Ray Middleton, 1936-2023
Sadly, on 8 January 2023, we had to say farewell to one of the giants of Belgrave Harriers. Raymond Christopher Middleton, who very recently had succumbed to an infection, died of respiratory failure at the age of 86. For over 69 of those years, he was a Belgravian and at the time of his passing was our longest serving member. For two decades he represented the club at the highest level in just about every walking team at all distances. In 1968 he was made a Life Member and he was President of the Club for 1978-1979. After his racing days he served on the Southern RWA Committee and helped to officiate at those National Championships that he had loved as a racer. Ray had retired to Norfolk in his latter years. He will go down as one of the all-time greats of Race Walking.
At a time when the sport was highly competitive, Belgrave Race Walking teams of the 1960s, under the direction of Jack Goswell, were usually a close match for most other squads in the country. Indeed, as individuals, several Belgravians applying themselves to this branch of foot-racing earned international vests and were among the very best in Europe.
Among these sportsmen the powerful figure of Ray Middleton stood as proud as any, and at 190cm tall (6 feet 2½ inches) and weighing 87 kg (192 lbs) he was an imposing figure on the start line of any walking race that he graced. Eighteen times he represented Great Britain & Northern Ireland, or England. He competed in the ’64 Olympic Games in Tokyo in the 50 kms event, twice placed 5th in his three forays over the same distance in the European Championships and took the silver medal in the 20 miles event at the 1966 British Empire & Commonwealth Games in Kingston, Jamaica.
The usually biennial World Athletics Race Walking Team Championship, formerly known as the Lugano Cup, saw Ray competing with distinction in the first six editions of the competition, with an individual 2nd place over 50 km in ’63. Great Britain & Northern Ireland were trophy winners in ’61 and ’63. Twice Ray was National Champion over 50 kms and he medalled in individual national events no less than 15 times. As for national team medals – there were 24 of them, 11 of them gold. And there were five World Best times set by Ray in 1974 over 40 and 50 miles, 6, 7 and 8 hours.
Ray is on his way to five World Best marks in the Accolade 8 hour Race at New River Stadium in 1974.
Ray was born in north London on 9th August 1936, the son of Christopher J. Middleton, a railway worker, and Florence Middleton, née Crick. Sport was important as a schoolboy and he tried his hand at high jump and half-miling, but it was when he was 15 years old and he entered a 1-mile race walk for novices that he found an activity that he really enjoyed. Young Ray placed third of the three competitors but knew that he had found his niche. Two years later, on 11th May 1953, he joined the Bels.
Almost immediately the Club’s gazette, The Belgravian, referred to our man as, “that improving youngster Ray Middleton,” when he gained third place in the handicap held in conjunction with the Opening 5 miles race. And then a couple of weeks later he was among the handicap prizes again as he tackled his first Belgrave Open 7 miles; he was a scorer in the Belgrave ‘B’ team and they placed second to Surrey Walking Club. 1953 was rounded off with 17-year-old Ray placing 5th in a field of 25 in the Club’s Junior 7 miles Championship, coming home inside the hour.
Of course, there was the little matter of National Service to be dealt with, but nothing was going to put Ray off his stride. Managing to get home on leave in October ’56 when he was serving with the Royal Air Force in Ireland, 6th place was fought for in the RWA Junior Championship over 5 miles; and in November, in his next attempt at the Belgrave Open 7 he was up to 29th of the 176 walkers who started; he was the outright winner of the handicap.
Beliefs forged at this time, which stayed with Ray throughout his career, and which were offered as advice to beginners in his more mature years, were: “Success is not going to be instantaneous.” “Never attempt any distance race until you are old enough”. “Don’t worry about going through the field, only training can enable you to do that.”
By 1959 Ray was well on his way, winning his first major race, the Southern RWA 10 miles for the “Garnet Cup” and come 1961 he was “old enough,” winning place medals in the RWA’s 20 miles and 50 kms events. International colours were awarded that year when he represented Great Britain over 50 kms in the first ever Lugano Cup competition.
In 1963, at his third attempt at the National 50 kms, Ray was unbeatable, turning in one of the best performances of his career at the Baddesley Colliery venue in Warwickshire to clock a truly world class time and beat the Olympic Gold Medallist Don Thompson by five full minutes. Metropolitan Walking Club’s Thompson had been the Champion on the previous seven occasions.
For the next dozen years Ray was in his pomp. He was sometimes described as, “the hard man of race walking,” and indeed he was a fierce competitor. Carl Lawton remembers the occasion on a London to Brighton Walk:
“Ray was leading the race near Crawley, with me lying second. He took a wrong turning, leaving me in the lead. It didn’t last long because he came scrambling down an embankment to get back on the right road, saw me ahead and, galvanised, caught and passed me, not to be seen by me again until the finish.”
Tough opponent though he was, Ray had an easy way with people, and was always ready to congratulate someone setting a good performance, whether they be an international or a beginner.
As his career progressed Ray began to turn his attention to some of the classic long-distance walks such as the Hastings to Brighton and the London to Brighton; and then there was that amazing day in 1974 at White Hart Lane (now New River, Haringey): the International Accolade 8 Hour event. Ray led through 10 km in 53:04 but relinquished the lead shortly afterwards to Brighton & Hove’s John Lees who led at 20 miles with 2:50:59 to 2:53:02. Then at 26 miles it was Middleton back in the lead and from thereon he was on his own. After 50 kms in 4:34:04 the record book was at his mercy and World Bests were set at 40 miles in 5:56:29, 64.905 kms in 6 hours, 75.187 kms in 7 hours, 50 miles in 7:31:06, and 85.618 kms in 8 hours.
As a postal worker at Golders Green sub-district Office, Ray competed in the famous European Postal Walking Championship where postmen from all over Europe took part, originally racing in Postmen’s uniforms and each carrying a mail bag. Ray won the race in 1970 and received much coverage in The Daily Mirror – and he even appeared on the BBC’s Blue Peter programme for children.
The Surrey County Championship 10 miles Walk at Mitcham on 24 February 1962. Ray is away and heading for victory in 77:26.
In 1959 Ray married Jean, just as much of a character as Ray himself and probably, in walking circles, as well known. Many a race organiser had cause to thank Jean for her help in ticket and programme selling. The trio of Jean and their children Deborah and Lesley were Ray’s (and Belgrave’s) most ardent supporters. Jean passed away some years ago but condolences from us all go to Deborah, Lesley and their families.
Above: Ray admires the Tommy Green Cup after receiving the award from President and Race Walking Team Manager Jack Goswell. He won the trophy for the year's most meritorious performance by a Club member: His performance in the Lugano Cup international. In the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo he finished 13th in the 50 kms Walk but was only fractionally outside the previous Olympic record.
Left: Representing Surrey, Ray will take the bronze medal in the Inter-Counties Champs. & British Games 7 miles Walk at White City, 29 May 1967.
• 1961 Aug 12, IAAF World Race Walking Team Championship (Lugano Cup) preliminary round, Wimbledon, 50 kms 3rd 4:41:03.2.
• 1961 Oct 14, IAAF World Race Walking Team Championship (Lugano Cup), Lugano, Switzerland, 50 kms 4th 4:39:24.
• 1962 Sep 14, 7th European Championships, Belgrade, Yugoslavia, 50 kms dq.
• 1963 Sep 15, IAAF World Race Walking Team Championship (Lugano Cup) preliminary round, Challes-les-Eaux, France, 50 kms 1st 4:27:06.0.
• 1963 Oct 12, IAAF World Race Walking Team Championship (Lugano Cup), Varese, Italy, 50 kms 2nd 4:17:15.
• 1964 Oct 18, XVIII Olympic Games, Tokyo, Japan, 50 kms 13th 4:25:49.2.
• 1965 Oct 10, IAAF World Race Walking Team Championship (Lugano Cup), Pescara, Italy, 50 kms 7th 4:19:14.8.
• 1966 Aug 6, VIII British Empire & Commonwealth Games, Kingston, Jamaica, 20 miles 2nd 2:45.19.
• 1966 Sep 3, 8th European Championships, Budapest, Hungary, 50 kms 5th 4:23.01.
• 1967 Oct 15, IAAF World Race Walking Team Championship (Lugano Cup), Bad Saarow, German Democratic Republic, 50 kms 8th 4:29.23.0.
• 1968 Jun 1, Federal Republic of Germany v Great Britain & N. Ireland v Czechoslovakia, Kleinaspach, Federal Republic of Germany, 35 kms 2nd 2:55:23.
• 1969 May 3, Great Britain & N. Ireland v Federal Republic of Germany, Bexley, 35 kms, 2nd 3:03:51.
• 1969 Sep 18, 9th European Championships, Athens, Greece, 50 kms 5th 4:27:00.
• 1970 Oct 11, IAAF World Race Walking Team Championship (Lugano Cup), Eschborn, Federal Republic of Germany, 50 kms 11th 4:19.57.2.
• 1971 Sep 25, Great Britain & N. Ireland v Federal Republic of Germany, Hillingdon, 35 kms 7th 2:58.44.
• 1972 May 27, Federal Republic of Germany v Great Britain & N. Ireland, Bremen, Federal Republic of Germany, 50 kms 5th 4:15.51.4.
• 1973 Sep 9, IAAF World Race Walking Team Championship (Lugano Cup) Qualifying Competition, Borås, Sweden, 50 kms 7th 4:30:12.0.
• 1973 Oct 13, IAAF World Race Walking Team Championship (Lugano Cup) Final, Rancate, Switzerland, 50 kms 19th 4:22:25.0.
Performances in National or Inter-Counties (CAU) Championships
• RWA 10 miles. 1961 5th 78:15; 1962 6th 79:18.
• RWA 20 kms. 1967 3rd 1:39:27; 1968 6th 1:34:06.
• RWA 20 miles. 1961 3rd 2:51:12; 1962 5th 2:47:05; 1963 3rd 2:44:21; 1964 3rd 2:42:06; 1965 2nd 2:44:46; 1966 2nd 2:40:08; 1967 5th 2:45:52; 1969 5th 2:51:40; 1970 6th 2:43:15; 1972 4th 2:40:53; 1974 6th 2:49:41.
• RWA 50 kms. 1961 2nd 4:29:47; 1962 2nd 4:30:59; 1963 1st 4:16:43.2; 1964 2nd 4:21:14; 1965 1st 4:17:23; 1966 2nd 4:32:18; 1967 2nd 4:33:28; 1968 4th 4:31:11; 1969 4th 4:25:46; 1970 2nd 4:21:22; 1971 5th 4:26:46; 1972 4th 4:25:52; 1973 4th 4:23:47.
• AAA track 2 miles. 1961 4th 14:22.4; 1962 5th 14:47.4; 1963 4th 14:42.8.
• AAA track 7 miles. 1961 4th 54:03.2; 1962 3rd 53:50.4; 1963 5th 54:05.0.
• CAU track 2 miles. 1961 3rd 14:32.0.
• CAU track 7 miles. 1962 4th 54:55.0; 1967 3rd 53:33.0.
Wins in the Classic Race Walks
• Belgrave Open 7 miles 1964 52:44.
• Birmingham Outer Circle 25 miles 1965 3:28:59; 1970 3:39:59.
• Bradford Open 50 kms 1965 4:43:17; 1966 4:38:59; 1967 4:40:30.
• Hastings to Brighton 38 miles 1964 5:39:29; 1970 5:41:57; 1974 5:36:42; 1975 5:52:04.
• Highgate Harriers Open 7 miles 1965 53:16.
• Leicester Mercury 20 miles 1964 2:51:41.
• London to Brighton Open 1974 8:17:50; 1975 8:10:27.
Personal best times
• 3000 metres 13:25.0 (1969).
• 2 miles 14:05.0 (1968).
• 10000 metres 46:59.0 (1969).
• 7 miles 52:02.0 (1968).
• 20 kms 1:34:06 (1968); 1:32:57 short (1970).
• 30 kms 2:26:46 (1969).
• 50 kms 4:15:51.4 (1972).
Sources and further information:
John Powell and Peter Matthews, Walks. A Statistical Survey of Men’s and Women’s Race Walking, Historical Series Booklet No, 16 (National Union of Track Statisticians 2014).
Tim Erikson, Victorian Race Walking Club.
John Keown, the writings of, in The Belgravian 1978.
Peter Matthews, Editor, Athletics International & International Athletics Annual.
Tony Taylor & Ron Wallwork, Lancashire Walking Club.
The Belgravian, 1953 to 1976.
Athletics Weekly, October 12, 1974.
The Daily Mirror, September 16, 1970.
1939 England and Wales Register, The National Archives. (Series RG101), Kew, London, England.