29 Mar Vintage Running /// Derek Clayton

Derek Clayton is possibly one of the greatest marathoners never to win a medal. He was a fierce competitor with an intense personality that didn’t particularly endear him to his rivals; before his world record in Antwerp he apparently told Jim Alder and Jim Hogan that he was glad to be competing against them as would run them into the ground! He could also be physically intimidating; at 6ft 2” and weighing 160lbs, he wasn’t the typical build of a world-class marathoner.

Fukuoka Marathon 1967He’s an English-born Australian, hailing from Barrow-In-Furness in Lancashire, at the age of eight he moved to Northern Ireland in 1950. It was here that he discovered his love for running and started out competing in the mile event with the ambition of emulating the great track stars of day; Herb Elliot and Gordon Pirie. By the age of 19 he was set for starting a new life in Australia and managed to get to a solid level of performance with a 4:26 for the mile, but it was a long way off the standards of his new peers.

He did manage to improve to a very respectable 4:07, but by this time he was focusing on competing in the longer distances. His times of 13:45 for 5,000m and 28:32 for 10,000m were very competitive at national level, even good enough to win the national title in 1967, but during most of his career, competition for places on the national team was tough. It wasn’t made any easier when having to contend with the likes of 10,000m world record holder, Ron Clarke (28:15). He may have improved these times further, but by the late 60’s his main focus was the marathon.

Clayton’s first foray into the marathon came quite early on after his move to Australia and was a very low-key affair in 1963. He was planning to use the race for training with his club as a long run, pacing others, but after 20 miles he decided it was just as well to carry on and finish the race. He described the last few miles as being hellish and was disappointed not to at least go under 3 hours, where he missed out by six seconds. Though it wasn’t a pleasant experience for him, the seed was planted to have another go at the marathon when he felt he was ready to do more justice to his modest personal best.

The next time he made his attempt at the marathon was in October 1965 at the Victorian Marathon Club championships. By this time he had established himself as an excellent 5,000m and 10,000m runner, but he would astound everybody with his performance of 2hr 22:12. Not only had he won, but he set a new national record, the die was cast; Clayton was now a marathon runner. The following year at the same race, Clayton bettered his mark by running a superb 2hr 18:28. It was a big improvement of four minutes, but that would be blown out of the water with his next performance at the Fukuoka later that year. Clayton was still an unknown out of Australia and even though his 2hr 18 was handy, it was still a good six minutes off the world record. The 1967 event would boast an impressive lineup with defending champion Mike Ryan of New Zealand, Japan’s new star, Sasaki, a 22-year old with a 2hr 13 to his credit and Commonwealth champion Jim Alder.

Clayton and Ryan set off hard, covering the first 5k in 15:06, already breaking away from the rest of the field. Incredibly, the pace increased; 10k was reached in 29:57, 15k in 44:57. By now Clayton and Ryan were well clear and running at a phenomenal pace, with Sasaki over 200m behind. Shortly after, Mike Ryan started to fall behind leaving Clayton out on his own passing 20k in 59:59, no other marathon had ever had a sub one hour split for 20k. Half-way was passed in 63:23, over a minute faster than Bikila’s mark on his world record. Amazingly, Sasaki had managed to make up ground, passing a struggling Mike Ryan and even catching Clayton who was starting to slow just before the 30k mark, which they both passed in 1hr 30:32. Clayton then surged again, gaining a few yards (35k: 1hr 45:11) and effectively breaking Sasaki in the process. Although the race was pretty much in the bag, Clayton was really starting to suffer and slowed to over 16 minutes for the 35k – 40k section, but this was still well under world record target and if he could run the last 2.2k in under 7:20 then he could break the magical 2hr 10. He battled on and smashed the world record with 2hr 09:36, making him the first runner to break 2hr 10, knocking 9 minutes off his previous best! Sasaki was also inside the old mark with 2hr 11:17.

It was the biggest moment of his life and now had his sights set on the Olympics at Mexico in 1968. Unfortunately for Clayton, his career was plagued by injuries to his achilles tendons and knees, which could be attributed to his high volume and intensity of training, often between 140 – 170 miles per week, sometimes even 200 miles. Most of this was done close to race pace. The first of his injury woes struck before the Games; all went to plan at the Australian trials with a routine win in 2hr 14:47, but in Mexico, where he finished a distant 7th in 2hr 27, which was seven minutes behind the winner, Malmo Wolde. As well as the altitude having an adverse effect on most of the sea-level distance runners, Clayton also ran the marathon with a cyst on the cartilage of his right knee.

After his lay-off, Clayton ploughed in the training again and was getting back to his best. In May 1969, he had two marathons planned with only 11 days between them; the first would be in challenging hot and humid conditions in Ankara, Turkey, followed by a special invitation to race at Antwerp in Belgium. He ran a brilliant 2hrs 17, setting a course record with one of his career best performances, especially when the conditions are taken into account.

Clayton felt he was ready to have a go at improving his world record at Antwerp, with the race starting at 7pm, conditions would be quite cool, which he found suited him best. The pace was good early on with Canadian Bob Moore taking the pack though 5k in 14:58, by 10k (30:06) Clayton was starting to pull away and was soon out at the front on his own. He reached half-way in 63:55, slightly slower than at Fukuoka, but he recorded a much better second half split of 64:38 to break the tape in 2hrs 08:33, knocking over a minute off his previous best. Another new world record, but not everyone was satisfied and murmurs of “short course” were being sounded out. The Belgian Amateur Athletic Federation, could and should have put an end to the debate by re-measuring the course, but stubbornly refused to do so. The IAAF recognise the performance as a world record in their listing, but other organisations such as the Association of Road Racing Statisticians recognise Ron Hill’s 2hr 09:28 as the progression from Clayton’s 2hr 09:36, thus questioning the authenticity of Clayton’s 2hr 08. Despite the controversy, the fact that it was an amazing run can be under no doubt.

It would prove to be Clayton’s last great marathon, for the rest of the year he virtually ran himself into the ground. He toured across Europe doing track races, culminating in a showdown at the Manchester Marathon, against his great rival, Britain’s Ron Hill. They battled it out neck and neck, until Hill pulled away in the last few miles to win by two minutes in 2hr 13. Despite running a solid 2hr 15, Clayton felt terribly fatigued and felt he never the same runner again. Despite running faster times in the past, he later said that the Manchester race was the toughest he ever had. He later admitted that it was a big mistake to take on so much racing after his performance in Antwerp, he was reported to have been passing blood in his urine up 48 hours after that performance. Reflecting on it in his book, Running to the Top, Clayton wished he had taken six months off from running to recover.

Unfortunately, his potential peak years were thwarted by more injury troubles, which effectively ruined his 1970 and 1971 seasons. He managed a 2hr 13:39 at the Traralgon Marathon in Australia, bagging the course record in the process and also attempted the marathon in the Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh, but the achilles tendon injury forced him to drop out of the race. He got back to some good form again and had high hopes for the ’72 Munich Games, but again, he would struggle in the hot conditions and ended up 13th in a respectable 2hr 19:49. Even though he was still only 30 years old, Clayton’s best performances seemed to be behind him and he had given up hope on winning Olympic gold. His last major competition was the Commonwealth Games in 1974 off the back of a promising 2hr 12 set in Perth; but suffering with bronchitis, Clayton made a bad decision to race and sadly his race ended with a DNF. Demoralised after so many set-backs with injury and disappointing performances in championship races, Clayton called time on his career at the relatively young age of 32.

Ultimately, Clayton could have achieved so much more had it not been for his injuries, in total he had seven operations; four on his achilles tendon, two on his knees and one on his heel. Clayton also believed his size meant that he suffered more in warmer temperatures, pointing to the fact that his two world records were set in much cooler conditions than what he faced in the Olympic and Commonwealth Games.


Clayton was known for his intense training regime where he’d run 140 – 170 miles per week, sometimes getting as high as 200. He believed in running marathon distance runs at a hard pace every weekend, on Saturdays he would run 25 – 26 miles in around 2hrs 20 and on the Sunday he would run 20 miles over very hilly terrain. He once ran himself into delirium and went careering into a tree on one of his Saturday outings! He worked off 10 week cycles, a system he felt worked well for him which he discovered through trial and error from his early marathons. He would already be knocking out 100 mpw, then his would start of his first week with 120, steadily increasing it to about 170 miles at the end of the cycle. A key week in his marathon build up would look like this:

Monday – am: 7 miles steady. pm: 15 miles hard (usually close to marathon pace).

Tuesday – am: 7 miles easy. pm: 10 miles steady or hard (dependant on how he felt).

Wednesday – am: 7 miles steady. pm: 10 – 15 miles all-out effort (sub race pace).

Thursday – am: 7 miles easy. pm: 15 miles hard (close to race pace)

Friday – am: 7 miles easy. pm: 10 miles easy

Saturday – 25 miles in around 2hr 20.

Sunday – am: 17 – 22 miles on hilly terrain (sub 6 min pace). pm: 10 miles hard (close to race pace).

The only easy days he had (if you could call them that) were on Tuesday and Friday, though he was still running in excess of 20 miles in each of them. Through all this hard running his style developed to become very economical for a runner of his size. He would refer to it as the “Clayton Shuffle”, which basically meant he had a low knee lift and his feet wouldn’t lift too high off the ground, thus wasting unnecessary energy.

Further Reading

There have been many articles written about Derek Clayton and there’s some interesting, albeit brief, information about his training in Tim Noakes’ book, Lore Of Running. Clayton did publish his own book in 1979, Running To The Top, part of which is an autobiograpghy and part training guide. It provides some fascinating information about how he trained, with some very useful advice for aspiring runners, it’s just a pity the book didn’t really go into much detail on his other marathons apart from the two world record performances.


5,000m: 13:45

10,000m: 28:32

10 miles: 47:38

15 miles: 71:37

Marathon: 2hr 08:33

Article by Ben Fish