By Henry Fagan
Mr David Clarke has taught at Hampton for nearly 40 years but how many Hamptonians know about his illustrious running career? Having competed internationally for Great Britain in cross country, road running and track and field, he is still an avid runner, a stalwart more locally for Hercules Wimbledon Athletics Club and coaches the Hampton cross country team. He even has a race named after him: the Dave Clarke mile.
Mr Clarke grew up locally and started running at his Prep school, where he raced (but never won!) the inter school 800m; he then moved to St Paul’s School in Barnes and his running journey really began. In his first national competition, the English Schools’ Cross Country Championships, Mr Clarke finished 169th, however, by the time he left school, he had managed to lower this position to a staggering 16th, hence showing real promise with his running. Up to this point, he had only (!) run 10-15 miles each week: a relatively low mileage for a runner of his calibre.
Between school and university, he decided to take a year out to really focus on his running and, as he put it, “started to train seriously.” During this time, he won his first Surrey Junior Cross County title and South of England Cross Country Junior title, defending these titles a year later and running in his first World Cross Country championships where he finished 23rd. At that time, there was “no real professional running scene” since it was predominantly an amateur sport with no money involved, though this was soon to change. His successes continued to snowball and over the next few years he went on to win the British 5000m track championships, represent Great Britain at 5000m in the World Athletics Championships, win the National Senior Cross Country Championships three times and qualify for the British team in the World Cross Country Championships an astonishing 12 times. In four of these championships, he helped the Great Britain team win one Bronze and three Silver medals, displaying world class talent by finishing in the top ten places three times, with a best of 7th. He also managed to beat Henry Rono from Kenya in a 10,000m race in Florence, Italy. He described Rono as “one of the greats in the running world”, an athlete who at that time held the 3000m steeplechase, the 5000m and 10,000m world records!
When asked about his running role models, Mr Clarke immediately named four: Dave Bedford (British runner known for breaking the 10,000m world record), Sir Brendan Foster (Olympic Bronze medallist and previous world record holder in the 3000m), Emiel Puttemans (Belgian Olympic Silver medallist and three-time world record holder), and Douglas Wakiihuri (Kenyan marathoner who won five separate marathons and secured a Silver medal in the Olympic Marathon). Mr Clarke particularly admired Emiel Puttemans, a legend in distance running but who was “very gracious in defeat” when he lost to Mr Clarke! He was also very fond of Douglas Wakiihuri, the Commonwealth Games and London Marathon champion, who he raced in a distance competition in Sweden and who invited Mr Clarke to share his lunch – showing true sportsmanship and kindness.
One of the most difficult accomplishments in running, and perhaps even sports in general, is breaking the four minute barrier for the mile. Despite being primarily a longer distance runner, with his prevalence in cross country races and even a win at the Stockholm Marathon, Mr Clarke achieved this amazing feat in 1982 when he ran 3:56.95 for the mile, finishing second at Crystal Palace while representing Great Britain, embedding himself as one of Britain’s greatest runners.
However, all this success did not come without several setbacks. Mr Clarke unfortunately missed two Olympics due to both tendonitis and an achilles injury. He also damaged his back on a building site as a student and so had to adapt his training for many months after this. He still managed to compete exceptionally well even though it was later found that he had fractured one of his vertebrae!
Nearly 40 years ago, during the peak of his running, Mr Clarke joined the PE and History departments at Hampton, making him the longest serving teacher at the School. He claims that “there have been many skills which [he] has been able to transfer from [his] running career to teaching.” He has been able to continue to “encourage and inspire students”, like he did in his running, and help them to improve either academically through his History lessons, or physically through PE.
What about other sporting passions? Mr Clarke said that he always wanted to be a cricketer and has always “love[d] taking part in any outdoor activity such as rowing, hiking or climbing.” This is still a prominent theme in his life as you can find him running both the Adventure Society trips and the Duke of Edinburgh expeditions for Hamptonians.
Mr Clarke remembers some exceptional runners at Hampton in particular Gareth Creagh OH (1995), who held the School’s First Year 1500m record for thirty two years until it was broken by Marcus Solomon in 2021, and who he coached to represent England at both track and Cross Country, and Sam Perkins OH (2006) who won the Middlesex Cross Schools’ Championships as an U19 athlete. The future of running at Hampton is looking bright with two recent wins at the Richmond Borough Championships, success in the Middlesex Championships and three runners competing in this year’s English Schools’ Cross Country Championships.
Mr Clarke has shared a lot of great wisdom with Hamptonians over the years, from the classroom to the playing fields, however he has three main tips for those getting into running or wanting to improve: “the key to running is consistency – don’t go too hard too soon; think big and start small – no one becomes an elite athlete overnight and you have to pace yourself; and finally remember why you are doing the sport – for fun!”