7.5 miles of cross country! After an 80th in the dusty, warm atmosphere of Rabat in 1975 and an 88th in the horrendously muddy conditions of Bellahouston Park, Glasgow in 1978 I was soon due a good one! Although I suppose no one ever owes you anything at the World cross, a race many regard as, 'The Toughest Race in the World'.

In 1980 at the age of 29 I travelled with the Northern Ireland team to the Longchamp Racecourse in Paris. The course was run over 5 laps resulting in an overall distance of 12,580m. On each lap there were two sets of steeplechase barriers and another obstacle of wooden logs. Well with my size you can imagine it posed a little more problematic to me than it did to others! However, I managed to run really well ending up in 58th position. A few years later in 1982 this time in Rome I managed to consolidate my position of a few years previous with a 61st place finish. Again, I managed to claim a few scalps which is what every runner responds to but when they are renowned world class athletes you read about and watch regularly on TV it's very satisfying. In those days the team set up was very different than it is today. Instead of only having six to run and 4 to score it was 9 to run and 6 to score. Although the Ethiopians were very strong then with the Kenyans in the ascendancy just think about having 9 each of them to contend with. Aside from that there were always very strong England, USSR, Fed. Rep of Germany, France and United States teams. At a European level I competed in the European clubs' cross-country championships on two occasions for Duncairn and four for Annadale, with a best of 20th in 1984 and 1987.

Through a few contacts I managed to make in America the occasion arose in 1983 of spending 9 weeks there. As training was going well I grabbed the offer. During the 9-week stay I raced on 9 occasions breaking 4 course records. Probably the best run of this stint was the world famous Falmouth road race over 7.3 miles, quite a bizarre distance. It is regarded as the premier road race in America and previous winners have included the likes of: Alberto Salazar, Frank Shorter, Bill Rodgers, Craig Virgin, Rod Dixon and Khalid Khannouchi. I managed to finish a fine 15th; this was a pleasing finish in itself but even better in light of the fact that it was the final place to secure prize money!

Claiming a Northern Ireland record has always been special to me and so my best of 2.15.43 for the marathon recorded in Korso, Finland was that. To think that you are the fastest person ever in your country can but only be a little special to you. My half marathon time of 63.24 from Lyon in France was another to bring immense satisfaction. In the field was Pierre Levisse, a quality athlete who had finished as high up as 7th and 9th in the World Cross of 1984/85. I just decided to go off from the gun and I won by about two minutes.

In the Northern Ireland Marathon Championships of 1973 eight competitors toed the line! Mike Teer the experienced athlete went off at a crazy pace and I ran in second place until approx the 24.5-mile point where I eventually caught him and was the solitary finisher! I recorded 2.26 but regardless of the time as I was a developing athlete I reflect upon this performance as one that demonstrated that I had the determination and conviction necessary to compete at the distance. If the marathon distance isn't tough enough in itself in those days it was made even more difficult because regardless of the weather conditions it was illegal to accept drinks before the six-mile mark. Thereafter, drink stations were only after every five miles. So if you missed a drinks station for whatever reason then you had to wait ten miles until the next station! A few months later I recorded 2.17 which certainly proved my worth to finish 8th in the AAA championships.

On two occasions I competed in the English National cross-country champs. In those days England were arguably the top country in the world and so the quality was very high with over 1000 club runners. In 1980 at Leicester I ended up 26th and the following year at Parliament Hill I was 17th. The mud was horrendous in 1981; I have never seen anything like it before or since. There wasn't a visible blade of grass! At one point in the course there was a v-shaped ditch in which athletes actually became stuck, as they didn't have the momentum to propel themselves out of it. The course was three laps of three miles and certainly coming from Northern Ireland where the laps were normally one mile each this made pace judgement that bit more difficult. I remember passing quality runners such as Dennis Coates and Ray Smedley, both Olympic representatives in the final hundred metres. I can tell you I certainly struggled on the 15 minute run back to the hotel!


As for disappointments the two 'outstanding' ones are the two occasions that I competed in the Commonwealth Games. In the Christchurch Games of 1974 things had gone to plan prior to leaving, however, on arrival at the village I unfortunately caught a bug, came down with a cold and a 'touch of the runs'. Even with the aid of medication it just was awful and at one stage I was advised not to run. Well that is easier said than done. You are all that way away from home, you think about all the training you have put in, the sacrifices and there is the pride in representing your country. Two days before the race I had to 'rush' to the toilet on 15 occasions, not ideal preparation of an 800m race let alone a marathon! So needless to say I had to drop out somewhere around the 20 mile mark. Sean Kyle quickly picked me up in a car and within a few minutes we had to make an urgent stop so that I could be sick. Unfortunately the games of 1978 were another disappointment as my carbo-loading regime failed to work for me and I had no alternative again but to pull out in the latter stages. Although I managed 2.15 for the marathon and on a few occasions 2.17 I really felt that I was worth better than that. Certainly my half marathon time would indicate that but in the latter stages of the marathon I really began to suffer. I feel my small physique didn't do me any favours in terms of retaining the necessary strength to maintain the pace.

Sandwiched between my two good runs in the World Cross country was a poor one in 1981. The race was held in Madrid which had an altitude of around 665m. This appeared to have an effect on the majority of those from the home nations. I ended up in 173rd position and whilst on the bus returning us to the hotel afterwards the Irish athlete Jerry Kiernan was busy looking over my shoulder as I perused the results. He enquired as to where I had finished and he almost laughed as I replied. With such a high placing he automatically assumed that he was way in front of me until I flicked through the pages…… Jerry you were……… 199th! Well the bus erupted, although I have to say that in the two years following Jerry distinguished himself with placings of 26th and 29th. There really were some strange positions take for example, Mike McLeod the brilliant English runner finishing in 208th place, the year after he was 5th!


RIVALS/HEROES

The main rivals were Mike Teer, the Hannon brothers; Greg and Gerry and Paul Lawther, certainly over the country as he was concentrating on the track. In the latter years it was Terry Greene and Deon McNeilly who was up and coming. It's never easy for an experienced athlete nearing the end of their career having to face a hungry, youthful one. Aside from the aforementioned in Northern Ireland unless you were running very well there were a number of others capable of pressing you and I respected them all. When I competed in the south of Ireland there were a plethora of talented runners such as: Treacy, Cusack, McDaid, Coghlan, Deegan, Leddy, Kiernan, Woods, O'Toole, Hartnett, Taylor, to name but a few and I could continue, so a difficult battle was always in hand.

As for heroes when I had just entered the scene Derek Graham had enjoyed a wonderful career and was near retiring. He was great athlete and a fine inspiration to anyone up and coming. He demonstrated that someone from a small place like Northern Ireland could compete with the best athletes throughout Great Britain and further a field. In the early part of my career it was Dave Bedford and Ian Stewart and in the latter it was Lasse Viren and Carlos Lopes.

COUNTRIES RACED/VISITED.

A major privilege of representing your country is that you are afforded the opportunity to visit many other places. Aside from competing extensively throughout the home countries(!) I was able to compete in the following countries, sometimes on a number of occasions.

  • America
  • Finland
  • Israel
  • France
  • Belgium
  • Holland
  • Slovakia
  • Spain
  • Morocco
  • New Zealand

TRAINING.

In the early days with Neill Morton coaching things were progressed sensibly and gradually. The mileage was relatively low and this worked. However, when at the age of 21 I embarked on my marathon career things really took off mileage and intensity wise under the guidance of Tom Clarke. Although I moved to Duncairn Harriers in 1976 and then on to Annadale Striders in 1982 Tom continued to coach me. While at Annadale Striders I had the good fortune of being guided by the incomparable Tony McKnight who oversaw my training. When I was studying at Stranmillis between the years of 1971-1975 I was regularly running around 100 miles per week. This then peaked at 140 miles per week. Typically this would have included:

" Sunday- Regularly 20miles peaking at 30 miles when in preparation for the marathon, otherwise regularly 15 miles per week.
" Running twice a day except for Sunday- 6 miles in the morning during school term and 10 miles otherwise.
" A hard fartlek over anything up to 10 mile
" Two track sessions per week. One long reps often 6x1 mile (68 per lap pace) with 1 lap jog rec. This was increased as necessary up to 10x1 mile. The other track session was short reps, typically 25x400m (64 per lap pace)
" On occasions an accurate 10-mile measured from my house often run in 53.

I would manage to cover a lot of miles on a Sunday and it was not uncommon for me to run 45mins from my house to meet the lads. Run one and three quarter hours with them and then run the final 45 minutes back to my house. There you have it three hours of running, as easy as that!! The final three to four miles were particularly difficult even in terms of maintaining running in a straight line! Concentration indeed was needed! In those days there was no 'Lucozade Sport' or the small energy gel sachets people transport with them for long runs. I waited until I returned home!
I trained hard and did big miles, which I suppose was the mentality in those days. Dave Bedford, Ian Stewart and many of the other British runners were churning out big mileage. When my days of the marathon were finished and I concentrated on the track I still maintained my hard work ethic but naturally the volume decreased but the intensity increased. Throughout my career I was very fortunate with injuries and this meant that I was able to have a fair amount of consistency and to put together a solid, regular pattern of training.

When I hear specific details about the training patterns of athletes nowadays it's no wonder why the performances have decreased. They do not train hard enough in order to run the times they so often aspire to achieving. It's simple logic that if you want to run fast or to record a fast time, somewhere in your weeks training there must be a component that will help induce this. Also all too often there appears to be too much self preservation and that an athlete will not run because there is the slightest niggle, they would much rather take a rest or spectate. Now I am not advocating running when you should not but taking a few defeats or knocks along the way is all part of the sport. I can recall once that I was kindly encouraged to run in a 10km road race to help promote it as I was the in form athlete at that time. However, I had been suffering with a sore groin, nothing major but it certainly was there. I reassured one of the organisers that I regularly go for a three-mile jog before a race and if it is ok I will be on the starting line. However, on the morning of the race it was still a bit sore but I decided to toe the line. With the race underway I managed to get through the race, and win in 29.11. The niggle didn't bother me again and so I think sometimes you have to go out and try things.


P.B

  • 1500M - 3.54
  • 3000M - 8.09
  • 5000M - 13.57
  • 10000M - 28.40
  • 10K road - 29.05
  • 10 miles - 47.10
  • Half marathon - 63.24
  • Marathon - 2.15.43


By just having concentrated on the marathon initially in my career meant that I lacked the speed hence my slow 1500m and 5000m times. As the distance went on the more comfortable I became and certainly in the marathon I was very capable of being on for a good time to about twenty miles, thereafter I seemed to struggle a bit! That said, I am particularly happy with the half marathon time. Certainly by looking at my times in conjunction with the IAAF athletics scoring tables my half time equates to a 28.19 timing for the 10km and a 46.52 for the 10-mile. Nowadays a 2.15 marathon time is extremely creditable and in 2005 it would have been ranked 6th in the U.K.

In 1979 Greg Hannon recorded 2.13.06 to win the AAA marathon championships and I certainly think that I was capable of somewhere in around that time. Unfortunately, things didn't turn out that way. I competed in the same race and ran awful as I appeared to suffer severely from the tropic weather conditions which manifested themselves in…..Coventry! Prior to leaving Belfast the weather was really cold, so much so that I had to train in a tracksuit something which I rarely did. Normally the only occasions that I would have donned a tracksuit would have been for early morning runs. Clearly the heat did not effect Greg as his time is still the Northern Ireland record! On the track I was very pleased to be the first Northern Ireland runner to dip under the 29 minute barrier for the 10,000m. The great Derek Graham was the record holder and to eclipse such a record was something special.

In a 10,000m race in the Scottish champs I was pushing on for a good time but over such a long distance it's important to get a little help from other competitors. Lawrie Spence, who I knew well, wasn't really interested in helping, but more concerned with sitting on my shoulder. At once stage I moved into lane two intimating to him to take his turn, needless to say he didn't oblige! I ended up running 28.42, desperately close to dipping under the 28.40 mark, which I had envisaged doing. Into the bargain he out sprinted me down the home straight for a win! But that's sport and that's the way things happen sometimes.

IF I WAS TO DO IT ALL AGAIN.

Thankfully I do not have many regrets when I reflect on my athletics career, I travelled and competed in many great places, trained with some fantastic athletes and thoroughly enjoyed the sport. I met some great people in Achilles, Duncairn Harriers and at Annadale Striders and I forged great lasting friendships. I suppose though that I would not have focused on the marathon at such a young age of 21. That really is unheard of nowadays, too young, you need to acquire the experience and your body needs to develop over a period of sustained racing and training. I seemed to get sucked into it in that it was a realistic possibility for selection for the 1974 Commonwealth Games. After those games instead of concentrating on the 10,000m or the 5,000m I just simply got caught up in a vacuum of the marathon which resulted in me very proudly gaining selection for the games of 1978.

With reflection there is always the natural notion of thinking you could have done better. However, my performances and times demonstrate that I didn't do too badly. I was competing once in a road race in Whitney running around the beautiful Marlborough house. A Northern Ireland team-mate called Tom Annett recognised the great English runner Bernie Ford (He won 8 medals from the World Cross country champs) and in conversation mentioned that I was racing. Ford's swift response was, "why doesn't he stay in Ireland where he belongs?!" I broke the course record to finish second with Bernie breaking it even more to win!

It was nice to be respected for being able to run; maybe it wasn't such a bad idea forgetting about the football!

My gratitude to John for availing of the time and for being such as interesting interviewee, thanks!


Annadale Striders /Keith McClure. www.annadalestriders.co.uk