The name of Walt Murphy is barely known in UK athletics circles and, I suspect not much more so in the USA, outside of statisticians, of whom he is one. But Walt, who got interested in athletics when his cousin Tom Murphy became a US international runner in the late 1950s, issues an excellent daily newsletter entitled This Day in Track & Field/X-C, which does what it says on the can – provides flashbacks to superlative historic performances.
Among the multitude of facts, feats and anecdotes, which I never tire of re-reading year after year, there is one which so intrigues me that I was finally prompted to do something about it. It happened on November 28, 1981, at the US national cross country champs in Burbank, California, a venue known rather more for its Hollywood connections than the more earthy sport of cross country.
On that day, Adrian Royle, an ‘unknown’ Brit (‘from Manchester, England’ as Kenny Moore of Sports Illustrated described him) caused probably the biggest upset in US cross country history, when he materialised on the shoulders of Nick Rose, Henry Rono and Alberto Salazar at the head of a ‘stacked field’ midway through the 10k race, and demolished the famous trio; indeed so much so that Rono could only finish 37th.
And this was just weeks after the Kenyan had set his final world record, 13.06.20 for 5000 metres in Norway; and, similarly weeks after Salazar had run his 2.08.13 ‘world best’ marathon in New York. Rose was a former winner of both this event in 1977, and had won the English ‘national’ in 1980. Other luminaries in the race included Pat Porter (who would go on to win the next eight US titles), Herb Lindsay, Doug Padilla, Steve Scott, Dick Quax of New Zealand, former world junior cross champion Thom Hunt, et al.
Like I said, a stacked field, which Royle outran, shooting from anonymity to celebrity in less than half an hour. He shouldn’t have been unknown, since he had finished in the top ten the year before, having already won the US Junior Colleges cross country by a field. But he had switched colleges in the interim, and even those who might have known his name were further confused by a programme misprint which had him listed as A. Ryle.
Despite that ‘born in Manchester’ tag, the family had moved to Grimsby when he was a child and it was in that relatively remote part of the country, athletically speaking that his career took off. Additionally, he was a late starter, only running in school “to escape football,” but he made a breakthrough as a junior, winning the Northern Junior 3000 metres, ahead of then luminaries Mickey Morton and John Doherty; and backing that up with silver and bronze in the AAA Junior 3000 & 1500 metres respectively to Morton and Graham Williamson and Neil Black.
He left for the US at 21; and following that famous cross country victory, he went on to run 27.47.16 in his debut 10,000 metres, in Eugene, Oregon six months later. It is still one of the top 20 times in UK athletics history and only Mo Farah could presume to run faster in this modern era. Royle also ran 7.46.39 for 3000m and 13.26.19 before what was probably chronic fatigue syndrome began the process which would ultimately end his career prematurely. By this time, he had returned to the UK, and was training with George Gandy’s group at Loughborough, as a member of Charnwood AC. He had a brief resurrection in 1987 when he ran under 48mins for ten miles, but retired soon afterwards.
He cycles far more than he runs nowadays, but retains a link with current athletics as a photographer, so it wasn’t too difficult to track him down. In a phone conversation last week, he remembered, “At the time of my ’81 victory I was living, studying and training in Reno, Nevada – The Biggest Little City in the World – famous for its 24/7/365 gambling. While I often frequented the casinos for the entertainment and restaurants, I was never what I would call a gambler, certainly not with my money…. but from the age of 19 until my early thirties I took huge risk after huge risk without a second thought – gambling my future perhaps? Anyway one of these huge risks was spending several hundred of my hard earned dollars on a plane ticket, hotel, etc, to fly from Reno to Los Angeles for the race weekend. I didn’t have much money, just what I had managed to save from the previous summer working on campus in Reno.
“After finishing eighth in the previous year’s TAC (national) cross country while based in Idaho, I moved to Reno and trained like a maniac, hard and consistently, lots of mileage, loads of big hills and mountains, some serious interval work, fartlek, track work; often with top Columbian international athlete Domingo Tibaduiza for company. We pushed each other to new highs. I knew I was improving enormously, the results just got better and better. So when I was in LA I was there to win, I seriously believed I could. I hadn’t a clue who else was going to show up (but) fortunately everybody did. But it wasn’t until well after the starting gun that I managed to work out who was around; they were all easily recognisable, champions and Olympians galore!
“The first mile was incredibly fast, not far off my mile PB, my lungs should have blown soon after but I was firing on all cylinders. The field soon broke up leaving just Nick Rose, Alberto Salazar and some unknown guy in yellow – me! Nick was soon dropped just leaving the two of us. As usual I was doing my heavy breathing routine which led Alberto to think this guy won’t last, but like some female tennis players the better I performed the noisier I was. By halfway I knew the race was mine, all the hill work in the Sierras was paying off big time. Having grown up in the flat lands of Lincolnshire, hills had been a huge weakness in races but no longer. I expected to be dropped going up the Burbank hills but I was pushing the pace up them. All I had to do was stay close to Alberto to within smelling distance of the finish line and then leave him in the mud knowing full well his finishing speed was not even close to mine. Surprisingly for LA it had been very wet, up to three inches of rain that day, and several hundred runners had made a bit of a mess of the beautiful golf course. The owners were not at all happy with us.
“Not all of my huge risks paid off but this one did”.
fotos: Joe Volk (top); Bill Leung.