‘I stopped to retie my shoe and I then walked. I was ashamed of myself, and surprised. I had thought I would do better than this.
“I started to run again. This time it was hard, and I knew it would be from now on to the finish.
“I passed an official with a 16 miles board. I walked again. I’ll walk to that tree. I started to run again. My legs were tight. It was now very hard indeed.”
Lewis James’ only marathon was this one, the Gloucester People’s Marathon of 1981. Given time to reflect, he became rightly proud of his effort and achievement that day.
And his story is remarkable for the determination and perseverance he showed in this, and in every other aspect of his life, throwing a spotlight on a different world to ours.
Lewis was born in Aldershot on December 29, 1941. After school, he joined the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) Technical College, training to be a draughtsman.
However, he soon got bored with that line of work, as well as all the project cancellations, and, investing his life’s savings of £135, he rented a small, derelict shop and turned it into a camping and sports outfitters.
He worked incredibly hard, driving up from Hampshire each morning, round the South Circular, to buy stock from a wholesaler in Deptford. He would then sell those products during the day, making enough money to fund the next dawn’s purchases. And so on.
His sister Pamela remembers Lewis “built” a shed at the back of the shop to house his stock, with no foundations. The volume of stock was the only thing that held the ramshackle structure up.
When he finally had no further use for it, he simply removed the remaining stock, kicked it – and it promptly fell down!
Luckily, though, Lewis was able to capitalise on his hard work and on the fact the mid-60s were a boom time for camping, and he was eventually able to retire in his early 40s in 1984.
But he was also a lifelong runner, “from the moment he could walk,” says Pamela.
From school sports days and running the mile at college, he progressed to road running in his 30s and 40s, taking part in many 10kms and half marathons across Hampshire.
Failing to get a place in the London Marathon of 1982, that marathon in Gloucester remained his only attempt at the classic distance: “We pass the finishing funnel and are directed around the park. I feel angry. Why should they expect us to run half a mile around the park at this stage?
“I sprint the last 50 yards. I don’t want anyone to pass me right at the end. No-one does. It’s over.”
After 3hr 24min 11sec of effort, he celebrated with two ice creams, a bath back at his hotel and a pint of shandy before the car journey back to Hampshire.
Although born in Aldershot and living in Farnborough for much of his life, Lewis loved Alton the best.
He travelled to the market town three times a week to train with his brother, Ian. They would run through Anstey Park to Holybourne and back, from Jubilee Fields up through Chawton Park Woods, and up Brick Kiln Lane, exploring the myriad footpaths in the hills.
He loved the greater variety of wildlife around Alton – the squirrels, deer, foxes, rabbits and owls – and the cleaner air. He competed in the Alton 10k every year he could.
Like all runners, he experienced good outings (“could have climbed Everest today”) and bad (“wasn’t so good today.”)
Running, he said, is “bloody hard” and “there’s no such thing as a fun run!”
In training for that marathon, Lewis and Ian would supplement the Alton runs with longer jaunts along the Basingstoke Canal.
Pamela remembered other sporting exploits of greater or less success. There was the time Lewis hitch-hiked all the way to Scotland to climb Ben Nevis.
And then there was the time he entered a ride-and-tie race, where teams of two take it in turns to ride a horse while the other runs. Lewis did the entire event in skimpy running shorts and chafed so badly that, says his sister, “he had to wear a skirt for the next week!”
When he decided to move house in 2000, it was always going to be to Alton. Driving round the roads with Pamela, he spotted a bungalow he liked the look of on High Ridge, said “I’m going to buy that” – and promptly did so without even viewing the interior!
Alongside his own participation, Lewis was also a dedicated running fan, admiring athletes across the last 70 years.
He liked ordinary runners. “I never met a nasty runner,” he said, “because a long-distance runner hasn’t got the energy to be nasty!”
Equally, he celebrated the extraordinary – remembering Chris Chataway beating Vladimir Kuts at the White City in 1954 (“a lot of people would have given up”).
He said Seb Coe “has got a built-in accelerator,” and that Paula Radcliffe showed “such courage, such willingness to hurt herself.”
He admired triathletes, notably the Brownlee brothers, but his greatest affection was reserved for a chap called Roger Hackney.
As a fledgling teenage runner, Roger helped in Lewis’ shop in Cove on Saturdays, and the older man would often drive the younger to races at Crystal Palace.
Despite Hackney’s success on the flat, Lewis suggested his strength might lie in the 3,000 metres steeplechase.
Hackney took that advice and went on to represent Great Britain at that event in three Olympic Games (1980, 1984, 1988), also winning a silver medal in the 1986 Commonwealths. He is now a successful orthopaedic surgeon.
Lewis kept running almost until the very end. Suffering a minor stroke (a TIA) in 2015, he merely took six weeks off, and then resumed his normal exercise regime. They don’t make ’em like you anymore, Lewis.
It was only when his Alzheimer’s Disease took greater hold in 2019 that he understandably lost interest. Even then, he took pleasure in looking out of his window to see the red kites and the robins.
He died, peacefully, at home in Alton, the day after his 81st birthday, on December 30, 2022, an old Altonian crossing his last finish line.
Article by Steve Till