Tony Berry: Defying age one race at a time

Tony Berry: Defying age one race at a time

Interview & Photography: Cameron Hanson

One of Cornwall’s most inspiring runners, Tony Berry discusses his life long addiction to running and gives an insight into what 70 years of running has taught him.

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Tony speaks about the Looe 10 miler:

Hillish and hellish says it all. Probably the toughest of the shorter distance events in a county where almost every race is laughingly described as “undulating”. Despite so many years of running, hills had not been a big feature until I returned to Cornwall ten or so years ago. I thought the Treggy 7 and the Imerys Half were tough, but the Looe 10 is even more so. Still I remain in awe of those who tackle such events as the RAT, the Arc of Attrition and the Grizzly, even if I tend to see them more as tests of endurance rather than athletic (i.e. running) prowess. The only comparable experience for me was the Mount Kinabalu Climbathon in Malaysia – a race to the 13,000-foot summit (and back) of South East Asia’s highest mountain

Do you remember your first race? Was this what triggered your passion for running?

The memories have long faded. What I do recall was that it was teeming with rain and a totally new experience. It simply appeared as an inter-schools’ cross-country race on the sports programme at Gravesend Grammar School one Wednesday afternoon and we were ordered to run. So, I did. What still rankles is that I was well ahead at the end but as I neared the tape I slowed to wait for my classmates so that we could cross the line together – and I got placed third!

With that first run I found something I enjoyed and that I could do with reasonable success. When I look back down the years it seems it was something that I did; I couldn’t help myself. An addiction even. Occasionally I would say “stuff it”, ignore any sort of training (which was pretty minimal anyway) and even go on the tear with many boozy and sleepless nights, big hangovers and general loose living. Hey, this was the notorious 60s after all. But always there came a time when I simply had to put on the trainers and churn out a few more miles.

Can talk us through your “career” as a runner?

I’ve never really looked upon it as a “career”, which implies some degree of dedication and determination. I sometimes feel that perhaps if I had applied myself, I might have made my mark at national or even international level instead of waiting until my twilight years to be selected to run for the national team.

There was a period in the ‘50s and ‘60s when I was running for Oxford City and mixing it with the likes of Pirie, Chataway, Brasher and others of that golden era. But they trained seriously and purposefully; I did it spasmodically and for fun. It was only when in my forties that it became a serious part of my life (mid-life crisis?). Instead of being a useful team member at club level, I began winning as an individual.

That phrase “The loneliness of the long-distance runner” took on a personal meaning. Running was a release, an escape; and the euphoria of winning and setting records was merely a bonus. Occasionally I hit the “runner’s high”, that strange out-of-body experience that is weird yet wonderful, almost magical, even spiritual.

Strangely, getting older seemed to be no barrier, especially with the development of Masters’ Athletics and the chance to compete within one’s own age group.

The threshold between mucking about to getting serious was crossed in six memorable days in June 1978. Until then I had only attempted two marathons – as a 29-year-old mile and three-mile runner stupidly tackling the notorious Isle of Wight race in 1964 (an inglorious DNF at 22 miles) and in Melbourne in 1977 with a 3:19:26 finish.

A year on, age 43, I ran the Victorian Marathon Club’s event in 2:59:15. I was so delighted to have broken the three-hour barrier that six days later I competed, still a total novice, over the same course to finish in 2:48:55. And so began my love affair with marathons (with plenty of half marathons in between). Since then there have been more than fifty. This is not a huge number when set alongside the many completed by those who go from marathon to marathon like a wartime air ace chalking up “kills” on his plane’s fuselage.  But only a handful went over the three-hour mark, and those were usually run in truly adverse conditions.

Dislike of standing around for ages while herded into pens and  doing that slow walk to the start means I have avoided the big city races apart from London, which I did as a 57-year-old in 2:59:01. The much smaller field of the Melbourne Marathon lured me back on several occasions to the extent that over the years I have won all age groups up to the M65 (in 2:52:47).

There have been silver and bronze medals at World Masters Games but never a gold. The last was a bronze (3:16:30) in the M65 group in 2001. This was when I decided it was time I kept a promise I made to myself to stop marathons once I took more than three hours. A promise I broke at age 78 in Manchester in 2014 with a painful 4:21:42 finish.

Since then it’s all been half-marathons where the record books still have me as the world’s fourth fastest M70 with 1:35:04 unbeaten in the various Cornwall halves for M70, 75 and 80. And as for future goals, it is simply going for a run or competing when I feel like it and it gives the enjoyment and exhilaration that I get nowhere else.

You’re a volunteer at your local Parkrun each week. What are your thoughts on Parkrun as a global phenomenon which continues to explode?

Parkrun has managed to do what traditional athletics has sadly never managed, yet should have worked harder at. It is inclusive. There are no barriers; anyone can take part regardless of ability or physical or mental handicap. Although athletic clubs these days tend to be far more welcoming to all abilities than in the past, and less judgemental, the sport itself is enmeshed in a bureaucracy that is more of a deterrent than an encouragement. Clearly there is a need for a structure with rules, regulations, membership fees and tight record keeping but too often officialdom takes precedence over all else. Encouragement of participation for the sheer joy of running should take precedence and thus build a base of from which to develop the elite.

Parkrun is now doing what athletics should have done decades ago.

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Obesity has been on the rise here in the UK. Do you have any advice for those people out there that  want to start exercising and living much more healthily but are unsure about how to approach it?

Walk more. Do a Parkrun. Instead of waiting for the bus to come, walk to the next stop. Take the stairs, not the lift. Stop looking at your phone every few steps; shove it in your pocket, stand tall and swing your arms – the phone calls can wait if you want to stay alive to answer them later.

The level of obesity is truly frightening and so glaringly obvious. We are surrounded by it, and at all ages. People shuffle rather than walk. Even our emergency workers (Police, Nurses, Firemen and the like) are visibly overweight and therefore far slower than should be expected of them. As hinted at in my answer to the previous question, I think our sport could have done far more to encourage physical activity by concentrating less on the competitive aspect and more on the health and pleasure that running, at whatever level, can provide.

You were recently awarded the inaugural Ron Shapland Shield as Cornwall’s most inspirational runner, how did that come about?

The award came as a complete and total gobsmacking surprise that still has me bemused and humbled. It is an encouragement to keep doing what I’ve always done, inspiring by example – if I can do it, so can you. I get a great kick out of being a leader for Truro Running Club on its weekly walk/run group and also on the transition/recovery group for those moving up, getting over an injury or easing back into running after a long lay-off.

Tony stood with his class mates after his first running race 70 years ago

Tony stood with his class mates after his first running race 70 years ago

What have 70 years of running taught you?

Mainly the all-round benefits of being active – and that need not mean running marathons or ultras or even competing. It’s so simple; all that’s needed is a good pair of trainers and any old clothes (forget the fashion tights, the glitzy tops, even the make-up).  It is one of the few activities where you don’t have to rely on other people; just do it when and where the mood or circumstances dictate. Whenever I feel down or out of sorts, I know a run is the best cure, no matter how brief or how slow.

Any favourite stories from your time as a runner?

One memory I have come to laugh at with the passing of years is arriving in London as a guest of British Airways and the national tourist board to run in the London Marathon only to find all their contacts had disappeared for a long weekend. And no one had thought to actually enter me in the run.  An extended tour of the UK was no compensation for all the training – and the disappointment.


Tony Berry crossing the line at the 1993 London Marathon

Tony Berry crossing the line at the 1993 London Marathon