"To be part of the Golden Era was something special"- Paul Lawther
To any athletics enthusiast throughout the world, the names of Coe, Cram and Ovett are inextricably linked to Great Britain. Once upon a time Great Britain was at the helm of World middle and long-distance running. Athletes were revered and coaches admired and respected. In the 50's it was athletes like Bannister, Chataway and Ibbotson leading the way. In the 60' it was Pirie, Wilkinson and Whetton. Through the early 70's a new bred of athlete emerged in the charismatic David Bedford, a relentless trainer and fearless competitor along with Ian Stewart and Brendan Foster. Their success laid the foundations for emerging talent in Kearns, Stayings, Clement, Rose, McGuinness and Robson amongst a host of others. After the retirement of Derek Graham (refer to his interview) who firmly put Northern Ireland on the athletics map there was a need for another successful middle distance athlete. Although he is now seen casually taking photographs at the many local athletic events for the Annadale Striders website (www.annadalestriders.co.uk) for a period in the mid 70's to the early 80's Paul Lawther played his part in upholding the quality of Northern Ireland and British athletics.
Running in the beginning was the same for me as it is for so many people simply giving it a go at school. I went to Annadale Grammar where there was an established tradition of competition and success. Ken McEntee was an Ulster Schools' winner at intermediate level and John McLaughlin (refer to his interview for further information) had already won a few titles and he was beginning to establish himself as a prospect for the future. Although the running was casual in terms of real commitment by 2nd form I amongst others, was probably out training 5 days a week. Near the school we had a 2.5 mile trail circuit in Belvoir Park and we did a lot of training there. This was far from easy but it developed our endurance.
Certainly by 3rd form I was beginning to take the running a little more seriously and I had adopted a much more regular pattern to my training. This continued through 4th and 5th form under the direction of the knowledgeable and motivated Neill Morton. By 5th form my training was now extended to seven days a week, it was indeed serious now! Competition was quite regular then as there were many more opportunities to compete. There was a vibrant schools' league in operation as well as inter schools' races and relays.
Although I had been running for a number of years, successes were not immediate but with sustained hard work things began to take shape with some encouraging results. In those early days I tended to do a few steeplechase races as I felt that I lacked the basic speed necessary to compete successfully at a higher level over the 800m or the 1500m.
It was while I was competing in the heats of the 1972 AAA youth's steeplechase at Kirby that I witnessed the brilliant talent of Steve Ovett for the first time. In the 400m he was 'dead last' entering the home straight and he won it at a canter in 49.1 having won it the previous year in 49.8. My immediate and lasting impression was that he was the best talent that I had ever seen. The next major competition (Along the way through the years I had won District cross country and track titles) I won was the Ulster Schools' Intermediate cross country with a certain Matt Shields finishing 3rd. Though it was not until I was in 6th form that I achieved an Ulster Schools' track title winning the 800m in 1:52.8 after a 52 odd first lap. I also won the Irish Schools' with the same tactic of a swift initial lap finishing in 1:51.8 for a new Schools' record. While representing Ulster in the Schools' Inter-Provincials I enjoyed a busy day with wins in the 800m, the 1500m and the 5000m all within an hour and a half. I believe I am still the only one to have recorded this trio of victories. Off the back of my successes I was fortunate to gain an invitation to compete in the Gamble Simms one-mile race at the Shorts ground. Again my commitment to training and my burgeoning race acumen were paying dividends, as I recorded 4:03.1, not too bad for a 17 year old on a gravel track! Winning the Irish schools' meant that I gained Irish selection to compete in the British Schools' International in Blackburn. I continued my deep vein of form with another victory and a record of 3:46.8; after a hard battle with Mick O'Shea the titleholder. Both my 1500m victories (Irish and British Schools') were excellent wins as I defeated the very talented Mick O'Shea who went on to represent Ireland with distinction culminating with an appearance in the 1980 Olympics in Moscow over 5000m.
Fresh from success at the British to close the season I competed in the AAA Junior 1500m in Wolverhampton and I came away with another victory in a time of 3:47.2. I was particularly pleased with this achievement as it placed my name firmly with the British Junior selectors. The proudest moment in my athletic career so far was when I stepped onto the track in Duisburg, Germany as I made my British debut at junior level. I was the sole British representative in the 1500m with a certain Steve Ovett the representative in the 800m along with Anthony Dyke. Although I ran well in the heat and qualified for the final I was severely spiked in the process and was unable to take my well earned place in the final line-up. Frustratingly I had to watch Gheorghe Ghipu win the title in 3.45.78 with Nicolae Onescu also of Romania in second with 3.46.07. Athletes in the field included stars of the future such as Karl Fleschen and Marc Nevens. The late Chris Temple, a respected athletics correspondent of the Sunday Times later remarked that the incident cruelly prevented me from taking a medal. Indeed that would have been some achievement. My roommate Steve Ovett won the 800m gold in a narrow finish from Willi Wulbeck with the late Ivo Van Damme finishing in 4th.
In January of 1974 I had the fortune of trading my schoolbooks for the warmer climes of Christchurch, New Zealand as I had gained selection for the Northern Ireland Commonwealth Games Team. I was just 18years and one month old! Despite reducing my personal best to 3.43.1 in my heat and in the process establishing a new British Junior Record I failed to reach the final by a solitary place! My time is still ranked 14th in the U.K. all-time junior rankings. The occasion was incredible and to run so well when it mattered demonstrated that I had the temperament for the big occasion. I ran the best I could reaching Neill Morton's target of three laps in three minutes. Thereafter it was all about what I could do for the remaining 300m which I did in 43.1 sec. It was certainly an experience to run in the same heat as the great Tanzanian athlete Filbert Bayi as I knew that he would take it out fast. A few days later John McLaughlin and myself revelled with the masses as we witnessed probably the greatest exhibition of uninhabited front running from Bayi in the final. The noise in the stadium was incredible as we watched Bayi run aggressively all the way to Olympic Gold and a new World Record of 3.32.16. John Walker of New Zealand broke the old record but still lost.
It wasn't long until I was away again on my travels, this time it was to Milan where I went close to my junior record with a time of 3.44. As I was achieving a lot of success over 1500m I managed to get an invite into a 2000m race at Crystal Palace. I again justified my inclusion in a quality field recording a time of 5:11.65 to finish 6th but more importantly I had established a new European Junior record. Aside from the new record I knew that I had performed well as the athlete that finished right behind me was Dan Shaughnessy and he had ended up 5th in the 1974 Commonwealth Games 10,000m in 28:14. After all these foreign excursions I now had to focus my attentions on the Irish Schools', only this time it was the 1500m that I had my sights on. My preparations for the race were totally bizarre! I had to sit an A Level exam, which had been rearranged due to the Ulster Workers' Strike in the morning. After competing my paper, without any undue rush (!) a fellow competitor Linda McCurry drove me down to Dublin. I basically had to get changed in the car as we approached the stadium. Out I jumped and managed to just about make it. As the race started I tucked in for a lap or so and then shortly after I just went for it. It was very satisfying getting the victory albeit in a slow 3:50 but all the more so after the pre-race hassle.
MOST MEMORABLE RACES/ DISAPPOINTMENTS
When I reflect
on my career I realise that I am very fortunate to be able to select a
number of races that standout as being memorable for a variety of reasons.
The races that I have selected are in no specific order of importance
As a senior
athlete with Annadale Striders I collected many a team medal but my most
prized team medal won as a youth was garnered at Parliament Hill in 1973.
While competing for Achilles we had a great youth team and it was decided
that we would try our luck against the best that Britain could offer by
competing in the National Cross Country Championships. Although we were
all taking a step up in class we came through with flying colours and
left with the gold medals. The other team members were Gerry Price, Peter
McGorran and Harold McFaul. This quartet remains the solitary Northern
Ireland team ever to win a team title at the National Cross Country Championships.
Although I won many individual and team medals it is my U.K Championships
medal from 1978 which I treasure greatly. A second place finish in a p.b
of 3:38.8 to Steve Ovett was very pleasing. This performance placed me
4th in the British ranking for the Year and it sits at 22nd place in the
Under 23 U.K. all-time rankings.
Historically throughout Britain a sub 4 minute mile signifies immediate respect and achievement. No one runs under four minutes accidentally or as a novice runner. On the 19th of June 1976 I eclipsed the monumental barrier in the invitational mile race in the Southern Counties AAA Championships. I finished 2nd behind Rod Dixon in 3:58.49 with Jerry Kiernan also eclipsing the barrier with 3:59:12. Surpassing the 4 minute barrier meant that I was the 9th athlete in Ireland to do so and the 3rd from Northern Ireland behind the pioneer Derek Graham and Jim McGuinness. Although I raced against Steve Ovett on a number of occasions I was never able to inflict a defeat on him although on the 18th May 1977 over 3000m, it almost happened. After a frantic last 300m I entered the home straight in the lead before Filbert Bayi won in 7.53.29 with Ovett 2nd in 7:53.39. I was less than a second behind him in 7:54.31. I did though have the satisfaction of claiming the scalp of Bronislaw Malinowski, the Olympic 3000m Steeplechase silver medallist in 1976 and the champion in 1980.
A little closer to home was the annual Gateshead Cross Country series and one year I opted for the 2-mile race instead of the longer distance. The field was loaded with athletes such as; John Walker, Eamonn Coghlan, Ray Smedley, Frank Clement and sadly Ivo Van Damme in what turned out to be his final race before his fatal car crash. I had a great run to finish 2nd behind Dave Moorcroft.
Making my debut for Great Britain as a junior was an honour but to achieve my 'first vest' as a senior athlete was something else. At the time Great Britain was at the frontier of what was happening in world middle/long distance athletics and you certainly had to earn your vest. I made my debut over 800m in Saint-Maur, France were I recorded my p.b of 1:48.1. Throughout my career I managed to enjoy a few good runs at the Mary Peter's track. I won the British Universities' 1500m beating the 1972 Olympic representative Ray Smedley and in the process setting a new Universities Record of 3.42. In 1978 despite having to run isolated for the majority of the race on a wet evening over 1500m I was satisfied when the watch was stopped at an impressive 3:40. Also in 1978 I gave the steeplechase another bash. Despite running without much opposition and with a very dodgy technique (to say the least!), I had to place a foot on to every barrier but I still managed to establish a new Northern Ireland record of 8:39 mins. At the International cross country event at Mallask in 1978 I again made a gallant attempt to depose Steve Ovett. After about a mile and a half into the race I put the head down and created a gap of about 20m. I suppose it was a bit optimistic trying to run away from such a capable athlete as Ovett but I wanted to make a real race of it. With the vibrant crowd cheering me on I was able to hold the lead for about two miles before Ovett and the Scottish athlete Nat Muir managed to close the gap. Still, third place in a good field was something to be pleased about.
Although I competed in the World Cross Country Championships on five occasions I never really felt that I did myself justice. Probably my best run was in Rabat in 1975 when I finished 91st, although this wasn't my best placing. An incredible field had assembled and they didn't disappoint with a quality race. Upfront it was an absorbing battle with Ian Stewart (SCO) defeating Mariano Haro (ESP) by one second from Bill Rodgers (USA) and John Walker (NZL). Thereafter all the top athletes of the running world across distances were involved in the mix. Names such as Fava (ITA), Hildenbrand (FRG), Orthmann (FRG), Roelants (BEL), Cierpinski (GDR) Puttemans (BEL), and Shorter (USA) all toed the line and finished in the top 20. I finished one place behind Venanzio Ortis (ITA) who had finished 2nd in the junior race the previous year and who was to finish 14th the following year in Chepstow, Wales.
My best placing came in 1978 at Bellahouston Park in Scotland. The combination of a difficult course and horrendous weather conditions made the race unbelievably arduous. After being in the 30's for a portion of the race the heavy conditions did not suit my style of running and I suffered in the later stages to finish 80th. It was a day for the mud larks as John Treacy won well from Antipov (URS) with Tony Simmons (ENG) 4th and Nat Muir (SCO) 7th two others who responded to the mud! Unfortunately for me at the Green Park racecourse Limerick, the next year the weather was again awful! I just couldn't get going and ended up in 149th place. If you think that's bad spare a though for some of the so called 'scalps' I got that day- Jose Abascal (ESP- 152nd) the future 1984 Olympic 1500m bronze medallist, Roger Hackney (WAL- 153rd) the future 13th placer in the World Cross and Olympic steeplechase finalist and Thomas Wessinghage (FRG-166th) the future European 5,000m champion. I found that in the World Cross if you had a bad run it would without doubt show in your placing, take for example Mike McLeod. He was one of the favourites for the title in 1981 and he ended up in 208th position! On the other hand if you were in shape and the course/weather suited you then you never know, just ask Greg Hannon. In the conditions that I found awful in Limerick Greg had the race of his life to finish 31st! He had such a good run that he would have been a scorer on the gold medal winning English team! If I claimed a few scalps in lowly 149th place imagine the host of runners that Greg beat!
Again on the local front I won the Northern Ireland Senior Cross country title on two occasions; 1978 and 1980. The senior title culminated in me having the distinction of winning Boy, Youth and Junior (on two occasions before they changed the rules) cross country titles. These were never easy to win with the likes of the Hannon brothers Greg and Gerry and my Annadale team-mate 'Wee' John McLaughlin amongst others who were going well at the time. Although this cannot be included as a memorable race as I did not compete I was the British reserve in the 1978 Europa Cup at Crystal Palace. I basically did everything, warmed up and so on but didn't race. I had to shadow Steve Ovett just in case he got injured or whatever. At a big competition that was a memorable occasion as although I didn't compete I was still part of the team set up.
As for disappointments I didn't really tend to dwell on them, and I just tried to forget about them and get on with things. There is though one major disappointment and it happened at the Cork City Sports of 1982. I was in the mile race which was won by Sydney Maree but it also had athletes such as Steve Cram , Wilson Waigwa and Thomas Wessinghage. I had run well and finished 9th behind Jack Buckner. Normally running is the hard bit and getting your time is a mere formality, but not this time! The photo finish broke before I reached the line and I was not given an official time but the last place time from a running watch! Jack Buckner ran 3:53.44 and I literally was a few strides in arrears, nothing substantial at all. Before it was realised about the problem with the photo finish my friends in the stadium including Neill Morton and Colin Boreham all were congratulating me on an excellent time. They believed that from their running watches at worst I would be credited with around 3:55/6 which was a new P.B. Sadly this all turned out to be mere speculation and futile as my delight turned to disappointment when I was issued with 3:59.
In the World Student Games of 1977 in Sofia, Bulgaria I could say that yes I did run well but to be 0.7 sec away from a medal I was disappointed. There was a blanket finish after a final lap tear up and it was so compact through the line that I did not have a clue where I finished. Josef Plachy (CZE) won in 3:40.2 from my team mate Mick Kearns in 3.40.9 (incidentally Mick was the British record holder at the time with 3.36.81) with Abderrahmane Morceli (ALG) running 3:41.0, I recorded 3:41.7 for 7th to miss out. I was though particularly pleased in that to make the final I ran 3:41 in my heat and then I repeated it a day later in the final in difficult conditions. Traditionally, I suffered a bit in the heat and with the temperature over 100 degrees and with the small touch of altitude I was up against it. The quality at the Games was very high with the likes of Alberto Juantorena of Cuba winning the 800m in 1:43.44, what a time even by today's standards. There was also Silvio Leonard who three years later pushed Allan Wells all the way in the 1980 Moscow Olympics winning the 100m gold in 10.08.
Although this may be a bit self-critical I would have liked to have performed a little better in the AAA finals that I made. I never seemed to get it right in the final although again on reflection they were always quality fields often with foreign guests the like of Walker, Quax and Dixon!
Locally my main rivals would have been Greg Hannon, John McLaughlin and Jim McGuinness. Greg and John specifically over the country and the road with Jim on the track. We all had many a good domestic battle, as they were all quality athletes. Jim was a very talented athlete particularly on the track. A British International he eclipsed the sub 4 minute mile the year before I did and he reached the 1978 Commonwealth Games final in the 1500m. His personal best for the mile of 3:55.0 from 1977 is still the Northern Ireland record. Within Ireland when I was a developing athlete especially at schools' level Mick O'Shea was always at my side and I had many a difficult race against him. Thereafter I crossed the likes of Eamonn Coghlan, Ray Flynn, Frank Murphy Jr, Dave Taylor, Jerry Kiernan and Niall O'Shaughnessy to name but a few on many an occasion. At this time in Ireland there was a wealth of established and emerging talent.
I remember once running a 2-mile road race in Phoenix Park, Dublin. I was going very well at the time and the distance was ideal for me. Eamonn Coghlan and myself with a few others had quickly detached ourselves from the rest of the field and the finish wasn't too far away. With about 200m remaining Eamonn blasted it and completely left me for dead, a few weeks later he dipped under 3:50 for the mile indoors! As for heroes there were many exceptional athletes around to gain inspiration from. Dave Bedford was one that many people looked up to as he set the trend in terms of training, application and attitude. Ian Stewart was another brilliant athlete who had the temperament, determination and sheer toughness to compete and succeed on the world scene. There was also Sebastian Coe, Steve Cram and Graham Williamson. There was also the New Zealand trio of Walker, Quax and Dixon, who enjoyed life almost as much as their athletics. They trained hard and played hard too. Of course there was Henry Rono who systematically dismantled the world distance records in that glorious summer of 1978.
If I really have to opt for one single individual I have to go for Steve Ovett, he was in a different class to anything that had been before. He was such a versatile athlete with a competitive range from 800m to the half marathon. I was fortunate in that we both emerged around the same time as each other and I was able to appreciate what he was achieving. He was a fantastic athlete and as a team mate it was great to know him and not the portrayed media image. When competing in Northern Ireland whether on the track or over the cross country Steve would often join myself and a few others from Annadale such as Ray Curran and Paul Younger for a run in Belvoir Park. Steve was a reliable servant to Northern Ireland athletics especially at a time of civil unrest, he really enjoyed being over here. Although Steve had tremendous natural ability I know that he also worked very hard at it. After all these years we still keep in touch though now we don't discuss training or races but more like our aches, pains and niggles!
I had the good fortune of visiting many fantastic places and rubbing shoulders with many great athletes throughout my running career. I managed to race very extensively throughout Europe and in some places for example Portugal I think I raced there on at least seven occasions. I also visited Canada, New Zealand and Morocco. I never raced in America though I was offered many an athletics scholarship which I did not take up. As well as competing I had the privilege of training in a number of countries. Probably the best training stint was when I went to Gibraltar for the week with the likes of Seb Coe, Ian Stewart, Brendan Foster, Dave McMeekin and others. The training was intense to say the least! Or the time I went to the South of France with Roger Hackney and others, oh boy the training there was awful too!
As I have already mentioned by the time I was in 5th form I was in a regular pattern of training under the tutelage of Neil Morton. As I got older I integrated a few constants into my training. I did a 9 mile with John McLaughlin every Tuesday over a hilly course and as the tempo increased it was not uncommon for the final 2 miles along the Lagan Tow path to be well under 10 mins. There was also a regular run of 12 miles from Stranmillis with the likes of Davy Smith, Ray Curran and Paul Younger and after a few miles we didn't hang about! I liked very hard fartlek runs and short recovery intervals. I also did a lot of 5 mile runs picking it up over the final 2 miles with the final mile run well below 4.40 mins. On a Sunday I would do 15 mile and it would usually take me around 1 hour 27 mins. I experimented with 2 hours but felt that it was just too much.
On the track again I had standard sessions such as (depending on the time of year of course):
1. 10x400 in 60 sec with 60 sec recovery
2. I would do 6x 1200m in 3:18 with a lap recovery and Ray Curran would do 6x800m in 2:12 with 2 lap recovery
3. 20x200m in 28-30 sec with 100m jog in 30 secs
4. 8x800m in 2:16 with 100m jog.
5. 6x800m with an average of 2:06 with a 200m jog recovery
1. 6x800m all in 1:59/2.00 with a 200m jog recovery
2. 3x1200m with an average of 3:01 with a 400m jog recovery
3. 1x6 laps with an average of 63 and then 6x200m in 26
All my personal bests were at one time or another Northern Ireland records. There was a period when I simultaneously held the Northern Ireland records for the 800m, 1,000m, 2,000m, 3,000m, 3,000m steeplechase and the 2 miles! The 3,000m and the Irish Universities' 5000m records both established in 1978 still exist. The Universities' record is unique as the race was on a square, grass track!
IF I WAS TO DO IT ALL AGAIN.
It's great to have no major regrets! I feel that I was very fortunate to be around at a time when British athletics was still in it's ascendancy and very much admired and envied by the rest of the world. It was without doubt the era to be in. They were exciting times and I am very pleased to have played my small part. The calibre and depth of talent was rich and to achieve British honours as I did both as a junior and senior is something that I am very proud of. Everyone was working very hard in order to try and establish themselves and to move up the pecking order for selection.
When I was
around 22 year old my 'achilles heel' turned out to be my Achilles. This
resulted in sporadic problems and injury. Maybe too many track sessions
in spikes were to blame and maybe this should have been readdressed. However,
you need to put the training into the context of the day and the mantra
then was, 'more is better'. This emerged from the Bedford and Stewart
philosophy for training. On occasions, I seemed to go from one season
to another without a distinct break and therefore the body wasn't able
to make a full, charged recovery. Hindsight is very easy for us all and
at the time when you are anxious to do well you don't see the pitfalls
for the successes!
I witness the standard of competition not only locally but also on the mainland and it frustrates me how as a nation we have regressed. There is clear evidence that people are simply not doing what is necessary in order to be at a respectable level whatever that may be. Nowadays there are all the necessary facilities, grants, physiologists, psychologists, nutritionists and the performances are worse now than ever before. It's hard to believe that after almost 30 years since I recorded my best times that I still would have been ranked 6th over 1500m, 2nd over the mile and 2nd over 3000m in the 2006 U.K. ranking lists, that doesn't seem right. There are difficulties but I really feel the athletes need to return to basics and to train harder. Forget about all the peripheral attachments that indeed can refine and fine tune the performances. Incorporate them after the performances are accepted and can speak for themselves. In addition specifically in Northern Ireland are we making the most of our resources? Are we tapping into the wealth of knowledge and experience that former athletes can offer?
Athletics has been good to me. I have travelled to many wondrous places and you could say that I met, trained and raced with some of the best athletes in the world. At a time when the majority of people were wearing Adidas running shoes I accepted an offer to be the first person in Northern Ireland to be sponsored by a relatively unknown (certainly in the U.K) manufacturer called Nike. I met the company founder Phil Knight with Nick Rose in Oslo and well the next thing I was wearing the apparel and shoes with the odd logo. Closer to home through athletics I was fortunate to come into contact with people like my coach, the influential, late Tony McKnight. Annadale Striders will be forever indebted to the work and commitment that he made in establishing Striders as one of Irelands premier road running clubs. Tony had a unique ability to draw out the best in his athletes.
As for me now unfortunately chronic knee trouble has meant that my running days are finally over. Maybe I should mean jogging, as latterly that was pretty much it, just keeping fit and enjoying the fresh air and scenery around the Bangor coastline. I'm no couch potato though as I now try and get out for a daily blast on my mountain bike. I still enjoy putting my body under some form of pressure but it still doesn't beat the exhilaration of putting one foot ahead of the other as fast as you can with a rival at your shoulder!
I wish to thank Paul for giving up his time for this interview.
© Annadale Striders /Keith McClure. www.annadalestriders.co.uk