British 5000m runner, who turned 60 this week, recalls his gold medal-winning run at the European Championships in Stuttgart in 1986
I went into that year with an objective of focusing on the 5000m. I knew I could run a faster 1500m or a mile but I knew I’d never have that acceleration in the last lap. With the 5000m, I just thought it was a distance I loved so I had moved up in distance for good.
It became a really wonderful summer in many ways. The Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh were before Stuttgart. I’d won in Oslo and was absolutely flying but I came back, stayed up a bit late one night and I got a really bad cold so I felt I dropped back a bit.
Steve Ovett won the Commonwealths, I was second and Tim Hutchings was third. The three of us then became the team for the Europeans. I was actually feeling really disappointed in the silver because I was so fit – I was ready and it didn’t happen – but then we went to Stuttgart and it was just brilliant.
At the time pretty much everyone was firing. Early in the week, we had the 800m with a British one-two-three with Seb Coe winning, Tom McKean coming second and Steve Cram third.
Everything was building up and it was a fantastic atmosphere. Daley Thompson got gold in the decathlon, Linford Christie did it in the 100m, Roger Black won the 400m and then the men’s 5000m was the last individual track event.
It was actually a really big 5000m because you had basically everyone in the world in it, with the exception of Said Aouita.
Second, third and fourth place from the 1984 Olympics were there and Steve Ovett was there. It was a stacked field. The 1500m final took place just before the 5000m and Crammy won it, with Seb second, so we were all absolutely buzzing.
I had a smile on my face when I walked into the stadium because I felt: “I’m at the centre of the universe.” And I felt confident, but in a kind of odd way. I knew I could do a lot better than the Commonwealths. I was a lot fitter. I felt really ready.
All of the British middle-distance runners were feeding off one another. There was a confidence there. When you went places, you were expected to win – even in domestic races – and there was that culture of performance running.
That’s why people were worried about Ovett, so the pace was fast. But I’d always felt with Steve, it’s a slightly different thing to take on someone at 13:10 pace than 13:20.
He never broke 13:20, but he could sprint off the 13:20/13:25 pace so, to me, that was always the point of vulnerability or the point to explore with Steve. I’d wanted to try that in Edinburgh as well but I couldn’t because of the illness. The following year, he wasn’t as effective so probably the Commonwealths was his best 5000m when his winning time was 13:24.
In the European final, I just took my time. I just worked my way through step-by-step and I was slightly under the radar. As the race unfolded, I edged my way up. The crowd was applauding so it had a lovely rhythm to it. And then, with about two or three laps to go, Tim went to the front.
I owe him to this day because he really broke the field over the last two or three laps. Steve had dropped out and the group came down to four of us – the Italian Stefano Mei, Tim Hutchings, myself and a Bulgarian called Evgeni Ignatov.
We were together at the bell and, by then, I was feeling good so I just edged to the front. As we went down towards the back straight Mei, who had won the 10,000m, pulled in to overtake me but I could tell he was really straining.
He just cut across me at about 300m to go and as he did that I thought: “I’m going to win this now.” I could just tell I was feeling fresh and I hadn’t accelerated. I didn’t hold him off, he just got ahead of me, and so then I was able to just track him into the home straight and kick past.
READ MORE: Steve Ovett’s best races
I took about six seconds off my personal best with 13:10.15 and it is actually still a championship record. It survived the Mo Farah era. At that time, it was the second-fastest time in the world and it just rounded off a lovely week for athletics in the UK because we won so many gold medals.
I’ve remained friends with Stefano and Tim. It was a lovely and unexpected title but it was probably more surprising to the athletics world than me because I knew I was ready for something like that. Everything just fell into place.
Born: September 22, 1961
1986: European Championships 5000m gold; Commonwealth 5000m silver
1987: World Championships 5000m bronze
» This article first appeared in the August issue of AW magazine, which you can buy here