By PHIL TAYLOR



Runner. Died aged 72.



Jack Foster was an accidental champion. He didn't plan it, it just happened.



Foster was 32 when he began running, an age when most athletics careers are on the wane.

Advertisement


Cycling was his first love but with four children and not a lot of money, top-line bikes and the long hours of training necessary to excel in that sport could not be afforded.



His first run, Foster wrote in his elegantly written book Tale of the Ancient Marathoner, lasted seven minutes but seemed like seven miles.



But he soon turned the heads of competitors and by his late 30s he was turning record books upside down. Age, he showed, was irrelevant to running fast.



He was of the generation of Olympic champions Peter Snell and Murray Halberg but raced with those a generation younger.



In 1975, when New Zealand won the world team cross-country title - a prospect which is unimaginable today - Foster's teammates included Dick Quax and John Walker, Olympic silver and gold medallists.



Quax recalls, as an 18-year-old, first encountering Foster at a premier race. "There were some pretty good runners in the Waikato and this guy Jack Foster won or was very high up in the field.



"He came out of nowhere. He was 33. Well, you know what it's like when you are 18 and someone is 33, you think this guy should be oiling up his wheelchair. We just thought it was fantastic, we were blown away by it."



At 40, Foster represented New Zealand at the Olympics and did so again at 44. At 41 he ran 2h 11m 18s in winning a Commonwealth Games silver, a time which placed him among the elite marathon runners.



He was among the placegetters in famous marathons, such as Boston, demolishing records for athletes of his age. He turned 50 and smashed world age-group records for 10km, 10 miles and the marathon.



As with his start in running, it was circumstance which brought him to New Zealand. He was a '£10 Pom', taking up an offer to sail from England to a young country stocking up on immigrants.



He was 24, alone, heading for a new life and looking over his shoulder at a decade in a Liverpool factory packing cigarettes.



Foster was an only child. His father died of tuberculosis when Jack was about seven. His mother, Polly, contracted it, too, but recovered. Consequently Foster had precautionary check-ups until he was 15 and was regarded at school as too "delicate" for football or other strenuous activities.



Naturally uncomfortable in crowds, he came to love the isolation and freedom of long bike rides, riding with a couple of Liverpool mates at weekends over the hills into Wales and beyond. The bike was his escape from factory drudgery.



These long rides gave him the heart and lungs for the hard road of distance running.



Polly remained in England but lived to see her son become an Olympian and receive a Commonwealth Games silver medal from the Queen in Christchurch in 1974.



It wasn't his most perfect race - that was his record-breaking win in the Onehunga to Auckland classic in which he felt he could have matched anyone in the world - but Christchurch was the most special.



"Coming back from the turn down Memorial Ave, a three-mile stretch of road as straight as a gun barrel, was an emotional and almost frightening experience," Foster wrote. "People must have been eight or 10 deep on each side of the road, and they closed in as I ran past, leaving me about a yard or so to go through.



"As they cheered wildly, it was difficult not to be carried away and start sprinting. Never has a crowd done so much for my performance. Nothing I experience will ever be quite the same again."



He missed by 11s fulfilling an ambition to break 2h 11m and thereby run the marathon at five-minute mile pace but he had set a personal best, a New Zealand best, a world masters best and made Englishman Ian Thompson run the world's second-fastest time to beat him.



"I was happy. A silver medal on my mother's birthday and her silver wedding [anniversary] too."



Quax and Walker say Foster's achievements are more appreciated in the United States where he is accorded legend status.



"He was probably the most underrated distance man we ever had in this country. For the athletes who knew him, we thought he was marvellous," said Walker. "He was great and his performances were unbelievable. He was quiet and unassuming but he liked a lot of fun. He had a very quirky wit."



Foster visited Walker recently in Auckland, having biked from Rotorua.



"Jack hadn't changed. It was like seeing him 20 years ago," says Walker. "The bike kept him young. At 72, he was a young man."



In the days after his death his family have gone through a mountain of memorabilia - diaries, racing kit, letters, even a partly written manuscript - and been reminded of his modesty, his humour, that he was a man of letters who wrote beautifully, and that he was a squirrel who threw nothing away.



In his garage sets of racing bike wheels hang in a row from the roof, books on mountaineering - Great Ascents, by acclaimed British writer Eric Newby among them - sit on a bench as though they've just been put down. It was adventure Foster loved above all.



That was much of the attraction of the bicycle touring he continued to do - discovering new places, new roads, new vistas, new challenges.



He was on a bike ride last Saturday when hit by a vehicle.



Pinned to a wall in his garage is a homemade sign in bold type which could be his epitaph: "We don't cease to play because we grow old. We grow old because we cease to play."



Jack Foster is survived by his wife, Belle, four children and four grandchildren.