Monday, 18 May 2015

Alex Halter

I first met Alex Halter at the Moussy Le Neuf ½ Marathon, just north of Paris, in June 1979.  I was running for Spiridon GB, an organisation that supplied good runners (plus me if the real quality wasn't available) to bolster the standard of fields in European races, all expenses paid; Alex had become a friend of the wonderfully eccentric race organiser Yves Seigneuric and brought down a group of runners from his home city of Rotterdam.  After the race there was a magnificent hog roast feast washed down with the local vino, the whole town was involved.  Thus started a friendship that lasted nearly 36 years until I received the devastating news this week that Alex had succumbed to pancreatic cancer.  From diagnosis to death was just 11 weeks - until February he was still running five days a week, oblivious to what was happening to his body.  His funeral was on what would have been his 69th birthday.

Alex and José in 1994

Some memories: later in 1979, at Alex's invitation, I crossed the North Sea from Harwich to Hook van Holland (a journey I was to get to know very well) to run in two races in Holland, a 10 miler (Sep) and a cross country race (Dec) - both with my great Australian buddy, George Thomas (another who died too young), who was working in Amsterdam at the time - and our friendship was underway.  He and his then wife Hilda entertained us royally; their two children Nicole (7) and Tosca (5) were an absolute delight.  The girls are, of course, now into their 40's, in recent years we've often laughed about the great time we had when they were young children.  So strong had our bond become that I went back out to Rotterdam in 1980 to join Alex and his friends in the drive down to Paris (and back) for a repeat effort at Moussy, as well as more partying.  (A crazy journey but remember this was before cheap flights and Eurotunnel and it seemed the sensible thing to do at the time.)

In 1980 Alex invited me to bring out a four man team to compete in the inaugural Barendrecht 100km track relay near Rotterdam.  Not really knowing what to expect we decided to give it a go (aforementioned George plus Steve Rowland and John Pratt joined me).  Unfortunately Steve succumbed quite early to Achilles problems so the three of us struggled on with a mixture of 400, 800, 1200 and 1600's, eventually finishing 2nd in 5h 26m.  It was the start of quite a relationship with the race.  Ranelagh won in each of the next four years in times of 5.01, 4.50, 4.51, 4.46, which if you 'do the math' equates to two hour marathon pace!  We stuck to 400's throughout; in our record breaking year I averaged 68.4 for each of my 62 laps, with our fastest man, Simon Collingridge, a little faster.  The parties after these races were always very special thanks to Alex and his friends, especially in the last two years when some Belgian teams arrived armed with cases of strong beer!

In 1981 it was my turn to return the compliment and invite Alex over to England.  I was still living at home in March 1981 (bought my first flat in Worcester Park a month later for £17k) but my parents kindly offered to put up Alex and a couple of his friends, brothers Jim and Aad Boer.  We all ran the first London Marathon in the rain, a great experience, and partied into the night with Ranelagh friends (and my parents).  Just a couple of months later I stayed at Alex's when running the Rotterdam Marathon in a downpour (11th in 2.29, having been sick in the night before, chez Alex) won by John Graham in 2.09.

In subsequent years our paths crossed on a regular basis.  I ran numerous races in Holland - the Papendrecht 15km being a favourite - and Alex plus his lovely new wife José came over to run and holiday in England (the last time being the Cirencester 10km just a couple of years ago).  Thanks to mutual friends Henryk Paskal and J Pinto, both of whom we met at Moussy, we were invited to races in Poland and Portugal; Alex then joined me in both New York and Barbados for our Sweat Shop tours.  Somewhere I have a lovely photograph of Alex, myself and a good French friend Auguste Lespinas running on the beach in Barbados in our Ranelagh singlets.  Tragically both Alex and Auguste, a top ultra-marathoner, have now succumbed to pancreatic cancer in their 60's despite being running fit and generally healthy.  It can be a cruel world.
Alex with the author and Natalie in 1994

Alex came to our wedding in 1984 (another attendee, Steve Rowland, dragged him off to do the East London ½ Marathon the next day nursing quite a hangover), where he met my godfather, Ian Beers (sadly no longer with us), a French Horn player in the Royal Philharmonic orchestra, who had Dutch ancestry.  He also got on really well with all my family, not least my father (also, alas, departed), a fellow chef.  One of the reasons Alex loved coming over to England was to sample dad's roast lamb.

When I was coaching in the noughties, Alex helped out by finding, through his contacts, some quality races in Holland for my charges: Wendy Nicholls (with Justin [who could forget the Goth bar evening?] and Poppy in tow) twice ran the Papendrecht 15km, losing out only to Kenyans, and also ran the infamous Rotterdam Marathon in a heatwave - the race was cancelled because of conditions after 3½ hours - where she finished an impressive 9th and first non-African; whilst Michelle Ross-Cope bookended her team bronze medal at the marathon at the European Championships in Barcelona by twice winning the highly competitive Schrool 10km in north Holland.

An example of the true character of the man: my mother, now 91, has lived in a nursing home for the last 15 years since dad died - she's got MS and is wheelchair bound - and casually mentioned to Alex when he visited her a few years ago that she put any postcards she received onto a small noticeboard in her room.  Alex said that he'd send her a card on one of his running trips (in recent years he worked with a Dutch operator that takes runners to all the major races in the world).  Not only did he keep his promise but he continued to send postcards from wherever he was in the world, about half a dozen a year, which delighted mum.  What a man.

Alex had a major influence on my life in general and running in particular; I was privileged to have known him and the lovely José.  His loss is so sad and will impact on me for a long time to come.