A couple of weeks ago I mentioned a conversation with Mark Armstrong about whether people were still finding our columns interesting.  

We have now been writing them for what is just over six and a half years – April 28th, 2017, being the first ones. 

However, and how lovely to see a letter in last week's EDP from Simon Beckett confirming that he for one loves reading them. Compliments like this really do mean a lot to both me and Mark and make it all worthwhile. 

One of the things Simon mentioned was providing an insight into a runner which he did not know about. 

Well, my subject this week may not be so well known by today’s current runners, particularly here in Norfolk, but on a national scale he most certainly was and, in many quarters still is. Having just short of 5,000 friends on Facebook confirms this! 

Nick Lees from Derby during the 1970s and 80s was one of the UK’s leading athletes performing at the highest levels on the track, road and cross county. 

His name was first noticed by me when aged just 14 in 1972 when nervously looking through the programme the night before the English Schools Cross Country Championships which was being held at Hillingdon. 

However, I then noticed him once again the following year at Swindon where he had gone from being Derbyshire’s number two runner in our age category to their lead runner. 

Looking at the pen draw, Derbyshire were in 13 whereas our Norfolk team was in pen number 7. 

The gun went and after what really was a huge charge, I found myself in the top three after blasting up this very steep hill. For me, the rest of the run was an absolute blur over the 6,463 metre course. 

It really was one heck of an early eye opener to what racing against the best runners in the country was all about. 

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After the first of the two laps I had dropped back to 50th place and it didn’t get any better when finally crossing the line and looking down at the finishers disc which said 118. 

One consolation was that I was the first Norfolk runner to finish but it had certainly enlightened me to what it meant when starting too fast in a race and blowing up. 

So where is this going with regards to Nick Lees? Well firstly, he remembers both of those schools’ cross-country races, but he can’t remember where he finished. I may have even finished ahead of him, but I doubt it. 

Back then he was only just getting into serious running on the back of, like so many others, a football background. In fact, he had been on Derby County’s books as a schoolboy. 

It was his teachers at school who convinced him that he should focus on running rather than football though. 

Then one year further on and into 1974 he won his first major title of what was to be many during such a distinguished career when winning the English Schools 3,000 metres title on the track in 8 mins and 37.2 secs. 

Now whereas Nick carried on from school days, I walked away from the sport and to be honest did not really show any interest for another six years when watching the World Cross Country Championships on TV in 1980. 

Seeing Nick in the winning England Team made me think about what I might have been able to do if I had kept running and whilst it was not for another two years until I started competing again, by this time he had won several national titles and taken a bronze medal in a European track championship. 

Whilst I never ever got anywhere near the level of Nick apart from finishing just over a minute behind him in the London Marathon in 1985 and having a marathon PB which is just 57 seconds slower than his, when chatting to him on the phone this week, it was also clear to me just how determined and single minded he was when it came to his running. 

“At 16 years of age I was already running 80 to 100 miles a week with lots of the running being done at intense levels. I would also go and train with the sprinters to maximise my speed and believe you me after running with those guys, when then doing similar sessions with the endurance boys it felt so much easier,” he said. In other words, it felt far more comfortable by comparison when doing a set of 200 metre reps with the distance boys. 

He also told me how he would train and race with the senior athletes where he got some fantastic advice and encouragement from the older and more experienced guys within his club and from work colleague Bernie Ford (two-time Olympian), which helped his mindset when it came to raising the bar when racing, irrespective of any age differences. 

Nick’s competitive career came to an end just after turning 40 due to having some arthritic issues with his knees. “All down to wearing light weight flimsy shoes back in our day, Neil,” he said. 

He also suffered with two hernias which needed surgery as well as having had a heart issue which was possibly down to all his running exertions over the years. 

Right now, though, he is still getting out a few times each week for some easy runs and being just one week younger than me, he is looking forward to drawing his pension next year which we both laughed about. 

With regards to his thoughts about running today, he really does have some forthright views on the sport especially when it comes to potential talent which sadly gets missed. 

Personally, I think it is a shame that there are so many former great athletes such as Nick out there whose knowledge is not being tapped into as much as it should be. But that’s probably another column for a later date. 

Here are just a few of the many outstanding achievements by Nick Lees which demonstrates how he was a young talent who did not get lost when it came to competing at the highest levels from schoolboy through to senior. 


1974 English Schools Intermediate boys 3,000 metres winner. 

1976 English Schools Senior Boys Cross Country winner. 

1976 & 1977 AAAs Junior 5,000 metres winner. 

1977 European Junior 5,000 metres Bronze Medallist. 

1978 National Junior Cross Country winner. 

1979 and 1980 Gold Medallist as part of the England Men’s Senior Team at the World Cross Country Championships. 


Personal Bests: 1,500 metres 3:44.6 – Mile 4:02.2 – 3,000 metres 7:56.8 – 5,000 metres 13:33.59 – 10,000 metres 28:18.8 - 5 miles (road) 22:42 – 10 miles (road) 48:01 – Marathon 2:16:38. 


Nick’s career of course extended long beyond the above list which included endless race wins and top performances such as his 3 marathon wins at Derby (twice) and Nottingham.  

As mentioned earlier, his running these days is restricted to just getting out a few times a week for an easy run but away from this he loves spending time with his ponies and cats which he and his vet wife Robyn have rescued. Definitely a man after my own heart there when it comes to animal rescue. 

From my perspective and whilst I never attained the same level as Nick, I gave it my best shot and if nothing else it brought me into contact with so many great athletes which of course also now open doors for me to write about them. 

As said many times before, while it is always difficult trying to do the likes of Nick justice in a column, if it inspires others to raise their own bar when it comes to goal setting, then awesome. 

Just to finish off my column for this week – firstly a very big thank you to everyone who sent me and all at Sportlink their best wishes after celebrating 29 years in business yesterday (Nov 16th). At the same time and what seems ironically appropriate, it’s also the Sportlink GP Awards this evening at the Assembly House in Norwich which gives us a further cause for celebrating. 

Have a great running weekend everyone.