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Channel Feature: A Chat with Garth Gilmour

A winning way with words

Garth Gilmour has spent a lifetime documenting the lives of others. The former sports journalist and accomplished author has 22 books to his name, including Arthur Lydiard: Master Coach, Peter Snell: From Olympian to Scientist and A Clean Pair of Heels: The Murray Halberg Story. Through Garth’s literary talent, the lives, philosophies and methodologies of Lydiard, Snell, Halberg and others are preserved for the present and future generations of runners. While much is known about his famous subjects, Catherine Murray took a morning to chat with Garth about his own career spanning 70 fascinating years.

Dunedin-born Garth Gilmour lives in a quiet street in the North Shore suburb of Milford with his wife Kay. He spent his early years in Central Otago, on a sheep station at the far end of a long dusty road in the Maniototo. His calling to journalism was ‘in the blood’ – Garth’s uncle owned The Southland Times where his father briefly worked before venturing into sheep farming. “The only thing I wanted to do was be a journalist. So I left school at fifteen and a half and joined the Otago Daily Times in 1943. It was wartime and the staff of 30 was down to seven. I was this scruffy cadet, but because the paper was so short of staff, you had to do everything and you had to learn very fast. Within a year I was covering the Supreme Court, just because somebody had to do it!”

After following his two brothers into the Air Force, Garth returned to the Times only to find his place filled by staff coming home from war duties. “So I took off to Wanganui, told a few small white lies about my experience and a wonderful man called Bill Dinniss took me on. After three years, I went on to The Taranaki Herald, which was then run by Brian Scanlan, the best editor I’ve ever worked for.”
Garth's role as Chief Reporter at the Herald came to an end when he travelled to Auckland. “I moved North in the late 1950s because anyone with any gumption in those days moved to the Auckland Star.” Covering the construction of the Harbour Bridge for the Star offered Garth the opportunity to be the first civilian to cross the bridge. “However, there was just a beam across at the top where the central span had to go. All the builders trotted across, turned around and said ‘come on, just don’t look down’. But of course, you always look down and there was the sea… I got myself down to the North Shore and took the boat back across to the other side!”
Garth moved into the arena of sports journalism in 1958. Three years later and a meeting with Arthur Lydiard immediately changed Garth’s life forever, both professionally and personally. Arthur’s coaching success was quickly gaining international recognition after his protégés Peter Snell and Murray Halberg won gold medals on the same day at the Rome Olympics in 1960.
 “When Arthur came back from the Olympics I went out to his Zenith shoe factory to do a story on him. I thoughtfully put my cigarette out before I went in – in those days I was a journalist who smoked a lot and drank a lot. We had a chat about his trip, and he showed me all these letters from publishers asking him to write a book. I suggested he should get someone to help him if he couldn’t write it himself and he just looked at me and said ‘what about you?’.”
Garth and Arthur worked together until Arthur’s death in 2004, writing 13 training manuals on running. This led to others asking Garth if he would like to write their story, to which he replied ‘of course I would’. Most of Garth’s books are published in several languages including German, Finnish, Russian, French and Japanese. The first, Run to the Top, has been an international seller for 50 years. “I spent all my time on the typewriter. That’s the only thing – it does take up a lot of your time. I had a working week at the newspaper, and every other spare moment was spent writing books. But it’s a wonderful experience. People have a fascinating story to tell.”
Garth’s latest book, Running for Our Lives is a history of the worldwide jogging phenomenon initiated by Arthur and Colin Kay in the early 1960s. Garth took one group of their fledgling runners for their first jog in 1962. Three years later, he wrote the world's first book on jogging, Run For Your Life, and it is still in publication. The Auckland Joggers Club was founded in Puriri Drive in Cornwall Park, and is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.
Garth credits Arthur with introducing him to running and turning his life around. “I was a heavy drinker and a heavy smoker, but once I started working with Arthur I became a normal, regular drinker and a non-smoker. I also started running, which I had never dreamed of doing.”
Garth soon had five marathons under his belt, prompted by Arthur’s belief that anyone can run a marathon. “Some runners do a hundred or so, and they’re crazy!” laughs Garth. “Jogging is meant to keep you fit and healthy, not turn you into a machine that never stops. Arthur was very disapproving of this mad tendency to run marathon after marathon after marathon. He didn’t let his runners do it, and he didn’t do it himself. The fun of jogging is going out on your own or with a couple of others, running around the Waitakeres, or across a golf course somewhere. That’s the joy of jogging.”
As for New Zealand’s golden years of running with the likes of Snell and Halberg, Barry Magee and others, Garth’s opinion is that their success was due to one man – Lydiard. “All the runners who succeeded were Lydiard trained. They all got there by hard work, fortitude, and a determination to be better than anyone else. I think some of the runners today want it all before they even start – the uniform, the shoes, just given to them. Most will go out and earn them, but some of them don’t. For the Lydiard runners, it was their love of running, their love of competing and their working together with Arthur Lydiard that drove them.”
As for retirement, it’s something Garth’s yet to conquer. He officially ‘retired’ from the Auckland Star at the compulsory age of 60 only to return to work the following Monday on contract. He states it was simply because he still had something more to offer. Garth spent the following years as a subeditor and as a tutor for young talent with a promising future in journalism. He was a one-term Takapuna Community Board member then became secretary-treasurer of the Auckland boards' association and continues to be active on the local government scene. He is a founding Trustee of the Legend Charitable Trust, which runs the annual Lydiard Legend Marathon and Arthur's Half Marathon coming up in September.
Garth is a great believer that keeping busy is the secret of a healthy life. In fact, he and good friend Peter Snell wrote a book about it, Use It or Lose It. “Since Peter and I were moving into our older years, and he had made an extensive study of the state of the world’s aging health, we thought we’d better write a book about it - so we did. I’ve never stopped doing things and it’s great. I’m thinking, now that I’m four years away from my nineties, is there anything I should stop doing? But then again, why should I stop doing anything?”

by Catherine Murray