European 5000m gold medallist, coach and author was an athletics pioneer in many ways

Bruce Tulloh, European 5000m champion in 1962, one of Britain’s best and most popular runners of the 1960s, trans-America record-breaker, and an ongoing influential figure in British athletics as a coach and writer, died on April 28, at his home in Marlborough, of cancer, aged 82.

Tulloh was the first non-African to compete without shoes in top-level international races, and he argued that the lack of any weight on his feet enabled him to accelerate more suddenly. That could give him a surprise winning break even on world-class fields like the 1962 European 5000m, when he got away with 700m to go.

Deceptively frail-looking, he was adored by the crowds and media, who loved to see the boyish-looking underdog with the high, protruding elbows skim away time after time from sturdy Russians and Poles in the international dual matches that in those days were the main competitions between Games.

He won AAA and Inter-Counties titles, set a British six-miles record (27:23.8) in 1966, was twice runner-up in the English National Cross-Country Championship, placed seventh in the International Cross-Country and enjoyed domestic success with Portsmouth AC, who he helped turn into one of the strongest clubs in the country.

His Olympic aspirations were triply thwarted – by the heat and humidity of Rome in 1960, by an attack of measles that kept him home in 1964 and by the prospect of Mexico’s altitude in 1968.

With the disincentive of Mexico, Tulloh hit on a different challenge, when he had the outrageous idea of attacking the record for a coast to coast crossing of America. It was an unlikely project for a runner with no marathon or ultra credentials – and whose training was typically light on miles and strong on quality – but Tulloh had deep reserves of determination, enthusiasm and applied intelligence.

With minimal sponsorship and only his wife Sue and their seven-year-old son Clive as crew – and despite suffering severe ankle pain that forced him to spend several days walking eastward in heavy boots – he covered the 2876 miles from Los Angeles to New York in 64.9 days, more than four days faster than the previous mark, an achievement that later led to him being called “the original Forrest Gump.”

A renaissance man, Tulloh excelled as an athlete, coach, teacher at Marlborough College, scientist, musician and author. He described his record-breaking trans-America journey in a book that has been listed as one of the best running books of all time, Four Million Footsteps (1970) – one of 23 titles he published.

In 1971 he lived for several days with the running tribe of Tarahumara Indians in New Mexico and described the experience in the London Observer, 40 years before Chris McDougall supposedly discovered them and wrote about it in his best-selling Born to Run.

As a coach of many British athletes over the years, Tulloh guided most notably Richard Nerurkar. He also had periods teaching and coaching in America and in Kenya, where he coached Olympic medallist Mike Boit. Readers of AW also soaked up his advice in articles such as this one here.

As a masters runner, Tulloh’s times included 1:16 for a half-marathon aged 60 and a 2:47 marathon in his late 50s. He continued to compete to his late 70s and ran until his final illness made it impossible.

There will be a private family cremation and a memorial gathering in Marlborough, likely to be in late June or early July.

» A longer tribute to Bruce Tulloh will appear in the May 3 issue of AW