"Thor wer lots o' lads and lasses there," Long crooned in his most lilting burr one otherwise drab afternoon, "all wi' smiling faces...." He was lunching with Foster at the Wheelhouse Restaurant, a converted ferryboat moored on the Tyne, and after the floor show the talk turned to running and regional determinism.
"It's all in the mind of the bloke," Foster said, pushing aside his cheese and onion sandwich to trace the northern boundary of England on the table. Noting that over the centuries the warring Scots had made far greater inroads in the northwest, he said, "There's the back-to-the-wall thing. That's when we northeasterners are most lethal."
Long added, "I think people in the northeast are naturally determined. It's part of our heritage here. It has nothing to do with being working-class, just the sort of struggles we've had in the past."
Determined is surely the word for Foster. Son of an office worker for British Steel, he is the eldest of six children, a self-described "slow developer" who made his quickest moves at the family dinner table. Though chubby as a boy, he joined the track team at St. Joseph's Roman Catholic School as a 400-meter man and puffed his way to a second-place finish in the 1963 Durham County championships. "Brendan was good," recalls George Felton, his coach at St. Joseph's, "but there were other lads equally as good. The difference was, Brendan had character."
Foster joined the Harriers in 1965 and, he says, "Taking up cross-country really gave me an idea of what I could do." At first, it was strictly a private vision. Lindsay Dunn remembers competing against his close friend a decade ago. "There were races back then when Brendan would finish miles behind everybody," he says. "Afterward he'd always say it was just a matter of time until he started winning. I wasn't convinced, but he was."
In 1969, while attending Sussex University, Foster had an even tougher time convincing officials that he was worthy of entering the British universities cross-country championship. No matter that he had corrected an iron deficiency that had shown up in a blood test a few months earlier, they plainly did not think he was good enough.
"Eventually," Foster now recalls, "I looked up the program and saw that the highest competitor's number was 380. So I made my own 381 on a piece of card, and said, 'I'm going to run.' I did and I finished ninth. And although the officials weren't very pleased, they did select me for the universities team for a match against the combined services and an all-England team. I thought I'd be last, but midway out I found myself with the leaders and just took off. They never caught me, and it was only after the race, when I realized who I'd beaten, that I thought I really could be a good runner."
Good enough to finish fifth in the 1,500 at the 1972 Munich Olympics, and even better when he moved up to the 5,000 and won the 1974 European Championships in Rome. After watching Big Bren on the telly and the way he left Olympic champion Viren for dead with a sparkling 13:17.2, more than 500 Tynesiders turned out to witness his next training session at Gateshead Stadium in person.
At the time, Foster had just given up his job as a chemistry teacher to head the recreation department, and the recognition seemed a just reward for the four years he spent running the two miles from St. Joseph's School to await the 12:30 klaxon at the boiler factory where Long worked. And for his mentor, who would appear in his overalls, carrying his lunch pail and stopwatch to oversee the midday workouts, the acclaim is, well, a flamin' miracle.
Just like that, Stan Long of Gateshead, the man whose living room has been a youth center for nearly a quarter of a century, was whisked from his welder's bench to a podium in Budapest where his lecture at the European coaches' conference received a long ovation and a special request from the president of the European Athletic Association. "Imagine," says Long, still lost in the wonder of it all, "Adrian Paulen wanting to shake Stan Long's hand."