By Grant McLean and Charles Broad

At the recent club dinner organised by the Scottish Supporters Trust, 65 club members and guests were treated to a wonderful speech by Barry Magee, the bronze medallist in the marathon at the 1960 Rome Olympics.

Charles Broad spoke of his first ‘meeting’ with Barry. Charles recalled running in the Auckland Round the Harbour Relay in 1958 as a new senior, captaining the Whangarei Harriers “B” team. Charles had taken over the last leg from a team mate who had stopped a mile from the end of his lap, requiring Charles to tag him and run the additional distance as well as his 10 km lap. Consequently all contact with the competition ahead of him had been lost. Charles thought his team was secure in last place. However, on looking back, he was buoyed by the fact that there was one solitary runner following him in the far distance. He thought to himself; ‘well at least I will beat one runner on this leg’. Yet, as he grinded out the remaining mile or so, he looked back occasionally only to see the solitary figure looming larger and larger till this figure ‘glided past’, the name Wesley, emblazoned on his singlet. Only at the finish did Charles learn that this ghostly runner was one Barry Magee, trained by Arthur Lydiard and later to become the 1960 Olympic marathon bronze medallist.

Barry’s story is inspirational. He told us of a boy who was ‘insignificant and overlooked’ at school, yet who was not afraid to dream. After one fortuitous meeting his talent was discovered and he was then brought under the iron wing of Arthur Lydiard. A quiet determination to pursue his dream, coupled with Lydiard’s fail-safe 100 mile per week regime, produced one of New Zealand’s finest runners, listed as one of the ten best ever by prominent sports journalist Joseph Romanos.

The early years and a formative experience

Barry was born in New Plymouth and lived there for his first four years. He then moved to Auckland. He talked about his early school days in Auckland not being particularly enjoyable, the little guy, not noticed, the last guy picked for the team, a scenario repeated so many times in young boys experience in previous generations. Unbelievably, the school he attended still do not even know that he was ever a pupil.

Yet, all it takes is someone observant and open- minded to notice something special. Such a person came across Barry and changed his life. When playing schoolboy rugby (which he played for three years with Mt Roskill Rugby Football Club) a man approached Barry from the sideline and told him to run with confidence when he next had the ball; “Get that ball and run with absolute commitment for the line”. Barry did, and made it all the way to the try line where he was just deprived of a try. This man had noted that Barry could really run with a smooth and natural style he had rarely seen. A month later he was fast-tracked into the Auckland junior rugby squad, as Barry found out later that the man on the sideline, happened to be a Junior rugby selector . This event marked a significant turning point in Barry’s life, which turned fear into confidence.

By Lydiard’s guiding hand

Barry, a Christian, joined Wesley Athletic and Harriers Club, one of a number of the Christian- based clubs in the 1930s. Barry ran for Wesley in winter and also joined Onehunga Athletics Club in the summer (that’s the Onehunga singlet in the photo below). He was loyal to both clubs.

While still in his teens (seventeen) Barry came under the tutelage of Arthur Lydiard, joining his soon to be illustrious stable, which included Snell, Halberg, Julian and Puckett. Arthur recognised Barry’s marathon potential early on because of his relaxed economic style – ‘his endless glide’ was entirely natural. Arthur later describing him as “a ballet dancer of the roads”.

Adapting to the Lydiard regime

Barry went from 40 miles a week to 100 at the age of seventeen under Lydiard. Barry proved that he had the capacity for such hard work, the essential ingredient to Arthur’s approach. It was through dogged persistence, and Arthur’s recommendation that he move to the marathon that Barry’s running really took off. It took some time to build his self belief and eight years to reach his peak under Arthur’s regimen.

We were reminded by Barry that for Arthur, 100 miles per week was of course the bare minimum (unless you broke down, and surprisingly few did, probably reflecting the slower nature of the training). The 100 mile minimum ensuring that only fully committed runners were accepted by him (if you can’t handle the heat…). Most were doing far more than this, including Barry. Julian and Puckett were the acknowledged workhorses of the group, known to run 2 x 15 miles per day (and 240 miles in a week, or 380k) and Julian a double Waiatarua with 44 miles (70k) in one run. Julian won 11 Senior National titles and competed in five Olympic and Commonwealth Games for New Zealand.

This early introduction to the Lydiard high mileage method and marathons is interesting when we think of the New Zealand running scene now, where there are very few younger top runners attempting marathons (admittedly there are fewer competitive runners full stop). This is something that appears to be changing on the international stage with major marathons being won by virtual juniors with relatively few years of distance training behind them, such as the twenty year-old Robert Cheriyuot, winner of Boston this year in an astounding course record of 2.05.50. It is also worth pondering that the nature of the training of these young Africans mimics that of Barry Magee’s under Lydiard – 100 miles per week, and the rest.

The other key result of the high mileage and the long runs under Arthur was the mental toughness that came with it, a psychological edge. Lydiard runners, Barry recalls, never ‘did not finish’, we learnt how to get through a bad patch, no matter how difficult that patch.

Barry is also clear that his spiritual beliefs have been instrumental to his running success, being another resource to draw on at the highest level, something Nick Willis also will attest to.

Like Sir Peter Snell, Barry has always emphasised the importance of harriers. In an observation he made nearly thirty years ago to New Zealand Runner Barry commented:

“we never missed harriers…we would run right through the club season.” This included running weekly club races “for vital race training”.

Barry concluded; “today’s top runners never go to their clubs, we would never miss”. This comment is fascinating when we think of the training practices of top runners today, how many regularly attend and race at club?

A long and distinguished running career

An impressive feature of Barry Magee’s running career is his versatility; a marathon runner who could also run a great mile, really a Peter Snell in reverse – again made possible by the Lydiard method. Barry’s string of achievements included 18 national titles, world rankings of number one (10,000m) and two (5,000m), the 4 x 1 mile world record, winning the prestigious Fukuoka marathon (2.19.04) and culminating in a magnificent bronze medal at the Rome Olympics in 1960 (2.17.18).

Barry brought an added dimension on the night by bringing with him some of the tangible rewards and treasures of his career to share with the audience. It was wonderful to see some of the most important medals ever won by a New Zealand athlete brought in and plonked down in an old, no-nonsense sports bag – how utterly Kiwi. Chief among the treasures was the Olympic bronze medal from Rome, including a beautiful gilded laurel wreath chain.

Barry took us with him as he re-counted a number of his most special achievements, which really cluster around two phases of his career.

Rome and relays

Of the Rome Olympics, Barry recalled how surreal the race was, being run at night. Roman soldiers lit the way up the Appian Way past the Coliseum, and there were no spectators allowed on the course. The night start was to account for the stifling heat of Rome (30 degrees in August).

Bizarrely, the course was closed to spectators because the officials were scared some countries might cheat and swap runners en route (as one country had twins running!). This situation meant that Barry never knew where he was in the race till the finish. Naturally, our very own witness to history – Alan Stevens – was right there following Barry along on a little Vespa.

Barry told us of an amusing story in preparation for the marathon, when in classic Kiwi number 8 fence-wire fashion, he had decided to cut tiny holes into his New Zealand singlet to make it more breathable to counter the heat of Rome. Barry was mortified to find that the Italian Olympic Village female staff had gone and sewn up his improvised ‘holey’ singlet, so Barry had to cut all the holes open again!

By far the most exciting race of his career, in contrast to the surreal and silent marathon of Rome, was being part of the New Zealand team who broke the 4 x 1 mile world record along with Snell, Halberg and Baillie (4.07) in 1961.

Masters champion

The other remarkable feature of Barry Magee’s career is its great length. Even after starting the demanding Lydiard training in his early twenties, he was able to continue training and racing for 40 years, becoming a top New Zealand master. Barry ran a sub-2.30 marathon at 49 years of age.

In Barry’s masters’ success we also see how different competitive goals continue to motivate. Here we have a marathon runner who has achieved what most distance runners can only dream of, an Olympic marathon medal, yet his Masters’ achievements are also a source of pride – Barry recalled that one of his finest achievements was beating Bill Baillie, Jeff Julian, Ray Pucket and J.K McDonald for the New Zealand M50 Cross Country Championship at Taupo at the age of 53 (four Olympians and a World Champion all in the same race).

On naming Barry Magee as one of his top ten all-time New Zealand athletes, on account of both the great diversity of his achievements and long career, sports historian Joseph Romanos concluded that Barry is “probably the most under-rated… only now (2010) has he finally been added to the Sports Hall of Fame”.

The balanced humble Olympian

Another aspect of Barry’s story that impressed was that he has led a relatively balanced life for a world class athlete. Top athletes usually exhibit a singular focus – athletics and nothing else. Yet Barry has had a very full life from his late teens. Barry was a businessman, becoming the youngest owner of a 4 Square store in New Zealand at the age of 20 (a 50 hours per week job!); was married at 22; having three children; being an active member of his church and later becoming a Lay Preacher (taking church services and funeral services, including Lydiard’s in 2004). On top of all this, and 100 miles per week, he won an Olympic medal at 26.

Barry summed up this balanced philosophy to New Zealand Runner in 1983; “running is part of my circle of life; without it, I am not an entirely whole person. The Greeks placed four spokes in the human wheel – social, mental, physical and spiritual” – and running is part of my wheel with work, play and social activities”.

Barry also typifies a number of characteristics that seemed to be in the DNA of Lydiard’s boys. In addition to the mostly uncomplaining capacity for phenomenal training, there is the down to earth, no fuss and humble way about these men, something easily recognisable in Magee, Snell and Halberg in particular.

There’s no secret

Reflecting on his running career Barry is satisfied and grateful for what becoming a world-class runner gave him by way of providing access to another world, a myriad of wonderful experiences that would not have been possible if he hadn’t done all that hard work up in the Waitararuas’under the Lydiard system.

People often want to know the secret to Lydiard’s success with his athletes, but to Barry it is a straightforward message that he, Snell, Moller and others have said over and over again. Even if you are a runner of modest natural abilities, just follow the core principles of Lydiard’s training, which involves a lot of hard graft. The ‘secret’ was reflected back to Barry himself by one of New Zealand’s finest marathoners Paul Ballinger. Barry asked Paul one day; what was the secret to his success? Paul replied just the 200 kms per week”.