27 Jun Vintage Running // Gordon Pirie
Gordon Pirie was one of athletics most popular athletes of the 1950’s, setting world records in the 3,000m, 5,000m and 10,000m as well as dominating the British scene on track and cross country for the best part of a decade. Confident and brash, Pirie was also one of the most controversial athletes of the era with his outspoken views on the farce of the strict amateur codes of the day, which would often put him at loggerheads with AAA’s chief official, Jack Crump. Despite rubbing up the governing body the wrong way, he was hugely popular with the public; winning Sports Personality of the Year in 1955 and regularly featuring as cover star in Athletics Weekly and World Sports magazines. His character and intense training regime fascinated people and was the topic much discussion and heated debate.
Pirie was originally from Yorkshire, where he was born in 1931, before his family relocated to London when he was a child. Gordon’s father Alick was a keen runner and got him into running with his older brother Peter, but the spark in Gordon Pirie ignited when he watched the formidable Emil Zatopek in the 1948 Olympics in London. It was his ambition to emulate the great Czech Locomotive, which meant ditching the traditional British approach to training of 3 – 4 sessions per week and embracing daily training of high intensity with high volume interval workouts. It was soon paying off, by the age of 20, Pirie was one of the nation’s most promising young athletes along with Roger Banister, Walter Hesketh and Chris Chataway. In 1951, he set a new British record of 29:32 for 6 miles. The following year would prove to be an even bigger breakthrough; making the team for the ’52 Olympics at Helsinki in the 5,000m and 10,000m, where he would get to compete against his idol, Zatopek, only four years after watching him from the stands in London. It was the Olympics where Zatopek swept all before him to win three gold medals in the 5,000m, 10,000m and marathon, but it was a promising start on the world stage for Gordon Pirie, who managed a very credible 4th place in the 5,000m with 14:18, overtaking an unlucky Chataway who had fallen on the last bend. The 10,000m proved to be a harder race and Pirie was 7th in 30:09.
The following year would prove to be an even greater success, even briefly holding the world record for 6 miles (28:19) and a British record for 10,000m (29:19). He won the National cross country title and showed his versatility, surprising everyone by winning the Emsley Carr mile against sub 4 minute hopeful Wes Santee in 4:06.8, running the last lap in 58 seconds. Pirie was now under the guidance of German coach, Woldemar Gerschler, who had a scientific approach to interval training by monitoring heart rate with an electrocardiograph to pinpoint adequate recoveries and intensities for his athletes. This was a very advanced approach in the early 1950’s and only became a common method once heart rate monitors started to appear nearly 30 years later. Whilst Pirie’s partnership with Gerschler raised some eyebrows in the British athletics fraternity, most believed Britain now had their own Zatopek with his daily sessions of high intensity interval workouts. His methods did attract some lively debate; the AAA’s officials, former Olympic 100m champion Harold Abrahams and Jack Crump felt he was overdoing it, the legendary Gunder Haegg went one step further, “Pirie will be burnt out in two years!”. They believed he would be better off training with the traditional approach of Bannister and Chataway. Most of the 1954 season was spent suffering with an Achilles tendon injury and it seemed as though his critics had been proven correct. It robbed him of a chance to win a gold medal in the Empire Games and face Zatopek at the European Championships in the 5,000m.
Pirie bounced back from injury winning his third consecutive Nation Cross Country title and in September 1955 he inflicted a rare defeat on his idol, Emil Zatopek in the 5,000m with 14:03, before going on to beat him again in the 10,000m a month later with a new pb and British record of 29:17. He ended the month with a 2 hour track record attempt, which had people wondering if he was thinking of attempting the Zatopek feat of 5,000m, 10,000m and marathon in the ’56 Melbourne Olympics. The race was set up by the Road Runners Club and the favourite, Manchester’s Joe Lancaster was aiming for a sub 5:30 per mile schedule. Pirie had the lead after 10 miles, but Lancaster fought back and managed to hang on to his lead in the last two miles to record 22 miles 418 yards, some 17 seconds ahead of Pirie. Despite a good showing, he decided it was too early in his career to attempt the long distances and would target the 5,000m and 10,000m next year.
Pirie now had celebrity status, but was frustrated by the constraints of the amateurism in athletics. Cricket stars could have sponsorship deals with brands for thousands of pounds per year, yet athletes got nothing and had to compete at the highest level whilst holding down a full time job. It was around this time that Pirie changed his job working as a bank clerk for Lloyds and worked as a sales rep for a paint firm, Wilkinsons, which had comfortable working hours of 8:30am – 4pm, allowing him to dedicate more time to training. Though the move didn’t prove a huge success for Wilkinsons, it certainly worked for Pirie and he notched up another world record in the 5,000m against the reigning European Champion and fierce rival, Vladimir Kuts. It was one of Pirie’s greatest ever performances; Kuts’ running style was brutal, he went through the first kilometre in 2:36 and 3km in 8:09. Pirie was managing to stay with him and in the last 300m managed a final spurt to ease past and win in 13:36. Another world record followed in September, when he took on the great Hungarians Tabori and Iharos in Norway at the 3,000m. Again, Pirie had the superior kick at the end and won by a few yards in 7:52, looking back on his career, Pirie would rate this as his greatest race.
Now in the form of his life and after getting married at the end of September, the decision was made to quit his job and go out to Australia with 8 weeks to prepare for the Olympics. He would be facing his old rival Kuts, who, despite being closely matched at 5,000m, had a pb over 40 seconds better than Pirie. The 10,000m was the first event and proved to be a brutal race; one of the greatest Olympic 10,000m races of all time. Kuts tore off in front and only Pirie was prepared to give chase. It was a fierce battle between the two great athletes, halfway was covered in 14:08, well under world record pace. Kuts was repeatedly putting in surges and each time Pirie would respond, but on the 20th lap Kuts briefly let Pirie lead and could see that the Briton was on his last legs. Kuts then made his final move and Pirie was broken, the last four laps were agonising, he fell back through the field to 7th and finished a minute behind Kuts, who won gold in 28:48. With only three days before his 5,000m heat, then the final two days later, would he be able to recover?
Roger Bannister gave Pirie sleeping pills to help him recover and after feeling awful for two days, he managed to run solidly in the 5,000m heats, easily qualifying for the final in 14:25. Gordon then had a tough decision, should he risk everything chasing after Kuts again? Or should he run his own race and give himself the best chance of at least getting a medal? Choosing the latter, Pirie let Kuts take it out, hoping that he might be his own worst enemy with his aggressive front running, but as with the 10,000m, he was unstoppable, winning by 11 seconds from Pirie and fellow Briton Derek Ibbotson in 13:39. Winning silver may have initially been a disappointment, but considering the gruelling 10,000m five days earlier, it was a fantastic recovery proving that all the miles and training sessions had paid off.
The next few years would be a mixture of success and great frustration, he was increasingly becoming fed up with the old fashioned amateur ideal that the Amateur Athletics Association were still trying to uphold. Pirie felt that athletes should be able to have sponsorship deals and receive appearance fees, stating that it was runners such as himself that pulled in the crowds when competing at venues such as the White City. He also resented the fact that Jack Crump was paid for his athletics articles by the press, whilst to do likewise, athletes had to ask the governing body for permission, and to add further insult, they were not allowed to receive a single penny for it.
Most of 1957 was spent travelling and appearing in various parts of the world racing, but without the same intensity of previous years. It was a much needed break and by 1958 he was back in full swing ready to challenge for the ultimate prize in the Empire Games at Cardiff and the European Championships in Stockholm. The running scene was changing again, Kuts had dramatically lost form (he would suffer his first heart attack only a few years later in 1960) and it was now the New Zealanders, under the guidance of Arthur Lydiard that were dominating the distance events. The Empire Games were slightly underwhelming, Pirie ran well, easily proving he was still Britain’s best, but was beaten into 4th place in both the mile (4:04) and the 3 miles (13:29) by the clean sweeping New Zealand athletes led by Murray Halberg. Next was the European Championships and this time Pirie managed another major medal, winning bronze in the 5,000m with 14:00.
1959 would be another quiet year, his most notable performance was 8:39 for 2 miles, the 2nd fastest in the world that year. In 1960 he was right back into his best form, ready for another crack at the 5,000m and 10,000m at the Olympics in Rome. After an excellent 7:57 in the 3,000m a month earlier, Pirie won the AAA’s title in the 6 mile event (28:09) and confidence was high leading into the Olympics with many journalists considering him a certainty for a gold medal. Perhaps in desperation to find that extra ‘edge’, Pirie decided to go to Germany for a tough two week training stint under the guidance of his long-term coach/advisor, Woldemar Gerschlar. It prove to be too much and he completely over-cooked his preparation. Only a couple of weeks before competing in Rome, he suffered a disastrous defeat, only running 8:17 for 3,000m in Berne, some 20 seconds behind the American, Beatty. Things didn’t improve and in one of the biggest shocks at Rome, Pirie was eliminated in the 5,000m heats with a sluggish 14:43. With his confidence at a low point, he ran an uncharacteristic 10,000m race, running steadily in the middle pack, but never really threatening the medal places. Initially the pace was good, reaching halfway in 14:22, but it all went wrong in the second half. He finished in 10th place with 29:15, despite being a pb, it was quite a way off the standard of his AAA’s 6 mile performance earlier in the season.
Stung by the disappointment of his performances and the negative press being received, Pirie decided to carry on with his track season and a month later in September, he broke the 4 minute mile in Dublin with 3:59.9. It was a long-time ambition that was finally fulfilled and must have partially erased the pain of the Olympics. Pirie then continued racing and was getting some great results, but by December the standards of his performances were deteriorating. It also seemed that he was getting more and more frustrated, even noting down races as “farcical” or commenting on his position as “way back”.
The ’61 season would be his last, he had finally had enough of being skint, despite being one of the world’s best athletes, so he made the decision to turn professional at the end of the year. He wanted to finish off his career with style, which he did with aplomb, winning 22 out of his 30 track races. In June he won yet another AAA’s title (3 miles), then he set a new British record for 3 miles in July with 13:16 and also got very close to improving on his world record in the 3,000m with a 7:54 in Trelleborg. The stage was set for a grand finale, but as often was the case with Pirie, it was never going to be that straight-forward. He fell out with Jack Crump again and it looked as though he would miss the GB versus Russia match in the 5,000m at the end of the season. It was only thanks to the pleas of his fellow athlete, Ken Norris, that made Crump relent and select Pirie for his last race at White City. He didn’t disappoint, winning with his classic sprint finish in 14:15, before receiving a standing ovation as he jogged his lap of honour, bringing down the curtain on a fantastic ten years at the top.
After retirement, Pirie published his autobiography “Running Wild” and prior to it’s release he had a no-holds-barred interview with The People. He would launch a scathing attack on the British athletics establishment, labelling them as good-time Charlies who are only interested in serving themselves and the sham of amateurism. He was one of the first athletes to speak out and paved the way for better standards enjoyed by future generations.
Pirie’s life after athletics had even more highs and lows than his career; the professional scene was dying in the sixties and most of his competitions descended into farce, often being underpaid, or in many cases, not being paid at all. After only a few years it was all over and Pirie decided to have a go at Orienteering, which he was introduced to by Chris Brasher. According to his Brasher, he was initially terrible at map reading, often getting hopelessly lost, much to the amusement of his friends. However, once he grasped the basics his high level of fitness meant that he left others in his wake and in 1968 notched up another accolade of being the first Briton to win the World Orienteering Championships. He also turned his attention to coaching; he mentored Jim Hogan for a while before going on to have spells coaching in Australia and USA. His intense personality meant that his coaching achieved mixed results; those that followed his guidance with full commitment tended to do very well, such as British 800m champion, Anne Smith, but the problem was that many did not, or could not. Even today, few people can match the workload of Gordon Pirie in his prime and this proved to be the ultimate stumbling block as he became increasingly frustrated by athletes that couldn’t handle it.
By the 1980’s, Pirie was one of athletics forgotten stars, living in Australia up until the end of the decade, before returning to England working as a lumberjack. The coaching work had dried up and he was barely earning enough to get by, hardly the living a multiple world record holder and Olympic silver medalist deserved. His life was cut tragically short; he was diagnosed with cancer in 1990, in true Pirie style, he was determined to fight it without surgery or painkillers, believing he could beat it with natural remedies. He was only given 6 months to live, but battled on for another 18 months trying all sorts of methods to cure himself. He was now penniless, unable to pay £1,000 in medical bills, which was generously paid off by his old friend Chris Brasher. He was able to go home where he died a month later at the age of 60 in December 1991.
Gordon Pirie was well-known for his high volume of training and admitted that at times he probably overdid it, he was running well over 100 miles per week when he was as young as 22 and a few years later, he would often clock up to 180 miles per week! In his last book, Running Fast and Injury Free, he gives detailed accounts of his training, which are shown below. Some of his track sessions were pretty extreme, such as 80x 220 yards in 29 seconds (jog 30 second recovery) or 54x 440 yards in 64 seconds (45 seconds recovery). The first example given, is an extract of his key training days early in the final week of his build up to the 5,000m world record:
7:30 a.m. – 30 minutes run.
Noon – 4 x alternate 800/1,200m (2:08, 3:11, 2:08, 3:11, 2:09, 3:12, 2:08, 3:13). Total
time: three hours.
6 p.m. – 4 x alternate 800/1,200m (2:08, 3:10, 2:09, 3:12, 2:09, 3:12, 2:09, 3:13). Total
time: three hours.
7 a.m. – 30 minutes run.
Noon – 8 x 800yds (1:58-1:59 followed by a five minute jog). Total running time: two
and a half hours.
Evening – 10 x 440yds (57-58 seconds with a four minute jog). Total running time: two
and a half hours.
7 a.m. – 30 minutes run.
Noon – 12 x 440yds (55-57 secs with a six minute jog). Total running time: two and a
Evening – 4 x 1 mile (4:11-4:15 with a 10 minute jog). Total running time: two and
He also gives an example of his cross country training during his peak years in the mid-fifties:
am – three hours run, Tooting Bec. Flat.
pm – four hours walk. Faster than joggers today!
am – 30 minutes run, Coulsdon Downs. Hilly.
pm – two hours of strong 100 paces, soft 100 paces, Coulsdon. No easy
am – 30 minutes run, Coulsdon Downs.
pm – three hours track running, Tooting Bec, including Zatopek-style
interval training [40×300 jog 100; or 30×400 jog 100; or 60×200 jog 200].
am – 30 minutes run, Coulsdon Downs.
pm – same as Monday.
am – 30 minutes run, Coulsdon Downs.
pm – same as Tuesday.
am – 30 minutes run.
pm – one to one and a half hours, as Monday.
am – 60 minutes run.
pm – three hours hard cross-country, Coulsdon. Hilly.
1 mile: 3:59.9 (1960)
3,000m: 7:52.7 (1956)
5,000m: 13:36.8 (1956)
6 miles: 28:09 (1960)
10,000m: 29:15 (1960)
Gordon Pirie dominated the athletics magazines of the day, there was plenty of articles from Athletics Weekly and World Sports about him throughout the 1950’s. He wrote his autobiography in 1961, which is a brilliant “no nonsense” account of his career, Chapter 5’s title, “The Elderly Dictators of British Athletics: These Men Must Go” says it all! He had another book in the making shortly before his death, simply title “Running Fast and Injury Free”, again, he pulls no punches with some of his views, especially with his criticisms of running shoes being unnatural and too high in the heel (well over a decade before people jumped on the bandwagon after reading Born To Run). This book was never officially published, but was available as a free download courtesy of his editor, John Gilbody a few years ago and can still be found with a bit of searching on the web. Dick Booth wrote a terrific biography, “The Impossible Hero” in 1999, which covers Pirie’s career with exceptional detail as well as shedding light on Pirie’s life after athletics up until his untimely death.