Neil Featherby: The day I shared a taxi with a running icon... but didn’t know anything about it

Neil Featherby at the Berlin Wall. Picture: Neil Featherby

Neil Featherby at the Berlin Wall. Picture: Neil Featherby - Credit: Archant

Here we are at the end of September and a time of the year which always brings back memories for me of what was definitely my most memorable marathon moments.

A very special autograph from Emil Zatopek, the only athlete to win the 5,000 metres, 10,000 meters

A very special autograph from Emil Zatopek, the only athlete to win the 5,000 metres, 10,000 meters and marathon in the same Olympic Games. Picture: Neil Featherby - Credit: Archant

The 1986 Berlin Marathon saw me produce what would turn out to my overall PB for the distance.

This weekend sees what I think is the 46th running of the Berlin Marathon. It is without doubt a brilliant race and of course a race which has produced not just the current men's official world record, but a race where the men's world record has been recorded on eight occasions and the women's on two. With this in mind it is the Berlin marathon of 1985, which I want to write about as this race just happened to be my first ever overseas trip as an athlete.

Earlier in the year I had run 2:20:47 in the London Marathon which was followed up by a really good summer of racing with some pretty good race times and of course personal bests at all distances for which I always had it in mind that come September, I was going to run another marathon.

At the time it meant either going back to Leicester after what had been a very special day for me the year before, or travel just down the road to take part in the Ipswich Marathon.

Neil Featherby Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin. Picture: Neil Featherby

Neil Featherby Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin. Picture: Neil Featherby - Credit: Archant

Both races were on a two lap course and both were pretty hilly too, but I was still confident that I could breach the sub 2:20 barrier for the first time.

However, my coach at the time, Ian Fowlie, was adamant that he would get me an invite to Berlin, what with having contacts with the race director.

Most Read

Whilst I went along with it, feed-back from Germany, was really slow, so in my head it was full steam ahead for either the Leicester or Ipswich races. In fact I had already put an entry into both of these races to be covered one way or the other. Then lo and behold, just before the end of August, Ian called me up to say that there was good news and bad news.

"Go on," I said for which he then told me that my invitation from Berlin, had come through whereby I had a free entry and my hotel expenses would be covered. "What's the bad news?" I then said only to be told that if I wanted to go, I had to find the cost of my airfare.

Neil Featherby with Emil Zatopek and team-mates after the Malta Marathon. Picture: Neil Featherby

Neil Featherby with Emil Zatopek and team-mates after the Malta Marathon. Picture: Neil Featherby - Credit: Archant

Money was tight that's for sure what with only working part time for Asda in Hellesdon, but my late mum came forward and said she would pay.

Not only did she pay for my flights from Heathrow to Berlin, but she also paid for me to fly down to Heathrow from Norwich too.

I really did feel special and was so excited about running in an international race.

Just five days before, I had my last hard all out session of six times three minute reps with some club mates from the Norfolk Gazelles around Ringland Hills which confirmed that I was going out there in great condition, apart from the usual chest infection which I had been carrying for a bit.

Flying into this amazing city, I was absolutely fascinated by the sight of what was the infamous Berlin Wall or as it was back then, the wall which divided Berlin up in to West Berlin and East Berlin. I have always loved history and whilst the Wall did not exactly represent everything good about what was very much a big divide, I am so glad that I had the chance to see it including Check Point Charlie before it was pulled down four years later. Upon arrival and as I walked out of the airport there was a chauffeur driver waiting to pick me up to take me to my hotel. To say this really did further add to the occasion is an understatement.

Then later that evening the same driver came back to the hotel to take me and an American marathon runner who I was room sharing with to go and meet the race director and pick up our race numbers and any other bits and pieces which we would need for the marathon.

However, and upon climbing into the back of the luxury Mercedes car, in the front passenger seat was an elderly gentleman. As we pulled away, this "elderly gentleman" who was indeed very polite kept asking us questions about our running.

He was obviously trying to make conversation, but at the time I was more interested in talking to what was now my new American friend who was also looking to run the same time as I was in the race.

Then before we knew it, the car pulled over by the old Olympic stadium which had hosted the famous 1936 Games, to let our passenger out. He shook our hands and wished us all the best and then as he walked away, I looked at the driver and said "where is he going?" whilst noticing banners not only promoting the Berlin Marathon, but also that of the legend that was none other than Emil Zatopek, the only athlete to ever win the 5,000 metres, 10,000 metres and marathon all in the same one Olympic Games i.e. Helsinki, 1952.

"He is going to give a talk about running. His name is Emil Zatopek," our driver said.

With that, we were both speechless as we sat there with our jaws wide open. In fact I have gone cold whilst writing such is my memory of that occasion. There we were with an absolute legend for which at that moment in time we were two young guys in the prime of our lives who had been far more interested in talking to each other about ourselves rather than holding a conversation with what was such a great man. I could not stop thinking all night about the opportunity of a lifetime which I had just squandered.

As for the race the next day, if I am honest whilst I had hoped for a slightly quicker time, I did nevertheless cross the finish line in 2 hours 19 mins and 7 seconds which of course was at that time another new PB and my first time under the 2:20 barrier.

With regards to my special moment and huge lost opportunity, lightning definitely does strike twice as three and a half years later I was so lucky to meet Mr Zatopek again after running in the Malta Marathon, where he, along with his wife Dana, also an Olympic gold medallist and two other heroes of mine, Ron Hill and Ian Thompson, had been invited out to the event as special guests by the race organisers.

Needless to say, I made no mistake this time as I along with all my team mates who I had gone out there with, spent as much time as we possibly could in conversation whilst also coming away with photographs and a very special autograph and message from the great man who I had looked at as just an "elderly gentleman" that first time around.

Incidentally, I stayed very much in touch with my American friend for several years who also like myself ended his career with a marathon personal best of 2:17 whilst also representing his country in a major competition.

After retiring from athletics he went into politics for which I think it is fair to say, he is now a fairly high up and well respected figure in his country.

I am also sure that he, just as I did, looked back at that moment in Berlin in 1985, as one of those lessons in life which you learn from especially when it comes to never assuming as you never know who it is you just might be talking too.