Jack Holden was one of Britain’s most distinguished distance runners of the post-war era and had an international career that spanned over 20 years. He won countless titles and established himself as one of the marathons original hard men with his gutsy no-nonsense attitude. Holden was born in Staffordshire in March 1907 and after finishing school at 14 he got a job working in an iron foundry. Despite the long demanding hours of his employment he discovered a passion for boxing, until turning to running in his late teens, then going on to join his local club, Tipton Harriers in 1925.
Holden’s first major successes came in cross country and he first represented England in the international cross country championships in 1929. In 1931 he won the Inter Counties championships, which he went on to defend for the next two years. By this time Holden had firmly established himself as Britain’s leading distance runner and in 1933 he won the AAA’s 6 mile track title in 30:32. The following year he went one better by winning the 6 mile (30:43) and 10 mile (52:21) events, thus gaining selection for the Empire Games in the 6 mile event, where he went on to finish in a credible 4th place. His reputation in cross country continued to grow, winning the Nationals in 1938 and 1939 and the International championships (now known as the World Cross Country) in 1933, 1934, 1935 and 1939.
Just as Holden was hitting his peak years the war intervened and he served for the RAF as a PT instructor. Surprisingly, he decided to return to athletics after the war, despite being 39 years old. His return proved to be an instant success, winning the Nationals in 1946, before going on to carve out further success stepping up to the marathon distance. He won his debut marathon to gain the Midlands title with a solid 2hr 46, unfortunately he was unable to compete in the AAA’s marathon and was therefore overlooked for selection in the European championships. He did, however, have the opportunity to compete for England again in the the International Cross Country championships, finishing 6th. Holden competed in a specially arranged 30 mile track race by Joe Binks, where he set an unofficial world record with 3hr 00:16, which certainly succeeded in proving a point to the selectors that overlooked him. He had another brush with the selectors in the following year when bad snow made it impossible for him to attend the National Cross Country championships and was therefore excluded from the team for the International championships. Holden was furious, as he had been the country’s best cross country runner for over a decade; he vowed never to do a cross country race again, which would prove to be a huge loss for the England team.
In 1947, Holden got off to a great start to the season with a win and new course record at the Finchley 20 in 1hr 53:42, before going on to win the first of his four consecutive AAA’s marathon titles, beating pre-race favourite Tom Richards by nearly 3 minutes with a massive pb of 2hr 33:20. Even more impressive was his win in the Enschede marathon later in the year with 2hr 20:52; instant doubts were raised and the course was found to be nearly 3km short. Holden could count himself unlucky, as in all probability he would have set a British record and possibly even been the first Briton to break 2hr 30. He was however, the first man to break 3 hours for 30 miles, running an excellent 2hr 59:47, set in the South London Harriers 30 road race.
Holden secured selection for the London Olympics with another routine AAA’s marathon win in 2hr 36, this would be his debut Games at the grand age of 41! Confidence was high, Jack Holden had now firmly established himself as one of the world’s leading marathoners (5th in the world rankings in 1947), but the fairytale victory wasn’t to be. The race started off well enough, with Holden going along steadily and about a minute behind the leader after 6 miles (35:42), but by halfway he was starting to lose ground on the front pack and was nearly two minutes behind in 71:18. Holden was having great difficulty with severe blisters and after suffering for a few more miles he was forced to drop out. Uncomfortable footwear was a common problem for marathoners back in those days; Holden used to pickle his feet in permanganate potash to harden his feet , but before the Olympic marathon he had overdone it. He later stated “I should have won that race out of sight”, and considering Tom Richards, who had often played second fiddle to Holden on the domestic scene, won a silver medal, it’s hard not to argue. Holden announced he would retire, but the lure of unfinished business meant that he soon changed his mind, along with his wife telling him he was pain to put up with around the house!
His first race back was the Morpeth to Newcastle race (13.6 miles) on New Year’s Day 1949, where he would be facing Tom Richards, and Holden duly acted his revenge to win convincingly, setting a new course record. He then went on to bag his third consecutive AAA’s marathon title, winning at Birmingham in 2hr 34:11 and setting another course record. He was back to his very best form and training harder than ever, regularly putting in 100 miles per week. All preparations were geared towards the Empire Games in New Zealand in February 1950. He would also be looking towards the European Championships in Brussels later that year.
Due to work commitments (now working for a meat products firm), Holden was unable to get enough time off to travel with the team by boat, so it was arranged that he would get a flight over enabling him to be there for the marathon. It was a special treatment that Holden had never had before and must surely have placed some pressure on his shoulders, but he was still smarting from his London experience and desperate to make amends. The race got off to a fast start and Holden bided his time further back in the pack; it wasn’t until 10 miles in that he started to work his way through. Then at around 16 miles in, yet again, Holden was having difficulty with his shoes which were coming apart in the wet weather. It looked like it was going to be a repeat of the Olympic marathon two years ago, but this time he took off his shoes and ran the last 9 miles barefoot, he also had to overcome a dog charging out at him on the course. It was a truly gritty performance and the crowd were shocked as Holden entered the stadium shoeless with bloodied feet to run a victory lap, crossing the line in 2hr 32:57 to take gold, four minutes ahead of the next man. He later joked, “the dog didn’t bite me because it didn’t like British meat”.
After competing on the international stage for 21 years, he finally won a gold medal in a major games. A couple of months later he suffered his only blip of the year when he failed to defend his crown and dropped out of the Sheffield marathon at 18 miles. Then in June, he bounced back in superb style and won the AAA’s marathon in Reading with a new pb of 2hr 31:04, the Empire Games win certainly hadn’t diminished his appetite!
In September he was off to Brussels to compete in the marathon at the European Championships where he was expecting his toughest test yet, especially from the Finnish and Russian runners. Holden certainly wasn’t intimidated; annoyed with the arrogance and swagger of the Russians in the changing rooms, Holden went up to them and pointed at the Union Jack on his chest, “have a good look at this boys, because it will be the last time you’ll see it today”, and indeed it was. Holden lead from the start, covering 10k in 35:10. In the last few miles the Russian, Vanin came up on his shoulder, but Holden surged again and managed to break his opponent, who ended up dropping back to third. He managed to keep ahead of the fast finishing Karovonen from Finland to win by just over 30 seconds in 2hr 32:13. After the race Karvonen asked how old he was, in amazement he replied “you’re older than my father!” , there was further amusement for Holden when he was congratulated by the Belgian royal, “I met his father and grandfather, you couldn’t arrange to meet three Belgian kings even in a pack of cards”. Even now, he still has the record as the oldest European marathon champion.
It had been an incredible year and Holden topped the world marathon merit list and also won the British “Sportsman of the Year”, an earlier incarnation of the “Sports Personality of the Year”. After having so much success and now approaching the age of 44, many expected the “old fox”, as he was affectionately known, to retire, but Holden was a very proud and patriotic man. He vowed to carry on flying the flag until a younger runner came along to take over the mantel as Britain’s leading marathoner, but as there was no-one remotely close to him, it was looking likely that that would mean competing in the Helsinki Olympic Games in 1952!
Early in 1951, Holden was running as strongly as ever, still bettering his performances at the age of 44, breaking his course record at the Finchley 20 with a terrific 1hr 50:48, two minutes clear of the newcomer, Jim Peters. There would be a second meeting between the two runners at the Polytechnic marathon, where Holden was bidding for his 5th consecutive AAA’s title. The race was on a warm Saturday afternoon in June; Peters set off at a blistering pace to try and unsettle the champion. After 5 miles Holden caught him and unleashed a surge of his own at around the halfway point, pulling away by 200 yards. It looked being another masterclass performance by the elder statesman, who had the debutant Peters trailing despondently in the distance. The pace over the first 15 miles had been fast, well under British record pace and not far off the world record target and it was beginning to take it’s toll on Holden. He was starting to struggle and he could sense Peters closing in, by 18 miles he was caught and by 20 miles it was all over; Holden dropped out of stomach cramps, a problem he had never had before. Peters battled on, slowing down, but still managing a British record in 2hr 29.
It would prove to be Jack Holden’s last race, true to his word, he stepped down now that another British runner had taken over. The News of the World titled their article, “the old fox is dead”, but just as with his marathon running, Holden would be around for quite some time, living well into his 90’s and died just a few days before his 97th birthday in March 2004.
Jack Holden was extremely prolific during his career and his titles read like a shopping list; Track – AAA’s 6 mile (1933-34-35), AAA’s 10 mile (1934), Midlands 3 mile (1932-33-34-35-36-37), Midlands 4 mile (1931), Midlands 6 mile (1932-33-34-35-36-37-38 and 1946), Midland 10 mile (1930-31-32-33). Cross Country – International Champion (1933-34-35-39), National Champion (1938-39 and 1946), Inter-Counties Champion (1931-32-33-36), Midlands Champion (1932-33-34-35-36-37-38-39 and 1946). Marathon – European Champion (1950), Empire/Commonwealth Champion (1950), AAA’s (1947-48-49 and 1950).
Training during his track and cross country days in the 1930’s was fairly modest, consisting of around 3 hard runs per week with his club. When he switched to marathons after the war, his training load increased significantly to around 70 – 80 miles per week, which would be covered in the evenings after work during the week with a race on Saturday. Holden was a devout Christian and family man; he would spend Sundays going to church and spend the rest of the day with his family, he rarely ran on this day. After the Olympics he upped the volume to 100 miles per week, which would be accumulated off 5 – 6 runs, meaning that he was out every evening after work running over 2 hours, covering between 15 – 20 miles or more each outing. There’s no mention of speed sessions, or paces when reading about his training, it would be fair to assume that he built up his strength from lots of long runs at a steady pace.
3 mile: 14:27
6 mile: 30:26
10 mile: 52:35
20 mile: 1hr 50:48
Marathon: 2hr 31:03
30 mile: 2hr 59:47
There’s plenty of articles about Jack Holden in publications such as World Sports, Athletics Weekly and Athletics Review, though sadly there hasn’t been a biography published about this great athlete. There’s a very good article on Tipton Harriers’ website from an old NUTS publication by David Thurlow in 2000. There’s also a great video on youtube showing the highlights of Holden’s exceptional performance in the 1950 Empire Games, which gives a good indication of how uncomfortable it must have been running on those roads in the last 9 miles!