The miracle marathon of Brisbane: De Castella’s run for the ages

By Iain Payten

De Castella draws level with Ikangaa and the duel commences.Credit:Getty

The sense there was a special day brewing first struck Tim Lane when the sun was not yet risen and there were people everywhere.

Then a young ABC commentator, Lane was driving his way through Brisbane to a pokey broadcasting centre near the Gabba. It was a Friday morning and the final day of the 1982 Commonwealth Games. In about an hour, the men’s marathon would start and thousands of Brisbanites had got up early – or stayed out – to line the streets.

“It was quite a freakish situation at 5 o’clock, driving through the streets, there were people everywhere,” Lane said in commentary, shortly after the starter’s gun.

Lane’s colour man was Herb Elliot.

“Yes, it’s strange to see a crowd like that for a marathon in Australia,” he added.

Crowds in Brisbane at the start line to see Robert De Castella (right) in the men’s marathon at the 1982 Commonwealth Games.Credit:Fairfax Archive.

“Overseas the marathons are No.1 and people line the route the whole way, but this marathon has captured the attention of every Australian. They’ll be glued to their televisions today.”

Herb Elliot doesn’t get much wrong when comes to running and, unsurprisingly, his dry prediction came true. But few could have imagined how much this marathon would capture the attention of Australia, and now 40 years on, remains a mental picture many can conjure.

Polite fans of De Castella line the road on Ann Street, in Brisbane.Credit:Fairfax archive

The man in centre frame, the man who’d motivated crowds to flock to the course in darkness, was Robert De Castella. The Australian marathon legend, who sported a bushy moustache, was built like a footballer and ran with a soul-crushing intensity, would go on to win the 1982 Commonwealth Games marathon gold medal that day.

But it was done in such thrilling, absorbing and courageous circumstances, a captivated nation couldn’t tear themselves away. Lore has it that morning traffic on the Sydney Harbour Bridge was non-existent through her normal peak times, and then jammed full soon after the man known as “Deek” crossed the line in Brisbane.

“It was the one race that really catapulted me,” De Castella says.

“With the Australian public profile, I had a good enough profile in the athletic community but this really took me to the mums and dads, the family, the kitchen table, sitting around watching the Commonwealth Games, and all that sort of stuff. It really was a bit of a launching pad of my career.”

De Castella was not quite an unknown. The Victorian runner’s name had risen a year earlier after he won his first major international marathon in Fukuoka, Japan – an event that served as an unofficial world championships. Deek’s time 2:08:18 was the second-fastest marathon ever, just five seconds behind Alberto Salazar’s time in New York a few weeks earlier. The New York course was not only point-to-point, however, it was also later found to 148 metres short.

“So although it was invisible at that time, De Castella had run the fastest time in history,” Lane says.

Juma Ikangaa (left) and Gidamis Shahanga cleared out early and built up a big lead.Credit:Fairfax Archive.

“We had this world-class marathoner, the Commonwealth Games were on home soil, there were African runners here so there’d be some good competition, so this was going to be a test whether he could lay it all down again on home turf. Could he underline that he was the real deal?”

A sticky morning greeted the runners as they warmed up, forecasting a brutal run. The course, starting on Brisbane’s south bank, would take them out to the airport and back, west across to St Lucia and then finish back in the city.

After the race began, De Castella’s main challengers didn’t waste any time in revealing themselves. Two Tanzanians in the shape of defending champion Gidamis Shahanga – who’d won the 10,000m a few days earlier – and the diminutive Juma Ikangaa bolted to the front, and didn’t slow down.

“It was never seen as a walk in the park for Deek. There was strong competition and the Tanzanians just went out and took it on,” Lane said. “As they broke away early, we were all – as you do with marathons – you just have to wait and see. But then they just kept going further and further ahead.

“When you are on straight roads, and you are looking in the distance behind them, you just couldn’t see anybody in the background. And this went on and on, for an hour, and more.”

Wearing dark green shorts and a white singlet with an Australian crest, De Castella was happy enough settled back in the chase group.

“It was a humid morning and I knew it would only get hotter. Early on I wasn’t too concerned by them moving away, I had confidence I had the fitness to finish strongly,” De Castella says.

Here is the moment to explain how Francois Robert De Castella was not built to run marathons. Or certainly not as fast as he ran them, anyway.

Rob De Castella was heavier than most marathon runners.

Where most of his competitors were around 60 kilograms or lighter, ‘Deek’ and his tree-trunks tipped the scales at about 72 kilograms. To put that in further context, current world record holder Eliud Kipchoge weighs 52 kilograms.

“Deek was probably the last of the big, strongly-built marathoners” Aussie marathon great Steve Moneghetti said.

“Most distance runners are now greyhounds, whippets. They don’t carry much weight. But that’s what made Rob so inspiring and so captivating. He was just balls-out. He’d run hard and challenge you, keep up with me if you can.”

But the equation was simple: the more weight De Castella carried, the more energy he had to expend to win. So he was mindful to conserve it where possible.

That’s what made Rob so inspiring and so captivating. He was just balls-out. He’d run hard and challenge you, keep up with me if you can.

In those days, time gaps and distances were not available for an athlete to study on the roadside. De Castella’s sport science was limited to time splits written on the back of his hand with a black Texta.

De Castella only realised how far he’d got behind when he spotted his long-time coach Pat Clohessy on the roadside, somewhere just past the halfway mark.

“He had this look of fear on his face, genuine worry, and I thought “ok, jeez, I had better get moving here,” De Castella said.

De Castella upped his pace and set about crossing the gap to the Tanzanians, solo. Exactly how far behind he’d fallen is hard to gauge, but most estimate it was around 600 metres. In what was the first live marathon broadcast in Australia, Lane and Elliott were guessing the gap using passing landmarks.

“Hope was fading a bit,” Lane said. “But then there was just this unforgettable moment where there was about six k’s to go, and in one of those head-on shots, you suddenly saw this tiny white singlet in the distance. It was Deek.

De Castella draws level with Ikangaa and the duel commences.Credit:Getty

“Compared with the emptiness we had been seeing behind the Tanzanians for so long, that was just thrilling.”

As De Castella rapidly closed the gap and his singlet loomed larger, the sapping heat claimed Shahanga. He went backwards but Ikangaa kept pounding hard.

With the crowd urging him on, De Castella finally pulled level with Ikangaa just before the 39-kilometre marker on Coronation Drive, and then surged past forcefully.

Ikangaa looked up at the Australian, almost in shock, but refused to yield. The 160cm runner, who’d go on to win seven major marathons, sprinted back to the front.

De Castella powered past again but Ikangaa kept fighting and again, sprinted ahead, full of courage and trying to convince himself, as much as anything, that he had petrol in the tank.

But the Aussie terminator wouldn’t be denied.

“I knew that my pace was faster because I’d reeled in over a minute on him and, and all I had to do was maintain that. He had to actually pick up his pace,” De Castella said.

Juma Ikangaa looks up at the passing De Castella, but fights back to the front. After two more lead changes, De Castella eventually pulled away.Credit:NFSA

“He accelerated past me a couple of times, probably hoping that I was going to fall apart. But all I did was just maintain the even pace that I was running because it was going to be extra hard for him to keep up with me.

“He was a tough, tough, tough competitor. And he gave everything that he possibly could.”

De Castella and Ikangaa would go on to become friends, and consoled each other two years later in the Los Angeles Colosseum after both missed out on Olympic medals.

On this day, though, the intimidating aura of De Castella was in full swing. With arms pumping wide like pistons, a punishing pace and an impenetrable stare forward, the hairy-chested Australian made it clear to rivals they’d need to visit the hurt locker to beat him. It was as much a psychological battle as a physical one.

Robert de Castella wins gold in the marathon at the 1982 Commonwealth Games in Brisbane. Credit:Peter Charles

De Castella could – and would – break the wills of the world’s best runners and few were surprised when he reduced the formidable Salazar to rubble in Rotterdam the next year, and then won the World Championships as well.

Did he set out to mentally disintegrate his rivals?

“No, I predominantly competed against myself,” De Castella said.

“I had to internally and externally – mainly internally – exude that self-belief and that confidence and that really strong spirit, that winning spirit that you have to have. But through that, it manifests externally as well. So, I wasn’t doing it to try to intimidate anyone else or play mind games or anything like that.

“But I think that spirit, that winning tough, and never give up never die spirit, it was something which came across externally as well. Your rivals could sense it.”

Ikangaa finally slipped back and De Castella’s only remaining obstacle as he raced to the line was a sea of Brisbanites.

“It was before the health and safety era, so I was running, and I could see this wall of people on the road up ahead, and then they’d just part like a sea as I got to them,” De Castella said. “It was pretty special.”

Breaking his rule to stay emotionless for a whole race, De Castella grinned from ear to ear and raised his arms in the final hundred metres. It had been a lung-busting run of doubt and determination, and would only find a peer 14 years later with Kerryn McCann’s memorable win in 1996.

Champagne celebration … De Castella savours one of his favourite victories,Credit:Fairfax

Four decades on, the battle of Brisbane remains one of De Castella’s most cherished memories.

Sitting at home eating Coco Pops in Ballarat was a teenage Moneghetti, who was just starting out on his career. Four years later he roomed with De Castella as the Aussie legend won another Commonwealth Games gold in Edinburgh, and the young Moneghetti claimed bronze.

“That race in 1982 just captured everything Deek was about, the courage, the talent, the drama – he inspired me to try and do the same thing one day,” Moneghetti said. “I am blessed in that I got to live the dream of running with him.”

Moneghetti came close but he could never break De Castella’s still-standing Australian record for the marathon, a 2:07:51 victory in the 1986 Boston marathon. De Castella’s Brisbane gold medal was destroyed in the Canberra bushfires in 2003, but he was later given a replacement by the Commonwealth Games Association.

Robert de Castella still gets stopped and asked about the 1982 victory.Credit:Getty

De Castella is grateful to have the medal but, in truth, he doesn’t need it to remember that special day. Four decades on, people still approach him and tell him they were roadside that day. They’d got up early.

“You couldn’t have written a better script for the drama and the excitement of the event. People say they were inspired by it,” De Castella said.

“And that’s why people still come up and talk to me about that race.”

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