Alastair Aitken
Alastair Aitken
Alastair Aitken's
Interviews and

The Snow King (TFKJ) - April 2018

At 78. I now look back over the many years I have had and, realise there were three British runners who were my heroes because, they meant so much to me at the time.
My Father Colonel David Aitken DFC, OBE, DSO, was a war time friend of the Manager of the White City Stadium, Shepherds Bush. When I was 8 years old, my Father first took me and, my brother Ian, to see the athletics and, we were right near the finishing line. That was in 1948 and I first experienced the‘White City roar’
It was 1948 that Bill Nankeville won the AAA’s Championship mile, which he followed up with winning again in 1949, 1950 & 1952. His attractive and effortless style, captured my imagination and, it was then, that I started collecting cuttings from newspapers, to put in my first Woolworths’ scrapbook.

My first ever interviews published were in the magazine ‘Modern Athletics’ in 1962, when I was 22. The article was headed ‘The Qualities That Make a Star’ with Robbie Brightwll, Derek Ibbotson & Bruce Tulloh’ The year after that, in 1963, I met the person who was my second hero. It was after my first ever interview that appeared in ‘Athletics Weekly’
It was with Tim Johnston, not a big games medallist, except at veteran level. I met him after he bounded over the snow covered Hampstead Heath, to win the Southern cross country Senior Championship from Don Taylor of Herne Hill Harriers. Tim had a light frame 132lbs/59kg and 5’8½ tall. He had so much determination as a runner and a strong intellect,
He was a proficient linguist, who studied law at Cambridge University.
Snow fell in January and February of 1963 and, lasted a long time...

When I talked to Tim, it was the same day his Cambridge University colleague Mike Turner won the Northern Championships...

My third hero was Dave Clarke, again an interesting character who is very interested in history and a teacher. He was educated at Dulwich & St Paul’s.
The tall blond runner was from Hercules Wimbledon AC. He had a long career at the top, as a cross-country runner and, he could do a sub-4 minute mile, as well, as even winning the Stockholm Marathon.
When he was competing a lot, I was still running cross-countries and, as a veteran, started my many London marathon training runs. I used to think of Dave and his ‘Great’ National win at Leeds, ahead of Hugh Jones, as I ran round Dulwich Park and the Crystal Palace area..

It will be Tim Johnston I will be writing about in much more detail

Why the Snow King?

It was Timothy Fredrick, kemball Johnston, Portsmouth AC and Trinity College Cambridge, born March 11 1941. Most of the interview comes from 1983 published in The Marathon &Distance Runner’ magazine. I think it makes interesting reading.

At the time of the earlier 1963 interview Tim Briault & Mike Turner had started to establish themselves as leading Cambridge University & international runners.
First of all what about ‘The Snow King’ or the ‘Abominable Snowman’ if you like. There were three important cross-counties in 1963 that he won and, beat some really ‘Great’ runners, all over snow covered courses!

On February the 9th he won the UAU (British Universities cross country Championship at, Brentwood.
To those who know their athletics history, the names of those that came in immediately behind him became eventually, Champions themselves...
First 7 home 1 Tim Johnston (Cambridge) 34:49; 2 John Farrington (London) 34:49; 3 Mike Turner (Cambridge) 35:24; 4 Ron Hill (Manchester) 36:46; 5 John Whetton (Manchester) 36:53; 6 John Jackson (Liverpool) 37:03; 7 Peter Yates (London) 37; 05.
Cambridge University finished their six scorers, within the first 15. There never was quite such a strong team from the University as there was in those days.
Roger Robinson, used to tell me he found it difficult to make the team, yet he was a county champion and went on to compete for England & New Zealand!

Continuing with more snow covered races. In those days the Inter -Counties cross country Championships was as tough a race to win as the ‘National’. The race was in ice, snow & wind at Reading. The first eight home were 1 Tim Johnston (Cambs) 52:37; 2
   Gerry North (Lancs) 52:40; 3 Basil Heatley (Warwicks) 52:43; 4 John Farrington (Glouces) 53:19; 5 Peter Hall (Lancs) 53:31; 6 Mel Batty (Essex) 53:52; 7 Juan Taylor (Warwicks) 54:13; 8 Ron Hill (Lancs) 54:33..Lncahsire were solid team victors.

In the Grand Prix de Hannut, .over a 10,000m course, was not only in the snow but the thermometer dropped down to minus 8.0 degrees centigrade so again, the ‘Snow King’ excelled, beating experienced Belgian runner Vandewattyne in the run in.(32:07.7 to 32:09.3).

Basil Heatley won the National in 1963 from Roy Fowler, when Johnston was 5th in the mud, (Tim was not feeling particularly good, before the start, because of a stomach illness in the week.) Roy Fowler beat Gaston Roelants in an epic duel in the International (Old World cross). Tim Johnston was the 2nd English runner home in 5th place.

In 1967, at Barry Wales, in the International (Old World cross) the first 4 were 1 Gaston Roelants (Belgium) 36:03; 2 Tim Johnston (England) 36:20; 3 Bryan Rose (New Zealand) 36:27; 4 Lachie Stewart (Scotland) 36:30. Tim was running barefoot, as the ground was dry and, the steeplechase jumps on the course he negotiated well, like of course Gaston Roelants did. Roelants being the 1964 Olympic steeplechase Champion in Tokyo)

In 1963 I asked Tim who inspired him most?.
“This is difficult to answer. I think Gordon Pirie is the greatest distance runner Britain has produced and I think I admire him because the way he put running before anything else... He was determined to get to the top, and stayed there. Herb Elliott (Rome 1960 Olympic 1500 Champion) has had a great influence on my training. He used to take half a dozen in his car at Cambridge for “burn-ups’ Elliott taught us how to rush past a person going up a hill, demoralising him completely.’

Tim Johnston’s club Portsmouth helped a lot?
“Yes! Coming into contact with people like Bruce Tulloh and Martin Hyman helped, particularly with their encouragement.”

With the steeplechase Tim could adapt to quite well, being so useful over the country
He did 8:51 in 1964
“After that good cross-country season of 1963 I did not have a particularly good track season in the summer. I got a chronic ankle injury and hardly ran at all in the Winter 63-64 season and, in fact ended up with my leg in plaster for a couple of months in the Spring and had to start again. I think it probably did me a lot of good having that rest in the winter, I at last started to make it on the track where I had been struggling.,
I did a personal best time for 3 miles 13:57 and thought I would try and make the Olympic team as a steeplechaser. I beat everybody in the AAA steeplechase except Pomfret and Herriott (Both finalists in Tokyo)
I could never beat them. I was always clear No 3 but I could not get the qualifying standard. I did 8:51 and 8:50 in shoes or vice versa, but I hated the steeplelechase really. I could never do it.

Watching the steeplechase these days (talking in 1983) I realise how bad I was and how low the standard. People now actually race it out like a flat race and sprint the last lap, whereas in those days it was more like a marathon. Generally after about four laps the race would be decided. We would be split up and strung halfway round the track and there would always be big gaps.

Roelants and Herriott were dominant in the steeplechase at that time?

Roelants and Herriott they were the best two. Roelants had the running ability and Herriott had the incredible hurdling ability, although he was not that good a runner. I think the steeplechasers have been helped more than anything by the synthetic tracks. Some of those jumps that we had to go over were like places where cows go down to drink in the river and that must have made about two seconds a lap or more difference.

In 1965 Tim got down to 13:22 for 3 miles. It was in 1983 I asked Tim Johnston if Ron Clarke* could match the best in 1983 (I would like to say in the two times I had long interviews with Ron Clarke for’ Athletics Arena’ (1965 &1970) I found him a very thoughtful and nice gentleman, to be admired at all casts!)

*“Of course, I don’t think anybody is arguing about that. They are not even running any faster than he was. Perhaps a few seconds faster in terms of time but if you reckon that Tartan to cinders is worth a second a lap—they are not even running any faster on times!
I think if he were to go out today he would probably still get beaten by some of the big-kickers, your Schilendhauers’ and Cova’s of this world might be better able to keep up with him than the people in my time. Clarke would not be so far ahead possibly, but he would be still there. He would be running 27 minutes. He ran 27:39.4 and not so many people run that today.”

In 1968 Tim Johnston won the AAA’s Championship 10,000m and marathon and, despite that and, having trained for a while at altitude, he still felt, when I talked to him in Mexico, racing at that high level at altitude was a waste of time!
“I suppose that the AAA’s marathon (2:15:26.00) was my best race ever. I beat Bill Adcocks by 15 seconds. It was a real battle. I nearly got dropped at 15 miles then I passed him at 22 and dropped him and then he caught me again and passed me. Then I caught up and left him with a mile to go. I think I probably ran harder in that for longer, than anything else before or since.

Carry on from my previous comment about altitude in Mexico. This was the question I put to Tim in 1983.
I met you in Mexico City after the Olympic marathon of 1968 and you said running at altitude seemed a waste of time except for training. It had its effect on such runners as Gaston Roelants and John Farrington (Running for Australia). You certainly ran to win that Mexico Marathon. I remember the race at 10km (33:54.8) the leading group was Kenny Moore (USA) , Roelants, Farrington and you .Then at 15km you and Farcic were out ahead of a group which contained  Wolde & Temu. At 20k Roelants and you were in front, then bang at 25km Wolde & Temu started to move past and away from you. It was obvious you had serious thoughts of winning the Mexico Olympic marathon.

“I was one of the few serious British contenders before the Olympics. I suppose there was David Hemery, and I amongst the men .Hemery made it and I didn’t.
What happened at 25k?
It all happened at about 10 miles that was when I lost it. Up till then I had either been leading or in the leading group and I was running along, quite absurdly easily. It was around 10 miles I got a drink. I was wondering whether I should start picking it up and making a break then or it was a little early. It was a wonderful feeling. It felt so easy, far easier than any training run. That was the Olympic marathon and it seemed just a jog.
The next thing that happened, I was running along the middle of the road and there was a flash and a blue vest and a brown arm went by my left shoulder and disappeared round the corner, and almost simultaneously another one came past my right shoulder; a green vest with a brown arm, had again disappeared round the corner. Then a bit more slowly, a white vest came by and followed them It had been Temu, Wolde and Roelants and that absolutely shook me. I thought I was the best man there and I could not believe anyone could be running that fast.They took off as if they were in a mile race.
So then I had to decide what I was going to do, whether I was going to carry on running—by this time I was on my own, the other people who had been in the group had dropped back—or whether I was going to chase the leaders.

I made a decision to chase them and as soon as I did I felt uncomfortable, perhaps it was because I was no longer in control of the thing and was having to run faster, perhaps no faster than I would have done if I had been making the break away myself, but I was not in contention anymore. I started getting a stitch and feeling sick and all kinds of things. Then I caught up with them but by then Roelants was dropped, and there was only three of us left.
I knew all I had to do was stay there and I could have got a medal but I had a feeling then that it was already a lost cause.
It slowed down a bit and I was recovering, and then I thought it was not so bad and that I might be able to hang on here. But Temu started again just coming up to 25km, not so fast that time but he speeded it up and I knew I could not take any more accelerations.
The irony of the whole thing was that at 30km Temu was walking and, even though by then I was not going so well, I passed him. It was lack of experience as much as anything else for me; I should have just run my own race and not got caught up in that acceleration.
I can remember the awful thing, coming up to 25kim, of just watching Mamo Wolde’s funny, skinny, legs, just gradually, going away from me down the road—quite a small gap that I could still have…. but I did not think I could keep that pace going. I was just thinking the medal was running away from me. Perhaps if there had been somebody standing there to shout at me to get on with it and remind me that all was not yet lost, just because there were two people in the race who appeared at that point to be stronger than me, I might have kept up that much longer.
I suppose I was too confident and too acclimatised, unlike Bill Adcocks who knew he could not cope with the altitude and, started really slowly and did not take any interest in the race for the first half and as everybody died he came through and got fifth at the end. I knew I was so well acclimatised maybe I could not.I reckoned I could match anybody but as it turned out I was wrong. I had raced a few times up there. I had beaten the Mexicans out of sight.
I knew altitude was a problem but I thought ‘As the Americans say “ I had got it licked”
I probably underestimated it.
I thought the marathon could be run in about 2:17 or 2:15 even, judging by the sort of times I had been doing in training but maybe my courses were short!
Maybe I was too optimistic. , I did not know much about marathons. As I had only run two before. I made a mess of the Olympics. I was not going to beat Mamo Wolde that day, nobody was; but I should have got the second place on one leg. The Japanese runner and Ryan who had got second and third, was not even rivals as far as I was concerned—I knew any day I could run the legs off them.
I am not trying to say they did not deserve their medals; it was just that I misjudged the race. I went for broke and did not make it.
The first 8 in the Marathon were 1 Mamo Wolde (Ethiopia) 2:20:26.4; 2 Kenji Kimihara (Japan) 2:23.31; 3 Michael Ryan (New Zealand) 2:23.45.4; 4 Ismail Ackay (Turkey) 2:25:33. 5 William Adcocks (GBR) 2:25:33.6; 6 Mearawi Gebry (Ethiopia) 2:27:16.8; 7 Derek Clayton (Australia) 2:27.23.8; 8 Timothy Johnston (GBR) 2:28:04).

In 1969 Tim won a marathon in Europe The Karl Marx Stadt Marathon (10th of May)
1. Tim Johnston 2:15:32; 2 Neo Farcic 2:16:50.2 and in third place was German Jurgen Busch in 2:17:43.8.

He did suffer in his career with trouble to both Achilles tendons and had glandular fever but still went on to achieve other good results.
In 1982 he did the double winning two major veteran road races in one weekend out in Japan. in the IGAL World Veteran 40-44 10k road race in 31:00; 2 Roger Robinson 31:25; 3 Pierre Voets (Belgium) 31:29 and then Tim came back the next day to win the World Vets marathon in 2:22:18, 2nd Robinson in 2:24:33 3rd Bob Moore of Canada in 2:24:41
Tim won the European Vets Marathon in 1984 in Brighton. He won the Two Bridges Ultra-Distance race in 1973 in 3:28:36. Second was Martyn Daykins 3:29:08. That was a 36 miler!

In 1983 he had a bonanza in the Worlds Masters/Veterans track & field Championship in Puerto Rico, as he came 2nd in the 5000; 1st in the 10.000 and 1st in the Marathon.

Did he think a lot of the world stars don’t come into veteran/Masters athletics because they have used up their motivation
Yes. They have used up their motivation, you have put your finger on it“

Although at the same time there is a lot of e enjoyment to be had by feeling you are still able to perform well and to win. Mike Turner said to me once in an interview, that to go out and win a race, whatever it may be, helps re-motivate you and give you some re-born confidence in your ability.
“I agree. I am usually good at being very demanding of myself. I normally have a target for a race and if I think I can win then I am not satisfied with winning. I have got to break the course record or whatever, and that is what happened in the Two Bridges.”

Alastair Aitken

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