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Jack Holden




Of the many great runners that England has produced, Jack Holden stands near the top of the list. He wasn’t the elegant greyhound type of runner; he was built more like a boxer and ran on pure grit. Except during the Second World War, he competed at international level for 20 years.  Jim Peters, the great marathoner of the next generation, saw him as “a ruthless runner, full of confidence and always starting with an absolute determination to ‘kill’ the opposition right from the start.”  (Peters, In the Long Run, p.62)

Holden (left) near the end
of his career.

There are legendary stories about him. He ran the last nine miles of the 1950 Empire Games marathon in bare feet after his shoes fell apart. His feet at the end were “cut to ribbons.” When he won the 1950 European Championships Marathon at age 43, the second-place finisher, Veikko Karvonen, asked him how old he was. Holden recalls: “When I told him, he said, ‘But you’re older than my father!’” And then after being introduced to Prince Baudouin in the Royal Box, he said, “Glad to meet you, sir. Met your father and grandfather before you.” (The Times, March 26, 2004) Holden was able to say this having met them in the 1930s after winning other races in Belgium.

Not surprisingly, Holden was a hard trainer, claiming he was the first to run 100 miles a week. When up-and-coming Jim Peters wrote to him for advice, Holden told him to increase his mileage.

One of nine children from a working-class family in the industrial Midlands of England, he left school at 13 to work in a local foundry. He discovered running while training as a boxer. His first race, a three-mile handicap, almost turned him into a professional. He won the race, and the first prize was a live pig, which fed his family for a while but which was well above the value limit for amateur prizes. He stayed an amateur and joined the famous Tipton Harriers. Holden soon achieved success in cross-country and in the longer track races. He represented England in the International Cross-Country Race for ten consecutive years, 1929-1939, winning in 1933, 1934, 1935 and 1939. He also won many AAA titles. 

Film Clips 
A good  head-on sequence of Holden running
in the Poly Marathon. Also, an excerpt from
his victory speech. 
Another Poly Marathon victory--1948.

In 1946, having served in the RAF during the war, he was sixth, first English runner, in the International Cross-Country Race. Then he was English Marathon champion from 1947 to 1950.  A favorite for the 1948 Olympic title, Holden dropped out with blisters at 27K when in 7th place.  Before this race, he had bathed his feet in permaganate of potash to toughen them up, but he overdid it. “I over-pickled them,” he said later. “The skin was so hard it just blistered. It was impossible for me to keep running. I had to drop out.” (IAAF News Center) After such a devastating disappointment, he decided to retire.  Holden was 41 after all. But his wife Millie persuaded him to change his mind. This was fortunate, because the two crowning glories of his career were achieved two years later in 1950.

First, he won the Empire Games Marathon in Auckland by 4:06. His time was 2:32:57, excellent in view of the atrocious weather. It was this wet weather that broke down his shoes so that he had to run barefoot for the last nine miles. Soon his feet were bleeding, but that didn’t stop him.  Additionally, he was chased by a great dane (some say a poodle, some an alsatian) just three miles from the finish.  This story has often been embellished into an attack and injury, but Holden, in one of his wonderful quotes, denied that the dog hurt him: “I've been a dog man all my life. It never touched me. [It] didn't like English meat.” (Doug Gillon, Herald, March 13, 2004)Holden’s Commonwealth victory was acknowledged in a Times leader: “None was of more heroic quality than the victory of the veteran J. Holden in the Marathon Race.” (The Times, February 13, 1950, p.7)

Jack Holden trying to outpace
a young Jim Peters in the
1951 Finchley 20.

Second, he won the more competitive European Championships Marathon. A detailed description of this race can be found on this site in the article on the 1950 European Championships. Holden ran a sensible and courageous race, gradually eliminating his challengers and running alone for the last 5K.  He won by 31 seconds. Describing his final battle with Vanin of Russia, Holden said afterwards: “It was all about King George against Joe Stalin when I finally pulled away.” (TheTimes, March 26, 2004) Holden was 43 when he won this title; he remains the oldest athlete ever to have won a European running title. 

After these two major victories, Holden still kept competing.  It was only after a young Jim Peters had passed him in the 1951 Poly Marathon, that he stopped racing. “I’d made a vow to retire as soon as another British runner came along and beat me.” (Turnbull, Independent, January 11, 2004) In this race, Peters, running his first marathon, opened up a 200-yard lead on Holden in the early going. But by the five-mile mark, Holden was up with Peters. Peters quickly noticed that Holden was breathing heavily, so he increased his pace. But Holden wouldn’t give an inch. The two ran side-by-side for several miles. Soon it was Holden who was applying pressure. At one point he even tried to jump Peters. At the halfway point, Holden put in a fast mile close to 5:00, and Peters was dropped by 200 yards. For several miles Holden kept this lead, but then Peters, encouraged by Holden looking back, made a move and regained the lead. Soon after , at 19 miles, Holden dropped out. 

Holden lived out his 97 years in a Cumbrian village called Papcastle.  Tipton Harriers named their running track after him, but when a statue of him was proposed, Holden vetoed the idea, saying, “No dog is going to pee on me while I’m alive”. (Letsrun Blog, August 30, 2006) Not surprisingly, Jack Holden has remained one of the most revered runners in British athletics.   


John Dutton 26th June 2015

I am distantly related to Jack Holden on my mothers side,before her marriage she was a Holden,I was in the Worcestershire regiment cross country team during national service in Jamaica in 1959.

John Dutton 26th June 2015

I am distantly related to Jack Holden on my mothers side,before her marriage she was a Holden,I was in the Worcestershire regiment cross country team during national service in Jamaica in 1959.

Zac Taylor 17th April 2015

I am a related to Jack. I aspire to be a runner just like him.

Zac Taylor 17th April 2015

I am a related to Jack. I aspire to be a runner just like him.

GHM 9th March 2015

Marathon:1950 Empire Games Auckland,NZ Jack Holden wins by 4 minutes!

ROGER BAGLEY 3rd February 2013

When I was a lad of six years f age I lived next door to jack in sherwood avenue Tipton and most evenings after tea I would run alongside jack tothe bottomofthe avenue at which point hee would say off home now roger this isfar enough

Leah Sandford 28th October 2012

I'm Jack's Great Niece, I ran up to half marathons when I was at school & loved the freedom of running. A muscle condition was diagnosed in my early twenties & I had to stop. I can remember visiting Uncle Jack before he moved from the Black Country & we had a lovely chat about running. I didn't realise how great a runner he was :)

Kay Crooke (was Holden) 17th September 2012

I am Jack's Great niece and have been researching him lately as I am competing in my first half marathon in a few weeks. My Grandad (jacks Brother Jeff Holden) has also been telling me someof Jack's hints and tips for running this weekend. It is amazing to think that I am related to such a legend, even though I will never be as fast as him or as brilliant as him. My nephew, also called Jack, is a keen runner and competes for his school. I wonder if running is hereditary?

Chris Holden 19th July 2012

Excellent site. I am a runner myself, living in Canada. Provincial record holder in the marathon. Family tree traced ancestry to same area of England as Jack Holden .... often wondered if related very distantly but haven't had time to follow up. Thanks for the info.

bethany holden 2nd July 2012

this is an amazing website,he was my great uncle:)xoxox r.i.p,you star

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