Obituary: Andy Holden, runner

Andy Holden in action for his club. Picture: Tiptonharriers.co.uk
Andy Holden in action for his club. Picture: Tiptonharriers.co.uk
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Born: 22 October, 1948, in Leyland, Lancashire. Died: 4 January, 2014, in Dudley, aged 65

IN AN age when the word “legend” is tossed around like confetti at a wedding, Andy Holden truly earned the epithet. Most people will never have heard of Andy Holden. He ran in the Olympics, though he did not win a medal there and in the public eye he was overshadowed by his contemporary David Bedford. But in running circles, stories of his exploits were passed down through the generations with a sense of awe.

Holden was renowned not just for his speed over the ground, but also for the way in which he managed to combine running long distances and drinking lots of beer – reputedly quaffing ten pints the night before he beat a world-class field to win the 1979 Bermuda marathon in record time.

In Scotland, some might remember him running in the Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh in 1970 and some may know of his achievements in the Two Bridges Road Race, another name that will not mean much to most people now, but which is again the stuff of legend in running circles.

Holden was an Olympian. He was part of the England team that won the world cross- country team championship in 1979. He held the British 3000 metre steeplechase record. He also had the unique distinction of representing Britain on the indoor track, outdoor track, cross-country, on roads and on fells.

Holden liked running. It is not always the case. One day he found an abandoned puppy in a canal with bricks around its neck and pulled it out. Thereafter the dog, Schnicky, showed due appreciation by joining Holden on 20-mile Sunday morning runs, celebrating just being alive.

And Holden liked racing, whether on the Olympic stage or slogging through muddy fields in driving rain in the grey depths of winter, wearing the distinctive green and white hoops of Tipton Harriers, the English Midlands club for whom he ran for several decades and where he also coached.

The Two Bridges Road Race was not a race between the two Forth bridges, but rather a race from Dunfermline out to Kincardine, over the bridge, through Stirlingshire and West Lothian, across the Forth Road Bridge, finishing back in Fife – a little over 36 miles.

It began back in 1968 at a time when you could drive around Edinburgh on a Sunday afternoon and never spot a runner on the streets. But as one running history website put it: “Everybody who was anybody in the sport from all over the British Isles and even further afield came and raced in it.” By which they mean everybody who was anybody in extreme running.

Holden first ran it in 1978, eight years after he finished fifth in the steeplechase at the Edinburgh Commonwealth Games. Ron Bentley, a Tipton club-mate and former world record-holder, recalled: “He went through a bad patch, probably drinking too much. He knew I ran the Two Bridges and said ‘I would like to run the Two Bridges’, and he ran like a maniac. At 20 miles, he dropped out. He said: ‘I am coming back next year to win this.’”

And he did. But Holden was not satisfied. He came back for a second time in 1980, won the race by over five minutes and set a record of 3 hours 21 minutes and 46 seconds that would never be broken. The event was discontinued almost a decade ago.

Born John Andrew Holden in Leyland, Lancashire, Holden was running 100 miles a week by his mid-teens. He studied dentistry and continued running at Birmingham University. He was to become a very popular dentist, with many runners on his books. At one time he had two surgeries about ten miles apart and would run between them at lunchtime, stopping briefly, for a couple of pints en route.

His drinking statistics are less well documented than his race times of course, but there are plenty of people who will testify to his prodigious capacity for ale and his after-race habit of drinking a pint while standing on his head.

Although Holden liked to win, it was not at all costs, and he always saw the funny side of things, even in the 1986 Belfast marathon when he was ahead of everyone else, only to be taken off in the wrong direction by the lead car, not once, but twice. He lost by a few seconds, but shrugged it off afterwards, saying: “It’s just one of those things which happen, it was an Irish marathon.”

Meanwhile, a new crop of British runners were winning Olympic gold. Steve Cram was one of them, but he once told Holden: “I wish I was an athlete in your day – it sounded much more fun.”

The Tipton Harriers website said: “Athletics will not see the likes of this great man again – a true legend.”

Holden suffered an aortic aneurism a few years ago and his health deteriorated. He is survived by his wife Paula, sons Tom and Joe, both of whom have run 1500m in under four minutes, and Mike and daughter Charley.