On Saturday, veteran athlete Ian Barnes set a British mile record for over-85s. It was a privilige to not only be there, but to run in the slipstream of a true local hero...

THE call that came in from Darlington Harriers athletics club was somewhat unexpected. One of their longest-serving members was attempting to set the British mile record for over-85s, and would I like to enter the race?

There were a number of possible reasons for asking me to take part alongside the evergreen Ian Barnes:

1. They considered me to be a man oozing with natural athletic prowess.

2. They thought I looked over 85.

3. They saw it as a way of guaranteeing some positive publicity.

Option 1 was quickly dismissed because even I’m not that deluded. Option 2 was a genuine concern because I’ve had a very hard paper round – though surely not that hard. In the end, Option 3 made the most sense and, look, here I am writing about it.

The idea appealed, mainly because I’ve known Ian for years, having admired him as the driving force behind the Darlington Parkrun. He’s an amazing man, an inspiration to many, and I wanted to be there to record his piece of sporting history.

I, therefore, happily paid my £6 entry fee to get a run for my money, and registered online to compete in the mile race – part of a series of “Back To The Track” events organised by Darlington Harriers, under Covid-19 safety regulations.

The venue was the Eastbourne Sports Complex, in Darlington, and I duly sacrificed my regular Saturday afternoon place on the settee, watching the horseracing on the telly, to turn up in the rain at the running track.

Ian, 86 in December, as lean as a greyhound, and looking the part in his sleeveless, white running vest and blue shorts, was already warming up as I arrived.

Yours truly, 58, as lean as a well-fed warthog, was seeking to impress onlookers by wearing my commemorative t-shirt from the 2015 Darlington 10k run when I gallantly clocked just over an hour, and spent the next week unable to walk.

My game-plan for the potentially historic mile race was fairly straightforward. There were six other runners from local clubs in the field, and I was realistic enough to know they’d be too hot to handle. My sportsmanlike intention was to let them go off ahead while I stayed with Ian, acting as his pacemaker, and encouraging him towards a record time.

The starting pistol was fired – far too loudly for my liking – and we were off, with encouragement ringing in our ears from the socially distanced spectators.

As expected, the others were well clear within the first 100 metres, leaving me and Ian at the back. By the time we’d covered half a lap, I already knew that my tactic of merely keeping the 85-year-old company, and having a gentle jog round, was the stuff of fantasy. Already struggling to keep up, and my heart pounding, it was me who needed a pacemaker .

We had four laps of the track to cover and I could honestly have feigned injury and stopped after two, before going behind a tree to be sick. But I was born with competitive bones and I stayed grimly in Ian’s slipstream.

Going up the back straight for the last time, I noticed that Ian’s shoelaces had come loose, and I confess to a terrible thought. It fleetingly crossed my mind to stand on them to bring him crashing down in the style of Mary Decker and Zola Budd in the 1984 Olympic 3,000 metres final in Los Angeles.

It would have saved me from the embarrassment of trailing home behind an octogenarian but, to be perfectly honest, his flapping shoelaces were too far ahead of me anyway.

For the record, Ian crossed the finishing line in a time of 8 minutes 10.40 seconds – setting a new British Masters mile record for over-85s. My time, in a gasping last place, was clocked at 8 minutes 10.98 seconds.

In all seriousness, it was a privilege to run in the same race as a man who summed up his philosophy as he cooled down: “You don’t have to give up sport – age doesn’t have to be a cut-off point or a barrier,” he said.

It should also be said that there’s so much more to Ian than competing in track events and Parkruns well into his eighties. Mark Tallon, Track and Field Manager for Darlington Harriers, said: “Ian’s an inspiration to all of us. He’s not just a record-setter, but he’s also one of our most regular volunteers, always willing to get out there in all-weathers, supporting others. We’re just really proud of him.”

In troubled times, Ian Barnes is a man who sets a wonderful example: not only deriving pleasure from his own remarkable achievements, but encouraging others to fulfil their potential too, no matter what age they might be.

Having been informed of my finishing time, he walked over to where I was bent double, recovering from my exertions: “You did very well Peter – because I was going full pelt!” said the man who’d given me a 30-year start.

ON the subject of grass roots sport, I was thrilled to see two former winners of The Northern Echo’s Local Heroes Awards featured in The Queen’s Birthday honours.

Julie Scurfield, our overall winner in 2018 for pioneering women’s and girls’ football in Chester-le-Street, was awarded the British Empire Medal and it is richly deserved.

She was the most excited Local Heroes winner we had in 20 years of the event, so I can imagine what it was like in her house when the honours letter came through the door.

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And the wonderful Charlie Donaghy, overall Local Hero in 2013, also receives the BEM for services to grass roots sport. He was described in the honours citation as “formerly games secretary, Durham Club and Institute Union” but that merely scratches the surface.

His dedication covered a range of sports, including snooker, darts, pool, dominoes, quoits, and bowls. He kept several leagues operating, even carrying on from his hospital bed when he fell ill, and worked tirelessly for years to fill the pages of the Local Heroes grass roots sport supplement every week.

Great memories – I salute them both.

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FINALLY, congratulations to Mike Hind, a Teesside businessman, who was awarded the MBE.

Mike’s honour was in recognition of his heroic efforts to deliver food parcels to countless elderly, isolated and vulnerable people in the Middlesbrough area.

I didn’t know him before the lockdown, but one of those who benefited from his kindness was my 89-year-old mum.

We are living through tough times, but there are lots of fantastic people out there, doing their best for others.

Thank you, Mike.

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