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Thursday, 02 July 2015

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Olympian who ran sub four-minute mile – and still runs today at age 65

I ALWAYS knew I could be a four-minute miler, I just knew I could be a good runner, you’re given certain gifts and it’s up to you to make the best of them – says former Olympic 1500 metres star John Kirkbride.

At the age of 25 the Whitehaven athlete competed in the 1972 Munich Games, tragic for the massacre of the Israeli athletes but also fateful for John as only bad luck in the heats denied him the chance of a coveted place in the 1500 metres final.

His story goes back a long way to the days growing up in Mirehouse and, like a lot of other young lads going to the town’s Murray Boy’s Club, learning the values of life – and sport.

Back from the London 2012 Olympics, living with wife Lyn in the idyllic surroundings of Grasmere, John recalled: “When I was 16 I went on this fantastic course. Derek Ibbotson and his wife was there (Ibbotson was mile world record holder in 1957). I went with West Cumberland Athletics Club, I ran with his best lads (he was coaching them) and later Derek wrote a letter to my mum and dad saying ‘he’s got to come and live with us’....he said I could live with them, get better training and become really good.

"However, at the time I had an apprenticeship and you really had to think about having a job if you were going to move away. What’s funny is that when I was competing in the Commonwealth Games (Christchurch, New Zealand ‘74) Derek came up and said ‘do you think you could have been even better’?

“I said ‘I don’t know really’ – okay if I’d left Whitehaven sooner I might have reached my peak earlier but who knows? What I do know is that I’m glad I never missed my athletics career – after all there wasn’t much else in your life that gives you the highs that sport does.”

Not even his eventful engineering career spanning 16 years in far corners of the globe working with Taylor Woodrow International in places such Africa and the Far East.

Mr and Mrs Kirkbride – Lyn is a Whitehaven girl (nee Prowse) – have lived in their lovely home in Grasmere for the past 18 years, John having retired as Shepley Engineers’ chief engineer at Westlakes in 2007.

He says: “At first when I finished running Lyn and I first worked on a house at Sandwith when I was still at Distington Engineering but I left there and went to Sellafield for a couple of years before joining Taylor Woodrow International and going oversees

“As a mechanical engineer I worked on a couple of big plants in Ghana over three years, then spent a year back in London when our son David (now living in Australia) was born; we were sent by Taylor Woodrow to a place called Brunei, not a lot of people had heard of Brunei, but the Sultan of Brunei was the richest man in the world. I was there to open a Taylor Woodrow office, and were there for three years working for both the Sultan’s wives building luxury apartments.

“In nine years we also built water treatment plants, sports centres, all kinds of things. Later in Malaysia I was marketing manager for the Far East, working in Vietnam for weeks on end, Indonesia, Thailand.

“However, I have to say Grasmere is perfect. I run round the lake two or three times a week with a friend from the village and his dog.”

Back on the track, and John Kirkbride was invariably ranked in Britain’s top three milers, his two big rivals (and friends) being the other two: Brendan Foster and Peter Stewart.

John recalled: “Once when Brendan came over to Whitehaven to train he said ‘I can’t believe how you can train here – my God, Kirk, you should be coming over to live here (North East) and train with us, how can you train here alone’ (mind you Lyn was inevitably down at the county sports ground with the mandatory stop watch).

“Nowadays,” he went on, “you’d have to be a fulltime runner to compete at a high level; when I finished fourth in the European Championships I was driving a thousand miles a week in my job, down to Birmingham, all over the place.”

John was nearly 27 when he ran in the world record 1500m race at the Commonwealth Games in ‘74 – but several Achilles tendon operations finally brought an end to an illustrious career.

Besides competing in Olympics, European and Commonwealth Championships, World Student Games, also winning British Universities championships, two of Kirkbride’s most satisfying races were in 1969 and 1970. First of all winning the famous ‘Chubb’ invitation mile for his first sub four- minute mile (3.58secs) then the following year at Crystal Palace when he clocked 3.57secs to beat John Whetton. And it was one of the fastest times in the world that year.

John and Brendan Foster were really fierce rivals – Foster, he says, “was a hard character to beat, he hung on for grim death, we had some battles and managed to beat each other. Actually I had a much better 800 time and was faster than Brendan but looking back I don’t think I exploited the speed I had.”

John and Lyn loved their time in London at the 2012 Games but reflected ruefully on some of the schedules.

“In my time you had to run the 1500 heats, semi-final and final in three days, a speed person needs to have fantastic endurance to come back the next day, now they’ve brought science into it with ice baths and all the recovery techniques.

“Down in London the runners had the heats one day, then a day’s rest and, semi final another day’s rest and then the final.

“So basically my heat at Munich was probably my undoing, I was trying to take it a bit easy and stroll through when I got bumped out, someone put an arm across my chest and just kinda stopped me dead in my tracks.”

Would you have the appetite to start again, I asked him?

“Oh yeah. You’d do things a bit different, but looking back I don’t think I sacrificed that much to be honest.”


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