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Fred Lester

Fred Lester in full flight.

I like to think that I'm a self-coached runner, but know that there are people I have encountered during my running career who have had a profound influence on me, even though I might not have acknowledged it at the time.  One such person is Fred Lester, who was coach of the YMCA Amateur Athletic Club when I first joined at the age of 19 in 1970, and who remained a respected friend for the rest of his life.  He died in 2010 at the age of 87.

Although I didn't know it at the time we first met, and didn't bother to ask, Fred had already had a very interesting life.  All I knew was that he was also Secretary of the Victorian Marathon Club, wore an Australian Army slouch hat, spoke with a strong German accent, and was always willing to provide coaching advice.  As young twenty-year-olds, with the world at our feet, we were often cruel to the resilient Fred.  We jibed him about which side he fought for in World War II, when in fact he was a German Jew who had escaped Germany just before the war as a boy and ultimately ended up enlisted in the Australian Army.  He wore panty-hose in winter to keep warm, long before similar running-specific clothing was sold, and encouraged us to do likewise.  None of us did, but we certainly gave him a hard time about it.  He often prescribed a track session when we turned up at the old Yarra Park grass track in Melbourne for evening training and we would studiously ignore his advice, and do our own thing.

Fred Lester with his hero Emil Zatopek.

In my mind, the Fred story that impressed me the most was that he needed to make a pit stop during a marathon in his younger years, and rather than seeking cover, apparently just squatted in the middle of the road, did what was necessary, and continued on.  He had been a proficient marathon runner in his day, always looked superbly fit during all the time I knew him, and had an enormous passion for athletics.

He was an excellent coach of younger athletes and always had a few coming up through the ranks, mostly via the Catholic School system.  He drove them and us to races in his van and we often wondered what their Catholic parents would think if they knew their children were under the tutelage of a proud card-carrying member of the Australian Communist Party.  To his absolute credit he kept his running and political lives totally separate, though was always quick to rail against authority and bureaucracy.  Fred didn't tolerate fools, and I can remember hearing him say "Christ, you took your bloody head out there, why didn't you use it?" on more than one occasion after I had messed up a race tactically.  Many runners from those years have other favourite Fred sayings.

Fred laying down the law to some junior
volunteers at a running event.

Apart from encouragement, Fred's greatest impact on me during those days was perhaps via the Victorian Marathon Club which provided a range of road, and occasionally track, races for runners to augment the official VAAA races of the time.  I loved those races, which gave me a chance to shine in smaller fields, especially as I became a better runner.  Winning the VMC's King of the Mountains and being first Australian home in several VMC Marathons, the latter leading to trips to New Zealand marathons at a critical stage of my career, were highlights still bright in my memory.

I now also realise that Fred, leading by example, probably sparked my interest in creating events for runners of all standards, something which provides me with great satisfaction to this day.  One event he created, the annual Emil Zatopek 10,000m track race in Melbourne, continues to attract the very best runners in Australia each December more than fifty years since its inception in 1961.

I haven't done justice to Fred's contributions to me and running in this brief blog post.  You can read an excellent article published in the Melbourne Age newspaper about Fred's very interesting life here.  It's worth the read.  The collected volumes of the Victorian Marathon Club Newsletter, available here, give some indication of how much work Fred put into the running scene over many years.

For my training today, I ran an easy 11km.  I was tired after yesterday's 21km, but I was pleased with the underlying strength I'm starting to feel in my legs and my average training pace is gradually improving.