Mike Baxter was a regular GB international in the 1970s and is now a coach and Alastair Aitken found out more
Mike Baxter was one of Leeds City’s star athletes from over 40 years ago. In 1968, he was fourth in the AAA 5000m then he had a further breakthrough in the winter where he was second in the 1969 Northern cross-country to Trevor Wright, followed by a sixth place in the National at Parliament Hill to Mike Tagg.
Over this period, Brendan Foster moved to the area and regularly trained with Baxter and Lindsay Dunn and he finally reached international level on the track and made Britain’s team for the 1969 European Championships in Athens.
“Before that I was not in contention for a place in the 5000m. At the last minute, Dick Taylor decided he did not want to double up and it left a spot in the 5000m. ‘British Athletics’ organised a trial race with such athletes as Ian McCafferty, Tagg and John Caine and all these guys and I won it. Because I was a nobody they said: ‘Oh no, we will have another trial’.
“For the next trial, they put me in my first International against France, at the White City Stadium, alongside Dave Bedford and Allan Rushmer, for another run off for third spot and I won that race (13:50.4). They could not leave me out then!”
Although he made the team, it didn’t go well for him, though Britain won two medals as Ian Stewart took gold at the age of 19 in 13:44.8 and Alan Blinston was third in 13:47.6.
“It was a complete disaster. The trouble was I had that many races at such a level and I was wrecked and past my ‘sell by date’. I had gone and just faded,” he recalls after finishing 13th and last in 14:19.0.
It looked promising in June 1970 when he set his 5000m PB of 13:35.2 in the British Games at Edinburgh. But a blood test later showed he had been suffering with glandular fever and he was 14th in the Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh.
He made his third successive championship team in 1971 when he won the AAA 5000m at Crystal Palace in 13:39.6 after David Bedford dropped out with cramp having been on world record pace at 2000m. He fared slightly better at the European Championships in Helsinki, finishing 11th in 13:43.2 as Juha Vaatainen completed the distance double in 13:32.6.
He was not close to making the 1972 Olympic team but did have the race of his life two years later when he won a 10,000m in 28:16.0 in Hannover in May 1974.
“It was my best ever race and the first race of the track season. There was a huge field. I won it with a last 800m in 1:59. I was absolutely flying.”
It proved to be his last top-class race.
He said: “Ten days later our first child was born. My training just went down, as you just do not get any sleep. My wife Jill was brilliant and looked after our daughter Carolyn. I just went over the hill that year, did not make the European team despite the 28:16, and from then my running went downhill because I got a job working for adidas at trade shows so could not train properly.”
There was one important notable performance though later that year, when he paced the first half of his former training partner Foster’s 7:35.2 world record 3000m at Gateshead.
Despite his success on the track, it was not his favourite surface – “I came from a cross country background so I have to say cross country.’
Baxter, pictured above with Lindsay Dunn and Brendan Foster at a snowy National Cross in Sunderland in 2013, was a regular member of England’s international team and in 1969, he was 32nd in Glasgow in 1969 and after a fifth in the 1970 National, he was 14th in the International in Vichy.
He explains: “It was Trevor Wright, Dick Taylor, Mike Tagg, Ricky Wilde, Mike Turner and me. John Caine, Ron Grove and the young Dave Bedford did not make the counting six that day.”
He was 42nd in the inaugural IAAF World Cross Country Championships, the successor to the International, in 1973 at Waregem.
The cheerful Baxter began running at school and says: “The games master found that I could run a bit rather than play rugby so I took it up for three or four years at school. Then I joined a club called Leeds & St Marks Harriers.
“Back in the 1960s there were three clubs in Leeds and Leeds St Marks amalgamated in 1967 with Leeds Athletics Club and Hare Hills. Then we became Leeds City Athletics Club.”
Apart from his success at running, he also enjoyed success at coaching.
He guided Andy Rodgers to multiple English Schools titles, including a 5:49.7 steeplechase win in 1982 and coached John Doherty from when he was 16 to nearly 23.
Doherty won the National Junior cross-country title at Parliament Hill in 1981 and ran 13:14.17 for 5000m and was ninth in the Olympics in Seoul 28 years ago.
“I coached John before he went to America. In those days, there was no way of contacting people, No mobiles or Skype. He decided then that he knew what he needed to do and continued to coach himself on the principals I coached him.”
Baxter added: “When I got early retirement from work I took on James Walsh in his late 20s and got him down from 14:09 to 13.39.23 for 5000m. “
He currently coaches Racheal Bamford, who was seventh in the Commonwealth Games steeplechase in 2014, and Claire Duck, who was second in the National at Castle Donington.
Baxter said: “Claire is 31 now. I started coaching her four years ago. She retired from athletics in her mid-20s. She had been to an American college and they crucified her. She came back totally disillusioned, drained, broken and packed in athletics for 18 months but, then about four years ago, she just jogged to keep fit. She got in touch with Lindsay Dunn.
“She said: ‘I want to start running again – is there anyone in the Leeds area you can recommend?’ Lindsay, who is a friend of mine, said: ‘Get in touch with Mike Baxter’. She had to spend a couple of years working through the time she was still broken. She managed to get her job sorted out and was able to then run after work as with her job, with the NHS, she was working in the radiology department, doing night shifts and trying to train round that so, she never really fulfilled her potential.
“But now she has no shift work, was second in the National, and has the confidence to challenge some of the better girls. Even though she is 31, she will still be able to have another good three or four years.”
He admits he enjoys coaching. “I love it. All the seven years I worked at adidas and 14 years at Nike and four at Fila, always travelling around with the companies I could not coach or get involved, but I had to do it because it was my job. When I retired I had nothing to do but I still kept running a little bit.’
He added: “I do all my coaching at Leeds Met Carnegie. The atmosphere there it is not central with any club but good groups of athletes. We get on and all talk about sessions. I had only been going up there for 2-3 weeks when one of the first coaches I met was Malcolm Brown, who coaches Alistair and Jonny Brownlee and, he knew James Walsh.
“In only a couple of weeks he was letting me take the sessions he had prepared for Alistair and Jonny. He would tell them, ‘Go and do the session that Mike set’ He said, ‘I want to look after the girls and you look after the guys’.
“James Walsh, Alistair and Jonny Brownlee were in the group for the sessions I took.”
There isn’t anyone who regards Mike Baxter as a nobody now.