Eric Fisher was born on 31st May 1946 and would become a very good runner indeed, a very good coach and organiser as well as being a key figure on the Edinburgh Boys Brigade scene. I first met him as a marathon runner in the SAAA Championships at Meadowbank in the early 70’s. A friendly, unassuming runner who got on with everyone, he turned into an excellent all round distance runner with medals on the road and over the country. How did he get started in the running business in the first place?
Eric first got into the sport through the Sunday School picnics where all the races were short sprints which he could never win. He wanted longer distance races as did another youngster by the name of Doug Gillon. The picnics were all held at Dalkeith Country Park and when such races were introduced they used to beat everybody else, just ran away from them. He really started in the sport however at the Boys Brigade of which he had been a member since the age of nine, starting as a Lifeboy. The Leith Battalion had a big field which had been purchased for them by AJ Letham (Captain, 1st Leith Company) and the Battalion Sports were held at Letham Park every year.
There were only races at 100 and 220 yards at first but by the time he was 14 there was a half mile – he ran in it and won it. There was a cross-country championship in March but Eric’s Dad, who had been a PTI in the Royal Artillery and ran the mile at such meetings as Cowal and Ibrox, refused to let him run against 18 year olds. He relented when it was pointed out to him that he was running away from these same 18 year olds in training. Came the Battalion Cross-Country Championship – Eric was second and selected to run in the Inter-Battalion Cross-Country Championships for Leith Battalion. The race was held at Port Seton and was won by a big boy from Motherwell called Brown! Eric was 23rd in the Senior race against older boys.
He was however more involved in football playing centre forward for his school. He was selected for the Leith school team. Peter Cormack (who went on to play for Hibernian FC, Liverpool and Scotland) was in the team at outside right.
He never took any notice of athletics until 1966 when he was about 19 years old and Claude Jones of Edinburgh AC who worked in Ferranti’s asked if there were any runners in the factory who were not involved in the sport. Eric was pointed out to him and he was invited along. The first night there he was involved in a 2.5 mile race: it was a handicap race but all athletes started at the same time. He saw one guy he knew and told the handicapper he could beat him. It turned out that it was Doug Gillon (again) who had been attending Watson’s College and was ranked number 3 in the United Kingdom for the steeplechase in his age group. Eric kept up with them for about 100 yards, fell away and finished between two and three minutes behind them. That wasn’t bad for a youngster on his first night though.
Knowing nothing about training he thought he could get fit for the National the next year after three months of training but Eric soon realised the sport was a wee bit harder than that. He was coached initially by Claude Jones but was later helped by JT Mitchell, a senior club member who became President of the SCCU. Mitchell was a janitor at Drylaw Primary School and he had training sessions on a Tuesday night which involved gym work and weight training as well as running. After that he was motivated by club members such as Jim Alder and being in the team with all the other guys. He ran on the road, on the track and over the country. He reckons his best cross-country race was at Drumpellier Park on the first occasion EAC won the team race. He was hoping to be the sixth counter – in fact he finished 41st and was fifth counter. Claude and JT told him the win was partly down to him since he had improved so much, finishing 60 places higher than they had estimated he would!
I always think of Eric principally as a road runner where he was ranked in the annual rankings seven times in 10 years between 1972 and 1981. His best time was 2:27:03 in 1977 when he was seventh fastest in Scotland. Remember that we are talking about what was maybe the highest peak ever in the event in this country. He also won a bronze medal in the SAAA marathon championship in 1978 with a time of 2:28:14. The race was won by Anglo-Scot Ian Macintosh with Donald Macgregor second. Eric told Colin Youngson and Fraser Clyne about his run that day for their book “A Hardy Race – The SAAA Championship 1946 – 2000.” “He remembers that Willie Day, sensing a chance of Commonwealth marathon selection ‘went for it, despite the heat. On the return journey, an EAC team mate told Eric that Willie was ‘coming back.’ However Eric couldn’t spot his rival on the long road ahead. Eventually, at Joppa, a distant view was achieved, and Eric succeeded in passing Willie on the big hill up to Jock’s Lodge. At the top of the rise, Eric finally dared to look back, and was relieved to find himself safe, 150 yards ahead. Willie writes that he was impressed by Eric’s excellent run’ but does say that his left knee had become painful because the gristle in his new Gola shoes had snapped at the heel and was giving less support. At the end, Eric followed tradition, unhygienically cooling his blisters in the steeplechase water jump, and sharing his race tales with the other marathon survivors.”
His marathon ranking appearances were 1972 2.48.53 ranked 25; 1975 2.38.41 Ranked 19th; 1976 2.42.34 23th; 1977 2.27.03 15th; 1978 2.28.14 18th; 1979 2.39.30 52th; 1981 2.36.07 61st and in 1978 he was Scottish Marathon Club champion. The championship was decided over four races – the Clydebank to Helensburgh 20, the Strathallan 20, the SAAA Marathon championship and the Springburn 12. It came down to the last race where Eric was battling Willie Day and Davie Wyper for the championship. If Willie Day (FVH) beat Eric, he won the championship; failing that, if Eric beat Davie Wyper by two places, he won. Willie Day had problems with public transport and missed the start and after the race, Eric and Davie (West of Scotland) were tied in points. There wa only one champion and it was decided on who was first home in the SAAA marathon. Eric had beaten Davie, so he was the proud holder of Scottish Marathon Club Champion, 1978!
He was inside 2 hours 30 minutes for the distance six times with a fifth place at Rotherham in 1977 where he was first Scot and finished in front of Jim Alder, Cavan Woodward and several other weel kent runners. There was also another very good run as part of a large group of Scots at Enschede in Holland in 1971. Abebe Bikila was there in his wheelchair to support his compatriot who was running in the race.
Start of the 1969 SAAA Marathon from Meadowbank’s incomplete track: Eric is on the left with the hankie round his neck.
The other measure of distance running talent on the road was the Edinburgh to Glasgow Road Relay. Eric ran in five relays between 1967 and 1978. This was the period when Edinburgh AC was seriously involved in Scottish championships on the road and over the country. It was also the time when many Anglos were brought up from England for the major races, so to ‘make the team’ was no small feat. How good was Eric? Well in 1977 he ran on the eighth stage and turned in the second fastest time of the afternoon and the following year he had the third fastest time of the day. Remarkable running at that point in Scottish road running history. Of the 1977 race he says that he took over in the lead with Martin Craven breathing down his neck and Stuart Easton of Shettleston not far behind that. Martin passed him after about a quarter of a mile but he didn’t hear Stuart getting closer until about the last mile. He realised from the increasingly frantic pleas from the Shettleston supporters to Stuart to keep it going, not to give in, etc that Stuart had possibly started too fast and he determined to do his best to keep him at bay. His best was not only good enough but actually gave him second quickest time behind Martin. His only regret on the roads is not getting inside 50 minutes for the Tom Scott 10 miles, 50:11 was his best time there.
He also ran on the track for his club, where he remembers travelling with Bill Walker as part of a team trying to qualify for the BAL. Bill doubled up the 400m, 400mH, steeplechase and 4 x 400 while Eric doubled up on the steeplechase and 5000m! Best times on the track: 15:16 for 5000m, 32 min for 10000m.
Before his racing days were over he started coaching and soon showed him to be a very good coach indeed. How did he get into that aspect of the sport?
Coaching began like running with the Boys Brigade involvement. On BB training night they had set training but Eric kept adding bits on until he was doing up to 3.5 miles. He was then asked to take over the training. He was by then a Staff Sergeant, aged about 17, and started doing BB training courses. These courses were organised by Ron Small from Jordanhill College. He would come to the BB National Training Centre at Larbert on particular weekends. The Saturday started at 3:00 pm but since Eric and some others were racing on Saturday they arrived at 5:00 in time for a lecture, there was a meal about 6:00 pm, gymnastics, box work and so on were covered and although the day was scheduled to end at 10:00 Eric and his friends kept it going for quite a while longer. Then they carried on on the Sunday until about 5:00 pm. He did this course for three consecutive years.
He was also helping Claude Jones at the club but what really turned him on to coaching was the Commonwealth Games in 1970. He worked on the marathon and long road walks. He did the Assistant Club Coach award and was asked to help Alex Naylor at an Easter Scottish Schools training week. Also on the course were men like Eddie Taylor, Sandy Robertson, Bill Walker and David Morrison. He was given various tasks to carry out such as being asked to take the endurance group for a particular type of session and he could arrange the content himself. At the end of the week, Frank Dick said that they had been testing Eric out, they were all satisfied and he had got his next coaching certificate! Having trained with John Anderson and worked with Frank Dick, he has great admiration for both of them and thinks that it was a real pity that they never worked together – Frank’s organisational skills linked with John’s motivational gifts would have been pretty well unbeatable. Frank was the man whom he credits with organising the Edinburgh parents into a very good coaching force. He asked John for help when he was a runner and when asked what he wanted to do, said that he wanted to win a particular club race. John replied that that was no good, aim for a Games medal in the steeplechase – if you aim low, you’ll fail. Aim high. Eric won his race and a cup.
After the Games in 1970, Meadowbank was swamped with new young aspiring athletes while runners like Adrian Weatherhead were trying to get some training done. So he and Bill Walker took a hand and Eric was working with the younger ones before passing them on to Bill Walker at 13 or 14. One of the youngsters he was working with at that point was Paul Forbes and tells of the time when Paul as an under 13 Junior Boy won his first cross-country championship in the East District event at Grangemouth. Paul crossed the line and kept running back to Eric and shouted “We’ve done it, we’ve done it!”
He also coached Yvonne Murray to World Cross-Country Championships for Scotland, and then she went to the Brisbane Games. It was after that when point Bill Gentleman, who was one of her school teachers, decided to take over since he could train her during the day at school. Eric currently has a good group including Lauren Stoddart, Emily Strathdee, Joe Arthur (fourth in the Scottish Cross-Country Championship and Scottish Schools Champion Alex Carcus.
Tributes about his work that have appeared in the public domain come from Jake Wightman, Brian Aitken and Martin Ferguson. Currently listed on his club website as a middle distance coach, he is also noted as being a coach for Cross-Country, Road Running and steeplechase. In a recent interview in Athletics Weekly in the ‘How They Train’ series, Jake Wightman says that over the years he’s been grateful to Eric Fisher and John Lees at Edinburgh.
Young Brian Aitken became involved in running via the Boys Brigade and took part in a race against Leith BB at Riccarton and says –
“After the race, Edinburgh AC coach Eric Fisher invited me to come along to Meadowbank to train. I never took him up on the offer for a number of months, too busy playing with my pals and trying other sports. My running journey was, however, about to become more time consuming and serious.
Eric Fisher’s training was tough but fun. The up-and-down the clock circuit in the underbelly of the main stand at Meadowbank in the winter months was painful as much as it was beneficial. The Monday evening was concluded with hurdles, a form of low level plyometric drills, mixed with sprints afterwards gradually developed strength, cardiovascular and muscle endurance. It was then out on the roads for a lap or two of the Meadowbank perimeter with a few nasty hills. I did not know why I was doing the sessions but it was doing me good. Even though at times, I felt like a boxer in the last round of the thriller in Manilla. Often the intrepid training group would trot to Lochend park and with nearby road lights acting as floodlights to pierce the winter darkness we would do countless hills reps; the running style and muscles becoming more honed and toned.
The Thursday sessions include 12 slow fast 200 metres progressing to 20 as the winter months went by. Another session was a hill loop at the back then a jog to do a 300 m on the track. Eight or twelve of these had one concentrating on good technique to conserve energy and complete the session. The noise of the of the metal spikes striking the road at transition from hill to track a welcome break from the concentrated effort of a most demanding cold, dark evening session. Often the sweat could be seen evaporating and swirling off and above the working runners as they came together during the jog recovery. There was also the odd bit of banter to maintain moral and disguise the pain.
Sometimes in the depth of winter the track would be iced up and the stride would have to be shortened coming off the final bend as you felt your heel skid on the unwelcome surface.
Spring was speed endurance time.- 2-3 sets 4 x 200m with 30 seconds recovery at 800m racing speed or up and down the clock from 150 to 200 and back in 5 metre increments.. Then it was pure speed. 3 x 300m with 10 min recovery or 8 x 150m with a jog back recovery.
A favourite tactical improvement session of Erics’ was when everyone in the training group was given a secret number. A number was called then from 400m to 150m to go the group would jog until the number called decided to put the throttle down. Cat and mouse would take place until someone kicked for home either from the front, middle or the back of the pack. The real speed merchants would wait until 160m and then put the foot to the pedal while the slower guys would wind it up from 350m. Eric always insisted that speed was king and should never be neglected at the expense of endurance, the simple reasoning that endurance could be developed at a later in life more easily than speed once it was lost.”
Martin Ferguson a great club runner over all distance races for many years was also influenced by Eric: “On Saturday 6th February 2010 I fortunately won my first Scottish title after 30 years of trying! But first let’s go back to 1980 when l was 15 and a first year youth. I got knocked out of the 1500m heats and my coach at the time Eric Fisher (yes the same one) asked me why l had not entered the 2000m steeplechase. I managed to finish 3rd in the young athlete’s final in 1979 when l was a second year Senior boy but being a first year youth the following year l had not ran a chase as there were two better runners who were second year youths, John Blair and Nikki Robertson. The Steeplechase is all about confidence as l had not ran one that year l felt it was too big a step running the Scottish final, Eric understood.”
Eric has also worked on the club committee, where he did a lot of work organising the Edinburgh to North Berwick for several years, but his big involvement in administration has been with the Forth Valley Athletic League. He has been treasurer for the past five years.
The one aspect that he has not tackled is that of qualifying as a technical official of any sort – which of course doesn’t mean he hasn’t worked in such a capacity at meetings.
A high quality athlete who is now serving his club as a coach and serving on an area league committee plus his work with the Boys Brigade, Eric Fisher is about the best role model for a club athlete as you can find and his club and athletes are lucky to have him. Catherine, Eric’s wife of 40 years, has given her support: travelling in various cars along the route of the Edinburgh to Glasgow relay race, at water-stations on the North Berwick road race and races in Scotland and England. Now with coaching and admin, she describes herself as ‘an athletics widow’ – a description that could apply to the wives of many athletes.