I’ll openly admit that, occasionally, writing a chapter of this blog has been valuable in helping me come to terms with something. This episode is one of those. My blog posts all have titles with connections to my music collection. This time Sandy Denny has given me words where, to be honest, I just have sorrow. Two days ago as I write this, we buried the great Alasdair Ross. He died two weeks ago.
The title is appropriate to this blog of reminiscences, because I’ve know Alasdair since 1975 which is, it pains me to accept, more than forty years ago. To many of us who knew him, I think it’s no exaggeration to say that he was “the athlete’s athlete”. He’d have simply smiled and changed the subject if anyone had ever said that to him, of course.
I used to race Alasdair fairly frequently during the mid 1970s. We’d usually be in the same sprints at Southern League fixtures. His dominance was well-established. I was two years his junior and yet another of the young upstarts snapping at his heels. In my attic, I still have a few copies of Athletics Weekly from those days, which list us together in the results. I remember the collective pleasure the sprinter boys shared back then, when Alasdair won a Scotland vest. I fully expected he’d be selected for Commonwealth Games or something. It didn’t happen, though.
Around the time that bad damage to my back ended my athletics career (or so I thought!), Alasdair also quit the track. He spent several years concentrating on growing his business interests and bringing up his family. At both he was once more a huge success. We also lost touch.
Fast forward sixteen or so years and I was falteringly making a return as a sprinter in Masters athletics. I knew almost no one. My erstwhile contemporaries had moved on to other things and/or long ago given up the track. I turned up to race at the Southern Counties Masters Championships in my first year back, and caught a glimpse of a face I thought I knew. Good grief, it was Alasdair!
He’d been racing again, as a Master, for some six or so years by this time. I didn’t know it then, but soon found out, that he was already greatly respected as a champion over 100, 200 and 400 metres, with a string of individual and relay medals to his name.
That meeting was now nearly seventeen years ago. In the intervening time, we enjoyed much trackside camaraderie, and raced each other often in local, national and international events. I’m proud to say we won relay gold together in the European Masters Indoors in Torun, Poland in 2015 and again later that year at the World Masters Championships in Lyon. And it didn’t take long for me to confirm from my own archives that when we raced each other in individual events, I never once beat him. Ever.
One of my favourite photos (below) shows me with the other relay guys on the Lyon podium with our medals. I’m letting my delight show just a bit (ok, just a lot), and Alasdair is standing there on my left, with a quiet look of satisfaction at a job well done. Little did any of us know this was the last occasion any of us would race with him.
I cherish the memory of sitting with Alasdair and reminiscing, at a small evening gathering in London, just before Christmas 2015. He told me that he was still training, but had recently moved to a gluten-free diet on account of some digestive problems. Nothing unusual about that amongst very health-conscious older athletes, of course. Looking back, I assume that was actually around the start of what, by a couple of months later, had been diagnosed as pancreatic cancer. I don’t think he had any inkling it was something so serious, at the time of that event.
I was warming up for the 60 metres final at the British Masters Indoor Championships in early March this year when Simon Barrett told me Alastair had spoken to him a few days earlier, and shared the news he had a serious and aggressive form of cancer. However emotionally resilient people might believe we athletes can be, I had to go and find somewhere quiet to compose myself after hearing that. Love and respect for the absent Alasdair abounded at those Championships. I won that 60 metres final and e-mailed him to stress that I had, of course, only “borrowed” the title. That was how I saw it, despite what people had told me about cancers of the pancreas.
It was also Simon who broke the news to me on 4 July, that Alasdair had died earlier that morning. I, like many others I’ve spoken to, thought we’d got ourselves prepared for the probably inevitable bad news. We’d been hearing hearing snippets about Alasdair’s steady decline, and the tender care he was receiving from the Phyllis Tuckwell Hospice in Farnham. Nothing prepares you, though, and I was choked by the news.
As I write this, today’s Wednesday. Alasdair’s funeral was on Monday. It was a very special occasion, which blended family and sporting and other friends perfectly. His coffin was brought into the church to the accompaniment of the theme from Chariots of Fire played as a slow air on the oboe. The tears welled up. That was genius. And it must have been so hard for Alasdair’s father to have been there at his son’s funeral.
Alasdair has been buried in the charming churchyard of St Lawrence Church, Seale, Surrey. It’s somewhere I’m, sure I shall be visiting again in future, to share a few thoughts with him.
Go well, my friend. After all, you always did!