Interview: Jim Alder on getting lost and still winning marathon gold

Jim Alder at his home in Ellington, Northumberland, with his 1966 Commonwealth Games marathon gold medal round his neck.'Picture: John Millard.
Jim Alder at his home in Ellington, Northumberland, with his 1966 Commonwealth Games marathon gold medal round his neck.'Picture: John Millard.
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Scotland’s marathon man gives me very precise directions to his home in the village of Ellington – “as in Duke” – on the Northumberland coast but almost inevitably I get lost and have to seek help in the busy post office. “Who is it you’re here to see?” asks an old-timer in the queue. “Jim Alder,” I say. “Ah Jim. He used to run past my house every morning and now he walks, picking up litter as he goes. A right character.”

I tell Alder of my failure and he seems disappointed. When he was invited to present the marathon medals at 
Glasgow’s Commonwealth Games, two Kenyans failed to show, having gone astray somewhere in the city, so the ceremony had to be postponed. That was comical but when Alder himself took a wrong turning while pounding out the 26 miles in Jamaica in 1966, it was very nearly tragic. Maybe this explains the copious instructions. Now I feel even more of a fool for having mucked up.

But what a character and what an incredible, rip-snorting, ripped-from-a-comic book story Alder has to tell in his little bungalow in a nameless street. The marathon at Kingston’s Commonwealth Games had to be started at 5.30 in the morning, such were the tortuous conditions. “Eighty degrees heat and 80 per cent humidity,” he explains. “The organisers were worried somebody would die out there.” Alder was leading as he approached the stadium only for the race marshals to suddenly disappear. The Duke of Edinburgh, with the young Prince Charles and Princess Anne tagging along, had just turned up and maybe the officials thought they’d better fall into line for some forelock-tugging.

“I was running around the car park for a bit,” recalls Alder, now 78. “Then I spotted Dunkie Wright who’d won Scotland’s first Commonwealth marathon [1930, in Ontario]. He was pointing like mad at a door: ‘In here, Jim!’ When I reached the track Bill Adcocks of England had nipped ahead of me. He’d obviously found a quicker route into the stadium and he was going to win. I had 
to get motoring. I got my head down. And as I went past him I shouted ‘Geronimo!’”

This was a marathon melodrama to rival Jim Peters’ sunstroke-affected staggers in Vancouver in 1954 and the dehydrated Dorando Pietri veering off course in London in 1908. “I thought Bill gifted me the race,” continues Alder, “and I thought it was a magnificent act of sportsmanship. I said this to him afterwards when he had his poor, aching feet in a tub and was being doused with water and he said: ‘Jimmy, I gave you nothing.’ He’s a good friend, I saw him a couple of weeks ago, and we still argue about Kingston.”

Spring sunshine pours into Alder’s sitting-room but his gold medal doesn’t sparkle. “Too many sweaty hands touched it in that heat – I’m going to have to get it polished.” Next to the gold on the arm of a chair is the bronze he won in the six-mile race – Scotland’s total medal haul from the athletics in ’66 – and there’s a story about that one, too. “The team management ordered me not to run the six as it was only three days before the marathon. I was upset. When Ming [Menzies] Campbell, who was Britain’s top sprinter, saw me in the Games Village I was crying. ‘How do you think you’d do?’ he asked. ‘I think I could win a medal,’ I said. So Ming – old fuddy-duddy, Ming, as they’ve called him more recently – smuggled me into a taxi and after warming up in the street I raced. Management weren’t impressed. Two of our boxers had got involved in a brawl downtown and were being sent home in disgrace. I got the impression a seat on that plane was being left for me. ‘You’d better win the marathon now,’ I was told.”

So let’s recap: he riled his bosses, ran a tough race beforehand, got lost – and still triumphed over the most gruelling of distances. Ah, but that’s not all James Deane had to overcome, to give him the name with which he was born, and the saga begins in the most heartstopping manner imaginable …

Alder says: “I’m in a tenement close to Partick Thistle’s ground and I’m looking at our blue and white vinyl tablecloth. I’m studying it because my mother’s just opened a telegram. ‘My God,’ she said, ‘you’re father’s been killed.’ He was a merchant seaman who joined the Arctic convoys and a German U-boat sank his ship up near Russia. It happened on the very last day of the Second World War. I didn’t know how to react – I was only five. So I said: ‘Mum, what’s for tea?’

“He was a bit of a lad was my dad. Every year from 1940 to 1945 there was a baby born in our house. He’d come home from sea and he’d ring the bell, if you get what I mean. Two of my siblings didn’t survive, one dying of tuberculosis, and that’s what did for my mum in 1947. I was in and out of orphanages all the time. I was fostered to a family in Inverness which lasted two weeks. I was fostered to a family in Musselburgh for all of four days. Eventually me and my sister and brother pitched up in Morpeth and we became Alders. I was nine and calling a fifth different woman ‘Mother’. At my new school the other kids said: ‘Well, Jock, you talk funny and you’ve no mum and dad.’ Nowadays you’d call what I suffered bullying. I tell you, it made me lose my Scottish accent dead quick. And after only 18 months I lost my foster dad. Death was all around me back then.”

For the next few years Alder didn’t think about Scotland, and the road-races of England’s north-east found a keen and promising junior competitor. Still, there were dissenting voices, Mum 
No 5 for one. “Because I’d suffered from TB too, she didn’t think I’d amount to much. She was a disciplinarian. ‘I don’t want you to run,’ she told me, ‘so I won’t be washing your gear.’ And there was a guy, John Hillen, who always used to beat me in the early days and liked to rub my nose in it. He was really obnoxious.” Still, Alder kept plugging away.

Alder is often likened to Alf Tupper, hero of the Tough of the Track saga which thrilled schoolboys in the Rover and Victor comics, without the full breadth of the comparison really being detailed. Tupper was an orphan just like our man. They were both blue-collar-runners, Tupper a welder and Alder a bricklayer. Tupper’s “fuel” was a hearty fish-and-chip supper and given Alder titled his biography Marathon and Chips I’m assuming something similar for him. “No,” he says, “I called it that because of the chip on my shoulder.”

Alf often raced against the “posh boys” of the Amateur Athletic Association who regarded him as a “guttersnipe” and Alder’s experiences were little different. “There was a clear class distinction. My rivals when I ran at White City in London were civil servants and the like with well-to-do Home Counties accents. I could hear them whispering: ‘Make him say something.’ I’d answer in broad Geordie and they’d burst out laughing. And I’m afraid the worst for that was the fabulous-looking woman and Olympic champion, Mary Rand.

“They made fun of the fact I was a bricklayer. But when I ran I lost earnings which I couldn’t really afford as my wife Kathleen was pregnant so I’d work until the last possible moment before rushing to the railway station in Newcastle. Afterwards, so I could be back on site the next morning, I’d catch the milk train home.”

Alder, it seemed, couldn’t win. He’d already changed the way he spoke once before. But he did win on the track and he enjoyed the victories over his southern contemporaries every bit as much as Tupper. While the latter’s shout at the tape was “I’ve run ’em!”, Alder stuck with the name of the famous Apache Indian he learned about on visits to the flicks during his early years in Scotland.

Alder still wasn’t thinking about the land of his birth when Scottish athletics bosses wouldn’t allow him to run for them in a Highland Games at Murrayfield so he turned out for the 3As. “I was beaten by Ian McCafferty. What a talent he was – and what an enigma, too. Our sport’s produced plenty of them.”

Then just before the Tokyo Olympics in 1964 he injured a knee at a steeplechase waterjump, relegating him to the GB’s non-travelling reserve. There was a run at Walton-on-Thames, one of those two-hour challenges where the aim is distance which have fallen out of fashion. “It was the closest race I could find to a marathon. To keep my focus I watched bricklayers building an extension to the clubhouse. I calculated how many bricks they should be laying per lap but then they downed tools to watch me! Because it was a Saturday they were getting time-and-a-half and there was me running for nothing on an ash track in just my 
Dunlop Red Flash.

“While the marathon was happening in Tokyo I got past 23 and a quarter miles. If I’d gone to the Games I think I would have pissed it. I was superbly fit at the right time but in the wrong place. I cried in the showers.”

Determined to be at the Commonwealths two years later, Alder faced a choice: would he run for England or Scotland? “I’d qualified for both. England had given me a home after Scotland had only really brought me bad luck. But I’m an old-fashioned fellow, a traditionalist. I’m probably to the right of Genghis Khan, though not as extreme as Attila the Hun. I decided that having been born in Scotland I’d run for them and never regretted it for a minute.”

To join the Dark Blues team he needed a passport, which resulted in another snag, another bump along the route for Alder. “I thought I’d been adopted but I hadn’t. I felt like an alien. It needed a priest and a justice of the peace to both agree that this young man had been born James Deane in Glasgow but was now Jim Alder of Morpeth.”

But those hardships made good copy for sports journalists, as a peek at Alder’s scrapbooks reveal. “Remember Desmond Hackett of the Express?” Before my time, Jim. “He used to write: ‘If such-and-such happens, I’ll kick my bowler hat the length of Fleet Street.’ He called me ‘the chuckling run-for-fun bricklayer’.” For Kingston in ’66, The Scotsman called on Olympic gold medallist and Roger Bannister pacemaker Chris Brasher to supply the words. “My heart stopped when the wrong man emerged on the track,” Brasher wrote of Bill Adcocks’ surprise appearance at the front. Scottish high-jumper Crawford Fairbrother was “almost hysterical with rage” and ultimately Alder had to win the marathon twice over to prevent “one of the biggest blunders in the history of the Commonwealth Games”.

In the Mexico Olympics Alder, like many, was beaten by the high altitude but he won bronze at the 1969 European Championships in Athens. Many of his Scottish and British records still stand, and at Edinburgh’s Friendly Games of 1970 he completed his Commonwealth medal set by taking silver behind England’s Ron Hill.

Away from the track, life continued to be tough for Alder, like it was in the beginning. His daughter Susan contracted hepatitis and she needed a new liver, but showing her father’s pluck she achieved success at the World Transplant Games. Alder opened a sports shop, then another, only for the business to crash. Bankrupt, he was forced to sell the mansion he built with his own hands. “Ah well, it’s only money,” he says, gazing at photos of his grandchildren. “The community rallied round. I got free haircuts, dental care, a turkey at Christmas and wasn’t allowed to buy a drink in the pub. That was wonderful.” Well, he was a thoroughly adopted local hero, as evidenced by the fact that when Bobby and Jackie Charlton helped England win the World Cup, the footballing brothers had to settle for being joint runners-up behind Alder as North-East Sportsman of the Year.

Then Geronimo Jim reflects one last time on his most famous victory, and his feelings on the podium: “My whole life flashed before me. I thought of other athletes who’d rubbished me, of the foster mum who told me I’d never achieve anything. And I thought all the way back to Henderson Street in Glasgow and finding out my dad had been killed. Scotland brought me a lot of sadness in those early years but there were a few nice moments. I saw Oklahoma! at a picture-house in Anniesland and thought Gordon MacRae singing Oh What A Beautiful Morning was fantastic. That morning in Kingston was beautiful, too, and on the way back to the Games Village for a big breakfast I sang the song.”