Track Stats - Derek Ibbotson

The four stages in the life of the “Four Minute Smiler”
... and he wouldn’t have missed a day of it all!

Derek Ibbotson broke the World record for the mile in 1957 and was an Olympic bronze-medallist at 5000 metres. Interviewed by David Thurlow. Published in “Track Stats” May 2006

After Derek Ibbotson, as cheeky and chirpy a Yorkshireman as you will ever find, won the three miles event at the head-on match between Great Britain and Czechoslovakia over the August Bank Holiday weekend in 1956 in a very fast 13min 28.2sec he was approached by one of the organisers and asked if he would run a mile on the Monday, two days later.

The official explained that Ibbo was a crowd-puller. Ibbo explained that he and his fiancée, Madeleine, herself an international, were taking her cousin from the USA on a sight-seeing trip round London and so he would not be able to run. But if by any chance, he suggested, there was an extra ticket for cousin Maureen to go to the dinner-and-dance at one of London’s leading hotels after the meeting – Ibbo and fiancée already had their invitations as competitors – then he might just be able to race.

“I would have got £10,000 now,” he joked when we talked recently. “But nowadays they don’t get the fun we had then. They were fantastic days, friendly, competitive, and parties when the racing was over. Now they fly in, run, and off to the next meeting – loads of money but no fun”. At that White City meeting of 50 years ago the extra invitation for cousin Maureen was produced – and the Yorkshireman not only ran but broke four minutes, equalling Roger Bannister’s magical 3:59.4 of two years previously. Then, like Cinderella, they all went to the ball.

It was the start of the third of four stages in an athletics career that went from the late 1940s via World records to 1966 when he could still turn out 4:06 for the mile although he was barely training.

Stage One was as a boy on the Yorkshire moors chasing parachuting flares and getting his mother to make his first running-shorts from the parachute silk and winning lots of Yorkshire junior titles at the mile and over the country. He also finished 5th in the race that changed the face of British distance-running in 1952 – the Inter-counties’ three miles when Gordon Pirie beat Frank Sando in 13:44.8, smashing Sydney Wooderson’s British record from 1946 by nine seconds and paving the way for a golden age. Ibbo did 14:06.8 and was then 2nd in the Northern event behind the third of Britain’s Olympic trio of 5000 metres finalists, Alan Parker (the others were Pirie and Chris Chataway), but he had to miss the AAA Championships because of exams and so lost the remote chance he had of making the team.

Stage Two came on 21 June 1955 when he was part of the field for a 2000 metres record attempt in Manchester by Pirie, who was then one of the top three distance-runners in the World. Ibbotson’s early promise had been blunted by missing a year when he twisted his ankle badly in running to escape a coal fall in a coal mine and then in 1954 he had done nothing of note until he joined the Royal Air Force for national service and began to train properly. In the Manchester 2000 metres he threw any inhibitions to the wind, raced into the lead, ran his lifetime best mile of 4:08 en route, pushed Pirie to the line, and became a name.

He followed this with a series of wins and good performances, including 2nd to Chataway in the AAA three miles and winning his first international caps in head-on clashes, helping Chataway to set a World three-mile record of 13:23.2 against Germany. He had a good cross-country campaign which took him into the track season of the Olympic year of 1956 – and at the Games in Melbourne he was 3rd to the USSR’s Vladimir Kuts and Pirie in the 5000 metres. So on to the start of the Stage Three which ended with his World-record mile in 3:57.2 on 19 July 1957.

What came after was Stage Four and we talked about that – and his career – recently just after he had come back from a walk with his dog on the moors near his home in Huddersfield. He has shown that there is life after athletics – in his later years he coached three excellent milers with Longwood Harriers – by taking up squash and twice becoming Yorkshire veterans’ champion at that sport because there was no veteran athletics in those days.

He recalled that following the Olympic bronze medal success “I had a very good winter over the country and started 1957 with a 4:00.6 mile at Oxford, running away from Derek Johnson. After that I took everything before me. I went up to Glasgow and at 10 a.m. in my hotel room my wife rang to say she had given birth to our first child, Christine, and like the modest young Yorkshireman I was I told her I planned to break the World mile record to celebrate the occasion. But it was over 80 degrees. I overtook the pacemaker after two laps and ran the rest on my own, but it was still the second fastest mile ever, 3:58.4.

The World record for the mile, and the beginning of a golden streak

“Soon after, on a Friday evening, July 19, I knew I could do it. The pacemaker was Mike Blagrove, who was just back from his honeymoon, but that did not stop him going through the half in a very quick 1:56. I knew then I could take the sting out of Ronnie Delany’s sprint finish – I would have given him a good race in the Olympic 1500 metres which he won, but they picked Boyd, of Oxford, who I beat in the 3:59.4 1956 mile, because I was already in the 5k and they wanted him as captain, and I was miffed about that.

“Ronnie was boxed in, I heard later, and I beat him by 25 yards and was the World’s fastest. And then I had a golden streak winning everything, running three sub-four-minute miles in the year and only losing races at the end when I was tired. I ran 48 races that year – I loved to race. I won 37 of them and was placed in the first three in 47 of them. I had great ambitions to win the Olympics – and I always thought Pirie and I could have done better if we had gone with Kuts when Chataway fell away in Melbourne – and to win European and Empire titles and to hold more records, including the 5k”.

But then Stage Four of his career started. He explained: “Geoff Dyson, the leading coach, and other people told me to have a rest, take two or three months off, to recover from the hectic season I had. They said it would recharge my batteries. And for the first time ever I listened to other people and did what they said. It was a mistake, a major mistake, and a very costly one because when I started training I got a carbuncle on my neck because my system reneged, and so I missed three months’ more training.

“By taking the time off and living the high rich life with parties and dinners and do’s, I let myself down. I did not train, and I should have done because I loved running and racing. If you don’t do the training through the winter you don’t have the basis for the summer. By the time I made it back again about a year and a half had gone and I got down to quite good times. I missed out on the Rome Olympics in 1960 because of a calf muscle injury and nearly made it to Tokyo in 1964 but was just squeezed out in a trial race.

“But I never cut my times by two or three seconds, as I should have done, and the parade had gone by. Herb Elliott was on the scene by then running the times I should have been doing. I had missed a fantastic opportunity and it’s the only regret I have. I should have been better and up there. But hindsight makes everyone a genius. C’est la vie”.

He quickly realised how badly things had gone. He put on weight and when he ran in an autumn cross-country race in Belgium – where he had won a similar event the year before – he finished so far last (by two minutes) that they had to wait for him before they could start the junior race. In the Southern and National cross-country championships – where he had been 3rd in the Southern and 6th in the National in the winning South London Harriers team in 1957 – he was 197th and 251st. He says now, “I had some success indoors and got into the Empire Games team and although I did some good times I was inconsistent. And that’s how it went on.’

In 1958 he had bests of 4:00.0 flat for the mile (behind Elliott at the White City), 8:47.6 for two miles and 13:46.6 for three miles, but he dropped out of the AAA three miles and finished 10th in the Empire Games at Cardiff in an unofficial 13:45 far behind New Zealand’s Murray Halberg before being in the British World-record-breaking 4 x 1 mile team, running his leg in 4:08.6. He still raced 44 times, winning 14 and being in the first three 32 times.

The magic was gone … but it was not all gloom

It was a pattern he followed all his life through his love of running, and even when he was a champion and famous he would race as often as he could, accepting invitations in unlikely places for his status because he thought it was important to attract people to the sport. When he was at the top he was the Number One – out of the great bowl of talent the UK had then – that the crowds loved most, the “Four Minute Smiler”. But the magic – that extra ingredient that in cricket they call “fast focus” – had gone forever.

It was not all gloom. In 1959 he was 7th in the AAA three miles, ran for Britain against Poland and Finland, and had bests of 3:42.9 for 1500 metres, 4:03.1 for the mile, 8:00.0 for 3000 metres and 13:32.8 for three miles. He was slower in 1960 (and injured) but was still 4th in the AAA three miles – the event in which he had set a British record of 13:20.8 in 1957 after missing out for the mile title by dawdling in his heat.

In 1961 he was 4th in the AAA three miles and had a season’s best of 13:33.6, plus 11th place in the National cross-country. He was also trying the indoor circuit, winning British titles and setting softish World records for the little-run two miles and three miles of 8:47.8 and 13:44.8. Once he ran 3:38 in a 1500 metres at Manchester, losing to Hewson but both running a lap short! He went to Perth, in Western Australia, for the Commonwealth Games in 1962, finishing 8th in the three miles in 13:44, and was 3rd in the AAA in 13:23.4 and had season’s bests of 13:21.6, 8:41.4 for two miles and 4:03.6 for the mile – not bad for a “has been”.

He had a big farewell at the White City at the end of 1964, but like Sinatra he was back and won the UK indoor two miles and had bests of 8:42.6 and 13:51.6 the next year. In 1966 he was in the British club 4 x 1 mile relay with the three young milers he had been coaching. After athletics he took up squash, helping World champion Jonah Barrington to invent interval training for the game before Barrington went off with his wife. Then he moved into selling and became divisional manager for an international sports-goods company. After retirement he took up golf and now lives happily with his partner, his second wife having died tragically eight years ago. He has four daughters.

He remembers the old days with a great deal of affection and little regret even though he did not earn any money. He says, “I enjoyed it. I would have made a lot of money if I had been running now, but I had a fantastic time. There were trips everywhere and great friends and camaraderie and the parties and girls. When you went to warm up under the stands at the White City there were always 20 or 30 girls there, and they always invited you to a party, and of course being a red-blooded Yorkshire lad when I was single you didn’t want to upset them by turning them down.

“Once in Moscow Brian Hewson and I were given a hotel suite each because we were World record- holders. So we had a party and got all the men and girl athletes together. They don’t have that now. They go to the places, but they fly in and race and fly out again, and they don’t have the head-on matches we used to when there was a chance of getting together and getting to know each other. What trips we had! Once in Finland we invited 20 nurses with matron’s permission from a local hospital to our party and one of our blokes went off with the girl-friend of one of the Finnish athletes and did not come back for a few days. When I raced against the Finns the athlete knocked me off the track he was so angry!”

“I wouldn’t have missed a day of it”

George Derek Ibbotson: born in Huddersfield, Yorkshire, 17 June 1932. 5ft 9½in (1.76m ), 10st 6lb (66kg). Personal bests: 880 yards 1:52.2, 1500 metres 3:41.9, one mile 3:57.2, 2000 metres 5:12.8, 3000 metres 8:00.0, three miles 13:20.8, 5000 metres 13:54.4, six miles 28:52.0.