Jack Holden Interview (By David Thurlow, N.U.T.S.)

David Thurlow (N.U.T.S. - National Union Track Statisticians) recalls a meeting with Jack Holden, a marathoning legend. This article first appeared in Track Stats Volume 38 No.4 in 2000. It is reproduced here thanks to the kindness of David Thurlow and also Bob Phillips the Editor of Track Stats.

“I decided I was going to go – it was either Joe Stalin or King George!”

When the competition lined up for the 1948 Olympic marathon at Wembley Stadium in London the clear favourite was 41-year-old Jack Holden, whose international career had started at cross-country in 1929 and whose first track appearance for Great Britain had been in 1933.  After a flirtation with the marathon in 1946, when he had won the Midlands title in 2:46:34 but had not been selected for the European Championships, he had turned to the event full time the following year.

The change had taken place earlier than he had anticipated, and it came about because he missed running in the National cross-country championships.  Competitors from the Midlands had been trapped in the snow which caused havoc throughout Britain in the spring of 1947 and could not get to the National course at Aspley, in Hertfordshire.  Even though Holden had won the title on three occasions, including the previous year, the selectors did not consider him for the International championship in accordance with their slightly draconian rules that a man had to run and finish in the top nine in the National to be picked.

Holden was extremely angry and said that he would never run cross-country again – and he never did.  He was a man of strong principles and still is at the age of 93.  He remains very articulate, with an excellent memory of this international athletics career which lasted from 1929 to 1950.  He is a Christian man who went to Communion before every race.  He is family man with two daughters.  His honesty and integrity was well known and respected.  A great man to meet!

When he made the decision to take up marathon-running seriously he changed his training routine from twice a week with his club mates – a hard six or so bash on grass or on the road – to five days a week.  The exception were Saturdays, which were days for the family unless he was racing, and Sundays, which were for church-going and on which he only ever competed once and that was because he head confused the dates of a race and was committed to it.

In those five days, he still averaged 100 miles a week, and he was the first marathon runner to take on such a heavy schedule.  All this running was done after five ‘o’ clock in the evening at the end of a working day at the Palethorpe sausage-making firm where he was employed as a groundsman but described as a general labourer in case the nature of his job broke the AAA rules!

It meant that his way of life had to fit in with family, church and work.  With the agreement of his wife, he went straight out running as soon as he got home from work.  He told his wife how long he would be and she had his bath running as he got back and then prepared his evening meal.  Holden fondly recalls that on one occasion when he was out running, a cyclist came alongside him on a steep hill and asked him why he did it.  Holden told him it was because he didn’t have the threepence for the bus fare, and the cyclists stopped and offered him money!

Holden ate 100 eggs a week, plus mussels and oysters which he kept to supplement his diet, and he did all this on very small wages.  When he ran abroad he lost pay, except for major events, but he took his holidays with the family, so that they wouldn’t go without rather than use them for running.  Holden now has three grandchildren and since his wife died 15 years ago after 50 years of marriage he has lived at the home of his daughter, Joan in Cumbria, where we met for our discussion about his career.  She remembers that ‘our household was regimented to his training programme.  He used to train and then go to bed at 9.30 to 10 ‘o’ clock or even earlier.  Sunday was for church.  We did not have much money and no car, but we lived well, and I always remember my father as a handsome smart, well-dressed man’.

His first AAA marathon victory was achieved in 2:33:20:02 in 1947, and he was 2nd to Charles Heirendt, of Luxemburg in the annual Kolsce race in Czechoslovakia in 2:37:10:06.  In the following Olympic year he ran a 2:36:44.6 and was going so well that the first British Olympic marathon gold looked almost a certainty.  During his final preparations for the Olympic race he trained from the home in North London of the father of Doug Wilson, who ran the 1500m at those Games and later became a national newspaper athletics correspondent (see “Track Stars” September 1999).  He ran in the company of one of his team-mates, Tommy Richards, of South London Harriers, who was a nurse by profession, and as always before a marathon Holden pickled his feet in permanganted potash to harden the skin.  The trouble was that on this occasion he overdid it.

As Holden explains: “I had the lead in the race and was the favourite.  I was almost a certainty; I knew I could win it.  But them I blistered badly and had to come out.  I’d had blisters many times before.  They would burst and sting, but I carried on.  This time I’d overdone the hardening and made the skin like leather and I couldn’t carry on.  It had blistered under the skin at 17 miles I had to drop out.”

Tommy Richards, who never before or after was close to Holden in road races, finished 2nd to the Argentinean, Delfo Calvera, and Holden has never really got over the memory of the day.  “I was so disappointed that I had let everyone down,” he reflects.  “I could not run any more after the Olympics because of letting them down.  I thought I was going to die, I was so upset about it, I felt really ill.  I kept on training but not racing.”

It was Holden’s religious beliefs that helped him to work it out.  “After considering it all I realised I was not meant to win.  It was an act of God.  I had been so sure of winning that I’d packed my clothes to take my wife and two little girls on holiday, and there I met a woman who told me I’d been stopped from winning by God.  But I replied that it was definitely not so, and that all I’d ever asked him for was to reproduce the form I had shown in training, and that in a race I would force myself to do better.  Then it was Jack Crump, the British ream manager, who worked on me to start racing again.  He said to me, ‘Hang on until we have someone to take your place.  We haven’t got anyone.’”

Not caring if he “died on the course” Holden recovers his zest for racing.

Later in the year Holden’s wife – “behind every great man is a wonderful woman, and she was” – timed him on some of his occasional training runs and discovered that he was, in fact, running very fast, “I didn’t feel that I was,” Holden says, “but the next week I timed myself and found I was running even faster when I was dying emotionally.”

He had run the SLH 30 again after the Olympics, but his road back began with the annual Morpeth-to-Newcastle race on New Year’s Day 1949 when “still smarting over the Olympics, vowing I wouldn’t run any more and thinking I didn’t care if a died on the course” he ran right away from the field, including Richards, and smashed the course record in one of his four consecutive wins in the event.  He also won the 1949 AAA marathon comfortably in 2:34:10:6 and the next year his hard training brought him another AAA title win by almost six minutes in a lifetime best of 2:31:03.4.  The second man home was Edward Denison, of the Milorarian club and the Army, with whom Holden had shared his first track international at three miles against France 17 years previously in 1933.  Holden also went to Enschede, in Holland for the annual marathon in September, but for some reason the course was only 40km that year.  Inspired by the music which was played to competitors in the last 800m to lift spirits, Holden ran 20:20:52 – which was worth about 2:29 for the full distance.

The year of 1950 was his great one, erasing the shame of the Olympics.  Holden was favourite for the Empire title in Auckland in February and he made no mistake, leading all the way and winning by over four minutes from Syd Luyt, of South Africa, in 2:32:57, but the race was not without mishaps.

“Everything was in my favour,” Holden explains.  “I was favourite and fit enough to win it, and then everything went wrong, I knew that I should have had a new pair of shoes, but you can’t run a marathon in new shoes.  There was a cloudburst at the start and water came over the kerbs of the road.  My old plimsoll shoes burst, and because I couldn’t stop and ask someone for a couple of handkerchiefs to wrap round my feet I threw the shoes away and ran the last nine miles barefoot.  It was then that a dog leapt out of the crowd.  It was a Great Dane and it didn’t attack me, but people thought that if had because there was blood on my back from my feet.  When I finished I ran straight across to the microphone to ask that whoever had found my shoes should bring them back to me.  I gave them to an old couple who’d been helpful to me.”

Back in England Holden ran in the “Sheffield Telegraph” marathon which he had twice won before but pulled out when leading into rain and a headwind at 18 miles.   The Jack Crump got to work on Holden again, telling him he could win the European title, too, and after wins in the Polytechnic and AAA races he duly went off to Brussels for the championships.  He got on well with Denison, the Army officer who had also been selected for Great Britain, and they went for a car ride round the course.  They spotted a long and winding hill and Holden told his companion.  “If I win this race I’ll win it here.”  Denison, amazed, had never seen such confidence.

In the dressing room the Britons came across the two Russian competitors, and Holden, who has a sharp sense of humour, recalls their encounter.  “Denison said he had never seen anyone so sly and we watched them looking around.  So I went up to one of them and asked how Stalin was getting on.  He grunted, and so did the other.  So I pointed to my number over the Union Jack on my chest and then to my number on my back and said, ‘Here, have a look at this because you’ll be looking at it for the rest of the way.’

“I never took a drink during a race because I’d found that if I took a drink in training it took 20 to 30 minutes to settle down again, but I always made up some lemonade and sugar in a small brandy bottle just in case I needed it.  Somehow, the British coach, Geoff Dyson, dropped it, and Jack Crump told him to tell the people out of the course that if I asked for a drink they should ignore me!

“I was ahead, but when I came to the hill the Russian, Varin, came up to my shoulder.  He obviously had the same theory as me that if you catch someone up you don’t stay with them.  I believe in psychology, and I guessed he thought I was a little chap with plenty of guts.  He came up to me again, but then we came to a drinks station and I saw his hand go out for a bottle I decided that was when I was going to go – it was either Joe Stalin or King George – and I did.”

Holden won by 32 seconds from Veikko Karvonen, of Finland, with the Russian 3rd, and when he was congratulated by Prince Baudouin of Belgium he told him that he had met his grandfather and father after winning a pre-war International cross country title.  “You couldn’t arrange to meet three Belgian kings, not even in a pack of cards,” Holden says.

Back home after an overnight journey, and there’s just time for breakfast before work

It was typical of the way of life even for champions in those days that when Holden arrived back in his home town at 6’o’ clock in the morning, having travelled overnight by rail and sea, and called into work to say that he had won, his boss told him to go home for breakfast before reporting in for duty – which he did an hour later!

Holden ran only one more marathon before retiring because the former AAA six miles and 10 miles champion, Jim Peters, who had been 8th in the Wembley Olympics 10,000m, was now being trained with new ideas of fast running by the 1928 Olympic 5000m runner, Johnny Johnston.  Even so, the old fox saw off the young cub in the Finchley 20 miles road race because it had been instilled in Peters that Holden was only good up hills and could be beaten on the flat.  The champion showed him that was not so by racing away to smash his own record by nearly three minutes and win by 96 seconds.  Peters threw his shoes on the floor in exasperation demanding, “How am I going to beat him?”  His coach said he would have to do more training.

Two months later Holden and Peters met again in the Polytechnic marathon from Windsor Castle to Chiswick, but this time Holden was suffering mentally.  He explains “I had been offered a new job as groundsman at the Cannock Stadium which I had officially opened with Lord Burghley, and I could not rest for thinking about it.  I worried myself pink-eyed as to whether I was doing the right thing in taking it.  My employer, Mr Palethorpe, was very cross and gave him 30 shillings a week more than I would get at the new job, and that was a lot of money in those days.  So when I went to the race I was not fit because worry had got to me. I knew soon after the start that I was not right because I was just worrying while I was running.  When he started to run well, I just packed in.”

Jim Peters ran under 2:30 to win easily.  Holden stayed in his old job and told Jack Crump that how he had a successor he was retiring.  “I said that I had done what I said I would do, holding the reins until someone else came along.  Jim used to write to me for advice, and I told him he was silly to run for pretty platters as he was running in everything.  I told him he should do what I had wanted to do, and that was win the Olympic marathon.”  As we now know, Peters did not, dropping out of the 1952 Games race after Emil Zatopek had politely inquired of him if the pace was right.

The start of Jack Holden’s running career in the 1920s

John Thomas Holden was born in Bilston, in Staffordshire, on 13 March 1907.  He was 5ft 5in (1.65m) and just under 10st (63kg) in weight, when, as a lifelong member of the Midlands club, Tipton Harriers, he won the AAA six miles in 1933-34-35, the AAA 10 miles in 1934, the AAA marathon every year from 1947 to 1950, the National cross-country in 1938-39 and again in 1946, the International cross-country in 1939, and the British Empire and European championships marathons in 1950.

His initial interest in sport was at a boxing gym where he kept in shape and had a few fights.  He was a strong young man working in a foundry and when a local publican staged a three-mile race Holden was an onlooker and not only thought he could do better but told the winner so afterwards.  When challenged, Holden claimed he had run in and won a lot of races – which wasn’t true – but the next time the three-mile race was held he took part in it and won easily.  His prize was a pig, and this was to cause him some bother later in his running career when he declared his winnings.  He had to be re-qualified as an amateur and years afterwards was accused by a jealous rival club president of having been reinstated (which was a quite different matter) and therefore been disqualified from international competition.  Holden, never one to mince words or to hold back, wrote to the local paper and the allegation was withdrawn.

It was because claims were made to the AAA that he had broken the regulations by working in a job connected with athletics when he took up work as a groundsman with Palethorpe’s that he was described as a general labourer by his employers when a AAA official called to investigate the matter.  In fact, there was much skulduggery in Midlands’s athletics in those days, which all seem to have stemmed from the involvement of bookmakers with odds being fixed and deals done.  Holden remembers winning one race for the third successive year by outsprinting his old rival, Jack Webster, of Birchfield Harriers (see Track Stats, April 2000) to make the trophy his own and then being disqualified for not running the full two miles.  Holden recalls laconically “I dragged one foot over the chalk line when I made my effort, I then won the race three years in succession after that and kept the cup!”

Holden’s attitude did not always please officialdom.  He went his own way and would not toe the line if he felt he was in the right, and that might have cost him a place in the 1946 European Championships marathon.  After five years’ war service in the RAF as a physical training instructor he had one run in the Midlands marathon without racing flat out and asked the selectors to consider him.  They would not and Holden believes that it was “out of spite because my face didn’t fit for years.  I was never a mama’s pet and I wouldn’t let them mess me about.”

To show the selectors what they were missing Holden asked his old friend, Joe Binks, who was the former World mile record-holder with 4:16:8 in 1902 and was now athletics correspondent for the “News of the World” to organise a 30 miles track race at the White City.  Holden won in 3:00:16.8 for a World’s best time, despite having to run an extra four yards every lap in the second lane, and passed the marathon point in a faster time than Mikko Hietanen, of Finland, had done to win the European title in Oslo on a short 40.2km course.  To underline his point, Holden ran 3:02:09 for 30 miles on the road at Old Coulsdon, in Surrey, a month later and the next year because the first man to go under three hours with 2:59:47 on the same course.

During the 1930s Holden had proved he could hold his own on the track with any of the good home talent that was around.  As well as his AAA titles and innumerable wins in Midlands races, he was 4th in the 1934 Empire Games six miles and 4th again in his last major track race in the AAA six miles in 1937.  His best times were around 4:18 for the mile and 9:25 for two miles, plus 14:33.8 for three miles and 30:26.8 for six miles.  He won his AAA six mile titles in 1933-34-35 in successive times of 30:22.2, 30:43.8 and 30:50.6, and ran his best time in finishing 2nd to Jack Potts in 1932 and then 30:48.0 behind the winning 30:07.8 by the Hungarian, Janos Kelen, in 1937.  Before becoming AAA champion at 10 miles in 1934 in a time of 52:21.4 he had been 4th in the same event to Ernie Harper in 1929.  His main rivals included Bill Eaton, George Bailey and Tom Evenson.  Burns had placed 7th in the 1932 Olympic 5000m an 5th at 10,000m in 1936 and Penny won the Empire six miles in 1934 when Holden had been the favourite but had lost form.

Altogether, Holden won 11 Staffordshire county track titles at the mile, 3 miles and 4 miles and he was on seven occasions Midlands six miles champion and on four occasions the 10 miles winner.  “I enjoyed the two-mile team races around the Midlands,” he recalls, “but we never saw a cinder track until we went to London for the AAA Championships.  After 1937 I lost interest really in track racing.  I never ran for times except that occasion in the 30 miles on the track in 1946.  As long as I won that was all that mattered.  There came a point in a race when I knew I had won, and once I knew that I’d won my only thought was to finish.  I wasn’t seriously trying once the race was mine.  I was never one to who could play second fiddle.  I always wanted to be better.

“I never really concentrated on anything until I took up marathon running, and that became a way of life – almost my whole life – and training became second nature.  It was a sport and I did it for fun to keep as fit as anybody else.  If I had my time again I would do the same.”

Immediate success on the track and over the country in the green-and-white of Tipton Harriers

When he gave up boxing to concentrate on running he gained selection in his first season of 1926 for the Tipton Harriers team at the National cross-country championship in their distinctive green and white hooped shirts which are still so prominent in competition more than 70 years later.  His twice-a-week training runs were on the road or round a makeshift track laid out with markers and jackets on the Dudley cricket ground, and from the start he showed his toughness by walking five miles to one meeting, starting half-a-lap behind the others in a five-lap race, and turning the laughter of the crowd to cheers as he caught all the other runners and won the race.  At another meeting he won the mile race and the two miles by a lap and then finished 4th in the 440 yards.

When he was 2nd to the future Olympic marathon silver-medallist, Ernie Harper, in the 1929 AAA 10 miles he took his shoes off while leading at nine miles because he had got blisters and still finished a lap ahead of the 3rd man.  That year he won his place in the England team for the International cross-country championship and was never out of it until the selectors ignored him in 1947.  His light and easy running style ideally suited cross-country and his consistency in the International was outstanding: 18th in 1929, then 7th in 1930, 6th in 1931, 2nd (to Tom Evenson) in 1932, 1st in 1933-34-35, 2nd (to Bill Eaton) in 1936, a non-finisher in 1937 when he was ill, 6th in 1938, the winner again in 1939, and 6th and still first English scorer in 1946.  He was in the winning England team every year from 1930 to 1936 and again in 1938.

Yet despite having won the International on three occasions by 1935, he just could not win the National title, and he explains why.  “It was because I was so determined to win it that I trained too hard.  Then after a week with no training in disgust at losing the National I got back to running stone cold and won the International.  Eventually it dawned on me that I was a fool, so I changed my training tactics and eased off, and I became the first man to win the National and International in the same year.”

Having placed in the National in successive years from 1929 onwards 9th, 4th, 8th, 3rd (to Alec Burn and George Bailey in 1932), 8th, 3rd again (to Sammy Dodd and Burns in 1934), 9th, 8th and 8th again, he at last won in 1938 to 1939 (the year of his “double”) and again after the war in 1946.  He also won the Inter-counties title four times and the Midlands title on seven occasions, including 1946.  It was during the cross-country career that he changed jobs, having been laid off because of shortage of works at the foundry.  He was due to be out of the country on the day that he was to sign on the dole as he was representing England in the International, and it was then that the philanthropic Mr Palethorpe, stepped in and gave Holden the job which he kept until his retirement.

During our interview Jack Holden wrote for me in a steady hand a list of his triumphs, including reference to many of the Royal Family to whom he had been presented.  In one race with his old friend and marathon rival, Charles Cerou, In France they competed against horse-riders and cyclists and the winning horse dropped dead on the line.  The prizes for the runners were set out on trestle tables, and it was inevitably Holden – who never took a single penny piece as a prize during his athletic career – who had his pick!

 Voted “Sportsman of the Year” in 1950, Holden completed his career in fine style by winning a 15-miles road race in Dublin after conceding up to 15 minutes in handicap start to his competitors.  The time was very fast but could not be confirmed because the Irish officials would not agree to re-measure the course.  At the height of Jack Holden’s fame a public garden was named after him in Dudley.  “Now” he says “there’s talk of a statue, but when they came to see me about it I told them a statue was for dead men, so they would have to wait a bit.”

 Ian Buchanan, whose marvellous book, “Who’s Who of UK and GB International Athletes 1896 -1939,” is reviewed elsewhere in this issue of “Track Stats” provides the information for an intriguing footnote to Jack Holden’s career.  The magazine ‘Athletics,’ which was the forerunner of ‘Athletics Weekly,’ published an article in the autumn of 1946 in reply to the dozens of letters received from readers on the subject of Holden’s non-selection for the marathon at the European Championship which had taken place that year in Oslo.  In the article it was said that Holden had not been omitted through spite but because of a train of events which had left the selectors with a problem.  Holden had won the Midlands marathon but mistakenly did not enter the Poly race and then had to miss the AAA Championships event because he had booked his family holiday after not having had one for seven years while on military service.  To try and impress the selectors afterwards he ran three time-trials over a carefully-measured three-lap marathon course and recorded times between 2:33 and 2:40, but it was not enough.  Squire Yarrow, who had won the AAA race in 2:43:14 and Harry Oliver were chosen instead, and Holden characteristically sent them his best wishes for their success.  Yarrow placed 7th in the European Championship in 2:30:40 on a course which was 2km short, while Oliver did not finish.  Soon afterwards Holden showed what he could do when he passed the full marathon distance 2:36:39.4 during a 30-miles track race, and he then ran even faster in the SLH 30 on the road.