Paula Radcliffe's shattering demise in the sweltering heat of the Athens Olympic Marathon on Sunday stunned the British public, but came as no surprise to Westmorland Gazette assistant editor Richard Belk, who overcame similar conditions to triumph on the same course 25 years ago.
Richard, who was 28 at the time, won the Athens City Marathon in a temperature of 86F on October 8, 1979 in a time of 2hrs 31mins 21 secs, beating a field of 1,400 runners and finishing more than three minutes ahead of his nearest rival, Swiss mountain runner Albrecht Moser.
"I was only running in an open race organised by the Greek tourist board and their athletics association to give athletes a crack at the original course. It wasn't an Olympic championship and, like everyone else, my heart went out to Paula as we watched her gold medal dream agonisingly disappear. We can't begin to imagine the pressure she felt with the expectations of a nation on her shoulders.
"If I had fallen apart on the road it wouldn't have mattered to anyone but me, but I was a county standard cross-country and road-runner in those days and I wanted to do the very best I could. I knew the conditions were likely to be hot because Athens doesn't cool down from summer until late October. So I prepared for the race by heat training' in a tracksuit, nylon shower suit, balaclava and gloves on every other day, starting three weeks before the event. I remember it was drizzly but mild in Kendal that September and my Castle Street neighbours thought I had finally lost it' as I came back from long runs. But by creating my personal hot climate' I did adapt to the heat and in the race I seemed to sweat a lot less than most of the other runners.
"The other thing I did was to stay cool before the 10am start. There was no cover at Marathon so I actually had a cat nap under a bus before walking to the start and shuffling into action. My plan was to catch the leaders before the top of the long climb at 19 miles, make my move and then hold on down the long descent into the city, knowing that anyone trying to catch me would have to run extra fast as it was downhill. It worked a treat and, after a three-mile spell of hard running off the top', there was just me with a police outrider for company all the way to the finish.
"Drink stations were very basic. There was only bottled water so I carried a tiny bottle of concentrated electrolytes to sip as I went along in order to maintain essential salt levels. The final miles really were like running in an oven. You just couldn't stride quickly and my final time was more than ten minutes outside my marathon best but the buzz of entering the old Olympic stadium, as a winner on the original course, will stay with me forever."