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Face to Face: Charlie Spedding

Charile Spedding - A Real Life Alf Tupper ?

Jun 24 2003

By John Gibson, The Evening Chronicle

  He once ran a marathon over 26 gut-wrenching miles and won by one inch - just about the width of hisvest.

Can you imagine that? One inch after two hours, 11 minutes and 54 seconds of sheer slog and it turns out to be worth £84,000. Untold wealth to an amateur.

That was Charlie Spedding's first ever marathon race in the space city of Houston, America. His second brought another glorious victory in the London Marathon. And his third an Olympic bronze medal finally confirmed before 92,000 folk in the Los Angeles Coliseum Stadium and a worldwide television audience of two billion.

Spedding was 32 years of age and the first eight months of 1984 were pure vintage for a County Durham long-distance runner who held down a day job before shamateurism gave way to full blooded professional millionaires.

North East athletics was at its zenith - Steve Cram and Mike McLeod also medalled in LA - and now all three are to defy creaking limbs to chase a $5,000 top prize in a golden oldies half marathon in Bristol come September.

A time of nostalgia, to bathe in an era of great local success on the world scene? Or a ridiculous challenge for Spedding, now 51 and out of serious training for the last 12 years? Probably both if the truth were faced.

"Oh I won't win it," Charlie told me, peering over his owl-like spectacles. "My old rival Mike McLeod is still running competitively so where does that leave me? But it has given me something to aim for, a reason to do some regular training and get relatively fit again."

The name McLeod is inevitably inter-woven with that of Spedding in North East sporting history and Charlie laughingly calls it "an Alf Tupper story" that two working-class lads hit the Olympic jackpot against all odds in the showbiz glitz of Los Angeles.

"It really was extraordinary," insisted Spedding. "We'd run against each other since the age of 16 when we took part in local youth age group races and there we were on an Olympic rostrum. Neither of us had been given a chance but Geordie grit won through for us.

"I might easily have run in the 10,000 metres myself if I'd blown up in Houston. But as it was Mike finished third in the final and ended up with the silver medal when the Finn Martti Vainio was found to be a drugs cheat and I ran the race of my life in the marathon."

This was a man killer, run in searing temperatures that touched 110 degrees but Spedding unbelievably defeated Australia's world champion Rob de Castella, Japan's Toshihiko Seko and world record holder Alberto Salazar of the USA.

They were the marathon thoroughbreds but Charlie, a rookie who had by his own admission been nothing more than a "rank and file" 10,000m international, swept them off the medal board.

Portugal's Carlos Lopes took gold, John Treacy of Ireland silver and Spedding bronze.

"My wildest dream had come true and I'd performed to the very best of my ability," he told me. "What more could I want?

"I was deeply satisfied. This was the most satisfying race of my career. I couldn't have done more - the other two were better than me. But I beat some very big names."

Spedding returned 2hrs 9mins and 58secs - 37 seconds behind Lopes but only a tantalising two seconds behind the green-vested Treacy, with whom he battled the final miles.

"No one went crazy at the start which was good because it was pretty hot," recalled Charlie. "I got to 20 kilometres and was waiting for de Castella to make his move but when I looked round he wasn't even there and I thought it was time to get rid of some of the others so I started shaking it up.

"If the likes of de Castella and Salazar are struggling it does you the world of good. You feel less tired."

Spedding, Lopes, Treacy and Kenyan Joseph Nzau suddenly hauled themselves away from the elite pack but Charlie didn't hit his brick wall until the 24-mile mark.

"I really began hurting and was awfully tired. But this was the Olympics. I ran with caution in Houston and London, testing myself over strange territory, but in the Olympics you have one shot and give it everything.

"My whole life I had dreamed of a moment like this. I was seen as an outsider but I had convinced myself I could get a medal.

"Before the race I concentrated on one thing - positive thinking - because if you don't believe it can happen it won't. It's no good kidding yourself. It has to be for real. You have to believe with all your heart."

The build-up to his glory run had been extremely difficult - the aftermath a glorious party shared with the world.

"The marathon is traditionally the last race and slowly the Olympic village completely changed," Spedding told me. "With the passing of every day athletics were beginning to party as their event was over but we had to remain focused and detached. We couldn't join in - I couldn't celebrate with Crammie or McLeod.

"But we marathon runners are good at being isolated in a world of our own. The place was very noisy but I was totally focused, locked away with my thoughts.

"However, when it was all over we had the best medal presentation of all because it marked the beginning of the closing ceremony.

"The podium was set upon a specially-constructed stage surrounded by fountains and fronted by a 60-strong symphony orchestra."

Whereas a most acceptable amount of money had been gathered in by Spedding at Houston and London the return in Los Angeles wasn't to be gauged by cash. When you receive an Oscar a pay cheque doesn't go with it.

However, I suggested to Charlie that winning an unexpected Olympic medal must have had considerable spin-off effects.

"Not really," he insisted. "Remember this was an era when Britain boasted Steve Cram, Seb Coe and Steve Ovett head to head, Daley Thompson and Tessa Sanderson, so an Olympic bronze medallist wasn't going to suddenly become a millionaire. The spin-off was colossal for some but not for me."

Maybe not, but in his mind Spedding was rich beyond his boyhood dreams.

"I only wish I'd had longer as a marathon runner," admitted Charlie. "It took me 16 years of toil and sweat to get to an Olympic medal. I'd begun running seriously when I was 16 and I was 32 when I had my glorious year in 1984. But the wait only made it that much sweeter.

"I'd given my all as a 10,000 metres runner. I was an international and AAA champion but nothing better than that. Then along came the marathon and the world stage.

"I eventually got where I wanted to be. I ran in two Olympics - I was sixth in Seoul - and I competed in four London Marathons. I'm proud of my record."

Why Spedding is not too keen on collecting his full prize

Charlie Spedding has never received the full £84,000 prize money he won in the greatest marathon finish ever witnessed.

Nineteen years later a debt is still outstanding - and he's delighted.

Because Charlie revealed he only received £14,000 up front - the other £70,000 was a life insurance policy.

"I have the policy at home and I'm glad to say it hasn't been cashed," he smiled. "I'm still alive so there's no money. Presumably someone else will eventually benefit!

"Actually I was a bit put out when everyone thought I'd pocketed £84,000 for my win in Houston. It was a clever ploy to put the bulk of the money in a policy - a good PR exercise because it made it look as though we were running to win the pools when in reality extremely fit young men were likely to live for an awful long time and 70 grand of the money was therefore safe."

In those grey days between amateurism and professionalism athletes were allowed to run for cash - but they couldn't spend it.

"We had to put our winnings in a trust fund for when we retired," explained Spedding. "If we wanted to dip into it we had to satisfy the trustees that everything was pukka.

"So the 14 grand from Houston went into trust and so did the $10,000 I received for winning the London Marathon a few months later. Prize money in world athletics is always paid in US dollars and today the winner gets $55,000, which is a lot more than inflation.

"I actually used some of the money to buy a house. But if I'd sold it before I retired I'd have had to pay it back into the fund.

"Professional athletics had to come. We lived in a twilight world and it was stupid."

The Houston marathon was Spedding's first and the result caused a huge controversy. Winning a race by dipping on the line is usually the domain of the sprinters but here was an English rookie doing it to win a marathon.

The man he defeated, Italian Massimo Magnani, went berserk but his appeal fell on deaf ears. The four judges ruled in favour of Charlie and a photo in the local paper the next morning clearly showed No 69 - the Englishman - getting to the line on a dip!

"That's some way to win a marathon, never mind your first one, isn't it?" laughed Spedding. "Magnani was convinced he'd held me off but I had a feeling the race was mine.

"I had run conservatively because I'd never done the distance before and didn't want to risk blowing up. I did the same in the London Marathon and won again.

"With only five miles to go the Italian and another runner were well clear and I thought I was running for third place. But I began to haul back the leaders who had a look of horror on their faces.

"Even so I was still two yards behind Magnani with 50 yards left to the finish. I caught him with a yard to go and instinctively lunged at where I thought the line was. We were both credited with the same time but I was an inch ahead of him!"

Spedding had been prepared to make a late bid for a place in Britain's 10,000 metres squad at the LA Olympics had he failed in Houston but now the marathon was his new domain. He conquered Texas in the January and London the following May, when his Gateshead Harriers team-mate Kevin Forster was second to make it an incredible double.

One run inspired a loser who was no good at sport

He may be an Olympic medal winner but Charlie Spedding has worn spectacles since the age of three.

He only took them off on the track or roads but if his eyesight restricted him at school it proved no barrier to a career which only blossomed because he was sick of being a loser.

With disarming frankness Charlie told me: "I didn't do anything very well as a kid. I was always close to the bottom of the class and didn't excel at any sport.

"My eyesight didn't help me in lessons but it didn't hinder me in sport - I could see enough.

"I was obsessed with football like most young lads. I kicked a ball against our garage door all day long but, frankly, I didn't have what it takes.

"Then one day we had a race over two miles of pathways around the school. A few set off at a brisk pace but, once out of sight, dropped down to a walk.

"However, I didn't want to come last yet again so I gave it a real go. I didn't win - but I finished second or third and thought: `Hey, this is for me.' I was good at something."

Spedding, born in Ferryhill where he lived until he was 14, had no athletics background in his family but, spurred on by unexpected success, joined Darlington Harriers before moving quickly on to the famed Gateshead Harriers, who were promoted by the considerable presence of Olympic bronze medallist Brendan Foster and top coach Stan Long.

However, while his club had stature conditions were still of the amateur variety.

"We got changed at the Coatsworth Road Junior School," recalled Charlie. "There were no showers when you came in sweaty from a 10-mile run, only washbasins which were about a foot off the floor and tiny. And only cold water. We weren't pampered in those days, I can tell you!

"Though I ran for Gateshead throughout most of my career I really coached myself. I think I'm easy-going by nature but on some things I dig in my toes and say no.

"That's how it was with athletics though Lindsay Dunn, a lifelong pal, had the most significant influence on me. I still work with Lindsay today talking with some of his athletes about motivation."

Seconds from death

Before fame beckoned, Charlie Spedding teetered on the brink of death when things went dramatically wrong during a routine operation.

Spedding was told afterwards he was just 30 seconds away from death after a freak reaction to anaesthetic he received for an achilles heel operation.

"I was lying on the table and it was touch and go if I survived," he admitted. "It was just another injury problem as far as I was concerned but things went dreadfully wrong because of an allergy I apparently had. Only the quick reaction of the anaethistist saved me."

The year was 1975 and Charlie was only 23 with, as he puts it, "no evidence of what was to come" - but nine years later he stood on the Olympic medal rostrum.

Bristol spur to get ship-shape

Memory Lane will inevitably be on Charlie Spedding's road map when he returns to familiar territory in Bristol.

A Golden Oldies race has been added to their half marathon and Spedding will once again stand on the starting line with the likes of Steve and Hugh Jones - both former London Marathon winners like himself - Nick Rose and Mike McLeod.

"It'll be terrific to see the lads again," admitted Charlie, who now lives in the Fenham district of Newcastle and runs his own chemist's business in Hadrian Park, Wallsend. "But I mightn't see them for long once the gun goes!

"I haven't trained for 12 years. I've only gone out once or twice a week for a 20-minute jog to get some fresh air and I've struggled up the slightest of hills.

"I've often wished I was a bit fitter and now I have an incentive. I'm actually getting out more often because I have the motivation."

Bristol staged the World Half Marathon Championships two years ago and they were a great success. However, last year was a damp squib and, in an effort to create more interest and publicity, the organisers decided to bring in eight former stars to run their own race within the body of the main event.

"I'm really looking forward to it - honestly," smiled Charlie. Why did I think he was trying to convince himself as much as me?

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