Interview: Donald Macgregor, athlete

As thousands of runners gear up for the Edinburgh Marathon tomorrow, spare a thought for whoever will come in seventh for, as one such runner tells Stephen McGinty, it's still an incredible achievement

WHILE playing at the British Open in Kent in 1920, Walter Kagen, the American golfer and pioneer of the sport, was refused permission to enter the clubhouse, so he hired a car to use as a dressing room. At the time, gentlemen amateurs looked down upon professionals as they would any other tradesmen who worked with their hands. However Kagen, who would go on to win 11 professional majors, a figure trumped only by Jack Nicklaus (18) and Tiger Woods (14), helped to elevate the winner in a quote still bandied around today: "No-one remembers who came in second!" Or those who bar the door.

So, if no member of the public remembers who came in second, how can we expect anyone but the most numerically minded sports nerd to know who came in seventh? And yet music and movies have a ring-fence around the Top 10, elevating anyone who slips inside to a sliding scale of celebrity status.

Perhaps sport is simply more Darwinian. The Olympics at least try to cheer up the second and third best losers with medals of silver and bronze, but what metal suits seventh place: aluminium? Then there is the winner's podium, which at the Vancouver Winter Olympics stood just 50cm high. If each step down was half as high again, the podium for seventh place would see the "victor" step up less than 8cm. (Just as well, in the spirit of egalitarianism, silver and bronze now have plinths at the same level.)

For Donald Macgregor, though, seventh place, and the public's indifference to those sporting successes which occur in the shadows outside the winner's spotlight, has deep personal significance, and will draw the admiration of all those pounding the streets of Edinburgh this weekend.

In the 1972 Olympic Games he competed for Great Britain in the marathon and, despite being initially ranked 35th, climbed through the pack until he crossed the line … yes, you guessed it, seventh, with a time of 2 hours, 16 minutes and 34 seconds.

Sadly, the position was not high enough to warrant the interest of the media in his home country. When his brother called The Scotsman to alert them to his imminent return, we, to our shame, it declined to send either reporter or photographer.

This week, 38 years too late, we sent both. The reason is that Macgregor has recently completed his autobiography, initially entitled: "Who?" a self-deprecating nudge in the ribs to those who failed to appreciate his Olympic achievement.

"I was really really pleased," said Macgregor – now 70 and retired after a career as the principal teacher of German at Madras College in St Andrews – of his Olympic achievement. "I'm sorry to say your newspaper, when my brother rang up to say I was coming back, they didn't bother to come and talk to me. I was ranked seventh in the world, and no Scottish football team, at the time, was ranked seventh in the world."

In 1972, the sporting world had a number of prominent names occupying seventh place: in the English First Division it was Chelsea, (Partick Thistle occupied the spot in Scotland), while at The Open in Muirfield, Arnold Palmer, David Vaughan, Tom Weiskopf and Guy Hunt jointly shared the spot.

Since retiring in 1999, Macgregor has embarked on a third career: after teaching and running, there now comes writing. In 2004, he published a book of poetry, Stars and Spikes and has assisted in the research of a couple of previous books on running. Earlier this year, he also arranged for the republication of Pedestrianism, an 1813 manual by Walter Thom, on what was then the popular spectator sport of long-distance walking.

The celebrity footballers of the 19th century, champion pedestrians such as Robert Barclay Allardice, known as Captain Barclay, drew massive crowds as they strutted through towns and villages.

When Pedestrianism was first published, Macgregor's great-great-great grandfather, James Macgregor, was half-way through a life he would later record in a manuscript entitled My Northern Journey, which now resides in the National Library. And Macgregor's own father is the author of Greyfriars Bobby – The Real Story at Last, which to date has sold more than 50,000 copies.

Macgregor's hopes for his own book are more modest. He writes in the introduction: "This book will thus hopefully be some interest to my children, friends and fellow-runners." Divided into 26 chapters, as you would expect from a man who has pounded around dozens of marathons, it contains a number of amusing rest-stops, including an explanation of why runners must stagger an extra 385 yards. He writes in the introduction: "The distance was established in 1908 when the start of the Olympics Marathon was pulled back to the East Terrace of Windsor Castle, so that the royal children, including the future monarchs Edward VIII and George VI, could watch the start."

For Macgregor, running began when he was a pupil at what was then Daniel Stewart's College. "The first race I ever won was a cross-country race in sixth year. I kept up my running at university and moved my way up very slowly to the marathon."

Like all the Olympians of 1972, Macgregor was shocked by the kidnapping and later murder of 11 members of the Israeli team by Palestinian terrorists, who were members of the Black September gang. The siege took place just a few hundred yards from where he was staying. After its disastrous conclusion, there was debate about whether the games should be cancelled, instead there was a one-day delay as a mark of respect.

He explains in the book: "I was there to concentrate on the race for which I had been selected after years of effort and a good pinch of good luck. To withdraw would be a meaningless gesture which those who had encouraged us and supported us would not all understand …"

Yesterday, remembering the actual race, he said: "We went down to the stadium with sponges loaded with water to out psych the opposition – who looked at us thinking, 'Why didn't we think of that?' I saw friends in the crowd and I waved to them, forgetting there was thousands of people in the stadium, and they thought I was waving at them. I was in the third row and I shot off. I had a bit of a sore back and Achilles tendon, but I was reasonably confident to get a decent run, I remember when I caught up with Ron Hill (who had hoped to win) I didn't feel pleased, I felt sorry for him but it was a great day."

In the book, he recalls talking to Ron afterwards: "I caught him up as he was walking down the track, hands on hips, looking exhausted and dejected. Trying to console him, I said something like, 'Bad luck, Ron … I'm sorry you didn't win. But I suppose I did OK.' Not very diplomatic perhaps. The Accrington lad replied vehemently: 'Bugger you!' When I went to find Ted Chappell, (the British masseur) he was more encouraging. He said the next day, in words which I certainly did not merit but which were nonetheless nice to hear, 'Anyone who finishes in the first ten of an Olympic final is a great man.'"

As an amateur runner who managed to fit in 120 miles of running per week while holding down a full-time job, Macgregor is not as dismissive of professional athletes as those who barred Walter Kagen, however he does believe today's athletes should anchor their lives in other professions.

"Today I think people are too ready to become professional athletes, and it's not good for you intellectually to have only running as your focus. I'm not criticising any of the people who are sponsored and run in marathons, or the fun-runners. I think it's wonderful there's mass participation. But if you're looking for international success you've got to train in a different way. You've got to train harder. The lifestyle is different today. You get taken everywhere in your car and you're not so physically active. Children need to be allowed to be more active in school."

Though the book is completed, it has yet to find a publisher. In these difficult times, Macgregor appreciates finding one will be more a marathon than a sprint, and feels confident of eventual success.

He has, however, decided to run a red pen through the title. "'Who?' was a bit too modest," he said, before revealing that it will now be entitled: Running My Life.

Personally, I'd go for "Lucky Number 7", but it's perhaps most appropriate to end with a quotation from one of Macgregor's poems, called "Running", from Stars and Spikes:

"Running – a cyclical adventure that begins

When you first leave the house or changing room, and takes

You on a snail-whorled journey into time:

Jogging, trying to sprint, or steady with no pause

It doesn't matter if you're fast or slow, you win.

Just by being there, just by taking part…"

Additional reporting by Stuart Bathgate