The 1983 London Marathon winner reflects on his running career and explains why he’s still travelling the world for races, writes Ruth Jones
With the London Marathon having recently taken place, debate will have arisen once again about how British men’s standards over the distance compare to those decades ago, when Hugh Jones, Charlie Spedding, Steve Jones, Allister Hutton, Eamonn Martin and Mike Gratton took victory in the capital despite holding down full-time jobs and questionable fuelling strategies.
Gratton’s preparations for the third London Marathon in 1983 (see below) certainly represented the “mileage is key” school of thought, with Dave Bedford’s reputed 200-mile training weeks an inspiration, and more than 50 races a year thrown in for good measure, including plenty of cross-country racing over the winter months.
Now the owner of ‘2:09 Events’, a company which organises trips to races and training camps for athletes all over the world, the 61-year-old former teacher is hopeful that Mo Farah can emulate – and surpass – those achievements from the golden age of British distance running. He sympathises with Farah’s UK counterparts, and offers his reasoning on why they are struggling to keep up with the rest of the world.
“I see lots of promising runners doing the training, like Scott Overall, but they only get so far and then it is really tough, and I don’t think it’s their fault,” he explained. “When I ran my best performances in the 1980s, the top runners were people I knew and could identify with, like Steve Jones, Charlie Spedding, John Graham, and even the likes of Rob de Castella was close enough to be a real target. Now the target is 2:03. And even if you run 2:09 you are still a mile or so off the pace. Maybe marathon times will start to slow with more scrutiny on drug testing, and when some races like New York have ditched pacers in favour of proper races, so it may come back around. Mo will run 2:05 and win things post-Rio I would expect.”
Gratton was born in Aldershot to army parents, spending his formative years in a variety of countries, including Northern Ireland, Cyprus and Germany, before settling in Folkestone. It was at an army-run boarding school in Germany where he first showed athletic promise with a silver medal in the British Forces Schools’ 800m, clocking a useful 2:10.
Back in Kent, his PE teacher encouraged him to join Folkestone AC. Training three times a week with the club, he followed up a 144th place in his first English Schools inter boys cross-country championships with seventh in the English Schools 1500m in 4:07 and victory in the senior 5000m in 1974.
“I see lots of promising runners doing the training, like Scott Overall, but they only get so far and then it is really tough, and I don’t think it’s their fault”
It was with Brighton & Hove where he made his first significant advances into distance running. Studying at West Sussex College, he found a formidable training partner in the college’s librarian, Rob Herron, a 2:17 marathon runner who won the London to Brighton race. The two of them trained twice a week on the track with Steve Ovett’s group for three years.
An accident on a building site in 1978 after struggling to find graduate work put him out of action for six months, but when he moved to Canterbury with a teaching job and started running with Invicta East Kent, marathons finally began to beckon.
Gratton ran his first 26-mile race in the big-city Essonne Marathon near Paris in 1979, finishing 11th in 2:21:30 having decided to run it just weeks earlier, following it up with a victory in the now defunct Polytechnic Marathon on a hot day in 2:19:53. “It was then I knew that the marathon was my distance”, he says modestly.
Within a year of entering the world of competitive marathons, the father of two was running for Great Britain, notching up yet another PB of 2:17 in Otwock, Poland, in June 1980, just one month after a 2:18 result at the AAA champs in Milton Keynes.
His prolific racing schedule shows a marked difference to British elite distance runners today, with few toeing the line of major endurance events more than 10 times a year.
By 1981, he was regularly running 120 miles a week, (see below) completing sessions on grass tracks and road circuits around Canterbury.
Although buoyed by his continuing improvements, finishing third in the AAA marathon in Rugby in another PB of 2:16:40 behind Hugh Jones, the sight of 8000 runners taking part in the first London Marathon a few weeks later on TV gave him the impetus he needed to train even harder for the following year’s event.
The year 1982 was a pivotal one in his running career, when he earned two marathon bronze medals, first in London in his fastest time yet, 2:12:30, to finish third behind Hugh Jones and the Norwegian, Oyvind Dahl, followed by the same position at the Brisbane Commonwealth Games a few months later in 2:12:06.
In an interesting reference to today’s world of elite coaching set-ups, with Farah camped out in Oregon for much of the year under the watchful eye of Alberto Salazar, Gratton wrote out all his own training plans, from his English Schools win to his marathon successes, although he was grateful for advice from his friend, The Sunday Times’ athletics writer Cliff Temple, to introduce more interval work, which resulted in his times improving dramatically.
“From there on in, I was confident of further progress in London the following year, with my training geared towards a 2:10 result,” he explained. “Everything fell into place, except for a bad run at the National cross country, where I had a cold, and the San Blas Half-marathon in Puerto Rico. I started far too fast in hot conditions, with all the top Africans and South American runners passing me on a long hill to the finish. However, it didn’t help when I took a big gulp of what I thought was water from a drinks station when I was really suffering, and it turned out to be white rum!”
“I was confident of further progress in London the following year, with my training geared towards a 2:10 result”
He continues: “I wasn’t too worried though, as my confidence was boosted by a fast three-mile leg in the road relays off high mileage weeks, a 10-mile PB of 47:11 in Tonbridge the week after the National and a great head-to-head battle with the two-time Olympian Bernie Ford in the Rome-Ostia 28km race. (Ford had run 2:10 in Fukuoka four years earlier and was the reigning National cross country champion.)
“At the time, Athletics Weekly wrote a review, touting me as the most likely of the British runners to win. The favourites were Belgium’s Emiel Puttemans, the former 5000m world record-holder, who ran 2:10 on a difficult day in Rome, and Ethiopia’s Kebede Balcha.
“I had a plan to run at fairly even 2:10 pace – just inside five-minute miles – but a pack including Puttemans and Balcha set off at world-record pace, pulling us all faster than expected. I was inside my schedule, but still one minute down on the lead pack. I caught Gerry Helme at the halfway point, and the pair of us then pulled back to the now fading lead group at 16 miles. We worked together to break up the group until it was just the two of us at the Tower cobbles at 22 miles, at which point I broke away, stretching the lead continuously to the finish.”
His London victory coincided with the sport turning professional, enabling him to leave teaching, but injuries and subsequent operations meant his follow up race in the capital was a sub-par 2:13, and a diagnosis of Osteitis Pubis Symphysis in 1988 put him out of action for six months.
Results of 2:17 in Marrakesh and Berlin, 2:18 in Paris and 2:17 in Cleveland in 1991 followed, along with regular track races over 800m and 1500m, but a fledgling business arranging athletics trips abroad provided a natural end to his elite running career.
“Although 2:09 wasn’t formed until 2003, I had been involved in organising Portugal training camps with the world cycling pursuit champion Tony Doyle and trips to races such as the New York Marathon, for many years, as well as writing for Running and Runner’s World magazines,” he explained. “The Algarve training camps came under the banner of Runner’s World for a long period, and we now have Nick Anderson as our chief coach for these events. The main business is with the Marathon Majors now, however, with big tours to New York, Chicago, Berlin, Boston and Tokyo, where we have guaranteed entries. We also organise a series of events, such as the Longleat 10km and the South Downs marathon, as well as the Great Wall of China stage run, the Cyprus Four Day Challenge, and the Himalayan Kingdom Marathon in Bhutan.”
The once prolific racing machine and mileage king still enjoys running three times a week, recently clocking 23:30 in the Falesia 5km in Portugal and enjoying the 21km event at the Two Oceans race weekend in Cape Town, where his wife Yolanda ran the full 35-mile ultra-marathon.
“I met my wife at the Polar Circle Marathon in Greenland at a time when I wasn’t doing much running, and she had the energy and enthusiasm that got me going again”
He credits Yolanda with reviving his enthusiasm for running again: “I met my wife at the Polar Circle Marathon in Greenland at a time when I wasn’t doing much running, and she had the energy and enthusiasm that got me going again. She’s running really well now and I can’t keep up, so I’m happy to be there to support her running. I do still enjoy taking part in events, though, my favourite being the Swiss Alpine 30km, which I’ve been running for 30 years. I first competed as an invited athlete before taking runners there for work, and we now offer a really good eight-day training break leading up to the race. London is also a standout event, as is New York, although I never ran well there – 16th being my best position, dropping out the second time I ran it – but we have been taking thousands since 1984, and without fail everyone loves the whole experience.”
Looking back on a career littered with world-class performances, one particular amusing memory stands out for the man whose 2:09:43 still ranks him 13th on the all-time British marathon rankings.
“I was sat in my Ron Hill string vest in the Commonwealth Games village dining hall in 1982, enjoying a pile of croquette potatoes to mark the end of my carbohydrate-loading ahead of the marathon”, he reminisced. “The Queen was on a tour of the athletes’ quarters, and coming across me, remarked on my plate of food. I asked if she was going to be the starter of the marathon as it was to start by the royal ship Britannia, to which she replied, “No, it is far too early in the morning!”
Mike Gratton’s achievements and progression leading up to the 1983 London Marathon
1974 English Schools senior boys 5000m 1st (14:52.40)
1979 Essonne Marathon 11th (2:21:30), Polytechnic Marathon 1st (2:19:53)
1980 AAA Marathon Champs (2:18), Otwock marathon (2:17:44)
1981 AAA Marathon Champs 3rd (2:16:40)
1982 London Marathon 3rd (2:12:30), Commonwealth Games marathon 3rd (2:12:06)
1983 Tonbridge 10M 1st (47:11), Cambridge Relays fastest leg (15:30) after a 22M morning run, London Marathon 1st (2:09:43)
Sample training weeks leading up to the 1983 London Marathon
Sun am: 20 miles fast. pm: 5 miles fast
Mon am: 5 miles. pm: 11 miles road tempo
Tue am: 5 miles. pm: 3 miles warm up, 20x400m averaging 67sec (5km race pace) off 100m jog, 3 miles warm down
Wed am: 17 miles
Thu am: 4 miles. pm: 11 miles
Fri am: 4 miles. pm: 10 miles
Sat am: 3 miles warm up, 6x1km averaging 2:45, 3 miles warm down
Sun am: 20 miles. pm: Cambridge road relays fastest lap of 15:30
Mon am: 10 miles
Tue am: 8 miles. pm: 9 miles inc. 20x1min off 30sec jog
Wed am: 4 miles. pm: 8 miles in heavy snow
Thu am: 4 miles. pm: 9 miles inc. 8x3min off 2min jog
Fri am: 8 miles pm: flight to Rome
Sat am: 7 miles
Sun pm: Ostia 28km race in Rome (1:24:42)
April (week before the marathon)
Sun: 11 miles
Mon: 14 miles (start of carb-depletion)
Tue: 15x200m off 200m jog in marathon racing shoes
Wed: 9 miles (end of carb-depletion & start of carb loading)
Thu: 7 miles
Fri: 5 miles
Sat: 4 miles
Sun: London marathon victory in 2:09:43