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Bob Pape, Seafaring Distance-Runner

Mad dogs and an Englishman out in the Hong Kong Midday Sun 

The Missing British Track Records of 1957 


The career of the seafaring distance-runner, Bob Pape 



It would seem highly unlikely that both “Athletics Weekly”, the British magazine now in its 75thyear of publication,  and the statistical experts, the National Union of Track Statisticians, founded in London in 1958, should fail to notice a couple of British records, but it has certainly happened. The year was 1957, and in those days “AW” preferred accuracy to alacrity in reporting and so did not print an account of the race concerned until a month later. Yet, even with that delay for reflection, the achievements went unreported. They had come about in an unusual setting and circumstances, as the unrecognised perpetrator had not even ranked in the top dozen in the country in his favoured event the previous year.

Mrs Diana Pape, who was the secretary of the Hong Kong AAA at that time, was clearly a lady of determined nature because she organised a 30,000 metres track race in what was then a British colony on 23 February of that year, and she had foremost in mind the aspirations of her husband, Bob, who was serving locally as a Sub-Lieutenant in the Royal Navy. Despite the demands of his maritime duties, Bob Pape had established something of a marathon-running pedigree over previous years. He had made his debut at the distance in 1953 in the Doncaster-to-Sheffield race on 6 April, placing 3rdin 2:37:23, and in the classic annual Polytechnic Harriers event on 13 June he had finished a noteworthy 8thin 2:34:02, though rather far behind Jim Peters, setting a World best of 2:18:40.4. 

Peters was very well known to Pape because Mr and Mrs Pape and their two children had stayed at the Peters family home in Chadwell Heath, in Essex, the previous Christmas, and strongly influenced by Peters’s training régime Pape had increased his mileage from 70 a week in 1952 to as much as 130 a week from 1953 onwards, and all run at only slightly less than racing speed. Peters, in turn, had adopted the herculean methods of the incomparable Emil Zátopek who had won the 1952 Olympic 5000 metres, 10,000 metres and marathon, running Peters to a standstill in the third of those events..

Born in Portsmouth on 14 January 1924, Robert H. Pape had been brought up in Darlington, County Durham, and had joined the Royal Navy as a boy seaman on the eve of war in 1939. He did not take up running until 1946 and was encouraged to do so during service in Malta by a naval stalwart, Petty-Officer Herbert (“Barney”) Barnes, who had himself been a competitor for more than 20 years and by 1950 was secretary of the Royal Navy (South) Athletic Club, based in Portsmouth. Petty Officer Barnes has the dubious distinction of having been carrying the Olympic torch when it briefly fizzled out en route by road to Wembley in 1948. 

Mrs Pape had long been a fervent supporter of her husband’s leisure-time activity, and Pape was to affirm that whenever he considered missing a training run she persuaded him otherwise. Even the celebrations during that Christmas visit to Jim and Frieda Peters had been cut short because the intrepid fathers made the long journey to the north-east for the annual Morpeth-to-Newcastle 13¾-mile road race on New Year’s Day 1953, where Peters shattered the course record held by the 1950 British Empire and European marathon champion, Jack Holden, by 4min 18sec with a time of 1:07:06 and Pape was 2ndin 1:09:30. Peters had also won the race in 1952, with Pape making a mark with a surprising 5thplace. Peters and Pape had become friends during wartime, and by 1952 Pape was posted to a Royal Navy training School at Wetherby, in Yorkshire, after his service in the Mediterranean. Later in 1953 Pape knocked 40 seconds off his previous best three miles track time with 14:54.4 at Iffley Road, Oxford, but basic speed was never to be his strong point.

Back in Portsmouth in 1954 at “HMS Excellence”, on Whale Island, and holding the non-commissioned rank of Master-at-Arms, responsible for discipline, Pape’s exploits were closely followed by the local “Evening News”, whose reporter, under the pseudonym, “Wanderer”, noted admiringly that Pape was “powerful and possessing a long-striding style which he seldom varies”. After winning the 16-mile Chichester-to-Portsmouth road race in May, grinning broadly as he crossed the finishing-line, Pape was quoted as saying jauntily, “I wouldn’t mind running back again after a cup of tea”. He only ran the Doncaster-to-Sheffield and Liverpool marathons in April and August respectively and so was never in the reckoning for Empire & Commonwealth Games or European Championships selection. Before leaving with his family for his Hong Kong posting in June 1955, he had a burst of activity in various well-established British road races – 4thin the Finchley 20 miles, 3rdin the Kent 20 and 4thin the Doncaster-to-Sheffield marathon in 2:42:15. 

He then seemed to acclimatise remarkably quickly because he wrote back to Sam Ferris, the 1932 Olympic silver-medalist and road-race reporter who was advising him, that he had run a 2:24:32.5 solo marathon on a 12-lap course round the colony in 80degF heat and drenched by a tropical downpour at the 20-mile mark! He had passed 10 miles in 55:15 and 20 miles in 1:49:21, forsaking his self-confirmed customary “bash bash” tactics for even pace, but he readily admitted that in the circumstances, and timed by only one watch, this could hardly be accepted as a valid competitive performance. Jim Peters had retired by now, having set another World best of 2:17:39.4 in the 1954 Polytechnic race, and the fastest British marathon-runner of 1955 would be Bill McMinnis in a much more modest 2:26:22.

Lacking races in his new environment Pape set up a track event for 25 January 1956, presumably helped again by his wife, and proceeded to establish new British figures for 25 miles (2:24:46.1) and 30 miles (2:54:45). Again writing back to Sam Ferris, he accepted that these times “could be cut to ribbons” by other Britons but expressed himself “very pleased to have overcome the climate, improved my stamina and now hoping to be a 2:28 marathon man”. Pape had even beaten the 25-mile World record set by Michele Fanelli, of Italy, in 1934, but the IAAF had dropped the event from its schedule in 1954. In any case, Pape also did not receive AAA recognition, either for some technical reason or because the following October Eric Smith and Arthur Keily ran faster.

Japanese and Korean opposition on the track

After his 30,000 metres race of early 1957 Pape again went into print, writing an account for the newsletter of the UK’s Road Runners Club (he later became president) in which he reassuringly outlined his training in Hong Kong. “No athlete who is destined to go to Hong Kong either in a service or a civilian capacity need think it spells disaster for his athletic career. I found a pleasant cool winter from October to March, when most of the athletics takes place. From March to October the weather is very hot and humid, but you can train all the year round. At first I found it very hard to train on humid days, but I got used to it, although never to the point of enjoying those conditions. I kept up 100 to 120 miles a week in summer and did not kill myself, as some people predicted”. 

As it happens, the 30,000 metres race in Hong Kong took place in rain and with a cold wind coming in off the sea. Pape wrote amusingly afterwards, “Last September my wife took over as honorary secretary of the Hong Kong AAA, and since then athletes out here have had no rest. After being given a fixture-list almost double the normal, someone suggested an event at international level, and that started Diana off to deal with the 101 problems involved. She managed to cut a lot of ‘red tape’ to get a 30,000 metres track race organised, and the visiting athletes were highly delighted”. The eight other runners with Pape were from Japan and South Korea, and Pape concluded, “The race itself was a ‘dream’ and the spectators very interested. In the last 3000 metres I just didn’t have enough speed to hold the Koreans”. 

The first two places were taken by Koreans visitors Im Chong Wu in 1:39:13.6 and Han Sang Chul in 1:39:34, with Pape 3rdin 1:39:52 ahead of Masayuki Nunogami, of Japan, in 1:40:40.6, followed by another Korean, Lee Sang Chul, and a second Japanese runner named Tayoshichi. No mention is made in the “AW” report that Pape’s time had beaten the previous best by a British athlete – 1:40:35.2 by Joe Lancaster; at Walton-on-Thames on 22 October 1955 – and nor is there realisation either then, or almost 40 years later in the special issue of the NUTS quarterly journal, “Track Stats”, of November 1994, which listed progressive British track records, that Pape’s intermediate times of 1:06:28 at 20,000 metres and 1:23:37 at 25,000 metres had narrowly improved on the long-standing best performances of Ernie Harper in Berlin on 25 August 1929 (1:06:30.3 and 1:23:45.8). Harper’s extensive career on the track and at cross-country included the Olympic marathon silver-medal in 1936.

The “AW” report is uncredited, but it seems likely that it was sent in by V.V. Kolatchoff, a leading statistician of the era who lived in Hong Kong. Whoever was the author, it’s hard to imagine that Bob Pape, with his close Road Runners Club connections, wasn’t aware of at least Joe Lancaster’s existing UK record.

Setting Pape’s performances in a broader perspective, the World record for 30,000 metres at the beginning of 1957 was 1:35:03.6 by Antti Viskari, of Finland, at Lappeenranta on 21 October 1956, and this was marginally beaten on 6 June 1957 in Moscow by Albert Ivanov, of the USSR, with 1:35:01. The subsequent fastest British time is 1:31:30.4 by Jim Alder at London’s Crystal Palace on 5 September 1970. The distance is still officially recognised by the IAAF, and the current World record is 1:26:47.4 by Moses Mosop, of Kenya, in Eugene, Oregon, on 3 June 2011. Mosop also set a 25,000 metres record of 1:12:25.4 on that occasion. He ran his fastest road marathon of 2:05:03 the following year, and so it’s a fair bet that someone else – Eliud Kipchoge being the obvious choice – could knock three or four minutes off those times.  

Back in Britain, with international selection in prospect 

Of course, Bob Pape was running in a very different era in the mid-1950s when neither Kenya nor Ethiopia had yet made a major impact on distance-running standards (though it would soon happen), and by the criteria which then applied he  produced some very commendable authentic marathon results in the years to come, exceeding his prediction and including 9thplaces in the Polytechnic Harriers marathon in 1958 (2:28:00) and 1961 (2:27:32) and a career best 2:25:06 in the 1960 Liverpool marathon. Early in 1958, he had been posted back to Portsmouth by the Royal Navy, with the intriguing prospect that selection was up for grabs during the summer for both the Commonwealth Games in Cardiff and the European Championships in Stockholm, but even by his prolific standards of training and racing Pape went about his preparations on the road in a somewhat profligate manner. With the Polytechnic marathon, incorporating the AAA Championship, taking place on 26 June, Pape ran the Chichester-to-Portsmouth 16, the Kent 20, the Inter-Counties’ 20 and the Isle of Wight marathon between 10 May and 7 June! 

Maybe he was carried away with enthusiasm at the prospect of racing again at long last where there was no humidity to be concerned about. Certainly his exertions would have raised no eyebrows as many of his British fellow-contenders for selection were doing much the same. Furthermore, Pape’s results were impressive enough: 2ndby only 40 yards or so to the man-in-form, Jack Haslam, in Chichester-to-Portsmouth; winner of the Kent 20; 12thin the Inter-Counties’ 20 in a personal best 1:46:56; and winner on the Isle of Wight by over four minutes. After this last success in his fastest-ever 2:28:13, fulfilling his hopes, Pape was praised to the skies by Sam Ferris in his characteristically fulsome report for “Athletics Weekly”, “Students of form all agreed that Bob Pape’s performance on such a coolish blustery day was well up to international standard. It was felt that to beat 2:30 on this heavily contoured course was something for which we might have to wait years”.

Sam Ferris was one of those rare athletics writers who had been a very front-rank competitor himself but now was only too ready to identify passionately with road-runners of every level, and his reports in “AW” were full of affectionate tributes even to those who trailed in among the tail-enders of the 100 or so stalwarts who formed the hard core of the English road-racing community. He welcomed Bob Pape back to his home shores effusively. “Gangway ! Naval Officer !” Ferris chortled in his report of the Kent 20. “Sub-Lt Pape has been places geographically and physically – 2½ years in Hong Kong has given the Darlington boy a bronzed King Kong torso set in a 34-year-old robust framework. Maybe this quiet unassuming regular Navy type has created a new lease of life for himself by unheralded sterling work”. Ferris had himself been a regular serviceman – as a storeman in the Royal Air Force – and well knew the demands of life in the armed forces.     

Of course, the Isle of Wight race was on Pape’s door-step – or, rather, only a dozen miles or so across the Solent from Portsmouth, and the Royal Navy might even have turned out a pinnace to convey their esteemed Sub-Lieutenant in distinguished Admiral-style across the waters. Unfortunately, though he maintained his 2:28 form to the very second at the decisive Polytechnic event only three weeks later, this was not fast enough. Altogether, 15 Britons ran in either the Commonwealth or European marathons in the next couple of months (and in Peter Wilkinson’s case both, 3rdand 4threspectively), but Pape wasn’t one of them. One can’t help thinking this was an opportunity missed. 

A record-breaking winner in Liverpool

On 16 August he won the Liverpool City Marathon in 2:27:09, breaking Bill McMinnis’s course record of 1953 by 12 seconds. Incidentally, Arthur Keily, 3rdin Liverpool, and a Welsh member of Coventry Godiva Harriers, Dylfrig Rees, 11th, had also run in the Commonwealth marathon 23 days previously! Keily and Pape were then 2ndand 3rdin the South London Harriers 30-mile road race on 6 September, and as a snappy warm-down Pape was 4thin the Salisbury 4¾-mile road event a week later, only seven seconds behind a youthful Bruce Tulloh, a future European 5000 metres champion, who had first come up against Pape while on national service in Hong Kong. Such indefatigable racing was commonplace among British distance-runners in those days – while also, of course, holding down full-time jobs.

In 1959 Pape again ranked 9thin Britain, travelling that year to the USA’s famed annual Boston Marathon, where he finished 6thin 2:28:28. That race was won by Eino Oksanen, of Finland, in 2:22:42, and Pape was one place ahead of the first Japanese finisher and only four seconds behind Osvaldo Suárez, of Argentina, who would be 9thin the 1960 Rome Olympic marathon. The previous year’s Boston Marathon had suffered from temperatures as high as 84degF, and the author of the definitive history of the event – which had begun in 1897 – had made specific reference to Bob Pape’s published experiences of such conditions.

Tom Derderian wrote in his usual cheerful style, “While in Her Majesty’s Service in 1955, Pape found himself in the summer heat of Hong Kong. He wanted to train, but common wisdom advised him not to run in the 90degF heat with 90 per cent humidity. Only mad dogs and Englishmen – and marathoners – go out in the tropical noonday sun”. Derderian’s source was Pape’s notes of his experiences that he had published when he returned to England in  an article entitled “Long Distance Running in Heat and Humidity”, including 19 specific points of advice, some of which make surprising reading. Pape suggested no more than eight miles running at noon and recommended “better run without a shirt” and “head gear is no use”.  

At the age of 50 Pape was still running 60 miles a week and he continued to be active well into his 70s. Accordingly, he was affectionately featured in the 2001 book, “Running over 40, 50, 60, 70 …”, by Bruce Tulloh and his wife, Sue, re-published in 2015, in which the Tullohs related of Pape, “Two events which might have been catastrophic for a lesser man – a burst appendix and peritonitis when he was 45 and a brain tumour when he was 60 – were merely temporary interruptions to training. In both cases he was back running within six weeks”. Pape himself contributed to the book:  “I always enjoyed running and would train twice or even three times a day when it was possible. I said I’d retire when I ceased to enjoy it or when I became too stiff to run, but it hasn’t happened and at 77 I’m still jogging every day. My policy has been to train hard only when I feel like it and to run relaxed when I’m not feeling so good”.  

It would be interesting to know whether or not Bob Pape is still active – he would now be aged in his mid-90s, and that’s no exceptional age these days for someone who has overcome two serious maladies and remained so fit throughout his life. In all probability he would not be aware that he once held as many as five British records. Regrettably, all but one of them were never ratified, but achieving them in the unlikely setting of Hong Kong is one record which surely will never be matched.

Note: Many thanks to Andy Milroy for great help with this article. Bob Pape is frequently mentioned in Rob Hadgraft’s biography of Jim Peters, “Plimsolls On Eyeballs Out”, published by Desert Island Books in 2011. Hong Kong is now a hive of distance-running activity, including an annual 100-kilometre event, and the Hong Kong record for the marathon is uncannily similar to Pape’s 1955 solo effort on the colony’s roads – 2:24:43 by Tsui Chi Hin in Berlin in 2018.       

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