The Muhammad Ali of distance running. The bearded braggart of the track. The wild man of athletics who trained hard and partied harder. Dave Bedford was a sporting maverick, loved by the public and loathed by the establishment.
Born in London in 1949, Bedford’s talent for running was obvious early on. Indeed, in a feat never achieved before or since, he once won the junior and senior National Cross-Country Championships on the same day. His talent for controversy was equally well developed. Having been made team captain of the English team at the prestigious Cross-Country World Championships in Düsseldorf, Bedford made headlines when he and six of his team mates spent a night in jail following an altercation with a bar owner. “It was a misunderstanding, of course,” Bedford told The Independent, “but I was never captain again.”
Later, in 1981, at the end of a long night’s drinking in a Luton nightclub, Bedford took a bet that he couldn’t run the inaugural London Marathon the next day. On his way home, Bedford fortified himself with a tasty curry and a few hours later rolled up at the start line. He did complete the race, but not without throwing up the curry halfway round
– a feat captured on televisions around the world.
Despite holding the 10,000m world record for a large part of the 1970s, Bedford failed to translate this success
to major tournaments. Before the 1972 Munich Olympics, having encouraged viewers to “gather the family around the TV set and watch me win the 10,000 metres gold medal for Great Britain,” Bedford faded to sixth. Nor would Bedford run the great marathon of which many of his fans thought him capable. Injuries would hamper the latter part of his career, the result, many believe, of his high-mileage training (at his peak, Bedford was clocking up 200 miles a week). However, his affiliation with the marathon distance did not stop there. Bedford began working with the London Marathon in 1989, soon becoming its race director. His knowledge of the sport, notable charm and larger-than-life personality were key components in the race becoming a global phenomenon.
Speaking about the marathon, Bedford had a unique way of translating its appeal. “When I talk to people about the marathon I say that, apart from having sex for the first time, running the marathon will be the most exciting thing they do in their entire lives,” he told The Independent. Behind the witty badinage, however, Bedford was not a man to be trifled with. When the 118 118 adverts first appeared – picturing two mustachioed runners in 1970s-style vests and Bedford’s trademark red socks – he pursued legal action against the Cardiff-based company. Ofcom agreed the adverts were in breach of the Advertising Standards Code but stopped short of banning them.
In his pomp, though, no one had Bedford’s number: a rebel in running shoes who never failed to surprise, delight and entertain. “I had a marvellous time,” he told The Independent. “What was wrong with being young, good at sport and having a laugh?” What, indeed.