Derek Graham Interview

Big 'D', distinguished ambassador of Irish athletics throughout the 1960s.

“Hey son you are over striding, you will never make it as a runner”. Often in our day-to-day lives, we make simple observations, some are accurate, some not so. In the case of Derek Graham, this was terribly inaccurate!

Before I interviewed Derek Graham, I was conversant with the pedigree of the man; sub 4-minute miler, Olympic representative and 2nd in the International Cross Country. However, I came away from the interview privileged to have spent a few hours with an immensely talented and such a natural athlete. I found it fascinating discussing Derek’s athletics world, one so different to the professional one, which exists today. Derek’s credentials certainly place him as Northern Irelands greatest ever distance runner and arguably Northern Ireland’s greatest ever athlete. He was ranked number 1 in U.K. and Ireland over 2 miles/3000m, 3 miles/5000m and cross-country at various periods in the 1960’s.

The Beginning.

“I had a slight involvement at school, partially as an alternative to rugby, however nothing really more than that. Though on one occasion instead of playing rugby, I went for a run with a fella who was regarded as being ‘the big cheese’ at school, as he competed for Co. Antrim Harriers. After a short time, he failed to stay up with me. So, that was a learning experience for the both of us! I really wanted to be a cyclist, as I was mesmerized by the Tour de France, but in the end it was much easier to acquire a pair of running shoes. When I worked for the Co-operative Insurance Society, I was asked to run for them in a sports competition. I agreed and did well, and then 9th Old Boys signed me up, I was just 17 years old. My first main event was the Larne Relays on the novice team, when I managed to break the record for the 2 mile lap. That race was in October 1958.”

Most memorable races/disappointments.

“The International cross country in Rabat, Morocco in 1966 (later to be recognised as the World Cross country) was a race I remember for both good and bad reasons. I managed to get Silver; Fair enough, it’s excellent in itself but to come within seven seconds of Gold that was something. From the start the odds were pretty much stacked against me, in that the eventual winner Ben Assou El Ghazi had been given six months leave from work to train and prepare on the course. Meanwhile, I departed from Belfast with snow all around to arrive a day later in Rabat with temperatures well into the 90s (Fahrenheit). The course had around four steeplechase barriers on each lap and the problem for me was that I couldn’t hurdle over them. So I led into the hurdles, put my foot on top and then came away from them a few metres down! El Ghazi lived in Rabat and was an Olympic steeplechaser! I was disappointed not to win gold but sadly it wasn’t to be. Incidentally, I was selected for nine consecutive International Cross Country Championships from 1962 to 1970 and my best finishes were 5th, 8th and 11th.”

However, in 1967 I was pleased to win the La Voix du Nord- Voice of the North cross-country race, a big International race in France. The victory was well received in Ireland as it was the first Irish victory abroad in cross-country for over 20 years and the competition was top class.

The Olympics of 1964 in Toyko was my first taste of big time track athletics, what a place to start! I had hoped to compete at the 1962 Commonwealth Games however indecision and conflicts of interest between the selectors meant that neither Colin Shillington nor myself got to go. After having said all my goodbyes and received the many plaudits of well wishes, the Great Britain team stayed at Portsmouth before heading for Tokyo. Here I started to wear a new pair of Adidas shoes, and these tragically gave me shin splints and at one stage I thought my Games were even in doubt. I literally couldn’t walk, never mind run! So this meant that I had lost about two weeks of precious training. I ended up running 14.20 in the 5,000m and failed to qualify for the final. Had I been fit, I would certainly have had a fine chance of progressing, as I had been running much faster all that year. The experience though was brilliant. We came out of a tunnel in the bowels of the stadium and the arena just opened up. There was reputed to be 100,000 spectators plus worldwide television coverage.”

“I had planned to go to the 1968 Olympics and in the selection race in order to beat the qualifying time I led for 11 out of the 12 and a half laps. I was beaten into third in the run in and was issued with the consolatory ‘non travelling reserve’ label! One British athlete was already selected and the fact that I was unable to get time off work to attend an altitude training camp earlier that year made all the difference.”

“In the 1966 European Championships over 5,000m, I was unfortunate to end in the worst possible position with a 4th. I was very disappointed but Michael Jazy, Harold Norpoth and Bernd Diessner were just too good on the day. I was pipped for the bronze medal by 0.2 of a second! Actually, Diessner and I dead-heated in the heat and so over the two races there was only 0.2 of a difference between us. I clocked 13.48.0, which was well inside the previous record.”

“There was also the 1966 Commonwealth Games in Kingston, Jamaica with 8th place in the 3 mile and 5th in the mile, in which I recorded the first sub 4 minute mile by a Northern Ireland runner. The assembled fields were particularly strong so 8th position behind such illustrious stars as Keino, Clarke, Rushmer, Temu, McCafferty, Taylor and Wilkinson in 13.18.6 was a solid performance. In 1967 at the Zurich International race, I recorded an excellent victory over the American Gerry Lindgren and Gaston Roelants over 5,000m, winning in 13.51.6. Lindgren was in super form as he had broken the World 10,000m record two weeks earlier and Roelants was an Olympic Champion and World Record holder in the 3000m steeplechase.”

“I raced many times on the White City track in London; it was nice as it was the best we had in Great Britain and there was often a good, supportive crowd. In this particular race in 1965, there was a certain amount of pressure as it was being televised. After only one stride in the 2 mile race, I got spiked and the actual spikes aren’t like today, they were huge to accommodate the cinder track. After a few laps, I could feel my foot sliding around and I knew this meant a lot of blood! I managed to make it into the last lap and pipped the Belgian Allonsius to record a new British record of 8.33.8. I was immediately taken away by Red Cross and given a tetanus injection!”

“I won 8 Northern Ireland Senior Cross Country Championships, and there could easily have been more, no disrespect to the other competitors but on a few other occasions, international duty coincided with the event. Often, I was able to win these quite easily, sometimes by more than a minute. With regards to All-Ireland medals, to be honest I haven’t got an accurate number, however I must have somewhere around the region of 10 or so, between cross-country and track. As for Northern Ireland Golds, the figure must be in the region of 30 to 40, with a combination of individual and team ones over cross-country and track.”

“I thoroughly enjoyed cross-country running, the variety of courses conditions, as opposed to the track. To me, position meant everything, fast times were a bonus and this was particularly pertinent over the country. In 1966, I was pleased to be ranked number one in the British Cross Country rankings by Athletics Weekly. This was the first occasion ever that someone outside of England actually achieved this distinction, its always nice to break new ground! Even though I was the first person from Northern Ireland to eclipse the 4-minute barrier for the mile, it didn’t really matter to me that much, with all true respect to Sir Roger Bannister. I felt that it had elevated status from the public eye view. To me, the mile wasn’t too difficult. When you remember that I was running 5,000m, 10,000m and 9 miles of cross-country, then the mile was a relatively short distance and recovery from the mile race was quicker than from the longer events. The third lap would always be the hard bit and then I knew that the fervour of the last lap with the crowd would get you home.”

“I once also finished runner-up in under 4 minutes in the very famous Emsley Carr mile. This is a race where all the competitors over the years sign a book. One of the victories I most enjoyed was in the All-Ireland 3 mile championship in 1966. Tom O’Riordan was a great rival of mine who was studying in the U.S.A. On the drive down in the car, I heard on the radio that another Irish runner Jim Hogan had smashed the Irish record with 13.24, whilst competing at the White City. I had a battle with Tom O’Riordan, eventually winning a new Irish record of 13.18.4, for me this was an improvement from 13.52. Hogan’s record had lasted for around two and a half hours! My time was a then 4th fastest in the world, that year.”

“In California, I finished 4th in the American Indoor Championship 3 mile event in 13.25.8 which was a new European Record.”

“Probably the most pivotal disappointment happened at the 1970 Commonwealth Games. There was a virus going around the village and I had run in the 10,000m establishing a new Northern Ireland record of 29.00.6 minutes and also qualified for the 5000m final. After the race I just didn’t feel right, I felt light headed, breathless and very tired and the doctor advised me to pull out of the 5000m final. However, I foolishly ignored the advice and ran. Putting your body under immense stress like running is demanding enough but to do it with a serious virus is dangerous. My condition eventually developed into chronic fatigue and then ultimately into Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (M.E.) which was diagnosed fifteen years ago. Now I also have cardiac problems and in 1999 was fitted with a pacemaker. Due to this illness, in 1970 my serious competitive running career ended.”


“In Ireland my main rival was Tom O’Riordan both on the country and the track. The all Ireland cross-country championships were always highly competitive events. In Great Britain, there were plenty of rivals to take on. In those days the standard of British distance running was very strong; names like, Hill, Boulter, Tulloh, Stewart, Alder, McCafferty, Tagg, Murray, Heatley, the North brothers, and Fowler all immediately spring to mind.”

“As for my heroes, it was really between Herb Elliott, Ron Clarke and Michel Jazy. They were absolutely class, with Jazy in particular being so smooth, and he had such a devastating finish. It was such an experience being able to race against athletes of this caliber. Gaston Roelands was another I admired especially for his exploits over the country.”

Countries/places raced.

“I was very fortunate to be able to compete in many different countries, this was such an enriching experience for a young Belfast boy. Places I competed (some several times each year) included:

  • Austria
  • Israel
  • Belgium
  • Jamaica
  • Canada
  • Spain
  • Czechoslovakia
  • Sweden
  • France
  • Switzerland
  • Finland
  • Tokyo
  • Germany
  • USA
  • Hungary
  • Yugoslavia
  • All of the Home Counties, too often to count!

“I liked to get out about 6 days a week and never trained twice a day. 10 and 5 milers were a stable part of my training with many strides throughout the duration of the runs. This gave me the stamina and at the same time it worked at speed and speed endurance. My runs were always tempo, never slow paced. When training, we would be out for a long run and then I would suggest doing a stride to a specific lamppost. When we were almost there, I would then say, ok continue to the next one? Things like that happened often. We played around and had fun at the same time. On occasions, I would go out for a run myself and then meet up with the boys at the club for another run later on. I was self-coached and did pretty much what my club team mates did. There was nothing scientific or startling to my training, as I couldn’t even tell you about any specific training sessions that stick out in my memory! Many times when I went to compete at the White City, I would hear the mutterings from the likes of Hill, Stewart and so on of how many miles they had trained each week. Sometimes they would say 100, other times 160, I would suddenly question my being there. After all, I had probably only done about 60 odd mile each week, 70 at the very, very most. When I was doing the indoor races in the winter, I would occasionally nip into Ormeau Park and do 150m sprints in the dark with a 30 sec recovery, this would be repeated about 30 times. I trained a few times with the great long distance runner Derek Clayton, who was Northern Ireland raised and then immigrated to Australia. He achieved worldwide recognition in 1967 for running the marathon in 2.09.36, bettering the previous best by almost three minutes. On one occasion we were out, I noticed that he continually looked down at my feet and naturally this puzzled me. I queried why and he explained that he wanted to achieve the same stride cadence as me! Even then I knew he had the ability to be good but to record such a time for the marathon well that was something else all those years ago. Before leaving for Australia we contested many races, which he managed to win but I could see that he was improving.”

Personal bests
  • 1 mile – 3.59.2 (eclipsed the 4-minute barrier on 3 occasions) – Northern Ireland record
  • 3000m – 8.03 – Irish record
  • 2 miles – 8.33.8 – U.K/Irish record
  • 3 miles – 13.15.6 recorded in the same race that Ron Clarke broke the World record and I was the first British runner. Irish record
  • 5000m – 13.41.4 – Irish record
  • 6 miles – 28.40.6 – Northern Ireland record
  • 10,000m – 29.00.06 – Northern Ireland record
  • Half marathon – 1hr 3 mins 53 – WORLD RECORD
  • 15 mile road – 1hr 13 mins 45 – Irish record

“With the mile upwards really being my preferred events, I didn’t compete too often over the shorter distances and consequently do not have established times. I do recall running 1.50 for the half-mile in a 9th Old boys club race. Whilst representing Great Britain in the heats of the Europa Cup, I finished the last 800m of the 5000m in 1.55.6 in the 90º Fahrenheit heat of Zagreb. I also recall running the final 200m of a 5000m in 25 seconds and also a 53 last lap again in a 5000m.

In 1970, a time that I am particularly pleased about was for a 15-mile road race which started in North Belfast and headed out to Chimney Corner and back. The hills on the Ballygomartin Road were testing but I still managed to run 1 hour 13 mins. 45 sec, which improved my own record for this race by almost three minutes. In 1970, I won a half marathon from Belfast to Lisburn and back, clocking 1hour 3mins 53 sec which up to that date in the season was the fastest in the world. It was only years later that I realised it had been a world record that had eclipsed the time of 64.45 by the great Ron Hill. My world record lasted for six years until it was beaten by Juan Perez.”

Athletes that still keep in touch with

“I don’t really keep in touch with many; over the years it’s not easy, though Jim McNamara who competed for Ireland is one. We still send each other Christmas cards and that sort of thing. Many years ago, we were running in Spain and contesting the lead when I suddenly got a stitch and motioned Jim to head on. As we knew each other well, he encouraged me to hang in as the field was gradually catching us. Well thankfully we both managed to get to the finishing funnel still fractionally in the lead. At the mouth of the funnel, Jim gently pushed me in front of him and said that if he could not beat me when I was fit then he didn’t want to when I wasn’t. I thought this was an incredible example of the man’s integrity.”

If you were to do things again.

“When I reflect on my athletics career, I realise it was all achieved in pretty much the true climate of being an amateur. Compared to athletes that are produced from Northern Ireland of the modern era, I achieved quite a lot. If I were to do things again I would take it a lot more seriously and train harder. I achieved what I did by the minimum of efforts. Had I trained harder, with a proper structured training regime in place well then who knows what ultimately I could have achieved. However, I trained in the circumstances and climate of my era. I had a full time job whereas today’s athletes are going full time with all the lottery finances available to them and sponsorships. I can recall many a time returning from a days work, having dinner then spending a few minutes with my daughter before quickly heading out to train in the dark on the busy. There was many an occasion that I was sick on the run, as I didn’t give sufficient time for my dinner to digest. Nowadays, if someone is selected to represent their county at the Olympic or the Commonwealth Games it is celebrated, often their work or business will attract a little publicity so they may be sympathetic for time off for competition. However, in my day asking for time off for sport had the potential to cause problems. You just couldn’t take a large amount of time out of work. So things could become complicated. Early in my career I had an offer to attend Illinois University and later Villanova and I declined both. This was the wrong decision but understandable for someone who had never been out of Northern Ireland before and who knows what may have happened had I gone. Now athletes have never had it so good. The diets, the facilities, the equipment, the tracks, pacemakers, it’s all in their favour. For me things had simply to be done the hard way.”

The old adage that every man runs his race in his own time is certainly applicable to Derek Graham, who graced the Irish, British, European and World athletics scene with distinction over five decades ago. He ran many a fine race, and his times are certainly a testament to his exploits on the track, road and over the country. Although Derek forged an impressive latter career as a veteran, it’s the Derek Graham of the 60’s that we must celebrate and bestow our total respect. With a wealth of experience and knowledge, I just wonder how often the local athletics’ fraternity takes the opportunity to benefit from a man of his stature, in this age of ever decreasing standards.

I wish to acknowledge Derek for generously giving up his time for this interview and for unreservedly assisting me with the necessary information. You have my sincere gratitude.

© Keith McClure