Alastair Aitken
Alastair Aitken
Alastair Aitken's
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John the Most Inspiring (January 2017)

The most inspiring runner I have interviewed since 1962, was not the outstanding Olympic winners like Usain Bolt, Seb Coe, David Rudisha, Mo Farah, Haile Gebressalsie, Lassie Viren, John Walker or even Tommie Smith but a reserved and determined, ‘Never Say Die’ character, called John Gilmour, who was born in 1919 in Ayrshire but went to Australia, with his brother Jim. It was in the ‘Great Depression’ of the 1920’s when his parents decided to go to Australia, hoping for a new and better life.  However, at first, they all lived in a hut, with no windows, in a Group Settlement in South West Australia, before improving their lot.

As I write this in 2017 and, to bring things right up to date, 97 year old, John Gilmour, won the World Masters ‘Over 95’ Championships over 800 & 1500 at Perth, Australia in 2016

He explained to me on a Christmas card, in December 2016 “I nearly never made it as I was on antibiotics right from the day before my 800. I had a urinary infection in my bladder as I have a catheter changed every six weeks.”
Going back to his start in athletics, he always showed some potential at an early age, winning the 1932 Carlisle Schools Sports 440 yards BUT there were some dramatic events in his life that John Gilmour was to have later on, in Singapore and Japan and, it certainly brought back more recent memories of seeing that Hollywood film of the American, Olympic runner, Louis Zamperini. That film was, called ‘Unbroken’

When he was about 21, John and his brother Jim joined the Army and not very long after that they were in the Australian 2/4th Machine Gun Battalion and, in action in the Second World War. John and Jim were captured, and imprisoned by the Japanese and, for three and a half years they were unable to go home. He was firstly in the notorious Changi Prison camp for 15 months. Thinking about that brings shivers down my spine because of its notoriety, and how many of the prisoners were treated. Except for one or two, the guards, inflicted some terrible tortures. After those 15 months John was to go to Japan as a slave labourer for the rest of the war.
Once he was forced to stand to attention for 10 hours, beaten twice and kicked in the groin. That comment was said in Australian journalist Richard Harris’ good book ‘All in my Stride” John Gilmour story, Changi to World Champion in 1999, ISBN 0 8905 260 5.
It was not surprising when John was released  he had suffered malnutrition, which damaged his optic nerve in both eyes permanently, giving him single vision but, that did not stop him running and  then as a partially blind person he even won an athletic trophy for the blind in 1987.
Despite his infirmities, that affected him for the rest of his life, as you will see, he was made of ‘Strong Stuff’.

He gave this account to me back in 1979, after winning seven races, if you include two heats he won at the World Veterans Championships in Hanover “When you were in the prison camp you did not know what was going to happen to you next and I know the hardships I went through. If I had not looked after my body like I did, I would not be around to-day. A lot of fellows are not here today because they sort of  tossed it in and, it was the same with running. It is all in the mind. You have to think you are going to make it. 10 miles, 15 miles, is no problem but if you go out and say I don’t think I can run 15 miles, you won’t run it. If I plan to run 10 miles I run 10 miles, I don’t chicken out at 6. That is what running is all about in my opinion.’

'In the prison camp I always had in my mind, if I ever get home I wanted to run and I never even did anything that may have been detrimental to my health. I never smoked or drank alcohol when I was in the Army. I did not know if I was ever going to get out of the prison camp in Japan but I still lived and hoped that one day I would run again and win a WESTERN AUSTRALIAN TITLE.
That took my mind off being shut up and maybe never being able to get out’
'I did win the Western Australia title for 10 miles on the road. I ran second the year I went into the army, and the first year I came back, after being released in 1946 I won the State Championships “

There are many World Veteran/Masters Championships titles and records he achieved after he was 51 years of age.
I do remember Hanover, the well organised World Veterans Games in 1979 and John was sensational in the Over 60 group. At the time he was 61. He did two heats and as well he achieved World 60-64 bests at the time of 2:19.3 for 800; 4:32.5 for 1500 16:54.9 for 5000m and 35:07.7 for 10,000 and finished off by running 2:52.28 for the marathon on the last day. He improved that to 2:43.49.

After the war, before he retired from work, he was a hospital Gardner and handy even with bricks too. He was still competing of course and he was a successful coach of quite a few young athletes. He has lived since then at Leeming, where a pavilion is named after him.
Prince Charles presented him with the Order of Australia Medal and then later he was awarded the Advanced Australian Award.
He married Alma McGowan on the 5th of October 1946 and he certainly was sad when she died on the 2nd of November 2012. She was a source of strength to him. He has a daughter Judith and son John Gilmour Junior.

I would like to finish by saying that the very focused and friendly John Gilmour’s longevity in the sport and, surmounting incredible setbacks will be hard to match by any runner at any time.

Alastair Aitken

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