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Derek Harrison

Sat, 24 Jul 2021

Parish Walk and ultra race-walking legend Derek Harrison sadly passed away on July 16 2021.
The following tributes have been penned by David Griffiths and, firstly, Allan Callow:

Derek Harrison

Former Parish Walk winner and record holder Derek died last week.

The statistics show his race walking greatness at the Parish Walk but there was much more to Derek. 

He was, as a young man, a Manx football star for team and Island and at race walking he represented the Isle of Man at the 1974 Commonwealth Games held in Christchurch, New Zealand in the 20 mile race (where fellow Island race walker Graham Young placed 4th – the best Manx athletics result at this level).

He was a star of European Ultra distance walking, breaking world records. He raced at National level in the U.K. and he was the Manx Marathon running champion.

As the person however, I was lucky to be a friend that knew him, having been with him at events and in training. We spent almost four weeks at the Christchurch Games and as ever, he just got on with the job, not seeming fazed with the surroundings and the wonderful welcome and hospitality of our Kiwi hosts.

He was a quiet, unassuming and even modest man, who was incredibly self-sufficient. It was obvious that he was totally dedicated to achieving his maximum. In training and racing his focus and preparation was as good as I have ever seen.

As with all Manx walkers, we wish success for our Manx rivals and Derek and I chatted on how to improve when we occasionally met or trained and he left nothing to chance. I was his helper in his first 100 mile race, which was over 10 laps of a 10 mile course, set mostly on country roads at Ewhurst in Surrey

I borrowed a bike to give him what he needed. His bag contained everything he needed for the whole weekend, so I could not offer other than what he had with him which served him well as he seemed to get stronger as the race went on. But to my surprise, at around the 80 miles mark, he advised me to go for a rest as I looked tired; he would be alright!

Derek carried on competing and sometimes winning but sadly he had a had a stroke and ended up in hospital, in a bed next to my then sister in law Margaret, and he relished news from the walking world on my visits as he gradually recovered. He was not the same because the stroke affected him physically and mentally, but it was always nice to meet him, but not for long, as he was still busy, often he was on his way to collect golf balls that strayed over the fence at the top of the Pulrose course.

I knew Derek as a family man, the house he bought on Ballanard Road, was one I drew the plan of when of in my earliest days in the job and it had a big garden that he tended meticulously. His wife Sylvia, who passed away only a few years ago, was known to me and family friends due to the St. Ninians church and Badminton connections. His sons ‘had a go’ at walking, but football was more their thing and his youngest son was a talented player.  Eldest son Michael was a close neighbour of mine in Cooil Drive and daughter Suzanne has also taken part in race walks.

In summary I can say I have learned from Derek’s pure drive and determination that lead to his successes. He was not the most technically talented race walker, but it didn’t stop him.  He had none of the modern aids or assistance, he did his own food, drinks and preparation 100%

As a footnote, what Derek did in the Parish Walk, was not comparable directly to the one of today.

It was one of a lot of races he would do each year. It started at 12 noon, thus the night came earlier and lasted until the finish. I recall him advising that a steady start was vital (not quicker than 6 hours to Peel) in order to be strong throughout and able to do his future races which were already planned.

We are all ‘one offs’ but Derek was more, an incredible athlete and a kind and thoughtful friend to me.

Thank you.

Allan Callow

Derek Harrison

It is very sad to learn of the death last Friday of Derek Harrison at the age of 86. He was a true legend of Manx athletics, and in his heyday, he was one of the greatest long-distance walkers in the world. He was also  fine marathon runner.

Derek was initially known on the local sporting scene as a footballer, playing for Pulrose and Braddan when both clubs were among the best on the island in the late 1960s. He also represented the Isle of Man national team. He was known for his great fitness levels and non-stop running as well as his footballing ability. It was whilst he was with Braddan that the club entered a team into the TT Course Relay Walk, a very popular event in those days. Derek walked very well, breaking a class record, and that lit the spark that persuaded him to make walking the focus of his sporting ambitions.

Derek was at his peak in the 1970s and early 1980s, achieving extraordinary feats such as setting the world 24-hour walking record in 1978. That was in Rouen, France, where he covered a distance of 219 kilometres and 570 metres, which equates to over 136 miles. He had previously set the 24-hour track record in 1976 at Woodford Green AC in Essex, when he walked 211 kilometres and 131 metres.

In addition to these accomplishments, Derek still holds Isle of Man track records for 150k, 100 miles and 200k, these being split times recorded during the Woodford Green race in 1976. He set the 100-mile road record at the National 100-mile Championships on a route from Leicester to Skegness in 1976, a record subsequently beaten by John Cannell. He represented the Isle of Man over a shorter distance of 20 miles in the Commonwealth Games in Christchurch (New Zealand) in 1974.

In 1979 Derek set the Parish Walk record of 15 hours 20 minutes and 21 seconds, a performance that went somewhat under the radar at the time. It wasn't until 20 years and more later, when the Parish Walk’s popularity really took off and media interest in the event became enormous, that his record really came to prominence as it continued to defy all attempts by latter-day Parish heroes such as Robbie Callister and Peter Kaneen to beat it. The name Derek Harrison once again gained legendary status among many people who weren’t on the scene at all in 1979. The record eventually fell in spectacular style to Sean Hands in 2006, but it had stood for an amazing period of 27 years.

The esteem in which Derek was held in local athletics really came home to me in 2005. Derek had suffered a severe stroke a year or so earlier, and as part of his rehabilitation he was determined that he would complete the 2005 End to End Walk. Walking with his son Michael he duly achieved the feat, covering the 39.5 mile distance from the Point of Ayre to the Sound in less than ten hours at the age of 70. I was on microphone duty at the Presentation evening, and when Derek (who at that point was still the Parish Walk record holder) was called up to receive his award every single person in attendance stood and cheered him. It was a spine-tingling and highly emotional moment.

Derek’s health had been in decline for many years, and he sadly lost his wife Sylvia some years ago. Nevertheless he was regularly to be seen out walking, an activity that sustained his interest no matter what hurdles life threw at him.
Derek was a true gentleman, quiet and modest about his achievements. He was one of the greatest athletes the Isle of Man has known and he will be remembered with great affection and respect by all who knew him. I'm sure the sympathies of all in local athletics are extended to Derek's daughter Susanne, sons Steven and Michael, and all his extended family.
David Griffiths