Heroes of Race Walking – Part 2, Great Britain

In Great Britain, race walking can sometimes feel like a lonely discipline and we can be tempted to look overseas with envy. In my previous article I talked about race walkers from around the world who became heroes. It can be easy to forget Britain’s prosperous history, but we should remember the British race walkers who were among the best in the world. In fact, it has been difficult to select only a few.

Tommy Green

In the first Olympic walks, in 1908, Great Britain’s Larner, Webb and Spencer won 5 of the 6 medals available, but it was in the 1930s when the 50km was introduced that Britain’s walkers found their feet. The first of these was Tommy Green. Born with rickets, Green was unable to walk at all until he was 5. A horse fell on him when he was a teenager, again crippling him, and in WW1 he was wounded three times and gassed. He worked as a railwayman and didn’t take up race walking until his 30s.
At the time, the schedule for race walkers was mostly filled by the classic open walks, big events like London to Brighton, Hastings to Brighton, Manchester to Blackpool and the Bradford 32¼ miles, each of which was won multiple times by Green. He won the inaugural 50km championships and, at the age of 38, was selected for the 1932 Olympic Games. The temperature was so high that the tar was being melted and Green fell back from the lead after three quarters of the distance, but he came back strongly as his rivals suffered and won the race by almost a mile.
Despite being Olympic champion, he was beset by more adversity, losing his thumb in an accident and consequently losing his job, forcing him to pawn his trophies. He was, however, able to redeem them and continued to compete. In 1935 he contested the national 50km championships but was narrowly beaten by Harold Whitlock, who went on to win the 1936 Olympics and the 1938 European championships, as well as many of the races Green had previously dominated.

Don Thompson

After Green and Whitlock in the 1930s and the tragic interruption of the Second World War, the next golden period for Great Britain was in the 1960s. Don Thompson was a leader of this success. In 1956 he was already a world-class 50km walker and was in 5th place in the Olympics until 42km, when he collapsed due to the heat and failed to finish. Like most heroes, he learnt from his failure and became stronger. He went on to win multiple national championships and classic races, most notably London to Brighton 9 times where he also set the record, and place 5th in the European championships in 1958.
Prior to the 1960 Olympics, Thompson was determined not to falter in the heat again but, unlike now when athletes can go warm weather training or use heat chambers, his options were limited. He placed a parrafin heater and a boiling kettle in his bathroom and walked on the spot, managing 30-45 minutes before he would feel dizzy. Several years later he discovered that the dizziness was a result of carbon monoxide poisoning from the heater.
Nevertheless, his efforts paid off. It was a hot day in Rome and other athletes raced ahead, but when they faltered he took advantage and found himself in the lead. He was caught by another experienced walker but, ultimately, Thompson was able to hold him off and take the gold medal. It was the only gold medal won by a British athlete in 1960.
In 1961, he was second in the Lugano Cup (which later became the World Cup of Race Walking), helping Great Britain to win the team prize. In 1962 he won the European bronze and in 1964, though now overtaken by a new generation, he finished 10th in the Olympics.

Ken Matthews, Paul Nihill and other Lugano Cup winners

Overlapping with Don Thompson and repeating aspects of his career was Ken Matthews. In 1960, when Thompson won, Ken Matthews walked in the 20km but struggled in the heat and failed to finish, and was then taken to hospital. Fighting back, Matthews was also instrumental in the Lugano Cup team, winning the 20km. He then won the European championships and again won the Lugano Cup.
Behind Matthews, Paul Nihill was second. In the 50km, Ray Middleton was second and Ron Wallwork fifth. Naturally, Britain took the team prize again.
In 1964, Matthews and Nihill were the top two in the world for 20km. However, Nihill knew that he would not beat his team-mate and so opted for the 50km. He raced fiercely and, though he could still do no better than silver, he broke the previous world record. Matthews, meanwhile, was dominant in the 20km and won by over a minute and a half.
Great Britain continued its dominance in race walking. In the 1966 Commonwealth Games, Wallwork won the gold ahead of Middleton. Paul Nihill later became the world record holder for 20km. He failed to finish in 1968 but continued to the 1972 Olympics where he finished 9th.

In 1964, Matthews and Nihill were the top two in the world for 20km. However, Nihill knew that he would not beat his team-mate and so opted for the 50km. He raced fiercely and, though he could still do no better than silver, he broke the previous world record. Matthews, meanwhile, was dominant in the 20km and won by over a minute and a half.
Great Britain continued its dominance in race walking. In the 1966 Commonwealth Games, Wallwork won the gold ahead of Middleton.
Paul Nihill later won a European gold and bronze. In the 1968 Olympics he failed to finish but in 1972 he set a 20km world record shortly before the Munich Olympics, making him a strong favourite, with a chance of doubling up for the 50km too. After leading the 20km, a thigh injury saw him struggle to finish in 6th place, yet he still returned and competed in the 50km where he finished 9th. In 1976, he became the first British male athlete to compete in 4 Olympics, a feat that was eventually bettered by another race walker, Chris Maddocks who went to his 5th Olympic Games in 2000.

Sandra Brown

Although we tend to focus attention on the Olympic and championship events, a very important aspect of race walking is long distance walking – that is, further than 50km. Britain’s, and the world’s, most successful long distance walker is Sandra Brown. She came into the sport from long walks with her husband Richard and discovered remarkable powers of longevity and positivity.
In May 1982 she completed her first 100 mile walk. In August of the same year she decided to do another, this time to qualify as a Centurion – that is, to walk 100 miles in under 24 hours in an official judged race. Since then, she has repeated this feat another 31 times in Britain, most recently in 2018, and is likely to continue, now aged 70. She has also qualified as a Centurion in every country/continent that recognises it.

She also competes in running events, usually walking them as she finds this to be more efficient. She thus set the record for the Lands End to John O’Groats run, which stood until 2006 and the world record for 1000 (one thousand) miles in Nanango in Australia – the former taking 13 days and 10 hours and the latter 14 days and 10 hours. No one has completed more 100 mile walks or more Centurion qualifiers than Sandra Brown.

Tom Bosworth

While Sandra Brown is an exponent of the extreme endurance of race walkers, Tom Bosworth is currently the fastest race walker in the world. He is also Britain’s first professional race walker.
After competing in the 2014 European championships and 2015 World championships, Bosworth entered the 20km at the 2016 Olympics with high expectations of himself. Though not a favourite, he found the pace too slow and so took the lead at halfway. Other athletes passed him as the race sped up, but he finished in 6th place. He was keen to improve on this the next year at the London world championships. A month before the championships, he raced over 1 mile and set a world best time of 5:31. In London, he again took the lead shortly after halfway but this time was heartbroken by disqualification.
In 2018 he put his disappointment behind him and again broke another world best time, this one over 3000m. In April, he finished a close second in the Commonwealth Games, breaking his British 20km record and becoming the first Briton under 80 minutes for the distance. He finished 7th in the European championships and continues to build towards greater championship success.
Ken Matthews in Tokyo was the last British race walker to win a global title. Bosworth is now one of several ascendant British race walkers hoping to recreate this heroic feat, in the very same city.

Jonathan Hobbs has been race walking for over 15 years and also competes in road running and steeplechase. He is an athletics coach and personal trainer based at The Stour Centre in Ashford, Kent. Visit his website at http://jonathanhobbs.net.

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