Jim Alder had no idea of the looming anniversary, let alone its significance. “Fifty years!” exclaimed the Scot who won Commonwealth gol as a marathon man. “Crikey! Dear, oh dear . . . I hadn’t realised at all.”
It was 50 years ago this Friday – on 17 October, 1964 – that Alder ran his way into the world record books. Left at home as a non-travelling reserve for the marathon at the Tokyo Olympics, the native Glaswegian vented his frustration in a two-hour track race at Walton-on-Thames.
Alder set world records at 30km (1 hr 34 min 01.8 sec) and 20 miles (1:40: 58.0) en route to a new global mark of 23.6 miles (37.994km) for two hours. Half a century on, his two-hour record still stands.
“I might have a glass of wine just to celebrate it on Friday,” he said. “But if I was a top distance runner today it would gall me that a 74-year-old man living in Northumberland holds that world record.”
Alder’s enduring mark is officially termed a “world best” these days but it is still listed in the world record section of the International Athletics Annual, a page or two on from Usain Bolt’s 9.58sec 100m time, which has stood for a piffling five years. Long distance track races such as ten miles, the hour and two hours, have long since fallen out of vogue, which is one reason why Alder’s achievement has stood such a prolonged test of time. Still, the ten mile and one hour track records both happen to be held by Haile Gebrselassie, the Ethiopian acknowledged as the greatest distance runner of all time.
To lend some historical context to Alder’s feat, the Saturday when he chased the clock at Walton-on-Thames – on an ash track and wearing modest Dunlop Red flash trainers – was the day after Harold Wilson beat Alec Douglas-Home in the 1964 General Election, restoring Labour to power after 13 years of Tory rule. The Beatles were packing Britain’s cinemas with A Hard Day’s Night and Roy Orbison was No 1 in the charts with Oh, Pretty Woman.
Alder was 24 and a bricklayer. He’s a 74-year-old grandfather now, and still works as a bricklayer and plasterer. He lives with Kathleen, his wife of 48 years, in the former mining village of Ellington, six miles from Morpeth, the Northumberland town where he settled with a foster family as a tubercular nine-year-old orphan from the Glasgow slums.
He was born in Govan as James Deane and spent his early years living with his parents and four siblings in a tenement near Firhill Stadium. His father was blown up by a landmine in Berlin on the penultimate day of hostilities in World War Two and his mother died soon after of tuberculosis.
Parentless at the age of five, he spent the next four years in orphanages in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Musselburgh before being adopted by the Alder family from down the A1 in Morpeth. The effect of his tough upbringing was always evident as Alder forged his reputation as a gutsy distance runner with Morpeth Harriers, Edinburgh AC and ultimately Scotland and Great Britain.
He was at his most indomitable in the blue vest of Scotland in the 1966 Commonwealth Games marathon in Kingston, Jamaica. Alder arrived at the stadium in the lead but there were no stewards to guide him into the arena and he eventually made it on to the track to find England’s Bill Adcocks some 50 yards ahead of him with 300 yards remaining. A lesser soul would have buckled but Alder simply put his head down and regained the lead, shouting “Geronimo!” as he broke the tape first. “Geronimo Jim”, as he became known, courtesy of the trademark victory cry he adopted from an American television comedy show, also earned a Commonwealth 10,000m bronze medal at those 1966 Games. He won a marathon bronze at the 1969 European Championships in Athens and Commonwealth marathon silver on home ground in Edinburgh in 1970, the same year in which he broke the 30km world record for a second time.
His finest two hours, though, came at Walton-on-Thames on 17 October, 1964.
“That was the day I realised I was world class,” Alder reflected. “I cried in the showers afterwards because the Olympics were going on at the same time in Tokyo and there was me, running inside world record pace for the marathon back home on an ash track.
“I’m not saying I would have won a medal in Tokyo. But I would have been in with a shout. It’s not like these days, when you have World Championships every other year and the Olympics every four years. In those days there were no World Championships. You only had the Olympics every four years.
“I made the team for Mexico in 1968 but was beaten by the altitude.”
Alder was up with the leaders in the early stages of the 1968 Olympic marathon but collapsed with exhaustion long before the finish. It was the thin air at those Mexico City Games that helped Bob Beamon soar to his outlandish 8.90m long jump – a quantum leap hailed as the greatest world record of all time. It was beaten 23 years later.
Alder’s two hour tour de force has stood for almost twice as long now – half a century, and still counting.
• Jim Alder still coaches at Morpeth Harriers. In 1994 he guided Mark Hudspith to Commonwealth marathon bronze for England. The veteran coach also trained Neil Black, the current British Athletics Performance Director, when he achieved victories over Steve Cram and Sebastian Coe.
• During his world record two-hour run in 1964 he shouted words of admonishment at a pair of builders who stopped working on an extension to the clubhouse to watch him run. “As a brickie myself, I knew that they would be getting paid overtime – and to sit and watch me run for nothing,” he recalled.
• The oldest surviving world record in an Olympic-standard event is the women’s 800m time of 1 min 53.28sec – a time which was achieved by the Czechoslovakian hulk Jarmila Kratochvilova in Munich in 1983.
• The oldest world record or world best at any event is for the men’s 200m hurdles: 22.5sec by Martin Lauer of West Germany in Zurich in 1959.