Alastair Aitken
Alastair Aitken
Alastair Aitken's
Interviews and

Ken Norris

By Alastair Aitken

KEN NORRIS must go down in athletics history as one of the greatest racers who never achieved a 'Big' Games track medal.
In the 1950's he was virtually unbeatable in his prime on the road and achieved two silver and two bronze medals in the International' World' cross-country Championships. He won the National cross country in 1956 and the AAA's 6 mile in 1955 and ' 56; the latter in in 28:13:6 which was an English Native record. At the end of that year in Melbourne he was fifth in the Olympic 10,000m in 29:21.6.
         Ken Norris, now enjoys playing  table tennis and organises the largest club in the local league at at High Wycombe.
He is a Vice President,and life member  of Thames Valley Harriers, which he joined back in 1948 and, he is a level 2 qualified field events coach and level 2 distance coach so, with all that in mind It was interesting to read his thoughts about six of the most prominent top-class runners he ran against.
  Gordon Pirie, 1956 Olympic 5000m silver medallist and ex-world record holder also three times National cross country champion.
         "There was no doubt he was a great athlete, perhaps a little arrogant but I got on with him very well. He did not have anytime for fools but I found that he was quite willing to give credit where he felt credit was due. He once said to me, after I had been running a London to Brighton Leg and set the record, that he thought I was the only athlete he could visualise who could actually go right through the card and set a record on every stage. I actually set it on four stages. We got on quite well. We obviously represented Britain a number of times together. There was no ' I am going to beat you at all costs!. We invariably ran together.
   Frank Sando, twice International cross-country Champion, European and commonwealth track medallist
    "The person I have the greatest admiration for probably is Frank Sando. The only better cross-country I ever met, was Alain Mimoun. He is the only guy who ever beat me over the country that I never subsequently beat.'
 ' Frank was very unassuming, very modest, a great guy enormous potential and did not give up"
   George Knight the 1957 AAA's 6 mile Champion.
  " He was one of the up an coming people towards the end of my career. Early on I found I was able to beat him. All of a sudden he really came to the fore. He used  to have an unusual diet. He once went to an abattoir and was so horrified by what he saw that he vowed he would never eat any sort of meat again and virtually lived on egg and chips."
   Mike Barratt, who ran well into his 60's. He won countless races in the North London area for many years and eventually beat international Tim Briault to win the Middlesex cross country, after Ken Norris retired.
   "I was ahead of Mike Barratt in six senior Middlesex cross-countries. he was always a nearly runner I am afraid.
I certainly had a hoodoo sign over him. I only ever met one person who actually stayed with me running down hills, but did not beat me and that was Derek Ibbotson (World one mile record holder in 1957). Anybody else I could run away from. The Middlesex was held at Trent Park. Just a mile and quarter from home we went into a wood and, if you were in the front you could stop anyone else getting by. I always used to take the lead going into that wood and could afford to rest because nobody could pass me. I came out and there was this glorious 500 yards run downhill and 200 yards up the other side to the finish and I could just run away from them. Mike lived very much in my shadow but I would like to point out he is a good servant to athletics and a good friend of mine now.
In my career I always tried to dominate the competition that was extremely succesfull.
  Stan Eldon the 1958-59 AAA's 6 mile Champion, 1958 International cross country Champion and British record holder for 10,000m
   "There was a determined man. I met him when we were in the Army. It was his first year and my second. I became his target. I think he decided one day ' I am going to beat Ken Norris', which had did when I was starting to go down at the end of my career. I picked up some injuries that effected me. Stan was a nice guy but He did not want to be beaten"
   Emil Zatopek, the triple Olympic Champion of 1952 met Ken Norris, when he was still a formidable competitor but towards then end of his career
   "I beat him at the White City over 10,000m in the London v Prague match (18/10/55 . 1 Pirie 29:19.00; 2 Norris 29:21.4; 3 Zatopek 29:28.6). It was a much greater race a month beforehand (5000m 14/9/55-1 Pirie 14:03.8; 2 Zatopek 14:04.0; 3 Norris 14:04.0) In Prague there was a 44 thousand crowd and at least 43 were chanting Zatopek! Zatopek! Zatopek!. 43,000 is a lot of noise. I thought 'Thank God' this is not the first international I had  run because some people would be totally overawed by that. However, in the middle of the back straight there was a small section of the crowd shouting Pirie!, Pirie!, Norris!, Norris!. I found I was listening out for them. All three of us, at sometime, were trying to break the other one. We were continually changing places. Pirie made a break at the bell. I went after him and Zatopek was behind me. Coming into the home straight I was still 10 yards ahead of a Zatopek and 5 behind Pirie. I tore down the straight. Zatopek came past me on the line, throwing himself horizontally forward to split us up. I look back on that as one of my best races I had run, all be it I finished third. I Had run as well as I could. I had a great race and could not have done better on the day.'
     Beside Ken Norris's supreme runs in the premier UK road relays from London to Brighton (where he set 5 stage records), along with Martin Hyman (1961) Ken Norris, was the only UK athlete to win the famous Sao Silvestre Road 'Midnight' race.Norris won on New Year's (1955 into 1956).It was in Sao Paulo, Brazil. It was a 4.5 mile road race that year in front of a crowd of 500,000 with fireworks and, streamers even thrown over the runners. However it was at 2,700ft altitude in 80% humidity, 80 Fahrenheit, and to make things worse outriders, television vehicles, cars surrounded  the lead runner belching out fumes. The following year, the hot favourite collapsed while in the lead and nearly died, having to have two weeks in hospital, suffering from petrol fume poisoning. Norris certainly had a good lead of some 60 yards at one stage, then felt some terrible effects but despite finishing up a cobbled street he just managed to hang on to beat Stritof of Yugoslavia by a few feet. Two days later he won a 5000m track race in Sao Paulo in 15:04.9 and then, immediately flew home but his plane was diverted to Amsterdam and he had to go by boat and, eventually got in to London at 9.30 in the morning, had two hours rest at his home, then went to the Middlesex cross country Championships where he had a comfortable victory.
         Regarding Ken Norris 'National' senior win in 1956 over a four lap course at Warwick. He was not feeling that great in a bunch of 12 after one lap, but as they went into the last lap there was Ibbotson, Fred Norris and Ken left to fight it out. A mile from home Ken Norris opened up a 20 yard lead with Fred Norris in second place.
Undoubtedly one of his most enthralling races was against the Olympic silver medallist Jozeph Kovacs in Budapest in 1956. It was a 'Cat and Mouse' race throughout and Norris summoned up his fastest last lap of 58 seconds to beat the Hungarian.29:56.4 to 29:56.8.
   Ken Norris was born on the 11th of July 1931 in Hampstead. His parents were supportive particularly his Father Bert (Edgar) Norris, who often came on the bus to events with his son. Ken has been a salesman for Sports goods and for twenty two years  a computer stationary salesman before he retired. He got married to Audrey in 1958 and has two daughters Allison 41 and Susan 43.

'I was a complete failure'

After his primary school Ken Norris went to Wembley County School but said regarding sport at the school 'I was a complete failure'
   He loved cricket, even bought himself a bat but was out for no runs half a dozen times on the trot.
   With football he was hopeless. He headed a high ball on one occasion and it came down so hard he could not get up for five minutes.
    Swimming, he took five minutes to do a width.
He said athletics was even worse for him, as he could not make any of the standards set out for track or field events.
   It did not really dawn on Ken Norris he had any real talent as a runner, till he was forced to fill the extra place of eight for the Middlesex schools trials cross country over three miles. The race was run at Northwick Park. Except for just a couple of runners, all the athletes sprinted off at the start in the heavy rain and Ken felt absolutely humiliated, unable to do anything about it but slowly but surely some of them dropped off and he found more and more were coming back and he ended up sixth. He followed that up with sixth again but out of 270 in the Middlesex Schools championships.
   It was not till he was 17 that it all really began when he joined TVH. Alec White was a coach there and he was brilliant at treating every one of his athletes completely differently and, in Ken's case he used sarcasm and Ken Norris would try and do better sessions than his coach would tell him to do. For instance Ken Norris wrote in his diary 'Best last lap' in a mile race  and his coach wrote in red underneath 'Worst ever third lap! That would goad him on'
Ken Norris found that interval 440's on grass or on the track were his speciality as he found he could only concentrate for 440yards at a time, rather than longer reps. He would often do twenty of these with say 100yards recovery. Some of his club athletes joined in for some. Ken would try and reduce his intervals which gave him  immense strength as a racer.
He brought his mile time down to 4:11.4.
   When Ken Norris was sixth in the National youths,  Alec Olney, from his club was 2nd in the National senior race and Ken thought at the time, I would love to be in the International team one day. Taking each race as it comes he had that aim in the back of his mind, always targetting the man immediately ahead of him.  
    I have memories of Ken Norris winning a couple of Southerns' over the tough 9 to 10 mile course at Parliament Hill Fields in 1954 and 1957 also the Inter-Counties of 1954, 55 and 57. Also, when I was doing information work at Crystal Palace for the BBC Outside Broadcasts on a Saturday in the early '70's, Ken was doing the same sort of thing  for BBC television, with his walkie talkie.
   The one thing that stands out about Ken Norris for young athletes to try and emulate is that if you find you can run and wish  to take up the sport from humble beginnings, you train hard, taking each step at a time to improve and beat the next man ahead of you, the sky is almost the limit. He was hopeless at school till the latter part of his school days yet, obtained over 150 cups and medals in eleven years representing TVH. He ran in 43 international races.

Alastair Aitken

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