Serpie Legends: Malcolm French

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Malcolm (far right) at the Last Friday of the Month 5k

Kirsty interviews Serpie life member and Last Friday of the Month 5k organiser, Malcolm French.

Cliff Richard’s Mistletoe and Wine was on its way to the Christmas number one spot, Mikhail Gorbachev was Soviet General Secretary of the USSR, and the film Rain Man was premiering in America when Malcolm French joined Serpentine Running Club. It was December 1988 and the weather was unseasonably mild as Malcolm launched himself into his training session, little knowing that some 30 years later he would be sharing his story with me in the new Serpie HQ at the Seymour Centre.

“I’ve probably been at this place longer than any other person in the club,” he tells me as we sit downstairs in the club room. Sid is brewing mint tea and some of the bag-room helpers have cracked open the wine. “I have a certificate for walking the width of the pool here when I was in the cubs.” The remains of the pool still lie beneath the badminton courts.

Malcolm moved on from walking in swimming pools to swimming in them while at school, but then life and work took priority and exercise took a back seat. In his late twenties the whole country was swept up in marathon fever after the first successful events had shown that Joe Public could run the distance too.

The Watford Observer decided to put on a fun run and the bank manager of the Watford NatWest decided that his PA would sign everyone up. The PA (Malcolm) decided to go out for lunch instead. Upon his return he discovered someone had entered him into the race.

“Their idea of a fun run was ten and a half miles,” Malcolm laughs. The training for the race was a wake-up call. Two of his co-workers had completed the London Marathon and took them to run a three-quarter mile loop in Cassiobury Park. “I was so ill I frightened the living daylights out of me,” he confesses, “Pounding in the chest, it was truly scary. I thought I’d better carry on doing this running, because I can’t be this unfit in my twenties.”

So, he trained and completed his 10-and-a-half-mile ‘fun’ run. Not bad for a first race and a turning point in his life. He started running on his own and went to the Roger Bannister track in Hatch End, Harrow. They had an old-fashioned groundsman who knew his sport and suggested he join a club.

“Well, what clubs are there?” Malcolm asked pre-Google.

“There’s two,” said the groundsman, “There’s Harrow Athletic Club, but you’re too old and too slow so don’t waste your time with them. Then there’s this lot called Serpentine who meet every Thursday at the track.” Decision made.

When Malcolm was transferred to the bank’s West End branch he ran in Hyde Park as well. Serpentine sign up was a little more lax back then (Malcolm was not yet in charge of membership) and he ran for seven months before a fee exchanged hands. It’s important to trial things.

“I’ve never been any good but I enjoy the competition,” Malcolm says. So, I check SerpieBase. Malcolm has run a 5K in 20:44, which I think is pretty good. He has run many a road race and competed in cross country events too. There’s a javelin throw, a high jump result and a couple of sprint distances. He has also completed a number of club Handicaps and won a bronze and silver, the gold remains elusive. “The silver I thought I had won, but they were so far out in front of me I never even saw them.”

The Handicap led Malcolm into judging. “I really fell into that as well,” Malcolm reminisces, “It was a hot Handicap day and I think I must have run in it, and it was also track and field day.” After the Handicap, Malcolm travelled the short distance into the London suburbs with fellow Serpie Monika Mars (who is now living in Germany ) to support the track and field team. While sitting on a grassy bank enjoying the sunshine there was an announcement requesting that the officials report to judge the high jump. After repeated calls and repeated silences the organisers indicated that the event would have to be cancelled. Malcolm remembers the conversation: “’I did high jump in Germany,’ says Monika, ‘I think I can just about remember how to do the score card. You can come and put the bar on when they knock it off.'”

“We had no idea what we were doing,” Malcolm admits, although they managed to convince the organisers of Monika’s international judging capacity. It was, however, one of the best lessons for track and field judges: “Just be confident in what you are doing.” This maxim would guide him at London 2012. “Anyway I joined in,” Malcolm shrugs. Again, it’s important to trial things.

Trial over, Malcolm decided to get a qualification in track and field judging. He had to attend a two-day course and pass a written exam. Malcolm and another man couldn’t do the exam date, so the organisers agreed to put one on just for them at the Thames Valley Club house at Wormwood Scrubs. Just the two of them in a room, they were instructed not to talk.

“We didn’t talk too much, only when the other chap [the exam moderator] went out to get a cup of tea,” Malcolm smiles. At the end they got chatting a bit more, his exam-mate asked him to stay for a cup of tea so that he could sign Malcolm up to do some volunteering for Thames Valley Harriers. Malcolm looked around the room and there on the wall hung a poster of the man he was talking to: “Is that you?” He asked. “Yes,” replied the ex-Olympian and 1956 cross country champion Ken Norris. Malcolm reflects that judging has a lot of former top-class athletes that he would never otherwise meet, and of Ken Norris: “What a lovely man.”

As soon as he qualified he was asked to judge a track and field meeting. Derek Johnson the 800-metre silver medallist and 4×400-metre bronze medallist at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics was the starter.

“Is this your first time judging?” Derek asked.

“How can you tell?” Malcolm replied.

He considers Derek (who was also a member of Serpentine in the ‘80s) to have been hugely influential in his role as a judge. Derek took the time to give some advice to the newly-qualified Malcolm, which he took on board and which has helped him become the well-respected judge he is today.

In 1999 illness stopped Malcolm from running and John Walker, the organiser of the Last Friday of the Month 5k, suggested that Malcolm help out. It was gaining popularity and as Malcolm had competed in some of the races he agreed. Starting with handing out numbers he then tried his hand at various roles and when John left he took over the organisation.

On an average Friday Malcolm receives around 300 entries, with about 240 runners turning up. He is supported by a good mix of core helpers (two of whom he met when he first joined the club – Rachel and Phil), and others that come along when they can. Malcolm is grateful for everyone’s support and quietly proud of the event they pull off on a monthly basis: “Two quid for affiliated runners, and five quid for others and we make a profit.” It’s lots of work, but Malcolm admits he likes organising things and he does it for the love of the sport.

I ask Malcolm what stands out for him over the past three decades. He quickly replies volunteering at the 2012 London Olympics. Malcolm was at the practice track for two months as athletes arrived before the Games started. The sprinters on the Grand Prix circuit are all top athletes, and as such they are used to certain standards. On the first day at the track no one turned up as the weather was foul. On the second day, Kim Collins turned up wanting to practice his starts. He soon discovered the absence of expected equipment. There were some old starting blocks though, and Malcolm and crew decided that banging two blocks of wood together would be good enough for a starting pistol. Collins was not impressed.

Malcolm and his volunteer-mates managed to get the timing company to bring some equipment down to the practice track, but unfortunately there were no official starters to operate it as they were not due to arrive until just before the start of the Games. So, Malcolm and cohort figured it out and just got on with it, with some concealed concern that the coaches would twig that they didn’t have any real idea of what they were doing. In fact they were very happy, as the top athletes are able to anticipate the circuit starters, but Malcolm’s inexperienced starting techniques kept them on their toes. He continues to tell me more stories about his time volunteering at the Olympics and Paralympics. He supported the problem solving around wheelchair storage and got insider tips for javelin throwing.

Reading this back it looks like Malcolm’s path happened more through accident than design. But that is to misunderstand the talent and capability of the man, and the skill that has steered him along where others would have floundered and sunk. He is one of life’s modest men, self-deprecating and preferring to tell me about the wonderful people who have shaped him and his achievements, rather than tell me what they are. But I know that karma will win out, and that anyone who has had the fortune of adjudicating, volunteering or simply sharing a conversation with him will tell of the time that Malcolm French influenced their running path. What a lovely man.

Kirsty Mansfield Kirsty’s current training plan consists of lying on the sofa and eating pizza. When not doing this she can be found in Warrior 2, attempting to write flash fiction or learning to paradiddle.