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Barry Magee

Described by his iconic coach Arthur Lydiard as the “ballet dancer of the road” Arthur ‘Barry’ Magee’s smooth, easy style earned him a treasure trove of success on both the domestic and international stage.

During a prodigious career, the Auckland grocer claimed the 1960 Olympic marathon bronze medallist, headed the world 10,000m rankings in 1961 and also featured as a member of New Zealand’s world record-breaking quartet which shattered the world four by one mile relay record in Dublin.

Since retiring from international running in 1965, Barry has stayed wedded to the sport, carving a reputation as one of the country’s most influential distance running coaches in which Lydiard’s high mileage training model forms the template of his philosophy.

Born in New Plymouth, Magee, “a shy, scared, skinny kid” moved to the Auckland suburb of Mt Roskill at the age of seven. Bullied at school he said “I was not a happy boy and lacked everything required to be a success at life.”

A major turning point came at the age of 14 when playing on the left wing at Mt Roskill rugby club. Despite never having scored a try in his two-and-a-half years with the team he was approached by a well-dressed man at half-time, who gave him some motivational words which were to re-shape the rest of his life.

He said: ‘”Son, you actually move quite well but with no confidence. If you get the ball, tuck it under your arm and with determination go for the try line’.”

Inspired by the words ringing in his ears in the second half he made one great run with the ball, covering 50m and pushing a couple of guys off the ball. 

“For the first time in my life I’d achieved something,” he adds. “I suddenly had the confidence to give something a go. I went from zero to hero and one month later I was called up to the Auckland rep team.”

Aged 15 he joined the local Wesley Harrier Club and quickly showed some promise. Yet the most influential moment in Barry’s athletics life came two years later when he was first introduced to Arthur Lydiard after clinching victory in the three-and-a-quarter mile Around the Bridges junior race in Hamilton.

“Gil Edwards was my coach at the time but was very generous and wanted to introduce me to Arthur, so he could ask him to be my coach,” explains Barry.

“Arthur’s first words took me aback he said, ‘son, are you prepared to run 100 miles per week? If so, tell me, or don’t waste my time or your time’. He was blunt.

“I met him the next day at his home in Wainwright Avenue and walked out with a 100-mile weekly training schedule having previously never ran further than 50 miles a week.

“Meeting Arthur Lydiard was the best thing that ever happened to me. It led to an unbelievable period of success in which ‘Arthur’s Boys’ went on to win six Olympic medals and set 17 world records. It was an unbelievable achievement for a nation of just two-and-a-half million people.”Training on his own every evening after finishing his day’s work at the Mt Roskill grocery store he managed, Barry thrived.  

Training under Lydiard’s high mileage regime he started to make his mark on the domestic scene, winning the first of his five New Zealand six-mile titles in 1955.

In 1958 the Aucklander qualified to compete for New Zealand in the three and six-mile races at the British and Empire Commonwealth Games in Cardiff and expectations were high he could make a big impact.

Unfortunately, in the countdown to the Games he badly strained both calves wearing new spikes in a track workout. Badly compromised and in pain, Barry finished 11thth in the three-mile and eighth in the six-mile race.

However, as the pain in his calved started to ease one week later at London’s White City, he finished ten metres behind the Commonwealth bronze medallist Arena Anentia of Kenya over six miles.

“This was the moment the penny dropped that the top guys were beatable,” he recalls. “I went back home my motivation doubled. From that point on I never looked back.”

Lydiard had hinted for some time that Barry’s light-footed “ballet dancer-style” might be best suited to the marathon, although the athlete was not initially convinced.

“I had watched the Auckland marathon in the past and thought when I saw guys at 20 miles frothing at the mouth, it would be stupid to run that distance,” adds Barry, who today lives in the Murray Halberg Retirement Village named after his former training partner and Olympic 5000m champion.

Arthur, however, convinced Barry of his potential strength in the marathon. Making his debut over the 42.2km distance with a 2:31:51 performance at the Owairaka Handicap Marathon in late-1959, he improved in each of his next two marathons, running 2:30:17 for fourth at the Auckland Marathon and placing second behind Ray Puckett at the 1960 New Zealand Championships in 2:25:51 to qualify for the Rome Olympics later that year.

The marathon in the Italian capital has been pushed back to a late afternoon start because of concerns about the heat and this created the challenge of running the second half of the race in the dark, 

Barry was unconcerned and while he and his fellow Kiwis, Puckett and Jeff Julian, were not among the pre-race favourites he could not wait for the race to start and was hopeful of a good performance.

Describing the race as “perfection” he went through 10km in 30th reached 20km in about 20th before hitting the 30km mark in fourth on the tail of Sergey Popov, the European champion from Russia.

At the 32km Popov veered to the side to grab fluid at the drink’s station and Barry kicked ahead into third – not that he had an idea of what position he held.

“I never had a clue anywhere along the route, which was lit by the flaming torch of Roman soldiers every 100m, where I was positioned. Spectators were banned from the course and Arthur had to watch the race from a TV in a bar.

“Every 5km there was a timekeeper but he called the times out in Italian, so I had no idea of times or placings. When I crossed the finish line I didn’t know where I had finished.”

It was only when “a Kiwi rower or a hockey player” told Barry at the finish line by the Arch of Constantine he had won the bronze medal in a personal best of 2:17:18 – could he celebrate his success.

Abebe Bikila, the barefoot Ethiopian became the first black Africa athlete to win an Olympic gold, setting a world record 2:15:16.

Back in 1960 and with the sport strictly amateur, Barry returned to Auckland to resume his job as a full-time grocer. However, having spent a six-week period overseas at the Rome Olympics he faced big financial pressures.

“I remember to cover the costs of my Rome trip I had to borrow 500 pounds from the bank to cover my expenses,” he explains. “At the time I was a married man with a shop to run and a mortgage to pay. I had to have a relieving manager to look after the shop for six weeks, so I made no profit in this period and it took me six months to pay the money back, which was true of most of my big trips.”

With Christmas approaching in 1960 – his busiest time of year as a grocer – after reading he had been selected to compete in December’s Fukuoka International Marathon in Japan he instantly dismissed the possibility because of his work commitments. 

He went to Arthur’s house to tell him of his intentions but his inspirational coach had different thoughts.

“As soon as I sat down he said, ‘You are going to run Fukuoka and be the first New Zealander to win an international marathon’. Two hours later I went home and told my wife I was going to Japan. I never did tell Arthur what I had originally planned to tell him!” 

Treated “like a king” in marathon crazy Japan, Barry lived up to Arthur’s vow and beat a top-class international field in 2:19:04 to end a memorable year in style.

If 1960 was good the following year was even better. In the form of his life, he swept to victory over 10,000m at the World Games (the forerunner of the World Championships) in Helsinki in a world leading 28:50.8. He finished the year world number two in the 5000m but his season highlight came at Santry Park in Dublin when he featured in the New Zealand quartet – alongside Peter Snell, Gary Philpott and Murray Halberg which set the world four by one mile world record.

The race was set up as an attack on the world record by the British quartet but the Kiwis caused a huge surprise to win in a world record time of 16:23.8.

“It was the most exciting race I’d ever been involved in, because it was a surprise and the relay build this incredible tension,” he recalls. 

“I was standing on the side of the track screaming. Peter on anchor ran a 4:01 mile only an hour after winning the 880yrds in 1:47. I remember after his relay leg both Peter’s quads were coloured crimson from the exertion.”

An inspired Barry running leg three had produced a career best 4:07.2. 

At the 1962 British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Perth, Barry was pre-race favourite for the marathon but he was forced to withdraw after sustaining badly blistered feet after finishing fourth in the six-mile race.

Struggling with a stress fracture at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, he finished 23rd in the 10,000m. 

Barry retired from international running the following year but continued to race, carving out an outstanding record as a masters athlete and became the first man in history to run a sub-three-hour marathon in five decades (the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s). At the age of 64 he, remarkably, ran a 2:54 marathon. 

“Halberg and Snell ran to be the best but I just loved to run,” he explains. “To run through the Waitakere Ranges at 7am in the mist was just such a joy.”

At the age of 69 a knee injury finally called time on his running career but now aged 85, Barry still stays heavily involved in the sport preaching Arthur Lydiard principles to the 30 to 40 athletes of all standards he coaches around the world.

A coach since his days as a Wesley Harrier, Barry has had many success stories guiding Evan Maguire to the fourth fastest time in the world for 10,000m in 1968, Kerry Rodger to fourth in the 5000m at the 1990 Commonwealth Games and Kevin Ryan to a 2:11:43 marathon.

Still devoting 30 hours a week to coaching his passion remains undimmed and he adds: “By coaching I’m improving the athlete’s quality of life. For every champion I coach four, five or six runners are doing unbelievable things in their own world of running.”

Yet central to his principles was Arthur Lydiard – a man he cannot praise enough.

“Lydiard is the greatest distance running coach the world has ever seen,” he adds. “There is no greater model to preach. 

“New Zealand should be so proud of Arthur Lydiard. To think a nation of two million could go out and conquer the distance running world was all thanks to him. He did the impossible.”

Author: Steve Landells

Copyright 2019 by Athletics New Zealand