At this time 25 years ago, Sunday 16th. February 1986, I toed the line with just 139 others for the inaugural MALTA MARATHON. The 26.2 mile race would see us tackling an undulating route from the inland start at Santa Lucia to the finish on the seafront at Sliema.
Since the 4 x 1 mile session completed 9 days before I had run no further that 9 miles and had even enjoyed a couple of games of tennis in the marathon "taper". But Pat and I flew out on the Thursday to the mediterranean island looking for a good rest more than anything else. Whilst I would be giving the event 100% effort, the main focus woul still be the Bristol marathon 10 weeks on in April.
We were eagerly looking forward to much better weather than we were experiencing in the UK ; snow and gales. So when race days came and we found that strong winds were plaguing Malta as well it only added to the early morning tension.
I had already seen one European marathon champion running from the hotel since arriving, in the shape of RON HILL, but during the mile warm up I bumped into another European and Commonwealth champion, IAN THOMPSON. Naturally all the prerace banter was about Ron and Ian and all they had achieved and of course they were labelled as prerace favourites. Hill had recently run a U.S. marathon in 2:29. Thompson was said to have been hoping for 2:20.
Undeterred, fresh from a victory in the Brass Monkey half just 3 weeks before, I was clearly no great respecter of their reputations as the early race photo shows me setting the initial pace! Blissfully unaware of what was to come.
Ian Thompson is over my right shoulder, local rival Paul Pickup of Longwood is over my left shoulder, Malta's favourite CHARLIE PORTELLI features a stride to my right and Ron Hill is tucked in behind.
Both the local newspaper report and "Ron Hill's ramblings" ( report in his magazine) refer to how the strong winds hampered our efforts in the first ten miles. They give no reference to what I witnessed go on.......
Local hero Portelli had passed me and taken up the running but he in turn was passed by Thompson and Pickup who moved away leaving Portelli isolated, as I was now in 4th place. I clearly remember the course turning up to the Ta' Qali national stadium as the gales were becoming increasingly troublesome.
Soon after a large group of cyclists overtook me and rode on to catch Portelli in front. We hadn't reached half way at this point. I fully expected the cyclists to similarly go past Portelli as they had me. But no, to my amazement and annoyance, they surrounded Portelli, sheltering him from the wind and urged him forwards. I could only watch in frustration as I ran the last 14 miles alone only slowly chipping away at the gap.
As we reached the seafront at Sliema, Portelli still had the luxury of his moble windbreak and of course the encouragement of his gang but the gap was closing significantly. I was close enough to see that despite all he was by now struggling quite badly. I charged on still hoping i could snatch 3rd place but I ran out of road and had to settle for fourth . I ran 2:33.52 to Portelli's 2:32.50. Paul Pickup had gone on to run 2:27.48. Two minutes ahead of Ian Thompson (best sub 2:10). Ron Hill , another 2:09.28 best in 1970, was clearly disappointed with his 2:43.09 for 6th place.
Having crossed the line, Charlie Portelli collapsed to the ground and was immediately picked up by St. John first aid and carried into the cinema foyer near the finish. I jogged for a few minutes then went inside.
I could hear someone wailing ...."Charlie!" "Charlie!! It was Portelli's wife and young daughter in great distress as they leant over a very poorly looking husband and father still horizontal and still clearly in a very tormented state. They obviously thought he had just run his last race.
The cyclists had simply "run him into the ground". He had been forced to give more than his all. I peeled off my specially made Malta colours Fastrax vest and lay it across the troubled runner.
We waited around for the presentation; only to discover that awards would only be given to the first 3.
A recovering Portelli received a prize for 3rd and a holiday in England for first localand a trophy twice the size of the F.A. cup. I was the "weakest link" , 4th .........and went away with nothing.
Maltese Cross?...you bet I was! Needless to say, we have never been back.
To be honest simply because we didn't feel the island compared well with other islands in the mediterranean.
There was some consolation for myself and Ron Hill in seeing my wife Pat running 79.19 and Ron's wife May running 88.26 in a ladies 10 mile race run in conjunction with the marathon.
Both of them coming away with age group trophies!