John E. Davies 1931-2011

The crowd at Dublin’s Lansdowne Road stadium buzzed with anticipation. It was June 24th, 1957, and in sunny conditions over 33,000 had gathered to watch some of the great milers of the day in action and, who knows, maybe witness a four-minute mile run in Ireland. The excitable brogue of Billy Morton, the meeting’s famous organiser, came over the public-address system further increasing the tension: “Will you all be coming out now for Billy Morton’s Mile.” Cheering shook the stadium as the competitors assembled for the start, among them Britain’s future European 1,500 metres champion – Brian Hewson­, the silver medallist in the previous year’s Olympic 5,000 metres in Melbourne and world record holder over 3,000 metres – Gordon Pirie, the Olympic 1,500 metres champion – Ron Delaney of Ireland, and John Davies of Belgrave Harriers representing, the A.A.A.

 

Unfortunately, the race was to take place on a spongy grass track, so it was really expecting too much for anyone to beat four minutes but, nevertheless, as the gun was fired the Belgravian and John Cameron, also representing the A.A.A., went to the front and taking turns in the lead, they hauled the field round for the half distance in two minutes flat. Inevitably the pace slowed as the soft surface took its toll but again the crowd roared mightily as the high stepping Delaney, wearing the emerald green singlet of Ireland went to the front and held on to the tape in 4:09.7. Hewson placed 2nd, a shade behind, with Pirie 3rd. Our man was not placed but once again had made his presence felt in a top-class field.

 

John was born on 23rd July, 1931, in Clapham, the second son of Fred and May Flower Davies. Fred was a motor mechanic or chauffeur and May was possibly “in service” as well, so John spent his early years in Eccleston Square Mews, in the heart of Belgravia, where such employment was to be found. He attended St. Peter’s School in Lower Belgrave Street but unlike today’s schoolboys, the pupils were not able to take part in any organised sport at that time due to the war and the constant threat of bombing raids. At 14 years of age he left school and went into the building trade to train as an estimator.

 

Football had begun to play a very important part in John’s life. Caxton Juniors was his first team, where he played as an inside forward, and it was here that his manager saw enough talent in John to warrant a trial for Wimbledon F.C., on whose books he progressed through the youths, reserves and into the first team. In 1953, only two weeks after he played his initial first-team game he signed a contract with Tottenham Hotspurs and played with them as an amateur for a year. In a reserve match v. Fulham F.C. he came up against future England manager Bobby Robson.

Above: John Davies sits second from the right. He made it to Wimbledon F.C.'s first team and a fortnight later signed an amateur contract with Tottenham Hotspur F.C.

Below: Training at the Duke of York's Barracks, King's Road, Chelsea. On the left he is tailed by Gordon Pirie and Chris Chataway, and on the right, spikes on for the session - Brian Hewson and John.

Stampfl's schedule

A transfer from Wimbledon to Kingstonian F.C. followed, but in February 1955 he received a severe injury to his right thigh that was to change his life. The injury necessitated a six-week spell with his leg heavily bandaged, and by April, when the bandaging was removed, the muscles of his leg had begun to wither. To build them up again he began to run regularly at Battersea Park track and there, of course, he soon fell in with members of Belgrave Harriers and in particular the renowned athletics coach Franz Stampfl. John’s natural talent for running was immediately spotted by Stampfl: “If you train you could run fast!” Before long he was hooked on running and became a Belgrave member in May, 1955. On reflection, John said that taking up this sport was the finest move he made in his life.

 

In the Club Championships of 1955 he ran in the 1 mile and clocked 4:27 for 3rd place behind Jack Brown’s winning 4:23. Brian Hallowell, who was to become John’s training partner and rival, placed 2nd. The club records for 880yds and 1 mile at the time stood to R.T. “Bob” Taylor with 1:53.6 and Jack Brown, 4:11.8.

 

John returned to Kingstonian to play a few more matches but finally decided to concentrate on training for running. In October 1955, together with Brian Hallowell, he embarked upon Stampfl’s schedule for milers, training mostly at the track at lunch-time at the Duke of York’s Barracks in Chelsea’s Kings Road. Stampfl, a strong advocate of interval training with the stopwatch, left for Australia at about this time but his ideas on training were all set out in his book Franz Stampfl on Running. John followed Stampfl’s schedules to the letter, after all, his methods had produced 4-minute milers and which middle-distance runner would not be happy to attain such a standard.

 

The schedule was as follows:

 

Mondays – 10 x 440 yds. in 70 secs. during October reducing to 60 secs. by May. Interval between each effort 2 minutes.

Tuesdays – 5 x 880 yds. in 2:20 reducing to 2:00. Interval 10 mins.

Wednesdays – as Monday.

Thursdays – 4 x 1,320 yds. in 3:40 reducing to 3:15. Interval 10 mins.

Fridays – 6 miles steady.

Saturdays – Cross-country.

Sundays: Rest.

 

The intervals were regarded as the most important part of each session. A shorter rest than is necessary to bring recovery to a certain level would result in the work being too severe – a breaking down instead of a building up and, at worst, non-completion of the session. On the other hand, too much recovery and the session failed in its objective to gradually improve.

 

By December things were really going well and John remembers Tom Carter shouting through the railings at the “Dukes,” “You’ll be burnt up by Christmas.” The quarter mile sessions came along a treat and the times floated down to reach an even 60 seconds by February, but the half mile and three-quarter mile sessions were found to be a lot tougher; the latter still being stuck on 3:28 at the beginning of March. As those quarter-mile sessions were regarded as being the “rest days”, between the days of really hard work, they were relaxed for a while to 65 seconds. Immediately the three-quarter-miles dropped to 3:21 and then 3:15 within two weeks.

 

In April 1956 the season opened for John with a couple of wins in inter-club races, first over 1 mile and then over 880 yards in a time of 1:57.8. By May the end of Stampfl’s schedule was achieved and time trials began to take the place of the odd session. During one of these lunch-time trials, tailing Brian Hewson, John returned a comfortable 1:56 for the “half” and a watching A.A.A. official was sufficiently impressed to tell him that he would try to get him into the forthcoming Whitsun British Games as a reserve for the invitation 800 metres.

 

John subsequently received a stereotype letter addressed to “T.P. Davis,” requesting him to attend the White City as reserve. He thought it would be a good idea to go along and stand in the dressing rooms alongside such great athletes as Iharos of Hungary and others of the international elite, and on the appointed day he arrived at the stadium and saw Jack Crump of the British Amateur Athletics Board.

 

“I’m Davies, reserve for the 800 metres.”
“No you’re not”, said Crump, “You’re running!”
“No you’ve got it wrong, I can’t race. I’m only here as a reserve,” stuttered a suddenly aghast John.

“You’re running,” said Crump firmly.

Left: John, second from right, finds himself in a stellar line-up at the Whitsun British Games Invitation 800 metres at White City on 19 May, 1956.

Click on the image for a larger format of the picture.

The White City cinders

And before long, far from rubbing shoulders with the stars in the dressing rooms, the Belgrave Harrier found himself down on the White City cinders lining up for his first proper race over 800 metres with the best two-lap exponents in Europe for company. There was the British Champion Brian Hewson, Belgian World Record holder for the distance Roger Moens, Lajos Szentgáli of Hungary the European Champion, Mugosa of Hungary and three other fine runners.

 

The Belgravian later reported:

 

“Our boy was not intimidated by this array of talent and ran most creditably, challenging the leaders and finishing 5th in 1:52.3 which must be the fastest time ever by a Belgrave man at this distance.”

 

Moens was a clear winner from Hewson and Sventgáli; and just to prove that John’s run was not a flash in the pan, he was back on the White City cinders two days later to record another sub 1:53 in a medley relay.

 

Honours soon followed these remarkable runs. Representing the A.A.A. he raced to a 4:12.6 1 mile win in a match v Cambridge University at Fenner’s grass track and, on June 2nd, in windy conditions, he took the Middlesex mile championship at his first attempt. But Stampfl’s training had not paid dividends for him alone. In the Cheshire Championships club-mate Brian Hallowell took the 1 mile title in 4:10.6 for a new club record.

 

In those days “trophy meetings” were the top inter-club competitions. John won the Heathfield trophy 880 yards in 1:55.9, attacking from the bell in the final after getting boxed in earlier during the heats. In the Brockman Trophy 1 mile, facing internationals Ian Boyd of Herne Hill and Woodford Green’s Derek Johnson, who gained an Olympic silver medal later in the year, John clocked his best time to date – 4:11.8 for 3rd with Hallowell, unable to find his customary finishing burst, 7th.

 

In a whirlwind of competition throughout June and July he reached 5th place in the Southern Championships 1 mile (4:13.8 after a 4:14.8 heat the night before) and ran for the A.A.A. again v Kent. But the highlight was July 13th at the White City – the A.A.A. Championships for 1956. In the 880 yards John qualified for the final with 1:52.8, a Club Record which stood until the early ‘60s. Some excessive buffeting in the final did not allow him to repeat the performance and hopes of a place were dashed. Brian Hallowell was back in good form in the 1 mile, not qualifying for the final but returning 4:11.2.
 

Then came the Club Championships, and just a year after John’s debut he raced off with the 880 yards trophy in 1:56.8 and later duelled with Hallowell in the mile, taking the lead with half a lap to go only to be re-passed as they neared the tape. August saw Davies racing in Karlstadt, Sweden, in an all-star 800 metres. A 52 second first lap pulled him through to 1:52.7 and 7th behind Audun Boysen of Norway, 1:48.3, Dan Waern of Sweden, 1:48.9, with another Norwegian and two more Swedes packed in between 1:50 and 1:52.

 

Finally, in this incredible first full season in athletics John wound up with a victory in the Vancouver Trophy 800 metres, 2nd in the L.C.C. mile and a 1:55.8 half mile relay leg on a cold damp night at Tooting Track as late as October 24th.

 

It all seemed so simple. If all this could be achieved on one winter’s training, all he had to do now was to increase the work and the 4-minute barrier was there to be beaten. So, it was back to the schedule, but this time make it tougher: double everything, 20 x 440 yds and halve the intervals. That was his first mistake; and his second was to run on through a severe bout of ‘flu’ against a doctor’s advice. Training became a struggle, the winter passed and in 1957 although racing in Dublin and Malmo, John never really got near his previous year’s form.

 

The lesson was obvious. He had run worse on twice the training, so in October ‘57 it was back to the original schedule, carrying it through again to May ’58 – and of course it worked! John regained his Middlesex 1 mile title and represented Middlesex County against Oxford University to clock his best ever mile of 4:10.6, equalling Hallowell’s Club Record. Various wins in trophy meetings came his way and he returned a best half-mile for the year of 1:53.4. Three performances which particularly stood out in John’s mind were his wins in the Club Championships. He took the 880 yards ahead of Bob Taylor and Malcolm Robinson, the mile from Pat Newell and Ranjit Bhatia, and the three miles, in 14:25, after sitting in on Newell for nearly the full distance.

1961 Davies, John, London-Brighton Relay

Racing continued on the track for some years but that sparkling form of 1956 and 1958 was never really regained. He began to race more on the road, turning out in Belgrave road relay teams, including the classic London to Brighton, well into the ’60s.

 

Whilst training at Tooting track in 1959 John met Pam Evans of Selsonia Ladies A.C. Pam trained with Gordon Pirie’s crowd and was as hard a trainer as was John. They got on well, and married in 1960, but setting up home together was not going to cramp their athletics. Although he was not racing so much John was often encouraged by Pam to get out for a run and together they would go around the “bridges” and as far as 18 miles on occasions. More often than not Pam was the first one to climb the 62 steps to their flat in Covent Garden at the end of a run. She was reaching the height of her own athletic career and her tremendous record in the National Cross-Country Championships must rate her as one of the best Women distance runners ever: 3rd in 1963, 2nd in 1964, then four successive wins in 1965, 1966, 1967 and 1968, followed by 2nd in 1969.

Above: Bringing the Bels. home to 5th place in the 'National' London to Brighton Relay, April 1961. Taking over in 7th place, John ran third fastest time on the final stage into Brighton, overtaking Blackpool and Bristol in the last half mile. 

Further challenges

Looking for a challenge in another direction John began studying in earnest. Having left school at 14 he started tackling ‘O’ levels at the age of 30 and with that same concentration that was previously reserved for athletic training it was not long before he gained success with his studies.

 

All this time John’s regular haunt was still the “Dukes,” and around 1970 he fell in with George Betts, one of the regular “Duke’s Joggers”, who encouraged him to have a go at the Finchley ‘20’. So, in 1973 with a winter of long steady running behind him, including a weekly Saturday run of 20 miles, John took on his first long race, completing the course in 2:07:59. Soon he felt the urge to take on the premier road race – the marathon. The long training runs were continued – in fact his average weekly mileage for the entire year was 44 – and in October ’73, at the age of 42, he lined up for the Harlow Marathon. That race will long be remembered as it was the day that Ian Thompson also made his marathon debut. Thompson of Luton United A.C. had never run further than 10 miles and was 90th ranked 5,000 metre runner in the country, yet he made huge headlines by racing to the world’s fastest ever marathon debut with 2:12:40. John placed 142nd in 2:55:36 and later said: “You can run all your life but it’s not until you’ve tackled a marathon that you realise you know nothing about running.” It was the start of yet another challenge and in a few years, when well into veteran status he had reduced his time to 2:47.35.

 

In later years John admitted to getting a lot more pleasure out of his long-distance running than he ever did on the track and recalled the terrible nerves that used to afflict him: the pain in the knee that would materialise on learning that Pirie would be running; having to turn away from Iffley Road track on hearing the self-assured voice of Derek Johnson. He looked back on this problem as having been one of his shortcomings, the belief that famous sportsmen were of a different breed and not just ordinary men. “Almost anyone can get to the top,” said John, in maturity, “It’s a matter of setting one’s mind to it and really concentrating on it.

 

John ran on … and on … for pure pleasure, particularly enjoying those days when everything felt just right. Sadly, in 1987, type 1 diabetes was diagnosed. He continued running – even marathons – but health problems continued to plague him and as his mobility was reduced his activity was curtailed and finally he became housebound – an almost unbearable experience for him. Having left an indelible mark on Belgrave Harriers, John finally passed away on 9 November 2011.

References:

1939 England and Wales Register. Kew, Surrey, England: The National Archives of the UK (TNA). 

England & Wales Civil Registration Marriage Index 1916-2005. Kew, Surrey, England: (TNA).

ARM interview with John Davies, 1976.

ARM interview with Max Davies, 2011.

The Belgravian, 1955-2009.

Athletics Weekly. 1956-1958.

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