Purple reign of Loughborough-based endurance running expert ends at the age of 80
George Gandy, the prolific British endurance running coach best known for his work with athletes at Loughborough University, has died following a heart attack aged 80.
His experience spanned 10 Olympics, 11 World University Games and five Commonwealth Games, while he was also national endurance coach from 1992-98 and 2009-13.
In distance running and student athletics circles, he was nothing short of a legend.
READ MORE: Tributes paid to George Gandy
He coached Jack Buckner to the European 5000m title in 1986 and Jon Brown to fourth place in two successive Olympic marathons in 2000 and 2004.
Notably, Seb Coe also came under his wing in the mid-1970s and Gandy’s infamous circuit training sessions helped create the kind of strength and speed that would propel him to three world records in 41 days in 1979.
Since 1971 until now Gandy has been synonymous with athletics at Loughborough. Yet his purple reign of almost half a century came to an end on Thursday (October 8) after he suffered a heart attack.
Born in Newcastle on May 10, 1940, Gandy was a talented runner himself setting Northumberland county age group records at 880 yards and the mile and being ranked No.2 in the North of England in the mile as an athlete for Gosforth Harriers. He went to St Cuthbert’s Grammar School in Newcastle and then St Mary’s College in south London where he set a college mile record and led teams to two victories in the European Universities Catholic Cross Country Championships.
In an interview with AW two years ago, Gandy recalled: “While there (St Mary’s) I became cross-country and athletics captain and I think that was the first time I got into telling other people what to do and how to do it. I gained a variety of coaching awards and in my final year at St Mary’s I was a member of the British Milers’ Club as a runner.
“They knew I was going back to the North East to teach. Somebody got in touch with me and asked if I would make contact with two young lads in South Shields with a view to continue to coach them when I went back there, so I did that. That was probably the beginning of it for me.”
After gaining a degree in human biology – and later in life an honorary doctorate – Gandy worked for Lloyds Bank for four years and outside athletics he coached Worksop Town FC to the Midland League title in the mid-1960s. He also enjoyed a spell coaching at Worksop Harriers & AC, where one of his athletes was Terry Colton. But his life changed in 1971 when he took up a post at Loughborough University.
To begin with the athletics set-up at the East Midlands university was not brilliant compared to today. But Gandy began to build it up and eventually created an athletics environment that helped create dozens of international athletes and multiple British universities’ titles.
“When I arrived at Loughborough in 1971 there were just eight members of the cross country club,” he told AW. “Our numbers grew to the extent where during the 1980s our record all-time numbers were 168 in a single circuit training session.”
As well as Buckner and Brown, he coached Lisa Dobriskey to a world 1500m silver in 2009. Athletes such as Kirsty Wade, Wendy Sly, Christina Boxer, Becky Lyne and Tim Hutchings also benefited from his influence. One of his proudest moments, he once recalled, was helping Graham Williamson run 3:50.6 for the mile despite only being able to complete four interval training sessions in the previous five months due to injury.
Although not directly coaching them, he gave support and advice to Dave Moorcroft (below), Steve Backley and Paula Radcliffe, among others.
It is Coe, however, to whom he is perhaps most inextricably linked. He once told AW: “Seb arrived on campus in 1975 to study economics and politics. He had class stamped all over him with PBs of 1:53 and 3:45 and by 1977 I knew we had a potential world beater on our hands.”
Coe went on to win his second Olympic 1500m title in 1984 and Gandy recalled in an AW interview in the year 2000: “Such was the strength of Loughborough’s past and present students, that had those participating at the Los Angeles Games been scored as a national team they would have placed equal eighth.”
For many years until 2008 Gandy was director of athletics at Loughborough and he worked as a lecturer in the PE and sports science department with a special interest in biomechanics, whereas more recently he has operated as the head endurance coach and outside the student athletics world he has been a familiar face at national and international endurance running events.
Not surprisingly, he was honoured frequently throughout his career too. He was BMC coach of the year in 1995 and 2008. He was given the Ron Pickering Memorial Award for Services to Athletics in 2008. In 2014 he was inducted into the England Athletics hall of fame.
Warm and friendly, he never lost his Geordie accent during years of living in Loughborough. As for his coaching philosophy, he felt there were many aspects of training that were beneficial whether you raced 800m or marathon. Running was also, he believed, a ‘numbers game’ and he tried to create large training squads of quality athletes.
In addition he carried a few old school values and when the BUCS Cross Country Championships was once called off due to snowy weather he told AW: “I didn’t realise ‘cancel’ was in a cross-country runner’s vocabulary!”
As well as guiding a new generation of talented athletes who study at Loughborough every year, he has overseen a massive improvement in the facilities from the cinder track that existed when he arrived in 1971 to the synthetic surface of recent years, plus the creation of an indoor high performance centre with state-of-the-art gym equipment. Certainly, Gandy has left things in fine shape for the university’s current director of athletics, Femi Akinsanya.