World-beater North deserves spot in GB history books

City of Portsmouth stalwart Gerry North shows off a selection of his medals accumulated during his time as a England and Great Britain cross country, track and road international
City of Portsmouth stalwart Gerry North shows off a selection of his medals accumulated during his time as a England and Great Britain cross country, track and road international
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At the height of his powers, Olympic champions failed to keep pace with Great Britain and England international athlete Gerry North.

Top-flight footballers in his home town of Blackpool struggled to keep him off the back pages of the local paper.

Even heavyweight boxing champion Brian London, who fought Cassius Clay, found himself flattened by a man who lit up the athletics stage at both home and abroad.

For his father, Arthur, such accomplishments during the late 1950s and ’60s came as little surprise.

Even before North, who has since assumed legendary status not just at adopted club City of Portsmouth AC but throughout the athletics world, had achieved anything of note in the fields of cross country and road running, his dad was predicting great things.

And those who were tipped off will not have been disappointed as the one-time professional football prospect became one of Britain’s finest distance runners.

‘My dad was so keen about me and my brother Geoff running, that he went to the local paper and told them that both of us would run for England one day – and we both did,’ said North.

‘At that stage, I had won one or two races but my father could see we both had potential.

‘And he was right. Both of us ran for our country, while I am the only British athlete to have won the national junior, senior and vets under-50 cross country championships ­– a record that is one of the biggest achievements in my career.’

North picked up the first of those national titles in 1957 following a period of national service.

When he joined the army as a fresh-faced 18 year-old, he knew it would be the making of him as a man. But little did he know it would also shape a world-renowned athletics career that had shown signs of potential during his school years.

‘I won the 880 yards race in my last school sports day and I thought to myself: “I quite like this running!”,’ said North.

‘I then went into the national service and one day we did a five-mile run with our backpacks on.

‘I was so far in front of everyone, I was told I’d be put in the officer’s mess to run the bar after my six weeks basic training.

‘I would be excluded from any drills and other duties in order to train.

‘That was the start of my athletics career, really.

‘I was able to train twice a day and then started to win races for the army.

‘I would also go back home and win races for my club Blackpool & Fylde, while that year I actually finished fourth in the national junior cross country.

‘However, when I came out of the services in 1957, I won the juniors at Parliament Fields by one minute and three seconds, which is still one of the biggest winning margins going now.

‘I led from the start and just ran away from the field.’

Leading from the front was a style North would become renowned for as he began to make his mark on the sport.

However, it wasn’t all easy runnings for the rising star.

‘In my first year at senior, I suffered from stitch in races and tried everything to get rid of it – different food, running slower with the field, and even a tot of brandy before one race.

‘But being a front-runner, I always wanted to be out in front.

‘Obviously, the standard was higher but even then I should have been able to cope with it. The year before I was beating most of the seniors.

‘Stan Eldon won the International Cross Country in 1958, but in ’57 I was beating him.

‘It was frustrating, but it disappeared in 1959 – and I still don’t know why.’

From that moment on, though, North didn’t look back, earning his first England vest in 1960, claiming victories abroad and winning the senior cross country title.

‘From 1959 onwards I started progressing,’ he said.

‘I made the international team in 1960 for what is now the World Cross Country Championships and was in the scoring six for the England team who won.

‘There were no Kenyans or Ethiopians racing then, but if they had been, they would have got whopped, too!

‘Also in 1960, I won in San Sebastian, Spain, where one of the biggest cross countries in Europe was held.

‘Emil Zatopek won it two years before I did, while Alain Mimoun won it the year before – both Olympic champions, so I was in illustrious company.

‘I beat Mimoun on a few occasions.

‘In 1962, I won the senior cross country championships, which was a great honour but only finished eighth in the worlds – the only race I really regret.

‘I was in the lead and came to a really sharp bend. It was quite slippery and my feet went from underneath me and I fell flat on my stomach.

‘It didn’t half shake me up and that’s the only time I got my stitch again.

‘I tried to chase the lead but kept getting the stitch. If I hadn’t fallen, I definitely would have won.

‘I was the favourite and the English ones who finished before me, I had beaten all season.’

Despite his undoubted class, North was unable to showcase his skills on the biggest stage of them all – the Olympics.

He did run for GB on the track but was never able to transfer his form on the road or the grass to stadiums.

Not that North lets it worry him too much now, though.

‘I was a much better cross country runner and road runner than track but still ran some good times,’ said North.

‘I ran 29min 06sec for 10k on the track which, if you look at the British rankings, that would put me fairly high up the rankings even now.

‘They used to have the AAAs six-mile race on a Friday night.

‘That was the trial race for any Commonwealths or Olympics and they usually took the first four.

‘Three times I finished sixth, with a foreigner a head of me. I always seemed to miss out by one place.

‘I have no real regrets, though.

‘I was disappointed never to go to the likes of the Olympics, but I was having so much success on the country and roads which made up for it.

‘If there had been an Olympic cross country race I would have made it.’

A second place finish at the Helsinki World Games was one such race where North showcased his undoubted class.

Meanwhile, a world record for a 10-mile parlauff was added to a racing CV that makes for impressive reading and includes being named Athletics Weekly’s most consistent runner of the ’60s.

For North, though, that vets national cross country win in 1987 has greater significance following his move to Portsmouth.

‘I did the parlauff because a couple of Americans set a world record for it,’ said North.

‘I partnered a chap called Brian Craig – the day after I won the Harry Whitehurst Memorial Race in Sheffield – and we dead-heated with Ron Hill and Mike Freary, two of the top 10k runners, in 42min 8.6sec – which was a world best.

‘You would run with a baton for half a lap each then run across the middle of the track to collect the baton from your partner again.

‘We ran 40 200m reps in that 10 miles, which averaged at 31 seconds.

‘We were very proud, but winning the vets title was one of my top goals because I knew no-one else had done that.

‘A lot of people have won the junior and senior titles but no-one has carried on to win the vets.

‘I, therefore, completed a 30-year span of running, which is some achievement as most of the top runners in my day were around for just five to 10 years.’

North, whose two sons David and Andrew followed in their dad’s footsteps by winning the Surrey Cross Country Championships in their youth, gave up competitive running after that milestone victory.

But he would still be heavily involved in athletics, after being asked to be race director for the Portsmouth 5 road race.

And just like his running days, it was a role he would excel in for years to come.

‘I opened up a running shoes shop in Fratton called Victory Sports,’ explained North, who would also later take up team management rolls with South of England and England’s men’s road racing teams.

‘Around the same time, I was also asked to take over the club’s road race, so called it the Victory 5. That was 30 years ago and it’s been going ever since.

‘We then started the D-Day 10k, which I was race director for, and then quite a few other big races.

‘In fact, if anybody wanted to organize a race, they would come to me asking if I would be race director.

‘People still come to me now but it’s starting to get a bit too much for me.’

Despite now being 77, North still can’t resist helping out on race days.

And as a well-respected coach and current manager of City of Portsmouth’s women’s National League team, he still dedicates most of his time to the sport he loves. A commitment that shows no obvious signs of slowing down.

‘Although I was always advising people after coming to Portsmouth via Belgrave Harriers, I didn’t really start coaching until about 10 years ago,’ said North, who also plays bowls for Vospers in the local Portsmouth & District League.

‘I advised Greg Butcher who got down to 3.44 for the 1,500m and got a place in the AAAs junior final and a chap called Mark Harris, who was a brilliant runner.

‘I then started coaching the women, with Karrie Blake being probably my first serious coaching role.

‘She’s now taken a break but will be back as she wants a British vest for her age group in the 800m.

‘My group has started to dwindle, but I’ve got some very good athletes who are my motivation now – Josie Czura, Emma Montiel and Cassie Thorp.

‘Emma’s targeting the Commonwealth Games, so I’ll do all I can to help her.

‘Josie has so much potential at such a young age and has the ability to achieve what she wants in athletics, while Cassie, who’s on a break right now, can one day run for England.

‘As for the women’s team, I’m lucky I’ve got the time to do it – and it does keep me out of mischief.’

North admitted he always likes to remind his young pretenders exactly what he achieved in athletics.

However, with a broad fanbase amongst all generations of runners, his reputation often needs no introduction.

‘Some of the younger ones know what I achieved,’ he said.

‘But whether they know how good I actually was, I don’t really know.

‘I do remind them sometimes – though sometimes I need reminding, too.

‘I often get people coming up to me asking “Are you Gerry North?”

‘I say yeah and they then start telling me stories that I can’t remember.

‘It does make you feel good and it’s nice to know you are well appreciated and people never forget you.’