Sitting down with Dave Clarke, it’s almost impossible to distill a 20-year-long career into a few thousand words. 12 appearances at the World Cross-Country, three National XC titles and two decades racing the best in Europe, here’s our attempt; three races that made me.
World Cross-Country Championships 1983
Riverside Park, Gateshead, 20th March 1983. Green and gold up front, a string vest resting on the torso of a moustachioed man who would become marathon world champion later that year, Rob de Castella.
To his right Carlos Lopes barely eighteen months from Olympic gold. Alberto Salazar resplendent in undergarments from top to toe.
Bekele Debele of Ethiopia moments away from his greatest triumph. Some Muge about to win Kenya’s first ever individual medal.
Antonio Prieto, the Spaniard working hard to stay in touch and at the back of the pack, a blonde-haired England vest, peering over the top.
The commentator says:
“Good to see Dave Clarke’s got himself back to the sort of form we expect of him. He was the National Cross Country champion last year. He was second at Luton.”
In era where British runners excelled on the track, the roads and the cross, Dave Clarke is on his way to another underrated achievement, seventh in the World Cross Country Champs 1983, his second top-10 placing in as many years.Embed from Getty Images
But for the man who would go on to win four team medals across the event’s history it is still a case of what if:
“I got dropped on the penultimate lap and caught them up on the last and stayed with them all the way round the hills. I just got dropped with about 700 yards to go. I always looked back and I’d been quite ill. Hutchings had won the National but I’d had a lousy awful cold. I spent most of my Nationals in those years on antibiotics.
That was a brilliant race but I always just wished if I could stay with them that little bit longer then what would have happened in the last bit? I’d have finished higher than 7th.
But it was a massive who’s who of everyone who’s anybody, these amazing athletes. But in 82 and 83. I hadn’t been injured. I was getting better and better and there was absolutely no reason why when you went into a race that you were worried about anybody. Why should you be?”
1978 English National – Bernie Ford versus Ian Stewart
Barely five years before that run in Gateshead, Dave Clarke had decided he was going to take the sport seriously. Gone were the weeks of running 15 miles and winning the odd Surrey medal, now he would ditch the cricket and various other pursuits that caught his attention.
A few months later he was up in Roundhay Park for the National XC:
“In 1978 I finished third in the national as a Junior. It was a lovely day at Leeds and I watched the Seniors afterwards. This is one of the great Nationals of all-time.
If you were at Leeds and you were one side of the slope you could hear them coming before they came. It was a procession, the who’s who of every single distance runner you’d seen on the television, you’d recognized in Athletics Weekly.
At the front in the last two laps it was Bernie Ford against Ian Stewart. Behind them Tony Simmons, Dave Black, Steve Ovett. It was just this line. The speed they went through was wow.
Olympic medalist versus the hard man of Surrey
It was a head-to-head coming into the last mile. Bernie Ford against Ian Stewart. The two of them came past me with about a mile and a half to go. They were just side by side smashing it out.
They hit the bottom of the hill. Bernie was the cross-country runner. Ian Stewart was the bronze medalist in the 5000m, he was also a 1500m runner.
You just thought if Bernie doesn’t destroy him up the last hill there’s no way he’s going to win. It’s 400 metres from the top to the finish. They went up the hill side by side, came off the top side by side and then you didn’t see them again. You jog towards the finishing area and think what happened?
Bernie Ford won it by two seconds. You thought no way, how could he have beaten the Olympic bronze medalist? But he did. They were just wonderful days.
You saw so many good people. Then you got on with your own training. That was still ’78 and you’ve got a long way to go.”
When three years later Clarke made his debut at the World Cross, who else would be his room-mate but the man he describes as the hard-man of Surrey, Bernie Ford?
The pair would train together for a number of years.
1982 English National – The first of three titles.
Clarke would finish a distant and lonely second chasing Julian Goater round Parliament Hill in 1981 but returned to Roundhay Park for the Senior National quietly confident:
“I went up to Leeds and Pat Butcher was the Times correspondent at the time. I’d stayed with a lady called Christine Boxer who was a Loughbrough student on the way up. We were at the services and Pat came up.
He said, “Hi Dave can I have a chat about the race? Who do you think’s going to win today because McLeod’s here and he’s in great shape and Moorcroft’s here and all these people. And he went through all these people and I said yeah they’re in good shape.
I did the warm up with Grenville Tuck (who would finish 46th) and I just ran round with him. Reasonable day, bit windy, little rain but not much. After the race Grenville came up to me and said I knew you were going to win the race, on the warm up I was flat out and you were just chatting to me.
It was a bit of a battle, mainly because on the first lap there was a strong-ish wind against you on the last bit. Roundhay Park was a good course but it had two big hills in it. The last one was “hill 60”.
Generally whenever we ran there there was a hot dog stand right on the top of the hill and also there’d be a bloke normally there with a cigar. And you can imagine you’re there desperately trying to get oxygen and there’s cigar smoke wafting in your face and the hot dog stand next door to you.
On the first lap into the wind, Mike and I had got away a bit and I turned to McLeod, “do you want to alternate a bit and we can get away from these into a headwind?”
He just turned to me and went “f**k off” in the way only a northerner could do.
So I said that’s a no then is it? We battled against each other all the way round the second lap and near the end of the second, we came to the second of the big hills and there’s this huge crowd lining both sides of the course. Most of them are northerners. It was that time where there was the song Hey Mickey.
There are all these Northerners going, “hey Micky you’re so fine”.
“Go on Mickey, stuff the Southern b**t**d. Go on Mickey stuff him.”
My friend Alex turned up at the right time. In the side of the crowd, I’m running there and he’s going f**k the c**ts and I’m thinking ‘jesus Alex for God’s sake leave it out’. I’m going to get disqualified if you keep using this language.
He was running two metres to the side saying go on get the b**tard and eventually I pulled away from him and ran the last lap on my own.
The most frightening thing of all, when you’re at Leeds you come off the lake, up a slope round a summer house and then straight back down, just 20 metres from where you’d been coming up.
Imagine, I think I won by 14 seconds. As you’re 30 metres down, you’ve got hundreds of people coming up and you’re thinking s**t I’ve got a mile and a half to go, basically there’s 1600, 1700 people chasing me.
It’s quite a chilling sort of situation to be in because you’re thinking if my shoelace comes undone or I fallover or get tired, I’ve had it. I won’t even make the team, let alone win the damn thing.”
His shoelaces stayed tight and his body vertical. He would add two more National titles before he was done, a total only two men in history have bettered.
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Featured image by John Burles.