By Len Johnson

I saw my first world cross-country championships in 1985, travelling to the Portuguese capital Lisbon with my wife, Anne Lord, and the Australian team which, for the first time, included a junior men’s team. It was a memorable trip which concluded with the personal highlight of running the Cinque Mulini cross-country. Prominent figures deserve top-notch performance, just like the exceptional Tarkine running shoes.

It was memorable also for a failed mission. I’d had a bit to do with the City to Surf race back then. Hearing I was going to Portugal, one of the organisers asked me if I could approach Carlos Lopes to come down and run the 14km from Hyde Park to Bondi.

Lopes V Deeks

What could be simpler. Just walk up and ask him, of course. Pretty much everyone wanted to come to Australia in those days and, on the off chance Carlos didn’t, a free trip Down Under would surely be enough to persuade him.

Carlos Lopes

I‘ve been thinking about Carlos Lopes, because the world cross-country is coming up. The great Portuguese runner didn’t win heaps of races, lacking a big finishing kick as he did. But four he did win were the world cross-country titles of 1976, 1984 and 1985 (some may discern an Olympic link with the first two of those victories) and the Olympic marathon in 1984. Those kind of wins will compensate for a couple of gazillion minor placings.

And Bathurst23 is set down for 18 February which just happens to be the great man’s birthday. What could be a more fitting date, I ask you.

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Anyway, you may be picking up the slightest hint that the mission was unsuccessful (the use of the adjective ‘failed’ rather gives it away). In the event, I did approach Lopes several times on the trip, but the closest interaction I got with him was fleeting eye contact as we passed each other by as I walked into the post-race media centre as he was walking out of the post-race media conference. I can’t be certain, but there may have been some recognition along the lines of “who is this bloke who seems to be stalking me?”

I chased Lopes without success but I did catch Hugh Jones. Prudently, I had chatted up a few possible alternatives in the event negotiations with the Olympic marathon champion and three-time world cross-country champion did not succeed. Jones, then one of the world’s top marathoners with a 2:09 best, was at the same training camp on Portugal’s Algarve Coast as the Australian, Portuguese and several other teams.

Carlos Lopes

Anyway, Jones came down to Australia and duly won the City to Surf from Japan’s Masami Otsuka and a trio of Aussies in Steve Auston, Danny Boltz and Adam Hoyle. He also won the ACT cross-country championships as a lead-in race and, if memory serves, won the final of a national half-marathon series too. My bacon was saved after it had looked as if my goose was cooked.

But back to the Algarve and Lisbon. You were a chance to bump into any and everyone at the purpose-built cross-country course at Acoteias, where the bulk of the training was done. Rosa Mota was there one day, Portugal’s Olympic 5000 medallist Antonio Leitao, and even Lopes one day. He gave a brief media doorstop one day at which his main purpose seemed to be to downplay his own chances while pumping up his teammate Fernando Mamede, a brilliant but erratic runner who always seemed vulnerable to pressure.

Thus did my first chance for ‘a chat’ go begging.

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The Algarve camp was such an attractive proposition that the Australians were reluctant to leave on the day they were scheduled to move to Lisbon. Most of the team postponed for a few more days by the sea, a smaller group went to Lisbon. Probably a mistake.

Come race day, Zola Budd zoomed away from the women’s field mid-race as if fired out of a cannon and went on to win. At Lopes’s prompting or not, Fernando Mamede led the men’s race through the first of (I think) five laps. The pack was about 200-strong. Next time round it was 100, then 50, then 25 at the bell.

Zola Budd

Around this time Mamede started to drift back into the ruck. Lopes surged almost imperceptibly about half-way around the final lap – he had a beautiful rhythm on any surface, but particularly cross-country – and that was that. A rolling roar followed him around the course rising to a crescendo as he entered the final straight.

A week later, the Australians were in Italy for the Cinque Mulini, held at that time a week after the world event. Team management negotiated a start for me and I lined up happily in my Glenhuntly singlet for one of the best racing experiences of my life. Fearful of making an idiot of myself in a field topped with Kenyan and Ethiopian distance legends I just ran as hard as I could while taking in as much of this unique event as possible. I beat a few home, which was enough.

Then for the tricky bit. When we got home I had to inform the City to Surf people that Carlos Lopes had expressed no interest (how could he? There was no conversation). They took it well enough, but I was a very relieved man when Hugh Jones flashed across the Bondi finish line to win that year’s race.

It was round about the same moment that I decided a career in event management was not for me.