The history of marathon running is built around the careers of little fellows who would look more at home on the backs of racehorses. The men best designed to tackle the marathon's double-barreled challenge of pace and distance are those who travel light, and the rule of the race has always been that a good little man can beat a good big man anytime. Now along comes a relative giant named Derek Clayton who breaks all the rules—and the records. Clayton, an Irishman from Belfast who currently lives in Melbourne, Australia, is 6'2" tall. Most of Clayton's competition is six to 10 inches shorter, and when he runs, the image evoked is that of a huge stag pursued by snapping beagles.
The ending is usually happy, however, because Clayton may be the best marathoner currently slap-slap-slapping rubber to asphalt. He has won seven of his 10 races and is the only runner ever to cover the marathon's 26 miles, 385 yards in under two hours, 10 minutes. And he's done it twice. Marathon courses differ so widely that world records are never official but, official or not, the fastest-ever time of 2:08:33 that Clayton set on May 30 in Antwerp averages out to an impressive 4:54 per mile. Last week in the British marathon championship at Manchester, Clayton finished second in the good time of 2:15:40. He is not the sort to offer excuses, but the race was held on a very hot and humid day and Clayton had recently returned from a two-week tour of Scandinavia.
It seems ludicrous to speak of natural-born marathon runners (the event is so unnatural), but if there is such an animal Clayton must be it. The key to his success is a daily training ordeal that most runners couldn't cope with once a week. "If your aim is to run five-minute miles in a race," Clayton says, "then it's no good doing six-minute miles in training." The training grind with which he regularly fustigates himself has produced some bizarre experiences. Complete collapse and a comatose state lasting 30 to 45 minutes is routine. Finishing up one 32-mile run at flat-out race speed on a hot, humid summer day, Clayton ran full tilt into a tree. "I could see the tree coming all right," he recalls. "But the message didn't get from my brain to my legs fast enough."
Ron Clarke, a Melbourne neighbor, says, "Running is fun for most of us, but for Derek it's an obsession. There is no one who can drive himself the way he does. He'll run with my group for 18 or 20 miles on Sunday morning and in the afternoon, while the rest of us are recuperating on the beach, Derek is back out there on the road thrashing himself through a much faster, harder 15-mile run."
Ordinarily anyone who treated each daily training run as if it were an Olympic final would be burned out before the target even came within range, but this may be where Clayton's size works to his advantage. "I used to go along with the myth that a big man could never be successful at the marathon," he says. "Now I know the opposite can be true. A big man is capable of doing much harder training than a small man. Because of his strength he's also able to fight through the pain that would cause a smaller man to fold up."
Another factor may be that since Clayton came late to running he still has years of enthusiasm left. As a kid growing up in Belfast he had no natural talent for the sports he liked: cricket, tennis, soccer. Even vocationally he shopped around: a short while as a draftsman, eight unhappy months in the Royal Air Force, a short term as a car salesman. "I didn't respect people who were failures," Clayton says, "and I began to think that I'd never respect myself if I didn't succeed at something."
The answer was to take up running the mile at 19 and then move to Australia with his mother and sister when he was 20. Clayton soon found happiness as a draftsman-surveyor and as a reasonably competent distance runner. In 1965 he won his first marathon, the Victorian state championship. But it was two winning races against Clarke that finally established his reputation as a world-class runner.
In August 1967 he beat Clarke in a 15-mile road race by over a minute, then the both of them entered the Australian marathon championship. "It was a lark, really," says Clayton. " Clarke entered, I think, because he was looking for a little revenge and figured he could toss me."
Clarke couldn't. Clayton won in a national record time of 2:21:58 and was named as Australian representative to the annual Japanese open marathon race in Fukuoka. Clayton trained hard for this event, which matches the best long distance road runners in the world, and in December 1967 he ran away from the field. His time stripped more than 2� minutes off the previous world best. It was 2:09:36, an average of 4:56 per mile.
"I felt like a well-oiled machine," he says. "As if I were not running but simply sitting at the wheel of a Rolls-Royce. I was running fast, but it felt so great and seemed so effortless."