If some poor bloke ever did carry coals to Newcastle, like most visitors he undoubtedly would feel compelled to haul himself right back out of that grim industrial outpost on England's northeastern frontier. One quick way is to ask directions to the smaller city of Gateshead across the River Tyne. The traditional reply, rendered in the native burr that is as thick as the murk that rolls in off the North Sea, is, "Gan ower the Tyne bridge until ye come to the end. Then ye'll look roond and ye'll say to yersel', 'This canna be Gateshead.' But ye'll be wrang. It is!"
Or at least it was. Long defamed as "the dirty lane leading to Newcastle," which is itself as grimy a pot as ever called a kettle black, Gateshead is experiencing a rather remarkable swelling of pride that goes beyond its slum-clearance program. Indeed, late of an evening at the Old Fold Pub near Gateshead Stadium, some of the factory hands lingering over their pints of broon (dark ale) are moved to declare that the surge in civic morale is nothing short of a "flamin' miracle."
Bill Collins, a toolmaker who leads the Gateshead City Council, which governs a population of 100,000, explains, "I believe it was Dr. Johnson who first referred to the town as a dirty lane and then others took it up. As a boy I remember reading J.B. Priestley's English Journey and his description of Gateshead as 'nothing better than a huge dingy dormitory.' And the trouble is, he was right. We've gone a long way toward cleaning up the muck and filth since then. But, aye, it's true, the people of Gateshead have never had much to cheer about. Until now, that is, until Brendan Foster."
Foster, a Gateshead resident for all of his 28 years, is a middle-distance runner who holds the promise of bringing home an Olympic gold medal to a town that for centuries buried its brightest aspirations in the coal pits. Once a curiosity and even an object of derision as he ran along the gray-stained streets and country byways of Gateshead, the sight of Foster in his warmup suit now elicits cries of "Howay, Big Bren! Ye're doin' us prood, lad!"
April 19, 1976
Every day, often in a drizzly haze that seems as much a part of the landscape as the tiers of huffing chimneys, Foster runs 15 miles or more to and from his job as the city's manager of sports and recreation. Hardly an inviting tour, he primes for it each morning with a bracing pot of hot tea shared with his wife Susan at their home, one of a cluster of identical two-family brick houses built on the side of a hill overlooking a vast industrial sprawl called Team Valley Trading Estate.
Jogging out his front door and down an embankment, Foster plunges headlong into "The Gut," the popular name for the once-swampy valley that has 100 factories spread across a landfill of two million tons of colliery waste. Though Gateshead's coal resources are largely exhausted, the miles of abandoned drift mines that wind beneath the city like an ant farm still occasionally give way, claiming a chunk of roadway here or a house or two there.
But Foster pays no heed to the roadside signs warning AREA LIABLE TO SUBSIDENCE. Once in the valley he runs across a bridge spanning a busy stretch of railroad tracks and then pads alongside a four-lane highway roaring with early morning traffic.
Midway on the Coach Road, Foster swings through a massive stone gateway that is posted TRESPASSERS WILL BE PROSECUTED. Trotting up a horse trail, he skirts the ruins of Ravensworth Castle. It was here a few years ago that the Ravensworth gamekeeper, shotgun at the ready, threatened to shoot Foster as a suspected poacher. Now he just waves.
When Foster emerges into the clamor of the Lobley Hill thoroughfare, shopkeepers nod their greetings and motorists toot their hooters. As he dips back down into the valley, he hastens by the Norwood Coking Works with its pyramids of coal and huge black stacks spewing noxious orange smoke. Then, dodging double-deck buses at the intersections, he grinds up a steep grade, winding past a ramshackle row of racing-pigeon crees, past the Motorway Tyre Centre, the Gateshead Crematorium and the Bensham Bingo Club.
Just before the Boilermakers Social Club Ltd., Foster veers right and goes by a deserted "pit village," one of the infamous piles of brick flats that once passed as miners' housing. Then, finally, after pushing himself by the new Gateshead indoor bowling green, he skitters up the front steps of the 19th-century Shipcote Baths, where his office is just a few more weary strides beyond the swimming pool.
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."
Though Foster provides the inspiration, the longtime Pied Piper of Pedestrianism, as they used to call running in those parts, is Harrier Coach Stan Long. A welder until he joined Foster's recreation staff 18 months ago, Long has been coaching his boss for a dozen years. He accepts Harrier candidates at age 11 and then runs them until their dependency drops off.
Long says, "I reckon I can teach a runner what I know by the time he's 18, and then he's on his own. He can come to me for advice but he must think for himself. I want the lads to be self-sufficient. I'm no Svengali."
Unusually chipper for a man who has weathered 46 winters in Gateshead, Long seems most truly in his element when he is putting his charges through their training hoops. "C'mon, young Murray!" he cried one evening as he sent off successively faster waves of runners, timing it so that each group had the incentive of trying to catch and surpass the one before. Standing in the infield, Long said, "Doing your laps is more fun—go on, Gerald!—if you make a game out of it. Going great, Bradley! Use your arms. Go on, lad. Move up, Alice. Only one lap to go. Go on, Winston! Smash it!"
Nearby, Terry Nagel, a TV engineer, and his wife Stephanie, were cheering on their son Stephen, who was running alone on the shadowy perimeter of the track.
"Who knows," said the father, "Stephen might turn out to be another Brendan Foster. He gave up watching his favorite show, The Six Million Dollar Man, to come out and train tonight. We couldn't keep him away. With the help of that man over there, Stan Long, we figure Stephen might be ready for the Olympics in about 10 years." As it is, Stephen will have to wait four years until Long takes him under wing. He is seven.
Not surprisingly, the Gateshead Harriers are the national cross-country and road-relay champions. And earlier this year at the European Club championships in Arlon, Belgium, their 13-member contingent won the trophy as the best team on either side of the Channel.
The Harriers will go to any lengths to win races, down to but not including the dashes. Sprinters are as rare in Gateshead as coal miners in Miami Beach. Scotland's David Jenkins, the British and American 400-meter champion, joined Foster's recreation department last year, but he is still trying to explain that starting blocks are not toys for tots. And the only local field events anyone can recall are the matches by the Gateshead soccer team, which was dropped from the league in 1961 because of a lack of support.
"We just haven't the men to coach field events," says Gateshead Stadium Manager John Caine, himself a distance runner of national repute. Only half kidding, Foster says, "If we have a pole vaulter, we turn him into a miler." Conditions more or less dictate it. As Long puts it, "You can't throw the hammer in the rain."
And you can't deny custom. "The interest in foot racing stems from the traditional working-class Sunday up here," Foster says. "You raced your whippets in the morning, played darts at lunch-time and then, after a skinful of beer, watched the local harriers run in the afternoon. People in the northeast know about foot racing. They'll tell you how 45,000 people went to St. James Park to see Arthur Wint run 20 years ago."
Stan Long will tell you how John White, the Gateshead Clipper, set three world records in the 1860s and won $300 for defeating a Tonawanda Indian in a 10-mile stakes race in New York City. He will tell you, too, about other old-time whizzes like James Rowan, the British six-mile champion and Gateshead's own Black Assassin, who died prematurely because he guzzled more postrace beers than his wee 104-pound body could tolerate. And with a pint of shandy (half beer, half lemonade) firmly in hand and with only the slightest prompting from Foster, Long will even sing you the Tyneside Anthem, a ditty about going to the races a century ago.
"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."
But what really sent him "over the moon"—and Foster's Olympic prospects soaring—was Long's appointment in February as manager of Britain's distance runners for the Montreal Games. Long says, "I haven't been to an Olympics since London in 1948 because I just couldn't afford to go. I couldn't even afford to be in Rome when Brendan won his European championship. Now, well, I'm just thrilled to bits."
Foster figures to stay in one piece. A low-key chap with a pulse rate idling at a cool 45 beats per, he contends, "The Olympics is just another race. Treat it any differently and you can be greatly disappointed because anything can happen—a pulled muscle, the flu, anything." He recalls the time when Long, the former walking champion of Durham County, fell prey to an untimely gastrointestinal attack. "They reckon Stan was a good walker but he missed out in the nationals because of too many cucumber sandwiches on the train."
Nor is Foster short on confidence. In Britain's dual meet with Russia last year, after he triumphed in the 1,500 with an electrifying finishing kick, he was asked at what point he thought he would win. "When they picked me to run," he said. And although Foster insists that "The five's me event," he may also compete in the 10,000 in Montreal. Attempting the distance for the first time last summer, Foster not only outdistanced the U.S.'s Frank Shorter, the 1972 Olympic marathon champion, but he also won in the fastest time of the year, 27:45.4.
"Whatever happens in Montreal," Foster says, "I'll come back to Gateshead and find I've still got food to eat, a job to do and my friends. Win or lose, it would be wrong if it was any different." He feels it would also be wrong for him to accept the $60,000 he was offered to join the pro track circuit. "Running is hard enough," he says, "without having to do it for a living."
Foster could do without the hometown pressure as well. In fact, in enlisting a top international field for last year's Gateshead Games, he inadvertently helped his cause by including New Zealand's Rod Dixon, who beat him in the 5,000. "It took a lot of the heat off," Foster claims. "Now people here know I can lose, which is a rather nice spin-off from an unpleasant afternoon."
All of which he hopes will help ward off other unpleasant happenings such as the time when, out for his morning tour in the pouring rain, he became ill and started retching. Almost immediately, a passing car skidded to a stop, a man jumped out and rushed over and asked Foster for his autograph.
Foster attributes the untamed enthusiasm to deprivation. "People have never had much here," he says. "Nobody brings great culture here, no theater, not even good soccer. Everything that's good seems to happen somewhere else. So horizons have been limited. People's ambitions have been confined."
Foster has succeeded royally in raising the consciousness level in more ways than one. In February, while he was being invested as a Member of the British Empire at Buckingham Palace, Queen Elizabeth said to him, "I hope this doesn't interfere with your training." "No, ma'am," said Brendan Foster, M.B.E., "I already ran seven miles in Hyde Park this morning."
The Queen smiled.