SI Vault
Ray Kennedy
April 19, 1976
Brendan Foster, England's star middle-distance runner, is a ray of golden hope in the forbidding streets of industrial Gateshead
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April 19, 1976

Howay, Big Bren! Ye're Doin' Us Prood!

Brendan Foster, England's star middle-distance runner, is a ray of golden hope in the forbidding streets of industrial Gateshead

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What makes Brendan run? "It's not a question of the loneliness but the enigma of the long-distance runner," he said cryptically during an afternoon break for tea. Offering to spice the brew with a "bit of brown sugar" from a bottle of Bell's Scotch Whiskey, he continued, "I'm normal in every respect except that I run to work. And without question, that makes you a funny breed. But life's a contest, isn't it? Here in the northeast you don't succeed because of your circumstances but in spite of them."

Foster turned to check the clock on his office wall. "Yes," he said, "the training is hard work. I don't particularly enjoy running up those bloody hills in the rain and cold. But you try to forget that. At least until you're out there racing and trying to stretch it, trying to win. That's when you remember how hard you worked. That's when you remember those bloody hills." Precisely at four o'clock, he stood up and said, "Excuse me, I have to run now."

So run he does, assured that when it comes to adversity, absence makes the heart grow stronger. Take the coking works, for example. Foster once confessed at an awards banquet that he carries with him a special affection for that smoking monument to lung congestion. Why? "Because wherever I go," he said, "it's much easier to run."

In 1973 Foster only had to go 250 miles south to London's Crystal Palace to prove his point. That was the time he staged one of his patented midrace surges to pull away from a dozen rivals in a two-mile invitational and then, all alone, turned it on in the final laps to set a world record of 8:13.8, one-fifth of a second better than the mark held by Finland's Lasse Viren.

As for 1974 and the hometown affair that the local press acclaimed the "greatest day in Gateshead sporting history," well, that was special. For one thing, it was Saturday and the coking works was shut down. For another, it was August and—behold!—the sun was shining. And most wondrous of all was that Gateshead Stadium, a modest old structure resting in a reclaimed chemical dump down by the river, had a brand-new $300,000 all-weather Tartan track.

The redecorating was the town's way of saying Howay (C'mon) to Foster. Given the cruel winters, the stadium's ancient cinder track usually looked as if the dump was making a comeback. Which meant that for all his serious pre-race tune-ups, Foster had to travel to Edinburgh, 90 miles to the north, or to London, the only two cities in Britain that had the new artificial ovals. "We knew we were breeding a champion," says Council Leader Collins, "so we decided to spend our money on something good. And no doubt about it, the wonder track is the best investment we ever made."

He and just about everyone else in town were convinced on that August Saturday when, just 10 days after the new track was installed, a class field of runners was imported to challenge Foster over 3,000 meters. The 1974 Gateshead Games drew a sellout crowd of 13,500, the largest that turned out for a meet in Britain that year. And every last Tynesider, it seemed, began clapping right at the opening gun of the featured race and kept increasing the tempo as Foster took the lead midway and held on.

After burning off challenges by Britain's David Black and the U.S.'s Dick Buerkle, Foster's face tightened into the knife-in-the-back grimace he always assumes when pulling for home. "With two laps to go, I felt very tired," he recalls. "I was dead. Finished. Then, suddenly, I heard the crowd. All that noise. And I felt a new man. I knew I could beat the record." That he did, being timed in 7:35.2 to lower Emiel Puttemans' world mark by 2.4 seconds.

Like notches in a gunslinger's six-shooter, Foster's two world records have inspired a lot of young hotshots to test the quickness of the master. It happens every Tuesday evening when Foster works out at the stadium with his fellow Gateshead Harriers, as rambunctious and footloose a lot as ever came down the straightaway.

In a wonderful sort of way, in fact, all of Gateshead seems to be running amok nowadays. Runners of every description—firemen, housewives, bank clerks, schoolgirls, insurance agents, everyone from the boss right down to the junior typist—join in the lunchtime jogalongs at the stadium or run through the streets or around factory parking lots. Foster, who often leads the organized sessions, preaches, "Jogging is the simplest, most basic form of activity. It exercises the heart, and that's what running is all about."

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