A column by Michael Beisty
I started running on 20 December 1970, six days prior to my 12th birthday. On the same day, my mother started jogging to lose weight. I joined Glenhuntly Athletics Club, my father’s club. At that time Trevor Vincent (club captain) was on a recruitment drive. Although Glenhuntly was one of the pre-eminent Melbourne clubs it had a lack of distance runners under the age of 15.
So, I had joined a club. Even at the tender age of 12, I was struck by the formality of it all. I was given a club uniform, received a cloth registration number and I was expected to race in special shoes, spikes, at a thing called interclub. I wasn’t a baby of Little Athletics so I had no previous exposure to anything like this. One of my first races was an under 15 one mile at an evening meet at Mentone’s Dolamore cinders track, where Ron Clarke set his 10 miles world record. I finished second last. There were officials everywhere. I remember thinking this is serious stuff, maybe I’m not cut out for it.
Though I had seen runners like Wal Sheppard competing hard in the lower grades of Melbourne interclub at Olympic Park, my first real exposure to the mature competitive runner was July 1971. I snuck into the first two miles of a VAAA Senior 6 mile road event at Flemington and “raced” amongst a group of experienced campaigners, primarily back of the pack mature age club runners. Their camaraderie was palpable, clearly enjoying the tussle of a race within a race.
During the late 1960s, in Australia, invitation track mile events had started to pop up for the over 40s (men only) at open and international meetings. In 1969 Dave Power had turned 40 and competed in the first World Veterans 25 kilometre Road Championship in Germany. Reportedly, the first bona fide fun run may have been held in Canberra from Lake Burley Griffith on 1 August 1971, 35 days prior to the inaugural City to Surf. It was described as a four mile jog, organised by Jack Pennington, a staunch supporter of Veterans athletics and distance running, and the ACT National Fitness Office.
Whilst Melbourne distance running was in a rebuilding phase post Ron Clarke’s retirement, the standard and depth of racing was very high in Australian terms. After two summers’ and a winter season with Glenhuntly my family moved to Newcastle NSW in September 1972. Arriving in NSW was a culture shock. Evidenced by this comical exchange that appeared in the Victorian Marathon Club (VMC) newsletter, quoted complete with typos, my father was dismayed by the poor fields and low standard of competition:
VMC Newsletter Summer/December 1972 Vol 4 No 3: LETTER FROM N.SqW , Dear Fred, Just a word to let you know my new address., I would wish to receive my VMC Newsletter if possible and renew membership when necessary,, Today, I realised what an athletic wilderness even Sydney isi The turnout for a State Road Relay was a disgrace,. If this was the best support the athletes could offer, a State event, NSW should pack up its marbles and go home – and you can quote me. Regards to all in VMC, JIM BEISTY-, (Dear Jim, I ’ve quoted you, but the question remains – where to? Edc)
VMC Newsletter Autumn/March 1973 Vol 4 No 4: Somebody whose name is Jim Beisty wrote to you and remarked about the athletic wilderness S y d n e y is. Depends on how you look at it. Tell this guy to come to Sydney Town Hall at 9am on Sunday, August 12 in road shoes, etc, and have a run with the 2000 runners in the ‘City to Surf ‘. Incidentally How about putting this date on the VAAA and VMC calender. Yours etc, Frank McCaffery. Happy and successful New Year in ’73.
Dear Frank, I could, because no bastard sent in those results to the VMC In time for December publication or any other time. Are we to assume that the ‘City to Surf’ is an official NSW AAA fixture with 2000 registered athletes competing? Can we count on you to let us have regular details from NSW for future issues of the newsletter? Looking forward to your next letter Yours sincerely, Editor.
My father was an unknown in NSW circles, and Frank McCaffrey and Fred Lester were major figures in the NSW and Victorian distance running scenes, respectively. Despite Frank’s comments, as late as 1978 he did lament the poor standard of distance running in NSW, expressing concern about apathetic attitudes and a “lack of dynamic and imaginative leadership” from NSW’s HQ. In this commentary which appeared in his personal profile in Brian Lenton’s Distance Running in Australia he provided some further insight as follows: “The ironic thing about this is that more and more people are running in the State but not in AAA events. ‘Fun Runs’ are the thing.” Needless to say, soon after my father’s correspondence to the VMC, Frank sought him out and they made amends.
Whilst Frank and Fred didn’t suffer fools, they did much to encourage distance running for all ages. Frank had a soft spot for Veterans running, and community health and wellbeing, becoming the doyen of fun runs and editor at large of the Fun Runner magazine (Frank was no newcomer to the magazine industry, having published the Australian Harrier, a grass roots mag of the mid 1960s centred on Australian distance running). This was part of Frank’s long association with Australian track and field personality and former Trinidadian Olympic sprinter Mike Agostini. Frank was an active participant in the early veterans movement, having competed well in the 1968 World Best Marathon for men over 40 in Baarn Holland. He finished 11th from 184 starters in a “slow time” of 2:51. Broken into ten year age categories, it was one of the first international races of its kind.
Fred was heavily focused on the improvement of Australian distance running standards in open competition and Australia’s performance on a world stage. Through the auspices of the VMC he also gave voice to the cause of women’s distance runners. Fred’s profile in Distance Running in Australia is enlightening. He fully appreciated the attention the world wide running boom and fun runs brought to distance running, and the societal benefits of mass participation. However, he was concerned that commercial interests of the corporate sector not hinder the advancement of high quality distance running. In other words, sponsorship should take a back seat to the actual performance of the athletes.
Early Fun Run Era (1971 to 1979)
In 1972 the Newcastle distance running scene was a real backwater, with not much going on. There was no-one in my age group so I nearly always competed in senior competition. There weren’t many seniors, never mind kids, but this taught me to compete hard. The Newcastle Winter club scene was only for the dour, with very small fields in cross country and road events. There were a couple of lifelong club runners over the age of 40 competing but the numbers were insignificant, and certainly no women of this age. There were separate associations for men and women. There was no avenue for women to compete in longer distance running events on a similar footing to their male counterparts. NSW AAA events were thin in quality and numbers compared to VAAA events. In hindsight you couldn’t really blame the NSW club athlete for gravitating to fun runs.
Given what was on offer, my teens were a mix of fun running, high school competitions and club athletics (track, road & cross country). I competed in many over-distance races at a young teens age and was naturally attracted to them. The fun running boom provided an opportunity for longer races for the young, as race organisation was pretty basic with no events for kids, but some limited age and other categories. So my family won plenty of father & son, mother & son, husband & wife categories during these years. Fun runs were commonplace, typically at the 8 to 10km distance, and this was a good stomping ground for developing endurance at a young age.
In the early 1970s you were either a runner or a jogger and the recreational runner did not exist (at least as we know it now). Women’s distance running and racing was unusual within Australian society, and there were no mixed races. The personal training industry did not exist. Masters running, known as Veterans, was in its infancy. Team sporting prowess and skills development were more popular with the general public. If you were seen out running you were an oddball and the general community let you know it. For instance, shortly after moving to Newcastle, I clearly recall going for an easy five mile run with my father at night, having to dodge a half full can of beer from a moving car, accompanied by the classic Australian refrain of “have a go ya mug”. Its true!
Fun runs were more of a novelty. They were community based. It was about attracting the masses and supporting a charity and not about catering for the elite. Courses were not always accurate, just as likely to be over-distance than short. Many of the early race organisers weren’t from a running background so they didn’t really care about accurate timing. You could even describe some as fly by nighters. In some of the smaller fun runs there was less consideration of safety and limited facility for road closures, and some reported near misses. It was typical for participants with a general sporting background like football or cricket, or with no running background whatsoever, to turn up and just have a go. It wasn’t that unusual for someone to collapse or be heat affected. Generally, St Johns Ambulance reps were kept busy. Often low key, these early fun runs did provide an avenue for the mature person and women to participate and test themselves, and encouragement for some, like my mother, to transition to competitive distance running. Though women’s participation was minimal.
Coca Cola was one of the first corporations to become actively involved as a major sponsor of fun runs in NSW, highly visible in regional fun runs like Wollongong and Newcastle. Invariably, local newspapers and television provided sponsorship support and media coverage. Similar to the American experience, running shops, owned, managed and staffed by high profile runners catered to a rapidly expanding market, delivering a wider range of product – shoes, singlets, you name it. I fondly remember the Talays singlets of this era, light as a feather.
Late in the decade major regional centres within NSW like Dubbo and Newcastle joined the ACT in establishing their own Veterans Athletic Clubs and competition. The drive and energy of Jack Pennington was paramount in promoting athletics for the mature person. Jack was responsible for the publication and distribution of the Veteran Athlete from 1971 to 1979, a magazine that kept the veteran network informed and connected, both within Australia and overseas.
Top elite veterans like Albie Thomas and Dave Power were seen out and about in NSW regional areas participating in fun runs and also competing in Veterans Championships at very high performance levels. This did much to promote participation across both disciplines. I have clear recollections of Albie finishing 2nd in the six mile Toukley to Budgewoi Fun Run of 1976 on the Central Coast, not far behind a young Brian Morgan. Seeing such icons of the sport close up and beating some of the younger set was an inspiration to many.
City to Surf
NSW was the heart and soul of the early fun run movement, its flagship the The Sun City to Surf. Its’ creation was inspired by the 12 km San Francisco Bay to Breakers, an historic race in its own right having started in 1912. The Breakers was to become Sydney’s sister event, the winner of each event earning a trip to the other. The first running of the City to Surf in 1971 had 2025 entrants and 1516 finishers. Won by Beth Stanford, women’s participation was low with 77 entrants. It took until 2006 for women’s registrations to outnumber men, with women now making up 50% of finishers each year. From 1976 the distance was changed from 15.1 km to 14 km (measured 13.907 in 2016). Eventually NSW’s City to Surf concept was legitimised across Australia, all state capital cities holding like events.
From its inception until 1977 Tom Millard was an institution as the oldest man to finish, aged 68 to 74 (Tom and his wife, Eunice Harris, were regular fixtures at many fun runs throughout NSW). His participation did much to promote running for the mature person. Since that time there have been instances of men and woman over the age of 80 finishing the City to Surf, though numbers have remained very small. In the 1986 publication City to Surf Souvenir The Official History the oldest woman finisher does not rate a mention until the 1976 event. Her name was Linda Hopkins and she also went on to win this category on many other occasions. These “winners” sometimes had long streaks just by turning up each year. However, the profile they attracted in the broader community should not be under-estimated. To this day participation of mature runners has remained at extremely low levels for the over 60s. In very rough terms the M40s and W40s sit at 9% of total finishers, halving for each ten year category thereafter. However, the finishing lists are strewn with well-known runners, at different stages of their careers, from boy and girl categories right through to Veterans.
John Farrington was dominant in NSW. “Farro” was a three time winner of the City to Surf in 1972-74, 2nd in 1971 to Kenny Moore, and 3rd in 1975 behind Dennis Nee’s win. New Zealand internationals such as Jeff Julian, Terry Manners (twice), and Kevin Ryan all placed in the top 3 during this period along with invited Americans like Garry Tuttle and Bill Clark. Moore had won the Bay to Breakers six consecutive years, 1968 to 1973, and was in his prime. The early women’s winners were dominated by accomplished NSW runners such as Beth Stanford (twice), Tess Bell, Angie Cook (twice), Georgina Moor and Elizabeth Hassall (nee Richards, twice) before an overseas influx commenced with wins by the American Laurie Binder in 1979 and 1980.
After his 1971 victory, Moore assessed the City to Surf as tougher than the San Francisco event and the hills as “enervating”, a novel description. However, external to NSW the attitude seemed to be the City to Surf was all well and good ‘but it wasn’t club running, wasn’t serious competition, bit Mickey Mouse, eh? ‘ The Victorians loved pointing that out, especially in the very early days, before fun running really took off. They eventually attacked the race in the late 1970s with consecutive wins by Tim O’Shaughnessy (1976 and 1980), Rob de Castella (1977 and 1981), Chris Wardlaw (1978), Bill Scott (1979), and Steve Austin (1982), before Andrew Lloyd’s ascendancy from 1983. Though I should acknowledge that many of the top NSW runners had great races and were close to the Victorian winners.
I have to admit that in my younger days I was fairly ambivalent towards the City to Surf and did not think it worth a three-hour road trip down the Old Pacific Highway from Newcastle to Sydney and all the inconvenience this entails. In hindsight I was verging on snobbery, a young man’s arrogance, influenced by childhood memories of the hotbed of the Melbourne distance running scene. The carnival atmosphere, the big crowds and the funny suits were a turn off. It wasn’t until 1985 that I ran the City to Surf, then again in 1987, past my prime and just “training through”. Even running from near the front didn’t assuage my disdain, the illegal “entrants” cutting in from the side streets creating mayhem. My attitude was somewhat hypocritical, given that many of my best races of the 1980s were fun runs. I returned as an M50 in 2011 and 2012 in much bigger fields than my earlier City to Surfs, with a greater appreciation of the value it adds to the running experience and connectivity to community.
Fun Runner and the Late 1970s
Mike Agostini was publisher and editor of Fun Runner and also editor of Australasian Athletics. The latter was prominent in the 1970s and had various earlier iterations that incorporated orienteering, track and field, distance running and The Veteran Athlete. The combined effect of all of these publications was a broad coverage of distance running for all ages, men and women, throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s. Fun Runner continued during the 1980s until well after Australian Runner came on the scene with Terry O’Halloran as editor/publisher.
The advent of the Fun Runner magazine in 1979 followed the Victorian based Life Be In It health promotion, a Victorian initiative in 1975 that went national in 1977. This was the same year that James Fixx’s Complete Book of Running was published, a world wide best seller. The central character to Life Be In It was Norm, a cartoon anti-hero. Life Be In It gave impetus to higher levels of participation in healthy exercise for families, women and the mature person. The fun run was the perfect outlet for such pent up demand, kick starting an even greater boom in exercise and running more generally in Australia. Family participation became commonplace with parents and teen children encouraged by the various race categories on offer in fun runs. All states and capital cities had their well-known families of runners, often including a middle aged or mature parent competing to high standards. Fun Runner was a mag for the people, it had a genuine community feel, and was proactive in the profiling of families, Veterans and women runners. You only have to scan the letters to the editor section of past editions to appreciate the vast cross section of its readership – from Jo Blow to the elite, AAA officials and coaches, young and mature – all with something to say to the ultimate benefit of the running community.
In parallel to the boom in fun runs, during the 1970s the Australian Veterans movement had progressed quickly from a loose competitive arrangement involving only men to a more formal organisation that included women and significant State and Australian Championship programs. The Australian Veterans Track and Field Championships of 1974 transitioned from ten to five year age categories, though not for those over 60. The 1978 Australian Veterans Championships held at Olympic Park, Melbourne, saw the first significant participation of women veteran athletes with 32 competitors across all events (only 5 women had been permitted to compete in the 1976 and 1977 Nationals in 3 and 5 events respectively). Whilst the number of registered veteran athletes in Australia had almost tripled by 1980 from 560 to 1485, these numbers were small on a population level.
Though women’s participation gained some limited traction in the Veterans movement it took a while longer for open women’s distance running to achieve one of its goals of mixed racing within the established Athletics Associations. A large part of this momentum can be attributed to Dot Browne, a well performed Victorian distance runner. Dot was a vocal advocate in Australian athletic circles for women’s participation in open and Veterans distance running competition. Combined with the advocacy of Peggy Smith, an active member of the VMC, more substantial gains were achieved for the women’s long distance running fraternity, including more active participation in marathons.
Of interest, in the midst of some political gamesmanship associated with amalgamation of the AAA of NSW and the NSW Women’s AAA, and out of frustration with the lack of opportunity for women distance runners I know that some local Newcastle women, including my mother, registered with the Men’s association and commenced racing in their Winter program. I understand they were welcomed with open arms and that other like-minded women may have adopted the same approach within NSW, until amalgamation was formalised on 1 April 1982. These amalgamations were required of all State associations by the Australian Athletics Union.
The introduction of the Avon women’s only series of races in 1979, with the marathon as its centrepiece, was a watershed moment for Australian women’s road running. This series jettisoned Australian women’s distance running into the broader Australian consciousness. It was held for 3 consecutive years 1979 to 1981. Transplanted from Germany and the United States, with the involvement of Kathryn Switzer these races generated a level of excitement for women’s running. The celebrity of Switzer, who was also the Manager of Special Promotions for Avon, brought the necessary media attention, trumpeting the women’s cause loud and clear.
The first event was held at Manly on the 8th July 1979 and won by Theresa ‘Tess’ Bell in 2:55:37 from Sue Hill and Mary Murison. In 1975 Tess had been the first Australian woman to officially break 3 hours. Twenty experienced road runners, Veterans and open competitors finished the event. These events highlighted the inequities in treatment of women and were a catalyst for change. Fun Runner and the VMC were at the forefront of supporting the Avon series by advertising the events and reporting the results. Ultimately, as a result of action by all State Associations the first women’s Australian Marathon Championship was held at Adelaide in 1980 as part of a mixed race arrangement.
Into the 1980s
Whilst fun runs ballooned in NSW, Victoria was slower to follow. Despite the misgivings of some critics, Fun Runs had definitely assisted in lifting the standard in NSW through the 1970s. A group of stalwart performers and developing NSW elites were able to compete more regularly against each other – Nee, McDonald, Morgan, Poulton and Andrews, with a slightly younger set of Lloyd, Boltz, Whitty, Forbes, Morley and Harrison stepping it up into the 80s, to name but a few. Occasionally there was a foray into NSW by some of the top dogs from Victoria, and even overseas, such as Deek beating Julian Goater (1981 English National Cross Country Champion) and Bill Scott in a hard fought battle in the Central Coast’s Gosford to Terrigal 11km Fun Run of 1978.
As the years went by attitudes softened and fun runs started to appear everywhere across all of Australia. A fun run circuit developed, supported by a fun run calendar published in every edition of Fun Runner, naturally. In the days of pre-internet this was key. Inevitably, dates clashed between fun runs and State AAA organised events and sometimes even Championship events. But all in all there was a grudging co-existence between the fun run circuit and the established running associations.
As you would expect, it wasn’t unusual for club runners to use fun runs as sharpeners for major AAA events, some being fiercely competitive. By the 1980s it certainly was no picnic to win a fun run. I can remember running the 12.7km Cessnock City to Cellars in 1983 and 1985, a relatively remote location, and lo and behold who turned up but John Andrews and Rod Higgins, current and future Australian representatives, respectively? They won. John was on fire recording 38:54 on this undulating course, against Lloyd’s race record of 40:57 from 1981. Rod ran much slower but was only 17. The unannounced presence of such illustrious runners became commonplace in fun runs and added an extra layer of excitement for local spectators and participants alike.
By the early 1980s, the fun run circuit was well established as a community based health and well being initiative and a different racing option for the club runner and elites. Of interest my training diaries show that I competed in up to four fun runs a year in the 1970s, but this increased to 7 – 11 per year in the mid 1980s. The well-organised events of the 1970s survived to become annual events in the 1980s and were well patronised. Of course, new fun runs continued to pop up in the 1980s as greater levels of professional sponsorship, prize money and trips became available. But in some quarters lingering doubts remained about whether the fun run scene assisted to raise the standards of distance running performance or detracted from the discipline needed to reach top international level.
The rise of Andrew Lloyd epitomised the conflict between Fun Runs and AAA sanctioned events. Depending on your point of view, Lloydy’s ‘Fun Run King’ label was a compliment or decried the seemingly pot hunting motives of a new breed of runner who didn’t necessarily care about the traditional running scene. In some quarters it was thought that ‘Lloyd could do better than that’, a backhanded criticism of the fun run set. But prize money helped to pay the bills. This was a difficult situation described with eloquence in Dick Telford’s Running: through the looking glass. However, such criticism only served to make Lloyd’s redemption at Auckland all the more sweet. As an aside, it is worth highlighting that Dick, who was a top Veteran competitor and coached at the Australian Institute of Sport, dedicated a whole chapter (25 pages) to Training for Fun Runs, maybe a sign that fun runs do have a rightful place in the Australian distance running establishment?
The Veterans movement did affect the organization of fun runs, resulting in age categories for fun run events. Initially, the categories tended to be ten years. I’m guessing this was a financial budget constraint, because there is no logical reason to expect that a 59 year old can compete on equal terms with a 50 year old. Even today some major running festivals persist with ten year categories. The City to Surf actually changed from five year to ten year categories in 2010. In practical terms, for the mature runner, fun runs provided an opportunity to compete with a larger group of people of all ages, with the potential to move from the back of the pack to the middle and towards the front, and even win the occasional smaller event from time to time. They provided an additional incentive for those who wanted to compete outside of the more structured AAA and Veterans events, or for those wanting to bide their time before transitioning to competitive distance running.
Where are we now?
Prior to fun runs it was different. The distance running club scene was one of exclusion, particularly to the mature person and women, where it seemed to be all about the competition and nothing else. You compared yourself to the best, and only the best, because what else was there, if you are serious? However, the trailblazing fun runners of the 1970s and 80s have provided a legacy that can’t be reversed. The fun run movement evolved to an era of the recreational runner where people truly do just run for fun in park runs and aptly named festivals, where you don’t have to be a member of a club – and I think that Australia is all the better for it.
The old debates about whether you are a serious runner are less relevant. Running is much more extensive, even organic, grounded in community by a range of activities like park runs, AAA club activities, Masters competition, triathlons, ultras, trail running, orienteering and running festivals. General fitness and mindfulness has become a lifestyle value for many. International opportunities are more prevalent in a much more connected world. Women’s participation in distance running is significant and often greater than males. Riding on a wave of community health and well being, fun runs opened up many of these relationships within Australia – a platform that brought greater acceptance for running, with less strings attached, and provided a bridge from jogger to competitive athlete for people of all ages.
In today’s world solid pathways exist for the serious distance runner to compete at the pointy end, but there are many more options that people are choosing on a continuum of low level participation to high level competition that are easily accessible. The sheer volume of activity across all of these disciplines means that the mature runner, like any other participant, can jump on and off this continuum when it suits them.
The Veterans became Masters in 2001 and regular international competition is firmly established inside and outside of athletics. The Masters Games were created to encompass all sports, providing additional opportunities for mature competitors. The sophistication of age grading calculations has provided another means of measuring performance against peers and open competitors, and comparing to past performance. It also informs World Masters Rankings. This has proven to be a strong motivating factor for the highly competitive mature aged runner.
Fifty years on, the only concern that I have is the perceived failure of all this activity to translate into higher participation rates for the mature runner past 50 years of age. Until recently, I have thought that the 50s is the new 40s. However, active participation for the over 60s is very low in running festivals and park runs alike. Though, as always, social participation as volunteers, administrators, officials and coaches etc is keeping the mature person connected.
There is a big level of active participation in the 40s, less so in the 50s and a sheer drop like a cliff face once we hit the 60s. Those who are young will age, and despite greater opportunities, will likely disappear, at least from the more competitive scenes. The question remains, does it have to be so?
- Australasian Athletics, Official Journal of Track and Field, various
- Fairfax Publications, The Sun City to Surf, Australia’s Run of the Year, The Official History (Souvenir), 1986
- Fun Runner, various
- Gilbert, J and Modrak, C (publisher Lenton, B), We Ran Canberra, The Story of the ACT Running Club 1962-2010, 2021
- Lenton, B, Distance Running in Australia, 1978
- Lenton, B, Distance Running in Australia Part II, 1980
- Pennington, J, A Life on the Run, 1995
- Telford, D, Running: through the looking glass, 2015
- Thomas, B, Age is No Barrier, A History of Masters/Veterans Athletics in Australia, 2011
- Victorian Marathon Club newsletters, various
- White, RPB and Harrison, M, 100 Years of the NSW AAA, 1987