Thursday, 23 April 2015

The marathon winner nobody really cared about

* Joe McGhee - perfect judgement.

THE man who quietly taught the world exactly how to win a marathon in crippling heat has died this week aged 86.

Inexperienced runners nervously preparing for Sunday’s Virgin London Marathon would be well advised to take a leaf out of the book of modest Joe McGhee, who left us this week as probably the least celebrated British gold medallist of all time.

McGhee was the man who profited from the dramatic and spectacular collapse of Essex’s Jim Peters in the final stages of the 1954 Empire Games marathon in Vancouver. Even if you have little interest in sporting history, you must have seen footage of the little dark-haired chap in white veering and wobbling madly, collapsing on the track a dozen times, almost fatally dehydrated yet leaking alarmingly from just about every bodily orifice.   

It was a scene so dreadful that some male spectators threw up and women fainted. Up in the posh seats even the handsome young Duke of Edinburgh had to avert his eyes.

Jim Peters had run 26 miles at full throttle, despite the intense heat of the day, not taking water for fear of upsetting his stomach. Getting no information from the roadside he wouldn't ease up for fear of being caught. He was completely oblivious to the fact he was around 15 minutes ahead of second–placed Joe McGhee. If only he’d known. Time to take a shower, grab a beer and still win!

Just yards short of the finish-line he fell for the last time and was carted off to hospital, dramatically close to death’s door. Many minutes later Scotsman McGhee, unaware of all the fuss and running a perfectly-judged steady pace, cruised into the stadium to take gold in 2:39:36.

McGhee’s sensible judgement and precautionary measures even saved him enough energy to have a dance at the closing ceremony later that night! But Peters, a great champion who should have known better, was a broken man who never raced again. This world record holder and, in many eyes the greatest marathoner that ever lived, was done for. McGhee, a virtual unknown, had quietly taught the world the marathon can be a highly dangerous adversary and needed to be confronted with calmness and respect.

All the hoohah surrounding Peters’ convulsing body meant McGhee was virtually ignored. He returned to Scotland without fuss, became a linguistics professor in Aberdeen and lived a quiet life until his demise in old age this week.

Researching my biography of Jim Peters a few years ago, I found that the Essex runner, who died in 1999 in Southend, had enormous respect for McGhee and regretted that all the attention in 1954 was on him, and not on the deserving race winner. 

McGhee rarely spoke about his success, although did record his memories in a diary published in part in a Scottish newspaper in 1994. The story that McGhee had himself collapsed mid-race only to be urged up and onwards again by an elderly Scotswoman turned out not to be true. McGhee won simply because he ran a more pragmatic race than champion Peters and the other challengers.
One of the few people to fully appreciate his father’s triumph was son Joe junior. The pair often ran 12-mile training runs together in Aberdeen in more recent times, and he said: “My father was a modest man, he kept much to himself over the years and wasn’t much of a traveller.”

To read the full story of Jim Peters dramatic rise and fall, McGhee’s victory and many other marathon adventures of the era, my book ‘Plimsolls On, Eyeballs Out’, is currently available via Amazon (link:  ).