From New Zealand to Brighton and back

Mike Parker in 2006
Photo by Peter Crowhurst

On becoming involved in athletics
It was  round about the time of the Tokyo Olympics. I had watched the English or Great Britain race walker, Ken Matthews, win the Olympic 20 kms on the track and it seemed to impress me more than Snell’s wins because Matthews so decimated the field. It sort of had an impact on me and less than a fortnight later we had our school sports and there was a one mile walking race. I’d never done any race walking before. I hadn’t done very much athletics but I remember being quite keen to enter this mile walk which was an open race and there must have been 50-60 kids in it . Any way I finished 2nd and from that moment on I wanted to be a race walker.

The big breakthrough
I raced in my first U 19 champs when I was 14, obviously a lot younger than all the other guys in it. The next year when I was 15 I finished 2nd. The flowing year I won it. By the time I came to the UK I was 22. I went down to Christchurch to watch the 74 Commonwealth Games and the Australian Peter Fullinger, who was the pre race favourite for the then 20 mile event, he finished 3rd, but I remember bumping into him 2 days later in Cathedral Square in Christchurch sightseeing and I went up to him and said I was interested in going to Australia. He invited me to go to his place in Adelaide and I spent 4 months with Peter and it was the big breakthrough for me.

Alan Buchanon pulls a fast one
I went back to NZ and I , it was late 74, 75. My form seemed to go after my time in Australia. in 75, 76, I struggled a bit. I never won a senior title and I think it was that that made me absolutely determined. I knew that I had improved greatly when I was in Australia and I knew that if I could have another injection of overseas competition ,  sustained competition, sustained training partners. If I could get to the UK then I could probably make the (NZ) team. So I came to the UK in 77, March 77. A man who was a great influence, he never used to like to call himself my coach, more like an adviser and a great friend,  but somebody I had a lot of races with, and I had actually lived in the same town as him for the 18 months before coming to England, was Norm Read. (He) armed me with phone numbers and contacts for people I should contact when I came to the UK. One of the people who he gave me contact with, if fact two from Steyning, for Norm was quite keen for me to join Steyning. One was his brother Dennis and the other was Dave Stevens. But he also gave me Karl Lawton’s number for Belgrave Harriers. My first two weeks in the UK were in Chatham, Kent and I made contact with all of these people apart from Dave Stevens. Karl Lawton said that a good race for me to start within the UK was the Met 20 k at Battersea park and I was going to meet Karl there. And Karl was interested in me joining Belgrave which was a good walking club at the time. As I said, I couldn’t get hold of Dave Stevens but Dennis Read, and he took a lot of criticism over this said’ Well the ideal man for you to speak to with regard to race walking in this country is Alan Buchanan at Brighton. I didn’t realise the significance of this at the time. He gave me Alan Buchanan’s number and of course Alan, it was like bait at the end of the line to Alan. Alan immediately said’ What do you look like?  What will you be wearing? I’ll meet you at he entrance way to BatterseaPark. And he did and Karl Lawton never got a look in. Alan invited me down for a week end in Brighton , sold me on the idea over a period of 3-4 weeks of joining the Brighton club and he was an amazing guy for me because  I really  did not need to think about anything with regard to  race entries, travel. Alan did absolutely everything for me and he did for the whole of the amount of time I knew him. It was good.

Getting the NZ Commonwealth Games standard
(My)first race at Battersea was a bit of a nightmare for me. At the half way mark I dropped back through the field like a stone and finished 18th, but I made good progress (after that). I actually lived in London in those days and I trained with Dennis Holly who was a Brighton race walker living in London. I trained with Stuart Elms who was a very good 50 k international race walker and I trained with Shaun Lightman who had competed in the Olympics for GB. It was the four of us and we had some great training sessions together and I improved rapidly. The first 4 months in the UK In the Leicester Mercury 20 m race in Leicester I broke the NZ standard for the Commonweath Games, finished 4th and then I went back to NZ because I had been told that I would need to do well in the NZ trial. I did not start the race as favourite. Graham Seater was the favourite.

Making the NZ team for Edmonton
I can remember talking with Norm Read and he said ‘If Graham wins either the 20 k or the trial he is going to go to the Games. You are going to have to beat him and in probably one or the other of those races, especially the trial race. I was about 2 mins slower than him over 20 k and he had registered a very good time over 30 k which the Commonwealth Games distance had gone to. He was the hot favourite to go to the Games. He had to just survive the trial and -so we over a period of 2 months we planned to do 3 things. I would have a go at the NZ 30 k record on the track. Nobody could argue with a track event. I did that. I broke the NZ track record for 30k. I then went to the NZ championships and got my first win over Graham in the NZ 20 k championships and then, I think it was 3 weeks later,  was the trial for the Commonwealth Games I won that as well. Graham finished 2nd to me. I remember basically sitting in a group and applying the pressure (in)the last7-8 km. Something I always remember was ‘If I keep the pressure on him long enough he would eventually break’. It was a good race for me and I got into the team.

Spending the morning of the Commonwealth Games race on the toilet
(In the Commonwealth) I did badly. ….before the Games I came back to the UK as the club I was competing for in NZ, Leith Athletic Club, knew that I would need to have some racing overseas again so they raised the money for me. They did some street collections, and pub quizzes and they raised the money for me to come to the UK and I would meet the team in Edmonton later so I had 4 months in the UK. I did well whilst I was in the UK training and competing but I picked up a tummy bug and I remember on the morning of the race being on the toilet most of the morning and being greatly weakened and travelling to the stadium that day. Dick Quax the  NZ runner, because it was the first major Games for Graham and I, Dick came along with us, he sat in the back seat, in the middle of us. I did feel unwell and as soon as I was in the race I went to the toilet again. I pulled out at 22k, very weakened. It was a hot day. It was a disaster and a big disappointment.

The highs and lows of athletics in the 1980’s
(I first competed for Britain) after the debacle with the 80 Olympics. (The highlights of my time in the UK were)winning the two national title wins-winning the National title in the 20 km in 1980 which was one of 2 Olympic trials the British had for the 20k.Because I wasn’t going to compete in the 20km at the Olympics I didn’t do the other one. But winning the National 20 km in a personal best time. Coming from behind, that was a good race at Southport in 1980, probably my best race. I think also winning the 1979 50 km which was my first UK title in 4 hrs 14 which was the fastest winning time at that time. I won the race by 4 secs. It was a sprint at the end. I can remember the last ¾ k. Adrian James couldn’t shake me off and I couldn’t shake him off. and I thought what was the point of trying. I’ll outsprint him at the end.  I normally had his measure in track races and that’s how it worked out. That was the trial for the 50 km as well. I remember I had actually qualified on a residential basis for the GB team for the 80- Olympics and I remember being asked ‘Would I compete for GB or NZ at the Olympics ? I wanted to compete for NZ so that is what I went for. It was a big mistake in the end. I do regret (it now) I wanted to compete in the Olympics and it didn’t happen. I think in hindsight, I regret it.

A great win
In 81 there was a new challenge on the scene in British race walking. Steve Barry had come along, and Roger Mills, Olly Flynn and Brian Adams had slipped a bit and there was me . I remember in Exeter in the National 10 mile, the one national title I really wanted to win. Steve and I had an absolute humdinger of a race and he was the hot favourite for it. I had spent a little of time in NZ prior to it and I remember coming back, arriving in the country 3 days before the race and did one training session on my own, and I felt absloutly dreadful . Then I went out for a walk with Alan Buchanan and a couple of other race walkers from the Brighton and we were up near St Dunstans and I couldn’t keep up with them. Then I had another light training session the next day and then I went down to Exeter but it all seemed to come right on the day. It was a very, very hilly course and it was a rough day, strong winds and I remember at about 7 miles, Steve Barry had broken away from the rest of the field. I was trying to shale him off in these hills and every hill I’d pull away from him and he’d come back at me on the down hill. It would be even on the flat. For me it was a great win and I finished up beating him but he went on and won the Commonwealth Gold medal year later and I d gone well off the boil.

Getting  UK Citizenship
It was really him (Norm Read) saying that you don’t want to get in that situation again, the Olympic situation again. You might be better competing for GB. Do the opposite to what I (Norm) did, him being British and competing for NZ. You’ll have the access to so many more international races and really as a race walker the only thing we had was the Commonwealth, Olympic Games and an annual race between Australia in those days. So the British walkers were racing in the European Championships, three was the annual match between France and Spain, and various other countries. So that’s what I did. I applied for a British passport and eventually it all went through and I went up to London. Norm had some excellent contacts. He knew Arthur Gold, they had travelled together to watch the 52 Olympics and so, thats how it all happened.  I eventually ended up doing three international races for GB Two in 81.

Knocking the British off their perch
I used to come away (from international competition) thinking how bloody good they were and how much work you needed to do to be up there. Most of the guys who were the top race walkers are from team systems where they are training in squads. Very few race walkers seem to make it on their own. Yes, Norm read did it. A classic case of a guy who did do it.  But I think in the modern day , to do it on your own is very, very hard and its one of the reasons why Britain who won a lot of gold medals in race walking, eventually finished also rans. They were working in the day, coming home in the evening and training in isolation. When the professional approach came in, from East Europe and the Russians, the British were knocked off their perch very, very quickly.

The Italians getting up to their tricks again
In two international races I did in Italy it was amazing how the feeding stations would disappear in the hard stages of the race. There would always be something there for the Italian walkers-a drink or a sponge but it would always disappear when it was our turn to go through and the incessant fumes from motor bikes in front of you.

East Europeans and bollards
I remember the first 50 km I did internationally, the Lugano Cup, in 79, that was an eye opener. It was on a looped course and bollards.. It was basically up a road and down a road, incredibly boring and incredibly hot and a few bollards that you had to go round at the top end and the bottom end of the course. It was the Eastern Europeans, their method of getting around a bollard. We would try and maintain the correct race walking technique for going around it. But it meant you had to walk around it wide. They(East Europeans) would just bend the knee, drop the elbow and shuffle around it. The international judges didn’t care. They would then start race walking again down the straights. Obviously if you are doing this 30 times it is a hell of a lot of distance saved and a lot of energy that they haven’t expended. I’m not sure they maintained the rules of the sport when they went through the feeding stations. Well, they sort of half jogged through the feeding stations. Yes, that was international race walking.

Shades on a Friday night
I remember the big focal point, meeting place was the club on a Tuesday night. I remember going there but more often was the meeting place on a Friday night down at the Shades bar. I used to be a regular there I think from about 19, very late 1978 or early 1979 and that carried on for many, many years, and although it might not be the Shades bar I think that group of athletes who met there sparked off a regular Friday night meeting at the pub that is now carried on in other pubs round the town…..(The characters from the Shades bar days) were Pete Witcomb, Phil Hanner, Steve King, Sam Lambourne, Peter Crowhurst, Barry Hawkins. I even remember meeting Chris Carter down there on occasions. He once told me Peter Snell was lucky not to get him in his particular semi final at the Tokyo Olympics. I think the fact that we all in varying degrees remained friends, the common fellowship of athletics. The living example of that is that I haven’t seen Alan Buchanan for it’s been quite a few years since I’ve seen him and spoken to him. (I recently rang him up) and it was quite like old times and we had a lot of experiences together and a lot of fun times and some not so nice times but there is a lot of mutual interest in our lives, in the 30 years since we’ve known one another and you don’t need to be talking to these people every day for that to mean something.

No Comments

Start the ball rolling by posting a comment on this page!

Add a comment about this page

Your email address will not be published.