Track Stats - George Knight

Building for a future which came three years early and produced the fastest 10,000 metres man in the World

George Knight was the World’s fastest 10,000 metres runner in 1957. Interviewed by David Thurlow. Published in “Track Stats” August 2007.

One of the most intriguing mysteries of track and field is how someone has a “year of years” out of the blue and then never matches it again. Sometimes it is because of drugs, and sometimes through a long build-up which is then ruined by injury in succeeding years.

Some have a great year like Jim Peters, the fastest marathon runner in the World from 1952 to 1954 who could never reproduce the times he achieved on the road from Windsor to Chiswick when he ran in the Olympic Games in Finland and the Empire Games in Canada. Others are like Gordon Pirie, who reached a peak in 1953, when he was superb (and that is not an adjective I use often), but never did it again though injury or wrong timing – in 1956, in particular, when he was unbeatable in the summer, but it had all gone before the Olympic Games in Melbourne in December; and in 1960, when his not quite so good form also vanished three weeks before the Games.

Everyone can come up with examples – some might argue about Steve Cram, for instance – but none that I know is more fascinating than that of George Knight, of the Essex Beagles club. He was more than a good club runner in a team of good runners in the 1950s – Peters, Ted Baverstock, Eddie Sears, Dickie Douglas, Terry Learmouth, Bernie Hames and others – when Britain had a stockade of good distance runners.

Knight was born in Ilford, in Essex, on 12 March 1933 and was 19 when he lined up in the Inter-Counties’ championships at the White City in Olympic year 1952, representing his county in a race that was to change British distance running. He was 5ft 11½in tall (1.82m), weighed around 10st (63kg), and was known as a promising cross-country runner (8th in the Southern junior) and useful over three miles, with a best of 14:39.2 to win the county title. Just 13 minutes and 44.8 seconds after the gun in that Inter-Counties’ three miles, the tall and lanky Pirie had smashed Sydney Wooderson’s 13:53.2 British best, with Frank Sando a few strides back in 13:48.0, and then in 4th place was Knight, with 14:04.4, which was later rounded down, and never satisfactorily explained why, to 14:14.8, still a considerable improvement.

That was Knight’s best for the year and he was only 7th in the AAA Championships, although he had not trained like he did before his big breakthrough, and from then on he was watched as a man “who might do it”. He nearly did, but it was never quite enough – until 1957.

He did not race as often as some of his rivals. He was always happy to turn out for the club, and his long bouncing stride produced good but not sensational results, as others like Chris Chataway and Freddie Green, as well as Pirie, Sando, Fred and Ken Norris and Derek Ibbotson took the international places. In 1953 his best three miles was 14:19.0, and he also ran 9:05.6 for two miles. He was 6th in the Inter-Counties’ three miles that year, but did not make the rankings in 1954.

The next year was much better. He was 4th in the Inter-Counties’ in 14:14.2 and ran well over the country and on the road, ending the season with a win in the prestigious Rochester five miles road race. In the Olympic year of 1956 he ran even faster, with 13:54.4 in the Inter-Counties’ and 28:55.8 for 6th in the AAA six miles. He was 5th in the Southern cross-country and a very tired 10th in the National, probably because the nine miles was too long for him. On the road he ran fastest stages in the London-to-Brighton and Chelmsford relays and showed the kind of form that Green and another fine road-runner, Alec Olney, did. Olney was certainly seconds faster than he could ever manage on the track, as was Green until he became World record-holder at three miles. Knight was the same, even without training.

The British all-time list at the end of 1956 showed Knight as 8th at six miles, but he was nowhere near good enough to make the Olympic team, and he was running over the country in Essex while Pirie and Ibbotson were winning medals in Australia behind Vladimir Kuts, of the USSR, at 5000 metres, and Pirie was giving the ex-sailor a fright for most of the way in the 10,000 metres before Vladimir pushed one time too many and the Briton had to let go with four laps left. The winning time was 28:45.6, and the best British time was 29:21.6 by Ken Norris in 5th place. Less than a year later Knight was to run the World’s fastest 10,000 metres for the year.

What happened? When George Knight told me about it he said that although the athletics world might have been surprised he was not. He had decided to deliberately train to be one of the stars at the 1960 Olympic Games, running daily throughout the summer and winter of 1956-57. Speaking in his home in Liverpool, he said: “During 1956 I decided to start training seriously for the 1960 Games. I had thought about the six miles and found that I was alright up to about four miles or so but fading after that, doing around 29 and a half minutes. Hugh Foord was running consistently good sixes at the time, and running against him I was losing it at four miles. I especially remember one at Enfield when I was with him at four miles and felt very good until that point.

“I was doing interval training with a clubmate, Dickie Douglas, who was faster and stronger than me, and I was always hanging on. I carried on during the winter training seriously and quite hard, and in 1957 I was doing 4 x 1½ miles in around 6:40, with a 500 or 600 yards jog in between, at Mayesbrook Park in Dagenham, where I was living. My training went very well, too well. I thought it would take three years to get there, but unfortunately I came on in 1957 and then lost it completely really. It came on very quickly, and it was all too easy. There were personal things that took my time, and I lost it as easily as it came along. I never quite got the same feeling about training again”.

Hard training throughout the winter – something was expected to happen

He had always loved running, and when he was 17, and his family had moved back from Newcastle, where they had gone while his father was at war (his mother was a Geordie), he joined Essex Beagles and was quickly spotted as someone with talent. He had tried for the big time before in 1952, when he did interval training daily until he got a stress fracture in February and did very little training until the Inter-Counties’ and Pirie’s race. Off the reservoir he had built during the winter he still had more than enough to run a lifetime’s best and keep on for the rest of the season without training “until I ran out of steam”.

In 1957 he expected some improvement but not what he got. A recently retired architect, Knight said: “I had done the work expecting something to happen, and I was not that surprised. I was surprised with the form early in the season, when I did not get what I had expected from the work that I had done. I don’t think I consciously altered my stride – high and bounding – but I worked on creating a tempo in my mind when I was running. I tried to keep the tempo all the time, warming up, training and racing.

“In the match against France and Alain Mimoun, the contrast between his incredibly short stride and my time in the air was extreme, and I remember once in the last 200 of one race Peter Driver, the British Empire six miles gold-medallist of 1954, had picked up about four metres on me while I was in the air and before I could get a foot on the ground! I discussed this with people in the Beagles over a number of weeks – Bob Mortimer and Colin Young were two of them – and it was at this time that I started to adopt this tempo, with the aim of helping me to stay in touch with the ground. This probably resulted in a shortened stride, although by the time of the match against Poland that year Dave Chapman, the steeplechaser, thought my stride was as long as ever but no longer in the air. All this was impression and conjecture, with no evidence to confirm what was happening or why”.

At the start of 1957 Knight was 2nd in the Essex cross-country championships behind Alan Perkins, and then 38th in the Inter-Counties’ won by Ken Norris and 61st in the Southern, and did not run the National. He set new records for both the Ilford and Chingford road relays, but when he ran three miles for Essex on the track against the AAA in April in almost summer conditions he trailed off 4th in 14:20.8, almost 20 seconds behind clubmate Ted Baverstock.

Knight says: “I had worked through the previous summer and winter without really knowing how I would run on that hard training. I really anticipated doing something under 14 minutes and starting the season from there. Instead, I went out and did 14:20. I did know it was there waiting to go, no question, but it was a matter of being patient and relaxing, and allowing it to come through. I had no doubt it was there. Whenever I had put the work in, it always clicked in”.

Personal bests for three miles and 5000 metres, but they go unnoticed

Less than a fortnight later he had improved to 13:55.2 behind Laurie Reed, who was one of the Pirie school at South London Harriers and ran 13:52.4 for a smooth win, with the tables turned on Baverstock, who did 14min exactly. Then Knight ran a lifetime best of 13:51.4 to win the Essex title in record time and went even faster to win the Inter-Counties’ from the greatly improving Stan Eldon in 13:46.2. He had his first foreign trip and won a 5000 metres in Amsterdam at the Netherlands Olympic Day in 14:38.8 in extremely hot weather, where he was delighted to run the last 200 metres in 26sec. All these were respectable domestic times, but there was no comment in the press. Why should there be? Several others could do as well, and indeed had gone faster.

By the time that he lined up for the most open AAA six miles for years he was 2nd in the ranking lists at three miles behind Ibbotson but had not raced over the longer distance. He led at two miles in 9:22.4 from Ken Norris, Foord, Perkins and Eldon. Foord, a cross-country international, was ahead at three miles in 14:10, and then Eldon led at four miles in 19:06.4 and Perkins at five miles in 25:22, with the pack never splitting. Perkins led at the bell, only for Knight’s giant strides to take him past to win by 20 yards in a personal best 28:50.4, followed by Eldon, Perkins, an unfit Norris, Foord and Gerry North 6th.

A week later Knight continued his excellent form at the London-v-New York meeting, highlighted by Ibbotson’s World-record mile of 3:57.2, by beating Pirie, who was running very well at that time, in a fast two miles, 8:50.0 to 8:50.8, after Pirie had waited to kill him in the straight but could not get by. Knight reverted to his normal form a fortnight later when he met Mimoun at six miles in the match against France at the White City. Knight tried desperately to get away but was no match for the wily French master and Olympic marathon champion (plus a pouch full of silver medals), who ran away at 18 laps and eased ahead to win by 18sec in 29:22.2. Those who saw the old maestro do his lap of honour in his pinstripe suit in Paris during the World Championships four years ago will know what Mimoun was like – elegant.

Something happened between then and the match against the Russians and Kuts, the king of all he surveyed at 5000 and 10,000 metres. However you try to describe it, it can be put down to one thing: Knight’s right training suddenly working like a new medical wonder cure. The British pair, Knight and Perkins (who was suffering from a cold), made no attempt to stay with the Russians as Zhukov led after a mile in 4:32 and Kuts went through two miles in 9:10, and then just before three miles (13:52.1) Knight left Perkins, seemed to somehow alter his bouncy stride, and within five laps was half-a-lap ahead of his team-mate. He put in a fast burst to catch Zhukov, and for several laps they passed and re-passed each other in furious short bursts which took them nearer to the World record-holder. At 8000 metres Knight finally got away and proceeded to close the enormous gap that Kuts had opened; so much so that he finished only 13sec behind as the Russian ran 29:13.2 for a new British all-comers’ record and the fastest time in the World for the year – so far.

The experts went away wondering (a) what had got into Knight, and (b) what would have happened if he had not allowed that enormous gap to open in the early stages. A fortnight later, against Poland in Warsaw, in front of a 75,000 crowd, Knight showed what would have happened by racing away from Stanislaw Ozog and Jerzy Chromik by over a minute as he lapped in 68/69sec all the way to win in the World’s fastest time of the year, 29:06.4, which was better than Pyotr Bolotnikov’s 29:09.9 when he unexpectedly beat Kuts by 0.2sec in Moscow the week before. It was over 10sec faster than Pirie’s British best and a complete shock in the athletics world.

Knight says: “It was a bit of a dream. It was just one of those races that happen to you naturally and you feel good. When I was training inconsistently, I tended to have a very good run out of the blue. Poland was just one of those runs, but on the back of what I had done. It felt like a dream. It was very easy, and I felt I could have run a lot faster, even though I was completely on my own. When you train hard, you build up a lot of residual tiredness, and it is not until you start to race and ease up on the training that the power starts to come through”.

More successes to come against international opposition on the track

To prove it was no fluke, he did it again a week later – a slightly slower but extremely confident and easy 29:16.2, beating Pirie, who had won the 5000 the day before in 14:20.2, by over 30sec. Knight simply ran away from the start and no one ever looked like staying with him. He was not finished for the season, because a few days later at the White City he won the 5000 metres in a lifetime best 13:57.6 after a tremendous last-lap battle with Chromik and a final sprint that not only won the race but the match for England against Poland.

And still there was more to come. A week afterwards he outsprinted Frank Sando and Hugh Foord at the Brighton floodlit meeting in a 13:48.6 three miles, and then at the Glasgow floodlit meeting he did the same to the Pole, Zdzislaw Krzyszkowiak, in masterly fashion in 13:38.7 after a furious race with Ozog, Al Lawrence of Australia, and Ian Binnie, who set a Scottish record in 4th place in 13:51.2. Krzyszkowiak went on to win the 5000/10,000 double and Chromik the steeplechase at the European Championships the next year, while the former was to become Olympic steeplechase champion in 1960.

Knight finished his 1957 season by losing narrowly at 5000 metres to the German, Heinz Laufer, in Cologne, 14:10.2 to 14:10.4. Knight remembers: “I led all the way feeling quite good, with Laufer sitting on my shoulder. The finish was very fast, with us locked within a quarter of a stride for the last 150 metres. Laufer, although at the end of his career, was a fast finisher and he acknowledged surprise at how difficult it was to get past me”. In the autumn Knight ran the fastest stage three for his club in the London-to-Brighton relay (40sec faster than anyone else over 5½ miles) and was also fastest in the Chelmsford relay.

His heading of the World list for the year did not merit much publicity. People just did not seem to appreciate what he had done. This was the Kuts era, as he had beaten Pirie’s World 5000 metres record with 13:35.0 in October, and unknown British runners were not supposed to come out of the woodwork. No one really took in just how much Knight had improved (well over a minute); not even the “master” historian and statistician, Roberto Quercetani, who did not comment on it at all in his book, “A World History of Long Distance Running”. Perhaps it was because George Knight came and went so quickly – as quickly as he ran. He never did anything remotely approaching his 1957 level again.

Whilst some of the Europeans he had beaten went on to Olympic and World-record heights – the Poles, in particular – Knight never again ran like he did on the tracks of London, Warsaw and Hanover. The man who ranked 7th in the World at 5000 metres and top of the class at 10,000 metres in 1957 went back to being a good club and district runner. Why?

Knight explains: “I think I thought I would just go on and on and get better and better. But I moved to Kent and there was nowhere to train – no decent surface or street lighting. So I could not do a proper run without the danger of being injured. It was not training for club level, little knows championship running. I did not back up my running for the beginning of 1958, and I won the 1958 Inter-Counties’ cross-country after very little work throughout the winter. I did not feel fed up about stopping my training. Running was the only thing in my life, but at the time I found it was just an activity in its place.

“I had moved from being a plumber into an architect’s office, which then led to training and becoming an architect, and then it was partly because I found it difficult to cope with the pressure and tension I was getting. Suddenly, from just enjoying running I was the centre of attention, and I could not handle it very well. People’s attitude had changed. Lots of people wanted to know you and had a less than charitable sort of response. It was just a different world. So I eased back on the running when I felt like it, only going out two or three times a week.

“I was bitterly disappointed in 1958 that it was not the year I had hoped for. I would not have liked a coach to tell me what to do. Things were not like they are now with psychological information. We were on our own. We flew by the seat of our pants”.

Continuing running in 1958, but a shadow of what was before

Knight had best times of 9:01.0, 13:44.7 and 29:21.4 in 1958 but was a shadow of the man of the season before. In 1959 it was the same, placing well over the country and running 13:42.6 for three miles at Leyton and 13:44.0 in the Essex championships. He ran a faster three miles in 1960 of 13:39.4, but by then everyone else was even faster, and his best time the next year of 13:53.4, when he was 3rd at Leyton, is the last occasion that he made the British rankings.

He ran for his club regularly, but that magic mix that made him outstanding had vanished as it had come – not that he did not try. His love of running made him twice hit the hard-training road to reach the top, and he showed his ability again on a stage in the London-to-Brighton relay when he raced away – “I was flying” – and then when a new record and a big leap up the field for the Beagles seemed on he tore a ligament in the arch of his foot which took months to heal. That was the end of that attempt.

The other time was much more serious. He was leading an eight-mile road race in 1961 at Thurrock, in Essex, by half-a-mile when he collapsed. “At the time I was probably as fit as I had been at any time since 1957”, he recalls. “I woke up in hospital and could not remember a thing. It was pretty frightening and left me with a depression that went on for nine months, and it was three years before I began to feel completely recovered”. He still went back to running, and he has no regrets because he had that great year, and he adds, “I had more than that. I had lots of runs that I got so much pleasure from, staggering runs, and it was always exciting”.

He now lives with his wife, Pat, in Liverpool, and for the last four years he has been running once a week after a gap of 20 years. He also races once a year in the same Liverpool five kilometres road event and has a best time so far of 28:26. It never goes away.

World All-Time Top Ten at 10,000 metres – end of 1957

28:30.4   Vladimir Kuts (USSR)(1)   Moscow11.09.56
28:42.8Sándor Iharos (Hungary)(1)Budapest15.07.56
28:52.4József Kovács (Hungary)(2)Melbourne (OG)23.11.56
28:53.6Allan Lawrence (Australia) (3)Melbourne (OG)23.11.56
28:54.2Emil Zátopek (Czechoslovakia)(1)Brussels01.06.54
29:05.0Zdzislaw Krzyszkowiak (Poland)   (4)Melbourne (OG)23.11.56
29:06.4George Knight (GB)(1)Warsaw (Pol v GB)   07.09.57
29:09.8Pyotr Bolotnikov (USSR)(1)Moscow29.08.57
29:10.0Jerzy Chromik (Poland)(1)Warsaw09.09.56
29:10.6Aleksandr Anufriyev (USSR)(1)Minsk20.05.55