Marathon speed

Recently I’ve been loaned biographies about Bill Adcocks, Derek Clayton and Ron Hill. These are names from a long-forgotten past but, in the late 1960s, they were three of the best, if not the best, marathoners in the world.

Derek Clayton was the marathon world record holder for fourteen years including the whole of the 1970s. Born in Northern Ireland, he emigrated to Australia in his early twenties and set his mind on becoming the world record holder. His training regime consisted of 150-160 miles each week which enabled him to set the record, first in 1967 with a time of 2hr09min36 in Fukuoka (Japan) then improve it two years later to 2hr08min34 in Antwerp (Belgium). There was however controversy over this latter record as the course was thought to be short. Nonetheless it stood until 1981 when it was broken by Rob de Castella.

Derek Clayton looks out from the cover of “Running to the Top”. Part autobiography / part advice

Bill Adcocks was another great marathoner and, the year after Clayton’s recordsetter, he became the sole Briton ever to win Fukuoka marathon in 2hr10min48. He was only a minute slower than Clayton and, while he never held the world record, until 2004 he held the course record for the original Marathon route in Greece with a time of 2hr11min07. Among his other accomplishments were to place 5th in the heat and altitude of the 1968 Mexico Olympic marathon and win silver at the Empire (Commonwealth) Games in 1966.

Bill Adocks running on the left.
The cover of his autobiography “The Road To Athens”

Ron Hill is better known these days as he’s continued running into the 21st century and is famed for his daily run streak that stretched from 1964 to 2017. Arguably he was slightly better than Bill Adcock at the marathon but it’s a close contest. Ron competed for Great Britain at the 1964, ‘68 and ‘72 Olympics. In 1970, he set a course record in Boston in 2hr10min30 then followed it up by winning the Commonwealth Games gold in 2hr09min28. He claimed this was the world record as it was faster than Clayton’s Fukuoka time and the Antwerp course had never been successfully remeasured.

Part two of Ron Hill’s “The Long Hard Road” – both parts are 400 pages

Having graduated with a PhD in textile chemistry, Ron began his own clothing line. I remember when I was a sixteen year old attendant at Broadstone Sports Centre, the other lads (Warren, Justin, Eddie, Tim) all wore RonHill Tracksters – navy blue leggings with a thin red stripe down the side and stirrup loops at the bottom. While they were tighter than the woollen tracksuits of the day, they were still looser compared to the lycra of today. Of course I had to get a pair to try and fit in with the cooler, older lads!

The legendary RonHill Tracksters. A favourite of the lads at Broadstone Sports Centre in the ’80s

What I found revealing from these books was that each of them began at clubs where they did regular intervals sessions to develop their speed. Mileage was secondary and a big week in their early years was 30-40 miles. Their best times for 400m and the mile were as follows:

400m / 440yd timeMile time
Derek Clayton52 secs4:07
Ron Hill55 secs4:10
Bill Adcock57 secs4:12
1960s world record45 secs3:51

My big takeaway is that even the best marathoners in the world, who are the most naturally talented towards endurance, could run a 400m or 440yds in under sixty seconds. Yet I know few runners entering parkruns, 10Ks or other distance events who can do this. Do you have to be freakishly endowed with speed to achieve this? I don’t believe so – simply committed to a good training programme. Of course there will be some who aren’t capable but I suspect many more could if they tried.

The related takeaway is that in being able to run 2hr10 marathons, Clayton, Hill and Adcocks were running at 5-minutes per mile. It’s an obvious statement yet most people approaching the marathon are more concerned about training for the distance than being able to run a single mile faster. To an extent, you can build decent times off general runs and progressively pushing harder but often this only leads to being a decent runner at the front of local races with times that are far off those of the best club runners.

When you think about it, it’s obvious – “if you want to run a fast distance race, you have to be fast over a shorter distance”. I know lots of people who do speedwork with the intention of getting fast for their current races but no-one who’s taken a dedicated approach to improving their speed at shorter distances before working on the distance of longer races.

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