REMINISCENCES 7 – Roy Gunnett remembers Harold Whitlock, Don Thompson, Phil Embleton and much more

Roy in the performance, which gave him the greatest satisfaction – National 50k, 2015

What prompted you to take up race walking?  When and where was your first race?

The main prompt for me to take up race walking was watching some walking races at Crystal Palace in the late 60’s and early 1970’s where the likes of Paul Nihill and Phil Embleton were competing.  I had always been somewhat obsessed with athletics, middle and long distance running in particular, and living in the London area I never missed an opportunity to watch top class meetings at Crystal Palace.  During these meetings they would quite often put on a walk as well and watching these is what got me hooked.  The walkers seemed to demonstrate more of a ‘do or die’ attitude than the runners.  Even before this time I had greatly admired the exploits of Don Thompson, Ken Matthews and Paul Nihill at the Rome and Tokyo Olympics.

With this keenness to have a go at race walking I joined Enfield race walking club in 1972.  I was immediately struck by what a friendly community the race walking fraternity is.  After being shown the ropes on a couple of training spins with Peter Worth I entered my first race – a 3000 metres at Enfield Stadium on 22nd May 1972.  My time was a modest 16.54, however the effort made me physically sick.  The race was won by Amos Seddon.  I followed this up with a 5000 race at Enfield Stadium on 7th June 1972 with a time of 29.06.  My main memory of this race was being in awe of Phil Emblerton as he cruised round in the lead in great style, lapping me time after time.  I think of all the walkers I have watched he impressed me the most and it was such a great tragedy he was struck down so young with a fatal illness.  

I carried on walking around 30 races a year up until 1980 when my job and a young family took precedence over my time.  During this period I first was a member of Enfield Walking Club, then changed to Verlea and was finally with the Metropolitan Walking Club.  In those days I was never what you would call a fast walker – my performances at best were that of an average club walker.  Best times for me in a sample of distances were 41 minutes for 5 miles, 59 minutes for 7 miles, 112 minutes for 20k, 3 hours 9 mins for 20 miles, 3 hours 35 mins for 35k, 5 hours 24 mins for 50k and 9 hours 45 mins for the London to Brighton and the Manchester to Blackpool.

It was a coincidence that I did the same time for the London to Brighton in 1975 and the Manchester to Blackpool in 1976.  

When I look through the results in Race Walking Record in the 1970’s I realise now that in a few of my races I rubbed shoulders with some of the Lancashire Walking Club members I now know.  Little did I realise then I would be coming across these walkers 40 to 50 years on!

I have very fond memories of meeting some great characters in the world of walking back in the 70’s.  How many people can say they attended club meetings with 2 Olympic gold medallists – well I can.  During my time as a member of the Metropolitan Walking Club, club members Don Thompson and Harold Whitlock would attend some of the meetings.  I found it absolutely fascinating talking to these two gold medal winners.  Listening to Harold recounting his experiences at the 1936 Berlin Olympics was pure magic.  Harold very kindly wrote me a training schedule to follow based on my circumstances – this is something I have obviously kept and treasure.

1936 Olympic Games, Berlin, Germany, 6th August 1936, Harold Whitlock of Great Britain takes a drink on his way to winning the 50 Kilometres walk at the Olympic Games in a new olympic rcord of 30 minutes 41 seconds (Photo by Popperfoto via Getty Images/Getty Images)

Hew Neilson (the 24 hour world record holder) was another fascinating character to talk to.  He was very generous with his time and he helped me, along with many others, with good advice etc in my early walking days.  I greatly admired his ‘blood and guts’ attitude to walking – a bit like that of Colin Young.

One of the things I enjoyed about race walking was that unlike most sports you could compete alongside the greats in a race.  Without exception the top walking stars all seemed very happy to mix and socialise with the ‘lower ranks’ prior to and after a race.

After a long period of absence from participating in race walks I joined Lancashire Walking Club in 2008.  During the intervening time I did virtually no race walking – but I did try to keep fit with regular runs (including entering the occasional running race) plus swimming.  It was one of the best decisions of my life to join the Lancashire Walking Club – and I have enjoyed every minute of my association with it.

What’s your  favourite race and why?

I find it difficult to answer this question based on my time with the Lancashire Walking Club as I enjoy all of our venues.  In general I prefer the longer races as I feel you get ‘more for your money’ as the saying goes.  I find it disappointing that there are very few races left in the UK where the distance exceeds 10 miles.  Back in the 1970’s my favourite race was the Leicester Mercury 20 mile race.  The organisation of this race was brilliant – almost on a par with the London Marathon.  With both the club member race and the novice race taking place together you would get an entry for the Leicester Mercury exceeding 300 walkers – compare that with today’s entry sizes!

Which performance has given you the greatest satisfaction?

The performance which has given me the greatest satisfaction was my one in the National 50k RWA championship at Hillingdon in 2015.  Adrian Edwards, Dave Crompton and I comprised the team for the Lancashire Walking Club and we won the team prize.  In addition Adrian was the outright individual winner of the RWA title that year.  The race was particularly satisfying for me as the course and time limit stretched my abilities to the limit.  It was such a pleasure and honour for me to be able to share the National RWA 50k team prize with Adrian and Dave. 

Editor’s Postscript

Upon chatting by phone with Roy it is clear that one of those Crystal Palace eye-openers was the September 1971 Coca-Cola Invitation Meeting. In the 10,000 metres walk that opened the evening Phil Embleton did indeed blast us off the track. However, in his wake, Ron Wallwork finished fourth and yours truly fifth. A few weeks later we were both selected for a GB international versus West Germany, the first and only time our club has provided two representatives at one and the same time for a GB team.

To say the least our efforts were overshadowed on the night by a titanic tussle between two mavericks, Andy Holden and Dave Bedford, both fond of a pint, in the 3, 000 metres steeplechase. Andy wearing proudly his Lancashire vest gained ground over the barriers, Dave, the front runner extraordinaire, clawed back the advantage on the flat. In a pulsating finish, with Ron and I screaming for Andy, Dave lunged for victory in a new UK record. Bedlam prevailed!

It’s no wonder Roy came back for more, especially to see Phil Embleton in full flow. Majestic.

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2 Responses to REMINISCENCES 7 – Roy Gunnett remembers Harold Whitlock, Don Thompson, Phil Embleton and much more

  1. William SUTHERLAND says:

    Great Article by Roy GUNNETT, especially about the Late Great Phil EMBLETON who I raced and trained against regularly. Kind Regards to all in Lancashire and Yorkshire. Thanks for the memories, Bill and Kath Sutherland

    • Tony Taylor says:

      Bill and Kath – Lovely to hear from you. What about a reminiscence from your good self, Bill? I still remember being in Edinburgh 1970 at perhaps your greatest hour. Hoping you’re both in good fettle,
      Tony [the long-lost lad from the late 60s and early 70s!!]

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