Gordon Pirie, as well as setting five world records, was a pioneer in British distance running. He was the first British runner to understand that in order to take on the greats of his events (the 5000 and 10000 metres) you had to match their training methods. He felt that the schedules of the modern athlete “must be fantastic time and distance devouring affairs which would produce a machine – not an ordinary machine but one capable of sustained plateau performance.” It is a lesson that, with the very obvious exceptions of Mo Farah and Paula Radcliffe, the fraternal order of British endurance runners and coaches seem to have completely forgotten today.
Though his world record of 13:36.8 for 5000m, set over half a century ago, is now outside the UK top fifty it is a time that would have placed him third in the 2007 rankings (and indeed would have put him in the top five any year this century). And as we are talking of an era that pre-dated synthetic tracks by some twelve years his achievements, set on the loose cinder tracks of the day, seem even more remarkable.
His other metric records were set at 3000 metres. His fastest ever time of 7:52.7 would also have seen him posted in the top five in Britain this century (and in one or two cases in the top three) and his 29:15.2 for 10,000 metres (in his day running 6 miles was more the vogue) would have placed him in the top ten. But this is not a lament about current British distance running but a tribute to one of its greatest ever exponents, a man of determination, talent, sheer guts and bloody mindedness.
When Pirie (nicknamed “Puff-Puff” for his habit of blowing out his cheeks as he ran) came to the fore in Britain it was the East Europeans that were now setting the pace in endurance running. Prior to the Second World War it had been the Finns that had dominated but then the Czech runner, Emil Zatopek amazed the world with his competitive and training exploits. His training sessions became legendary: 20 x 200m followed by 60 x 400m followed by 20 x 200m. When it came to the 1952 Helsinki Olympics his mastery was complete. He won the 5000m, 10000m and marathon in the space of a week.
British running at the time was dominated by Oxbridge. This was the era of Bannister, Brasher and Chataway and though their training (partly under Franz Stampfl) could not be described as light it certainly came nowhere near the intensity of Zatopek or of the emerging Russian, Vladimir Kuts. Pirie (a South London Harrier all his life) knew that the only way to successfully compete against Zatopek, Kuts and a little later the Hungarian trio of Iharos, Tabori and Rozsavolgyi was to match their training. The man he turned to was the progenitor of interval training, the German coach, Woldemar Gerschler.
In a manner of speaking interval training had been in vogue for some time. Nurmi had employed a form of it in the 20’s with metronomic precision on the track and the Swedes, in the 30’s, with their Fartlek (“speed play”) in their pine forests but Gerschler, with the physiologist Professor Herbert Reindell, took it to more scientific heights. He coached the phenomenal 400/800 runner Rudolf Harbig whose 1:46.6 world record stood for sixteen years. He also coached the surprise 1500m winner of the Helsinki Olympics, the Luxembourgian Josy Barthel.
Pirie went to see Gerschler at his base at Freiberg University. He was an ideal pupil – ambitious, hard working and determined to be the best in the world. His world records were not set in paced races but in competitive ones. In his 3000 metres record at Malmö in 1956 he beat the three great Hungarians mentioned above; in his 5000 metres that same year he beat Kuts. 1956 should have been his annus mirabilis but in Melbourne, at the Olympics, he finally succumbed to Kuts in what many believe is one of the greatest 10,000 races of all-time. Many also believe it was Pirie’s greatest ever run.
Track and Field News put the race (in typical flowering fashion) in a nutshell: “…a blond Ukrainian killer in the blood-red shirt of Russia impassively murdered Gordon Pirie and twenty-two other hapless victims before 100,000 horrified witnesses. The figurative slayer was Vladimir Kuts, a twenty-nine year old sailor with an instinct for pogrom.”
Kuts did indeed set a killer pace with an opening lap of 61.2 seconds (just 0.1 secs slower than Snell in his world record mile of six years later). The only man to go with him was Pirie and there then ensued a great cat and mouse contest with Kuts putting in murderous bursts and the Englishman inexorably drawing him back. It was mesmerising stuff. On and on the contest went until in the twentieth lap Kuts swung out and slowed dramatically. Pirie was forced to lead. Kuts, with the roles reversed, eyed Pirie carefully and satisfied with what he saw he jumped his opponent and sped away. Pirie lost contact, his spirit broken, dropping back further and further in the race. He finished eighth. Later in the Games he gained silver, again behind Kuts, in the 5000 metres. Many years later Kuts confirmed that if Pirie had stayed with him after he resumed the lead the Englishman would have won.
There is no doubt that Pirie, perhaps over-confident after his two world records, gambled by running in the 10,000, a distance at which the Ukrainian was 50 seconds faster, giving him a tremendous psychological advantage. Had Pirie confined his bid for Olympic glory to the 5000 metres then the advantage would have been his to a certain extent having beaten Kuts with a 1:55.0 last 800m a few months earlier.
Gordon never won a major international track championship and perhaps it was that he lacked the divine spark necessary to become an Olympic, or latterly, World champion.
I last met Gordon, in December 1991, just a few days before he died of stomach cancer in Christchurch in Hampshire. Since his running days he had successfully taken up coaching in New Zealand training amongst others Anne Audain, a New Zealand record holder and Anne Smith, a Commonwealth medallist. Now, obviously he was physically something of a tragic figure. He asked if we could drive him to the cliff tops, a mile or two away. As we stared at a sunlit Channel we found that Gordon hadn’t changed one iota being as dogmatic as ever and still ranting about the British Board and Crump and Abrahams with whom he had had many a vociferous battle.
Although just 60 years of age he well outlived his great rival who had died from a fourth heart attack some 16 years previously, aged 48. In 1991 British distance running was in sharp decline and he was, inevitably, withering about those who had followed him. He was a great cross country runner, winning two English titles and he was the second BBC Sports Personality of the Year in 1955.
Will we ever see his like again? Probably not with the current African domination of the distance running events. Of one thing you can be sure though: if he was competing today Gordon Pirie would be up at the front of championships races battling it out with the Kenyans and Ethiopians – and giving them a hard time.