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#8 Red Rag to a Bull

John Downes

Outside athletic circles, David Bedford is no longer a household name.

In 1970’s Britain, the sinewy Londoner was easily recognised - sporting a drooping bushy moustache and his lucky red racing socks - the undisputed king of track distance running. At one point, Bedford held every British record from 2,000m to 10,000m. In 1973, he set the 10,000m world record.

I’d only vaguely heard of Bedford when I joined Dublin’s Donore Harriers in the mid-noughties. There, I came across an interview he gave in an 'Irish Runner' magazine left in the dressing room. Another 'running boom' was taking hold then; this time a craze of participation rather than the performance emphasis of the 80’s. In a magazine increasingly geared toward the new breed of recreational runner, Bedford's words in the ‘Irish Runner’ stuck out. Like the man's running style, his words were not elegantly mainstream, but reflected his commitment above all else.

On being asked for advice for younger runners looking to ‘make it’, Bedford advocated some initial trial and error; experiments in investedness. Only if the idea of excellence dogged you should keep grinding. Only if your commitment was iron-clad to your investment should you pursue it further. If your whole being was resolved in this way, then - and only then - should you go all in.

Bedford's message here - don't bother continuing in the performance arena, don’t bother even starting, without this obsessive level of commitment - must have read like sacrilege to the running masses. To me his message struck close to the bone; a raw truth reflecting my actual limited experience in competitive athletics. His words acknowledged that the higher level of commitment would regularly require a stubborn will, as well as a calling’ of sorts. Implied was the fact that the endeavour would regularly be harder-than-you-think, and this dared you to defy the odds. He admitted something true of many performance domains, but rarely admitted in public: that the years of perseverance with “unreasonable” training were entirely necessary to have any chance of success. Those who could stay the path and truly succeed required a Bedford-level of commitment.

My coach John Downes - ‘Downsey’ - was coached by Bedford. As with Bedford, you could not separate athletics from John Downes. It circulated in his veins; his cross-country champion father, John Downes Senior, tempering his son's early talent. And athletics too, turned out to be in Downsey’s “brick shit-house” frame - a build more akin to a rugby flanker that defied the ectomorph standard of elite distance running. It was Downsey’s character though, that broke the mould of Irish athletics when he emerged into the senior ranks.

Like Dave Bedford, no one questioned Downsey's commitment. He laboured on construction sites in South East London during his most competitive athletics years. Dawn-to-dusk he laboured to pay the bills, running the work commute to keep the athlete’s bread-and-butter mileage high. He'd run better during winter cross-country; the shorter work days on the sites allowed his legs to better recover. In the early nineties, he would become the only man to win both Irish and British cross country titles in the same year. When the speedier track races rolled around each summer, he proved (and later boasted) that the flanker’s chassis “had wheels” too; posting a 5,000m best of 13 minutes 29 seconds. In the relentless and intense world of elite distance running, Downsey became known as 'The Bull'.

Later, he took up coaching duties at Donore Harriers. Our senior men’s team were young and mouldable; glimpses of genuine talent that could be blooded and honed. Downsey was still racing then, but had aged beyond personal bests. I was improving but still "a slow burner". During a brief period of similar race fitness, a handful of our Donore cross country races came down to a final-straight sprint against one another. These were chances to hang tough with Downsey; To out-kick Downsey! Fuel!!

Our attentive dressing-room gave a regular audience to Downsey; lent its ears for his life-in-athletics play-book. In his element there, he'd inspire the room with his 120-mile weeks, second-hand pub jokes and seething rivalries. He told us of how he would always back himself at the business end of a race. He relayed the furious encounters with corrupt athletic institutions and warned us about some particularly "despicable human beings" out there. While his proud glory days received ample air time, he'd just as soon speak of the mundane toil of draining workaday weeks with zero glory. The unforgiving zombie moments where you just had to summon up whatever life was in you, whatever mental trickery you could employ, just to lace up your trainers and step out the door; to at least get something "banked" as part of the investment.

Many of John's stories repeated themselves, but he'd always be storing new ones away to tell later. One true story (verified by older Donore members) has a particular finish-line official - one of Downsey's "despicables" - protesting the legitimacy of John's victory as he won a particular cross country race. The official was loudly protesting John’s victory as invalid - some club singlet technicality. The Bull was fuming. What happened next varies depending on who's telling, but if on 'A Question of Sport' and you answered that Downsey knocked the official out cold with a right hook, you'd get full points.

John knew there were no shortcuts in his sport, and his no-bullshit approach never consoled for consolation's sake: "If you gave your all", he said calmly in more than one post-race analysis, "then that's more or less where you're at". On the other hand, I'd always appreciate his search for the seconds that got away"."...I mean don't forget that fucking gale as well Mark; that was worth at least a couple of seconds a lap."

Out on one easy day's run with him in the Phoenix Park, he became animated about the race he'd run the previous weekend. Approaching the race's defining moment, Downsey had been running stride for stride with one of Ireland's most promising juniors. Downsey was hurting, but with his experience, he could roughly read the state of the junior. He was hurting too... but no more than Downsey. He shouted encouragement to the junior; shouted “Come on!” encouragingly, between rapidly red-lining breaths; to stay with him as he made his final effort. The junior failed to muster, barely verbalising above their dying breaths: "I can't!" He fell back. Relaying this key part of the race to me on our easy run, Downsey had formed his impression of the junior: when really up against it, he would not / could not / did not dig into the place that was needed to go; the place that would be needed to make it.

Down by the duck pond, nearing the Donore clubhouse and the end of our own run, I decided to reveal an ambition of mine: winning the national cross country someday. His face brightened in surprise. "It's good to hear you talking that way Mark". He knew I wouldn't say something like that lightly. "It'll be nothing like easy …possible though". He believed there was a chance! He believed in me and that he could guide me there. I took heart. Downsey wouldn't bullshit me if he thought it wasn't possible. He turned to the brass tacks of what it would take: the sessions and mileage I already knew, but ramped up; progressively and sustainably in volume and intensity …"six to eight years of 90-100 miles a week Mark...with your long run, your tempo, your two quality sessions...". He paused thinking it through, his optimism allowing the goal to take shape a little clearer in my mind. "And you'll need that bit of luck on the day itself'' he concluded.

Running on a moment further in silence, John’s conscious mind seemed to stop planning. His face contorted into a sadistic grimace as his body remembered the art of racing; "And you need to be pig-stubborn Mark, stubborn as a bull".


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