Almost five weeks has gone by since the death of one of the most influential people in my life, and one of the most influential people ever to have graced the sporting fraternity. That person was a wonderful man by the name of Frank Horwill. Frank died on New Years Day 2012 aged 84. His body may have departed, but his legacy will forever live on in my memory, and in the thousands of other’s whose lives he so selflessly, generously and inspirationally touched. Those words are Frank in a nutshell. Selfless, generous and inspirational. And to that I would add intelligent, witty, non-conformist, loyal, passionate, energetic, and side splittingly funny. He was a man of many talents, some of which I am ashamed to say, I have only truly reflected on, and appreciated, since his passing.
I first met Frank in 2002. As a member of Serpentine running club I used to go down to Battersea track for the Thursday evening training session, where Frank also used to coach a group of athletes – the Horwill Harriers. I got talking to Frank, and was immediately drawn to him, both personally and professionally. He was in his mid-seventies at the time, small of stature but huge of personality. He welcomed all – regardless of ability or background – his only criteria being that an athlete never uttered the word I cant. ‘Only ‘I will try’.
Despite suffering from cancer and heart problems Frank hardy ever missed a session, loyally and voluntarily making the long trek from north east London across the Thames three times a week. Tuesdays and Thursdays were based solely on the track, but it was his Saturday sessions I loved the most. We would start at the track and then often head off on a 5km road loop. Then he would have us running up and down grassy banks carrying each other. There would be hopping races, press-ups, sit-ups – all reminiscent of an army camp. Frank often said: “When I come to the track, I become alive.” And become alive he did. He was very much the sergeant major, barking out orders to us, his ‘Comrades’, and giving reprimands in his clipped Empire accent, never once losing the mischievous glint in his eye. “You’re all a bunch of pussies!” was a favourite. ‘You haven’t even begun to work!’ was another.
Even though he knew full well what my name was, he always called me “Sissy”.
“Sissy!” he would shout at me as I ran past. “How’s your sex life? Have you got a man yet?”
“Why not? What’s wrong with you? You need a good man and some action!”
Part agony aunt, part cupid, part comedian. But most of all, though, he was a wonderful man and the first proper running coach I ever had. He was a breath of incredible fresh air and a beacon of light, in an otherwise brutal training regime. He took the sport of running, and managed to make it fun. But underneath that fun lay a wealth of talent, knowledge and expertise accumulated over the decades he spent tirelessly working with athletes.
Frank was a leader, a revolutionary, a sporting architect. He formulated the simple, yet ground-breaking, five pace training theory, widely used around the world as the foundation for running success. To me, a recreational athlete who had always simply gone out and ran, at the same speed, on the same route for the same amount of time, his varying pace theory was a revelation.
Frank coached over 50 international GBR athletes from 800 meters to the marathon. Five of his athletes achieved sub-4 minute miles – the fastest being Tim Hutchings, who ran 3:54.53 and placed fourth in the 5000m in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games. Frank also devoted much of his time to co-founding and doggedly sustaining the British Milers Club. By 1980 British men had achieved the BMC’s objective of raising the standard of miling to world supremacy when Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett attained Olympic Golds and World Records. In 2004, Kelly Holmes took British women’s middle distance running to similar world supremacy when she took Olympic Gold in the 800m and 1500m.
Frank never once sought financial reward for his decades of work, and indeed often dug into to his own shallow pockets to support his athletes. I really cant think of a better person to have been appointed Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in the Queen’s 2011 Birthday Honours for voluntary service to sport.
Frank was a legend. His legacy will live on in all those ‘Comrades’ who were lucky to be showered by his gold dust. I hope that I will continue to heed his advice to “keep going, keep going, keep going until a little something inside you says, ‘keep going'” and always remember that there truly is ‘no such word as cant. Only I will try’.
Rest in peace Frank. You will be missed, but never forgotten.