By Myles Edwards
Cast your mind back to 1967. Labour were in power in the United Kingdom. War in the Middle East was causing conflict in the western world. Casino Royale was a box office hit. Mini skirts were the craze. Ken Barlow was strutting his stuff in one of the nation’s favourite soap operas. Some things never change……some things.
Mel Edwards is a former British marathon international runner with a personal best time of 2hours 18minutes 24seconds (set in 1967), and is widely regarded as one of the most inspiring, modest and popular coaches in the running fraternity.
Born in December 1942, he graduated in Civil Engineering from Cambridge University in 1966 and has since enjoyed a great deal of success in the world of distance running. In a career which has spanned over 40 years, Mel has endured a roller coaster of ‘injuries’ and success at every level from club competitions to international level. Detailed and accurate training diaries have been kept, which show he has racked up a total of over 100,000 miles of running!
Mel Edwards at Font Romeu, high altitude training camp 2008
Following receiving his second Cambridge ‘blue’ for his exploits on the track he went on to bigger and better things in 1967. It was quite literally a record breaking year for Mel. He impressively broke the Scottish 6 mile record – whilst finishing 2nd to Lachie Stewart, but went one step higher on the podium in the English universities 3 mile race by cracking the previous record. 1967 saw him really flourish as an athlete, most notably in the marathon distance of 26.2 miles. In his first attempt at the event, Mel ran away from his rivals early on to win the Harlow marathon and climb to 4th in the British rankings. To cap it all off, he narrowly missed out on the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, by 2 places.
What contributed to this large amount of success in a sport, which, at the time was highly competitive in the UK? In an answer that was oozing with Mel’s typical, determined attitude, he said:
“It was down to single minded focus on getting the best out of myself, by doing the work and when injured leaving no stone unturned to find the solution.”
Renowned for his training regimes of around 100miles per week, what makes Mel stand out is his positive attitude and dogged determination to get the best possible outcome from everything he does.
In November 2006, aged almost 64, Mel underwent a MRI scan for lower back pain. 45 minutes later he was diagnosed with Myeloma, an incurable but very treatable form of bone marrow cancer. After numerous treatments and minor disruptions to work, 8 months later he was back to full-time work as a chartered road safety engineer and running over 20 miles per week. His reaction following the diagnosis typified his personality traits.
“Those are malignancies, cancer”, said Dr. Frank Smith. Much to the doctor’s amazement, Mel’s immediate reaction was not to be shocked but “I’ve got a big cross country race coming up soon.”
When asked if he felt his attitude and fitness achieved from competitive sport had helped him face cancer head on, Mel’s response was definitive:
“There is no question these elements made fighting myeloma much easier. I would hate to have had to deal with it if I had never had to show determination in my life due to things coming too easily. Certainly fitness means that you have a built-in reserve which can be used to deal with additional stresses.”
It is this attitude which has served Mel so well throughout his life and during the treatment. An inspiration to many, but what makes this inspirational character tick?
“I am inspired by the opportunities available to do constructive things, such as helping people with their athletics aims and trying to make roads safer in my working capacity. These aims, when carried through, give people a feel-good factor.”
British marathon running was booming in the late 1960s and continued to do so for the best part of the following two decades. In 1968 there were only 2 countries to have more than 3 runners faster than Mel – Japan and UK, which, looking at today’s standards makes him look rather unlucky at missing out on competing at an Olympic Games. But it is evident that excuses, simply, aren’t in his nature.
In 1968, 46 UK men broke the 2hours 30 minutes barrier. In 2007, only 31 men managed to achieve this feat. With all the advances in footwear, nutrition and training tools, as well as even faster role models, albeit almost all from other countries – why is there such a decline in British marathon running standards?
Mel’s opinion on the decline is, again, filled with absolute clarity:
“It is down to distance runners not putting in the work they did 40 years ago. You have to be totally dedicated to getting the mileage in and choosing the right races. Between 1966 and 1984, in Aberdeen alone, there were ten guys faster than 2 hours 20 minutes for the marathon.”
For many people, it is intriguing to find out what gets an athlete through long runs without boredom setting in. For Mel, it is simple:
“I really enjoy the challenge of distance and time. The fact that others with an aim to be in the top echelons of marathon or cross country running in the UK, were doing similar training also gave me a desire to be the best.”
A common site in elite marathons. (World record holder Haile Gebrselassie 3rd from right)
The lack of top marathon runners in the UK today is in stark contrast to the likes of Kenya, Ethiopia and America. For Mel, in the late 60s and 70s you only had to turn up for a local race to compete with or witness elite athletes in action. Therefore can the lack of male distance running role models in the UK be a factor in the decline of standards? Perhaps so, but with Mel’s philosophy, it is very likely that all smaller factors would subsequently fall into place.
“More role models would emerge as a result of increased hard work from individual athletes. To be the best, you must learn from, and work harder than those faster than you.”
His fair, no nonsense attitude spans far wider than himself or anyone who has had the pleasure of meeting him. For those who are not familiar with the name, Oscar Pistorious, he is a South African Paralympic runner, known as the “Blade Runner”. He is the double amputee world record holder in the 100, 200 and 400 metres and runs with the aid of carbon-fibre limbs, attached from the knee down. In 2007 Pistorious took part in his first international able-bodied competitions. However, the International Association of Athletics Federations (with their typical Rubix Cube-like mindset) ruled that his lower leg, artificial limbs gave him an unfair advantage over able-bodied athletes and subsequently banned him from competing under their rules. Thankfully this decision has since been reversed and he is eligible to compete in able-bodied Olympic competition.
Mel’s opinion on Oscar Pistorious’ situation not only demonstrates his love of a challenge but also seems to apply common sense to some harsh obstacles which had previously been placed in the path of the young South African’s destiny.
“I believe he should be allowed to compete at the highest level possible. He is not far off the top able bodied 400m runners and relishes the challenge of competing against them. Why deny him the chance? He deserves the opportunity to enjoy himself as he wishes and I see this taking precedence over views of others on his actions.”
The British male marathon running scene offers little sign of competing at the front of world class racing. At 67, Mel Edwards shows less chance of slowing down than Formula 1 cars and even less likelihood of quitting than Ken Barlow: “I have no reason to stop. I feel good and it is exciting.”
Some things never change.