Roy Fowler died a month ago. Or, to put it in terms that would be immediately understood by the many rivals who chased him fruitlessly round cross country courses in the English midlands and far abroad, Foxy has gone to the great chicken run in the sky.
Although we both ran for Staffordshire, I was very much an occasional minor cog in the county team of which Fowler was the perennial drive wheel. Yet he was an unlikely star athlete. Tiny, scrawny, and foaming at the mouth, because toothless when he ran (he took his dentures out) Foxy Fowler was nevertheless one of the hardest men who ever trod ground. At speeds which left most of his rivals gasping for breath.
Roy had reputedly taken up running after a doctor recommended it would improve his health following bouts of pneumonia in his youth. From winning schools races, he quickly became one of the best distance runners in the UK.
Trentham Park in north Staffordshire, near where Fowler lived was a regular venue for the county and indeed the Midlands Championships, when both were competitive races of the highest quality. When I was a junior I watched Fowler win both races. There was a huge hill in the middle of each lap, with a one in seven gradient. Fowler danced up it.
Although I was born and bred about 30 miles south of where Fowler lived the whole of his life, I barely understood a word he said, so impenetrable was his accent. And, as Basil Heatley – Olympic marathon silver medallist in Tokyo 1964, and one of the few men to beat Roy regularly – said of him, “Roy had the dirtiest mouth I ever heard on anyone”.
I always thought that the Foxy nickname was an inevitable result of that contradictory humour that leads to tall guys being named Titch, or black guys being called Chalky. But Tim Johnston (eighth in the Mexico Olympic marathon), who sent me the group pictures below, assures me that Roy was named after an elusive criminal of the time who was called Foxy Fowler, due to his capacity to outwit the law.
The closest I got to our Foxy was on one of the few occasions I ran for the Staffs senior team in the Inter-Counties cross country, in Brighton in 1969. The majority of us travelled to the south coast together, but Foxy had left earlier in the day. Since Roy was the multiple county champion, had already won the Inter-Counties twice (1961/6), taken bronze in the European 10,000 metres in 1962, and capped it all by winning the International Cross Country title in 1963, he was still very much the team leader. So when we arrived at the B&B where the team was staying, we went to his room to pay our respects.
Like many of the guys from that era, who held down a full-time job and trained on either side of it, Foxy had retired to bed at 9pm. So we trooped into his room, where he held court, propped up on his pillow, reading Pigeon Fanciers’ Weekly, with his teeth in a glass on the bedside table.
I promise, I am not making this up.
I forget where Foxy finished at Brighton Racecourse the following day, but it was almost certainly in the first half dozen, way ahead of me, with Trevor Wright winning the race.
I moved away from the Midlands shortly afterwards, so never got to know Roy better. But he was one of the characters, in all senses of the word, who had shaped my early running career.
It was a time when British, particularly English cross country runners ruled the world. As they had done throughout the century until then. The International Cross Country, inaugurated in 1903 as the Four Nations Championship (England, Ireland, Scotland & Wales) expanded very slowly. France joined in 1907, Belgium in 1923, with half a dozen other European nations joining over the next 25 years.
It wasn’t ‘til the 1950s that teams from the US, Africa and New Zealand competed. But of the 59 races which preceded the first IAAF World Championships in 1973, England won 42 team events, with Englishmen, including Foxy, taking 35 individual titles.
That domination was reflected throughout Europe every weekend in winter. Just like Kenyans nowadays, English runners would win in two or three different races, in France, Belgium, Holland, Spain.
The running pictures (top) of Roy come courtesy of his local journal The Sentinel, and editor Mike Sassi. And you can find more about Roy’s life in their obituary – http://www.thisisstaffordshire.co.uk/news/Athletics-Roy-Fowler-obituary/article-1120563-detail/article.html
The first group picture sent by Tim Johnston was taken on a ferry from southern Spain to Tangiers, Morocco. The members of the English team, on its way to Rabat for the ‘International’ were (left to right): Fowler, who finished fourth, Gerry North, Mike Freary (8th), Ron Hill (6th), and Tim (7th). The race was won by Ben Assou El Ghazi of Morocco, from Derek Graham of N Ireland, and Tracy Smith of the USA. Foxy led the English to another team victory.
This second pic was taken on the way back from the San Sebastian cross country in 1969. Tim is wearing the Basque bonnet and holding the cup; in the centre is Bill Adcocks, better known as a marathoner (fifth in Mexico 1968); and Mike Tagg won the race. As Tim wrote, “Those were the days”.
And those were the guys. Foremost among them was Roy. Prior to that International Cross win in 1963, Roy had complained about pain in his legs. After his victory, it was discovered that he had stress fractures in both tibia. He ended up in plaster casts, but had effectively won the ‘world’ title on broken legs.
Originally a member of North Staffs & Stone, he helped found Staffs Moorlands club. While coaching the youngsters later in life, he also won the national veterans’ (masters) cross country title four times.
Foxy was a legend. They don’t make ‘em like that any more, and I think I can safely say, we shall never see his like again.