Remembering Joe McGhee’s epic marathon run in 1954

Joe McGhee recalls 'sheer pandemonium' in the stadium as he made his way to the finish line
Joe McGhee recalls 'sheer pandemonium' in the stadium as he made his way to the finish line
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The death last week of Scots athlete Joe McGhee rekindled memories of the epic marathon at the 1954 Commonwealth Games in Vancouver. McGhee won gold when clear leader Jim Peters collapsed in scorching conditions as he reached the stadium. It was a race that inspired myths and mistruths. Here, in his own words, McGhee tells the whole story

THE marathon race was timed to start at 12:30 – the hottest part of the day – and in the heat the sweat was dripping from us before we made a move. My tactics were simple. I had promised my dad and Allan Scally, my coach, that I would run my own race and, no matter what happened, complete the course. I was competing after all against the fastest marathon runners in the world and, despite my own Scottish record, I was not reckoned among the top competitors in this race. Nevertheless I still had that little spark of ambition and privately determined to latch on to the leaders until I judged that their pace was too hot for me. I would then concentrate on finishing.

Joe McGhee become the youngest marathon runner to stand on the top step of the podium at a Commonwealth Games

Joe McGhee become the youngest marathon runner to stand on the top step of the podium at a Commonwealth Games

After a cautious cat and mouse start over the first mile, the race speeded up and the leading group of five – the Englishmen Jim Peters and Stan Cox, the Australians, Kevin MacKay and Alan Lawrence, and myself – broke away from the field. The crowds lining the closed-off route round the city were most encouraging to us, but at times I seemed singled out for applause – so much so that Peters muttered a comment about the number of friends I had. I didn’t waste breath replying that it was the same Falkirk family, the Liddells, who by a judicious use of side roads kept re-appearing over those opening miles. I was surprised when the pint-sized but confident MacKay dropped back so readily at three miles, and then Lawrence at four miles. When five miles were passed in a modest time of over 27 minutes, Peters remarked that it was two minutes too slow. It was certainly fast enough for me! Yet he still held back. I was running quite comfortably and at seven miles was slightly ahead of the two Englishmen. Peters had given me some idea of his plans, however, and I was not surprised when between eight and nine miles he chose his psychological moment as we were about to tackle one of the notorious long hills on the course and suddenly launched himself into a tremendous spurt. In these conditions the pace was clearly suicidal for me and, resisting the challenge, I at once dropped back. Cox, however, plainly not in the least awed by Peters’ reputation, tried to hang on, determination writ large in every thrusting stride, but the race soon developed into a procession – Peters a white speck in the distance with Cox labouring vainly to prevent the gap widening. The heat was now becoming so unbearable that I couldn’t even bear the irritation of my long peaked baseball cap and threw it aside at ten miles.

For the next eight miles I ran completely alone with only the white vest of Cox in the far distance to aim at – Peters had soon disappeared from view – and I grew more and more uncomfortable as the heat began to take its toll. Then the clapping and cheering of the crowd warned me of the approach of another runner. Just before 18 miles, Lawrence, the Australian, passed me smoothly and confidently, and the gap opened astonishingly quickly. I couldn’t do a thing about it. This was the beginning of my personal crisis. Certainly, I felt bad, but the trouble was more psychological than physical. I simply could not visualise myself completing the eight miles still ahead. I plodded on and then with more than 19 miles gone, I saw a most cheering sight: Lawrence sitting disconsolately by the kerb. His encouraging remark spurred me on for only a short distance, however, and although I was back in bronze medal position I still could not see myself finishing.

Indeed, I ran through the 20-mile mark grimacing horribly at Willie Carmichael, the Scottish team manager. Remembering my promise to my dad and to my coach, I was determined not to drop out, but I was hoping desperately that Willie would be merciful, take the decision for me and pull me out. His response was simply to scowl and gruffly urge me on. I swerved, half twisted to glare back at him, and found myself running into a high, jaggy hedge. The prickles and my resentment of Willie stung me into a short-lived burst of speed. A mile or so later I was heartened once more by the news that Stan Cox was being taken away in an ambulance. Someone remarked that he had collapsed into a lamp post. Incredibly, I was now in second place with less than five miles to go.

Then at a road junction between 22 and 23 miles, I began to hear that ominous rhythmic clapping behind me: someone was obviously catching me up. I tripped on the kerb and the shock of the stumble jolted me into full awareness of the situation. I glanced back to see the two South Africans, Jackie Mekler and Johan Barnard, barely 40 yards behind. Subconsciously I had been expecting them. Accustomed to ultra-long distances and to even hotter conditions and slow, canny starters, they had been reckoned the obvious threat in the closing stages if conditions had been tough – and they couldn’t have been tougher!

‘I simply could not visualise myself completing the eight miles still ahead’

It was at that very moment my own personal miracle occurred, demonstrating the power of the mind over the body. I suddenly realised that I was going to finish these last three miles and, with that realisation, my energies and my racing instincts came surging back. Turning the next corner I plunged into the crowd of spectators at the edge of the pavement. The loud speaker vans kept blaring “Come into the middle of the road, Joe. It’s much clearer here.” But hidden by spectators I was not offering myself as a target to the following pair. At the top of this hill, I knew that the route turned left for a short distance, before swinging right again. Bursting from the crowd I spurted flat out to reach the further corner before my pursuers rounded the first. Then I settled down into a more comfortable racing pace. I was determined to fight every inch for that silver. The thought of gold never entered my head even when, near the stadium, spectators began shouting that the man ahead was looking bad. Jim Peters’ deceptively awkward style with his head nodding forward always gave the impression of painful effort. My main concern was how I was going to tackle the last steep hill – a one-in-ten gradient – that led past the stadium to almost roof level.

I had just reached the foot and was gathering myself for the effort when the news of Peters’ collapse was yelled at me. My first reaction was one of complete panic. How close were the South Africans behind me? I risked a glance back. As far as the eye could see, a good three hundred years or more, there was no runner in sight. I knew then that I could not be beaten and I never felt better in any race. The hill held no terrors for me now as I faced the climb. As I turned to run down the steep ramp past the stands into the stadium, I was struck by the deathly hush. The crowd had been shocked into silence by Peters’ collapse. “What is the next man going to be like?” was the question uppermost in everyone’s mind. They did not even know who was coming next, so little news of the marathon had percolated back to the stadium. There below me, framed in the opening to the track, stood the track- suited figure of Dr Euan Douglas, the Scottish team captain. I have never seen such a look of stupefaction on anyone’s face as realisation dawned and the big hammer thrower, dolphin-like, began to leap up and down waving his arms. I ran down into sheer pandemonium. I have never received such a reception. The crowd’s reaction must have been one of immense relief that this runner was not in a state of collapse. My ears were literally popping with the din as I raced around the track towards the tape to become, at 25, the youngest marathon winner in the history of the Games.

The victory ceremony as the Scottish flag was raised will remain an unforgettable memory. I have been attempting to answer the question of what actually did happen in this historic race. I have only indirectly touched upon the question of why such a disaster occurred to Peters at all – and to Cox for that matter. England should have won the gold and silver medals comfortably, and it is not enough to point to the weather conditions and the hilly nature of the course to explain why they did not. After all these were the same for everyone and, when you race, you are competing not only against the other runners, but the elements and the course as well. You have to adapt accordingly. I personally ran half a minute slower per mile than I was capable of. Peters obviously did not. A world record time was simply out of the question that day. The whole point of the exercise, surely, was to win the medal and each of us was chosen by our respective countries to do just that. I managed to do so, Peters did not. A ‘glorious failure’ is all very well but it does not disguise the fact that Jim Peters, the best and most experienced marathon runner in the world at the time, lost because he ran an unintelligent race.

n This piece first appeared in Scotland on Sunday on 28 August, 1994