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The QPH runner who trained with Roger Bannister – by Kevin O’Connor

In case of possible confusion, let me start by saying that my late QPH father (Pat O’Connor) is not related to the hugely distinguished Harrier, Bill O’Connor (although they did know each other).


I am proud I can say, "My Dad trained with Roger Bannister".

It is a further privilege to be able to explain to the current generation of QPH members, how this situation came about. The training was in the winter and spring immediately before Bannister set the World’s first sub-4 minute mile in May 1954.


My father was born in 1924, and as a child lived very close to the White City Stadium in West London. In the 1930’s, he saw many famous runners compete there, including the legendary Jesse Owens and Jack Lovelock.


WAR WOUND

But it was not until Dad was 18, during his Second World War military training, that he realised he could run better than average - winning both the 880 yards and one mile at his army depot sports.

By early 1944, Dad was serving in Italy. On April 26, he was badly wounded in the right foot, by shrapnel from a German mortar bomb, during the long and bloody battle for Monte Cassino. Ironically, this injury could possibly have saved his life for, on May 13 1944, his Royal Fusiliers battalion sustained 350 casualties in the final successful but horrendous assault at Cassino.


Dad’s injury necessitated two operations and a lengthy time in plaster. After discharge from the army, he needed more treatment and physiotherapy and for a while wore a leg iron to correct foot drop.


CRUCIAL CHANGE IN JOB ENABLED BY QPH FRIEND

He returned to his tough and hot manual job at the Morgan Crucible factory in Battersea, London.


In 1949 his factory organised its first post-war sports day. Dad went to the old three lap Battersea Park track and did some training. At the sports day he won the 880 yards and finished 2nd in the three miles.


Later in 1949, at 25 years of age, he joined Queen’s Park Harriers. At the club, he became friends with George Betts, who was a bank messenger with the then National Westminster Bank. George encouraged Dad to apply for the same work. Dad was successful, and he became messenger at the Bank’s Edgware Road branch (not far from Marble Arch). The messenger (caretaker) is the only manual worker in the bank, and we lived in the flat above the bank. Some of my earliest memories are of Dad cleaning bank floors and toilets. However, it was this change of job to a bank messenger on the Edgware Road that reshaped his (and his family’s) lives, and was key to his Bannister link-up.


IMPROVED RUNNING AND PADDINGTON REC

By 1952, Dad had: represented Middlesex County and the AAA; won the old County of London 880 yards Championships, as well as the prestigious City Charity's floodlit 880 yards at the White City.


As well as natural ability, Dad’s rapid success was explained by the help and advice he received from QPH’s Cliff Bould, who later became physiotherapist to two British Olympic teams.


But athletes, like harvests, experience good years and bad years. The 1953 track season was full of disappointment for Dad. He thought the probable explanation was over-training. Therefore, he decided to miss the 1953-54 cross-country season, while continuing to train.


The unforeseen result was his link-up with Bannister. Dad’s posting to that Edgware Road bank meant that he was now working close to the Paddington Recreation Ground (known to all and sundry as Paddington Rec, or just “the Rec”). To get there, it just required a quick bus ride to Maida Vale, followed by a short walk to the track. So, to vary his training from only evenings, Dad decided to go to the Paddington Rec track at lunchtime, two or three times a week.

MEETING ROGER BANNISTER

Arriving one lunchtime, he was surprised to see Roger Bannister and Chris Brasher warming up (Bannister was undertaking the last year of medical training at St Mary’s Hospital, Paddington). Dad later wrote in his unpublished memoirs:


“I quickly changed and somehow had the nerve to ask if I could join in the session. On a wet and very heavy {cinder} track, Norris McWhirter, an international sprinter, was holding the watch and was quite concerned that I had kept up with them, but was relieved to learn that I was a decent enough club athlete and had already run 4 min 17 sec for a mile.”


Bannister told Dad that he would be coming to the Paddington track several times a week at lunchtime and would welcome some company during training. They were joined by Fred Millward, another good club athlete. Throughout the 1953-54 winter, the Paddington track sessions continued. Chris Brasher came to some of the training, as did occasionally Chris Chataway.

“THE PADDINGTON LUNCHTIME CLUB”

Dad observed in his memoirs:

“The inspiration of training with one of the top milers in the world rubbed off on Fred and me and we began to run above ourselves. I think it would be fair to say that on rare occasions even Chris Basher was struggling. The main sessions were 10 x 440 yards, with some variation. And as the winter turned to spring, the times became faster.”


Sir Roger Bannister, an Oxford University graduate, later recalled in his book "The First Four Minutes," that this was his first contact with ordinary club athletes. It was an enjoyable period for this socially disparate running group, who jokingly referred to themselves as “the Paddington Lunchtime Club”.


LEYTON TO SOUTHEND ROAD RELAY RECORD

And the Lunchtime Club’s training was soon producing results for not just its most famous member, Bannister. For in April 1954, Dad ran the last leg of the Leyton to Southend Road Relay. (Photo above.) He moved QPH up from 7th to 4th position and shattered the leg record by 24 seconds. Ironically, Dad remains the last leg record-holder! For it was still standing when the historic relay was discontinued in the early 70s due to traffic problems.


At Paddington, the week after the 1954 Leyton to Southend relay, this news of Dad’s last leg performance was received with some delight by the lunchtime club. For if one of the squad was running that well, their training must be on the right lines.


QPH runner, Pat O'Connor running in a Hoops vest on a road in front of a car
Pat O’Connor on his record-breaking last leg of the 1954 Leyton to Southend Road Relay) – Kevin O'Connor

BANNISTER SHOWS HIS CLASS

Around this time, Bannister’s international class started to shine through. Dad noted, regarding the 10 X 440 yards session (normally 2 minutes recovery):


“Mid-April 1954 saw Bannister really speeding up with 57-58 second 440’s, and for the first time Fred Millward and I were finding it hard to finish a full session. Late in April, Roger ran a three-quarter mile time trial just inside three minutes and two days later covered a half-mile quite easily in around 1 min 53 sec and I then realised that a fast mile was not far away. And {on May 6, 1954, Iffley Road, Oxford} the world learnt the result of all that training at Paddington Rec, as Bannister broke the four-minute barrier for the mile,” becoming the first man in history to do so.


Dad, of course, was not in that famous race, when Bannister, ably paced by Brasher, then Chataway, ran 3 min 59.4 sec, and straight into athletics’ immortality.

Bannister breaking the tape at Iffly Field in Oxford. Photograph: AP

“BANNISTER’S SHADOW”

But being part of Bannister’s training group, had both a positive athletic effect, and lifelong positive emotional impact, on my father, who was once headlined in the Paddington local newspaper, as “Bannister’s Shadow.” A runner’s memory of their exploits can stay with them to life’s last breath. I was reminded of this when, not long after Dad’s cremation. I read the following words in his memoir:


“I will always remember with pleasure the six months when I had witnessed, and been part of, this great {sub-4 minute mile} achievement. Later, before Bannister left to take on (and beat) John Landy in the famous ‘Mile of the Century’ at the Empire (now Commonwealth) Games, on August 7, 1954, in Vancouver, Canada, we were all treated by Roger to a slap-up lunch at a restaurant in Elgin Avenue, in Maida Vale, close to Paddington Rec.”

In assessing the foundations of Bannister’s 1954 achievement, athletics and coaching historians may be interested in my father’s following observation:


“Franz Stampfl has been closely associated with Roger Bannister's success, but I can say that I only saw Stampfl once at Paddington Rec during that winter and it was always my feeling that Bannister was very much his own man.”


BANNISTER INSPIRES FRED MILLWARD & PAT O’CONNOR

Their own abilities, combined with the inspirational period with Bannister, promoted the running careers of both Fred Millward and Pat O’Connor. For example, later in the 1954 season Fred Millward won the Southern Counties One Mile Championships. And Dad, a little later, approaching 33 years, ran a personal best 4 min 12 sec mile and won the City Charities two miles, in a field containing three internationals, with what the City press described as a startling last lap of 57 seconds. It is only on reflection, in my own later life, that I realised just how energetic was my father. He had the energy to undertake all the manual work in the bank, and then fit in his running training at lunchtime, as well as evenings in nearby Hyde Park.


DAD’S FUNERAL

Dad passed away in January 2004. It was a cold day for the funeral, with thick snow on the ground, yet with the sun brilliantly shining in a cloudless sky. My father’s coffin was carried into the crematorium, to the emotional strains of the famous running theme of “Chariots of Fire.” As the service began, a large, framed, version of the above photo of Dad on that road relay leg was placed in front of his coffin, with his QPH running vest, and a wreath of red and white carnations, on top.


It was less a funeral, and more a celebration of a life. The occasion’s timing was appropriate, since exactly half a century earlier, “the Paddington Lunchtime Club” had began meeting. It was a grouping to which Pat O’Connor gave much, but from which he received more in terms both of running and of lifelong happy memories. Such can be the positive power of our sport.


Where should his family scatter Dad’s ashes? The choice was obvious. Half were scattered at Paddington Rec, and the other half on the Craven Cottage turf of his beloved Fulham Football Club.


A later QPH Newsletter article will look at Pat O’Connor’s contribution to QPH as Club Captain and Club President.

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