John Dowling RIP – Ireland and Sheffield’s Legendary Race Walker

The year was 1963. My first encounter with John came, sponge and drink in hand, at the Halfway House, Chorley, living up to its name on the road from Manchester to Blackpool. ‘Paddy’, as he was affectionately but problematically labelled in those days, eyes twinkling, thanked me graciously for my trouble as I chased up the road to rescue the precious sponge. In the surreal surroundings of Blackpool’s Winter Gardens, he sought me out to offer his thanks afresh, stressing the importance of roadside support in long-distance races. I took this to heart and rarely missed playing this role over the ensuing decades of the North’s Blue Riband event.

The start of the 1965 TT Walk. courtesy of Guy Goodair, who is already up the road on his way to victory. John [11] is flanked by Albert Johnson and Norman Hopkinson with John Eddershaw [10] close behind. I’m the tall figure in white with a mop of black hair on the right.

Two years later, just turned 18, I found myself racing in John’s company the Isle of Man TT Open Walk, 37.75 miles in length. Having coaxed me along John broke away on the long climb up to the Bungalow [1360 ft] but I held him to about four minutes as we finished just over 7 hours. Post-race he was sure I had a future in the longer events. He could not have been more mistaken. The TT Walk remains the longest I ever completed. in the ensuing years, he chided me on that account, mixed in with dressing room banter about the superiority over all-comers of his beloved Sheffield United Harriers.

Thanks again to Guy Goodair. John in the hooped SUH shirt leads out a Wakefield 6 miles race in 1961.

As the years passed I followed John’s exploits with awe from afar but didn’t expect to see him again. Then, in 2016. our paths crossed unexpectedly. Trevor McDermot had invited him to be guest of honour at Yorkshire Race Walking Club’s Festival of Walking held in the picturesque village of Kirkby Fleetham. By chance, I was back in England on one of my occasional trips from Crete, racing, as you might glean, the 10 rather than the 50 kilometres. John didn’t hold it against me. As I wrote at the time,

It was a joy to see him again, humble and humorous as ever, and swap tales about the great tussles in the past between our club and Sheffield United Harriers, now sadly, only a proud name in the history of our sport. And to remember again, John’s amazing long-distance feats. For example, he once raced four 200 plus kilometre European events on successive weekends – utterly magnificent, utterly bonkers!

Thanks to Trevor McDermot for this wonderfully atmospheric photo of John

In addition, for the first time, I learned of John’s musical talents, his love of the Celtic tradition and I shared my affection for Cretan folk music and song. We joked that I must visit Sheffield for the ‘crack’ and in return, we would venture together into the Cretan mountains to ‘dance’ to the sound of the lyra

Returning to the roads I am grateful to Tim Erickson. the Australian historian of our sport, for permission to reproduce his brilliant piece on John’s outstanding career. He leans on the beautiful and moving podcast created by John’s niece, Madge O’Callaghan, which can still be listened to here.

MY UNCLE JACK

Brian Eley [18] leads John [89] at the start of what we think is the 1969 London -Brighton race, Thanks to Ron Wallwork for the Jim Comber photo.
John with Mick Hague at the Bradord 50 km Centenary. Ta to Ron Wallwork

Guy Goodair – I can remember John telling me that he never finished a Strasbourg to Paris because he was on a ‘wing and prayer’ with only one attendant and by the time he got to the Champagne region the offers of champagne refreshment were too good to resist!

Kath Crilley – So many good memories of Paddy. I only met Paddy in the early 1990s and I stand in awe of his many achievements. I am also gathering tributes toads to “Paddy’s page” on the Centurions Worldwide website. I will link to other websites to give a full picture of Paddy’s life.

Peter Fawkes – It’s worth reading the article on Paddy penned by Tim Erikson to understand fully what a great man he was. R.I.P.

Bob Dobson – One of the ALL-TIME GREATS. Happy memories.

Ray Flynn – R.I.P. John. Was a teammate on the Irish Race Walking team. He was so proud to represent the country of his birth. Proud Waterford man.

Trevor McDermot – Sad news. Such a legendary walker and personality. Our thoughts and condolences to the family. RIP John 🙁

Rob Elliott – Rest in Peace, John

Edwin Bowlah – My deepest condolences 🙏🙏to the family and friends from Trinidad.

Jim Sheehan – A great long-distance Walker and a true Gentleman may he rest in peace.

Patrick Furey – RIP John, I had the honour of accompanying him To France 🇫🇷 on many occasions back in the 1970s to participate in village race walking events As we always stayed with guest family’s he made sure he had his harmonica with him and a good time was had by all – not forgetting a bottle of POWERS for the family. He held icon status in France 🇫🇷 and was loved by all.

Thanks to Helen Elleker for this cutting from the Sheffield Star, December 24, 1996

Nathan Adams – I remember this article, it really inspired me at the time, and now. Really sad news.

Dave Turner – Saddened, to hear the news. Always, Will Remember suddenly finding myself in his company. Helping John up 30+ STEEP stairs at the entrance to Roubaix Town Hall for the presentation. Just a few hours after athletes had finished the famous gruelling international Ultra-Distance event. [I kid you not, ask any, who have been this way] I will always recall him telling me not to call him ‘Pa….’ When I asked him his thoughts about that. ‘LABEL’ – that occasionally attributed to him in reports and comments. Had met the guy at many previous Yorkshire/ Northern events so was in awe of his pedigree. He will always be remembered as a quality ultra-distance specialist – from a club that produced many Olympians/Internationals at all levels. Great, likeable guy to be in the company of and talk to. I forget the year. I was there for the experience as a ‘feeder’. Well worth doing if you get the chance or indeed at any National 100 miles event. Rest in Peace, John.

Martin Payne – I never actually met John although we chatted on the phone before my Centurion in 2015. He was very encouraging and although I knew he’d done “some long distance stuff” I had no idea just how much. He was so modest. I recall from the LWC website something that he wrote following the death of Colin Young : “May his God hold him in the hollow of his hand”. That seems entirely appropriate for John too.

Roger Mills – . Gentle on the outside,hard as nails inside! A privilege to have benefitted from his smile! Great man.

Chris Bolton – I am deeply saddened to learn of the death of Paddy Dowling. There was a close affinity between Paddy and myself. In the 1962 100 miles event Paddy and I finished together in the same time and so Paddy is Centurion 331 and I am 332. Such a bond could never be broken. I had the greatest respect and affection for Paddy; he was true sportsman. I recall that we were stride for stride at 15 miles in a Northern 20 miles Championship one year when his attendant asked if he needed a drink. I was starting to flag and asked Paddy if his attendant could find a drink for me. His answer was typical of him “there’ll be big trouble if he won’t” Paddy knew that without the drink he would beat me. After nearly sixty years I have never forgotten that moment. Incidentally, I was his attendant on the Strasbourg to Paris event. Happy memories but tinged with sadness of a truly great sportsman.

If anyone wishes to add a memory and/or photo, send to tonymtaylor@gmail.com

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A TRIBUTE PAGE has been opened at johndowling.muchloved.com.

Here you can leave thoughts, images and make a donation to St. Luke’s Hospice, Sheffield.

You will also find details of a link to a live webcast of the funeral if you are not able to be there in person,

The Funeral service is at Hutcliffe Wood Crematorium on Friday 11th March 2022 at 11am

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