Neil Featherby: Runners from the past can inspire today’s crop of youngsters

Neil Featherby at the London Marathon in 1986. Picture: Neil Featherby

Neil Featherby at the London Marathon in 1986. Picture: Neil Featherby - Credit: Archant

Having seen that a very old friend of mine, Tommy Hughes, at 59 years of age has just run a half marathon in an incredible time of 71 mins and 57 secs on the back of an equally awesome 2 hours 30 mins 15 secs marathon in Rotterdam, in April, it made me think about all the fantastic athletes who I was so lucky to meet and even travel overseas with for competition during my running career.

There is no two ways about it, Great Britain (and Ireland) had an absolute abundance of first class endurance athletes years ago and whilst we still do to this day, back then there was far less knowledge of sports science or perhaps better put, less availability to this knowledge for which it really was a case of just training as hard as you could in the hope of being the best that you could possibly be.

With this in mind and knowing that we have so many good athletes in Norfolk who all aspire to be the very best they can be, I thought to myself why not speak to some of my old running friends and get their take on what it took for them to achieve what they did when in their prime as well as their thoughts on running today.

Therefore, this week I am starting with Kevin McCluskey from Cumbria who really was a very talented athlete in his day at a great range of distances from a 3mins 53secs 1500 metres up to a 2 hours and 14 mins marathon. Not forgetting a staggering 47-minute 10 miler and 62-minute half marathon sandwiched in between.

Kevin, like so many others, stood out as a decent school boy athlete for which his geography teacher suggested that he should join his club Derwent AC, in Cockermouth.

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Coincidentally his geography teacher just happened to be the chairman of the club. Despite initially not being up there with the very best, he really did fall in love with the sport and thrived on being able to compete. Having qualified to represent Cumbria in what was his first English Schools Cross Country race in 1978 at Maidstone, a finishing place of 221st was more than satisfying for him and for those who know about the standards of running in the English Schools Cross Country Championships, they will know that 221st place is very respectful.

However, after a couple of years of further competition on the track and country, Kev left Derwent for Cockermouth ASA where he was not only lucky enough to train along side former Olympian John Kirkbride, but also now fall under the wing of his first proper coach Cliff Staunton.

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With this, results and performance just kept getting better and he was now making a name for himself amongst the junior ranks nationally which also culminated with him this time winning the English Schools X/C at Sheffield in 1982.

Joining Copeland AC was his next move along with a decision to coach himself. Whilst he continued to produce some excellent results, I think it is fair to say there was also a fair bit of inconsistency too until hooking up with Dave Cannon, a former British Fell Running Champion, a 2:11 marathon runner and two time GB Marathon representative at the 1978 and 1982 European Championships.

Dave simply, but carefully applied a missing ingredient called structure to Kevin's training and in Kev's own words: "This was fairly standard stuff, but it most certainly worked. I was always very strong and my mileage gradually increased along with the pace of my runs too. Training on the track disappeared and my speed work was now mainly done on the road and was based more around fartlek type sessions (speed play of variable intervals) or longer reps up to 5 minutes."

Needless to say, Kev's thoughts also now started to turn towards the marathon which had appealed to him from a very early age after watching Ian Thompson win both the 1974 Commonwealth and then European Marathon titles. "Ian was probably my earliest athletics hero and certainly my inspiration," he said.

His first marathon outing was in Dublin in 1990 and after a period of decent training he was confident of a good performance.

"I sat on the back of the lead pack and felt comfortable until there were just four of us left at 18 miles. I had a look at the others and none of them looked any better than what I felt at the time for which I thought I will leave it to 22 miles and then go for it.

"However and with no warning at all, the next thing I knew I had hit the wall. It was like a car running out of fuel and there was nothing I could do about it. The last eight miles just seemed to go on forever as I went backwards through the field."

Like so many others, be it amongst the elite or just a fun runners, just about all will know that when the marathon bites, it bites you in a big way. Most importantly though from Kevin's perspective, he knew where he had made his biggest mistake and that was his diet going into the race. In the shorter events he basically ate whatever he fancied, but had now learnt that when eating for a marathon, the diet needs to be much more specific.

Over the next couple of years, he got to grips with the distance and with his race times coming down he was ranked number five in the UK and was named as a non-travelling reserve for GB at the 1993 World Championships in Stuttgart whilst also being selected for the World Marathon Team Cup in San Sebastian later in the same year.

However, and just before the San Sebastian race, whilst out training he suffered a sharp pain behind his left knee and despite thinking it would ease off, it sadly got worse and he had to withdraw from the team. Worse still, he then needed five operations before it was fully repaired.

During his recuperation period, Copeland AC broke up and he joined Salford AC for which he has been a club member ever since and very proudly points to the two gold medals which he won whilst representing them at the National 12 Stage Relay.

International competition at the highest level was still his aim though and he decided to give it one more really good go in the hope of being selected for the England Team at the 2002 Commonwealth Games.

Unfortunately and shockingly, in August 2001, he was taken to hospital and diagnosed with a heart condition called pericarditis and a leaking aortic valve. Needless to say this was a time for giving a lot of thought towards running and his life. What with having a young son and of course plenty of life still yet to live, he made the tough decision to retire and wind any further aspirations down on his running career.

It doesn't surprise me one bit that Kevin didn't completely hang up his running shoes for good and started running again a few years later. It was now much more low key, albeit competing for his club in National Vets Road Relays and of course like thousands of others with an occasional Saturday morning local parkrun.

"I would still love to compete, but I do have to be so careful with the amount of running I do these days particularly with a persistent Achilles tendon injury," he said. However, and whilst his running is limited these days, he does go to the gym four times each week as well as cycling and of course walking as much as possible in the Lake District.

For me it really has been awesome to catch up with Kevin again after all these years especially as we both love the history of the sport as well as admiring all the same greats of yesteryear and of course today.

However, and most importantly, I really do hope that I can help inspire others (including Mark Armstrong) with such features on some of the great runners of the past who I have had the privilege to meet and get to know.

With that, the final words most certainly have to go to Kevin.

"I still love athletics, but it has changed a lot over the years. I was lucky enough to compete all over the world, but it is now much harder for Europeans such is the dominance in distance running of the African nations. With regards to those who get caught taking drugs, then in my opinion there should be no second chance.

"A lifetime ban is the only solution. As for fun events such as the parkruns, whilst I know that not all serious runners are fans, I personally think that if it gets people off their backsides to do some exercise, then who can argue with that? At the same time, many of these people go on to join athletics clubs and that really can only be a good thing."

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