David Moorcroft is a former 5,000m world record holder and Commonwealth gold medallist. He was chief executive of UK Athletics from 1997 to 2007 and is now Director of Sport at Join In, a charity helping grassroots sports clubs find volunteers. In part two of our interview with him, he recalls how be became a world record holder – from feeling ‘awful’ before the race to reflecting on the achievement alone by a Nordic lake.
MY FINEST HOUR - 5,000m world record, Oslo, 1982
‘I kept waiting for it to hurt . . .'
“I only broke one world record so it was the race that changed my life forever. But it wasn’t set up as a world record attempt – if it had been, there’d have been pacemakers. I was just hoping I might break the British record, which was Brendan Foster’s.
“On the morning of the race I went for a jog with my friend Cliff Temple and felt awful. He wasn’t a very good runner and I was struggling to hang on to him because I was mentally preparing myself.
“But as soon as the race started I just felt free and thought ‘I’ve got to go to the front’. For pretty much ten laps it didn’t hurt. I was running in a way I had never run before with absolute freedom and complete control.
“I had no idea how fast I was going or what the lap times were, I just knew I’d left the rest of the field behind. I kept waiting for it to hurt. I was relatively inexperienced at 5,000m and although there was a big clock I couldn’t compute the times.
“Coming up to the bell with about a minute to go I looked up and saw 12.01 and that was when it dawned on me that I was going to break the world record. The last lap did hurt but it didn’t even occur to me that I could have gone under 13 minutes. I was just running as hard as I could.
“The athletes used to stay in university accommodation just outside Oslo and there was a lake we used to run around in training. At 1am I went and sat on my own by this beautiful lake. I can picture the spot now.
“It was a beautifully still Scandinavian night with the moon shining on the lake. I sat there alone for half an hour just contemplating how my life would change, so that is a private moment I treasure.”
A pub meal before and fish and chips with champagne afterwards . . .
“My wife Linda and I had our wedding anniversary on July 5th and went out for a pub meal and the race was on the 7th so I went down to Heathrow that evening and had an early flight to Oslo.
“The race wasn’t live on TV because it was during the World Cup. But Brendan Foster watched it in the studio and rang Linda before it was on television to tell her what had happened.
“He said ‘you’ll never guess what Dave’s done tonight’ and Linda, almost apologetically, said ‘Has he broken your British record?’ Brendan said ‘more than that’ but she wouldn’t believe him.
“My Dad was timekeeping at a local athletics meeting when they announced over the tannoy that Coventry’s very own David Moorcroft had broken the world record.
“I flew back and the next day we all gathered at our little house. We were starving so we had fish and chips and a glass of champagne and it was perfect. Two or three days later people kept saying ‘what a shame you didn’t break 13 minutes’ but even then it didn’t bother me that much.”
Waiting for another perfect moment . . .
“I kind of assumed I’d do it next time but next time never came. I spent the rest of my career trying to recreate the perfect moment I had in Oslo but the reality is that perfect moments don’t happen often.
“I ran 3,000m about ten days later at Crystal Palace and broke the European record against a really good field. But that hurt from early on and I had to dig deep to win.
“The most satisfying races are often the ones that hurt the most. With the ones that don’t hurt, you almost end up thinking ‘why couldn’t I have gone faster?’
“I ran 5,000m for the first time internationally in 1980/81 but my background was 1,500m. I was almost a reluctant 5,000m runner and I used to get injured quite a lot, so I struggled to do the volume of training needed for 5,000m.
“I had an operation on my calves in 1981 but then had my best winter training in 1981/82 in New Zealand and that culminated in my best season. My wife and I taught there during the New Zealand summer, living in Hamilton, and would return [to the UK] in April and prepare for the season.”
My ‘pocket money’ Nike contract
“I was earning almost nothing from running before that. I had a full-time job and I was back at work the day after getting back from Oslo at a community sports project in Coventry.
“My first contract with Nike was worth about £200 for the year and after the world record it went up significantly and was in the thousands. You could then begin to earn money but it was pocket money really.
“But promoters would fly family around, so my wife and my children went all over the world courtesy of sponsors paying their air fares. We didn’t have agents, managers or a massive entourage so it was very easy to have a good family life rather than earn a fortune. I wouldn’t swap it for the world.”
The African revolution – ‘someone could run 5,000m in 12 mins 30′
“I was a bit of an anomaly. My Dad wasn’t really a runner and we didn’t have a history of producing sports people within the family.But for me, the switch was flicked at 11 and there was no doubt in my mind what I wanted to do.
“Part of me is still kind of proud that I was the last non-African to hold the 5,000m world record but I’d be absolutely delighted if a Brit broke it in the future. The African revolution has been amazing to witness and it was really led by Haile Gebrselassie.
“When I was competing there were the likes of Henry Rono. There were a relatively small number of brilliant African athletes.
“But from the late 1980s onwards, there have been so many phenomenal African athletes. The way Gebrselassie and Kenenisa Bekele smashed world records makes it really hard for anybody to conceive of running faster, let alone a non-African.
“But you can never say never. Mo [Farah] might be of African origin but he was very much brought up in the UK, through the UK system and embraced the best of that with the best of the African approach. He has produced incredible results.
“I’ve known Mo since he was a youngster and I was really proud when he broke my British 5,000m world record in Zurich – I’d held it for far too long. He didn’t run brilliantly well and didn’t win but he still broke 13 minutes, having won the European 5,000m and 10,000m a few weeks before.
“There are periods when someone sets a world record and it’s so phenomenal that it remains for a long time. But it’s conceivable that someone will break 12:30 for the 5,000m. It’s all part of the fascination of the event, like the quest for the two-hour marathon.”
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