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London Marathon – 20th April 1986

The “Caterpillar” was born on the run some time in November 1985. A group of my running club mates were out training, when the idea of running the London Marathon as a fifty-foot caterpillar was first suggested.

Claud the caterpillar, London Marathon, 20th April 1986

Claud the caterpillar, London Marathon, 20th April 1986. © gettyimages

During the following months it somehow became common knowledge that some “nuts” at the Bourton Roadrunners Club were about to perform a feat that was worthy of inclusion in the Guinness Book of Records. Entry forms were submitted and accepted; there was no escape: it was the green-light for the caterpillar.

The charity, Action Research for the Crippled Child, contacted us and asked if we would run for them. After reading their literature and seeing a video showing the plight of the children the charity was helping, who could refuse? We were now well and truly committed.

Getting fit posed no real problems as all of us pledged to the caterpillar project were regular runners. We had all taken part in marathons before, in fact between the eight of us we had completed some eighty full marathons. Therefore, everyone was in need of his daily “fix” of miles! The problem was, where was this creature coming from?

On Monday 14th April 1986, things were pretty desperate, with less than a week to go there was still no sign of a caterpillar. No one could seem to find an unwanted parachute. The Royal Air Force then came to the rescue; there was one at Hulavington where else? It is the Parachute Packing Centre after all! So, after some hectic travelling and cheeky persuasion by the club Chairman on Monday evening saw us with the basic ingredient of the Research Caterpillar.

An inspection of the parachute revealed it to have one or two holes: perhaps this was the reason why we have been given? Later we discovered that parachutes are supposed to be full of holes! This was a very disconcerting piece of information, as the next project for some of the club members is to be a parachute jump at Long Marston.

Anyway, by the Tuesday evening, after much sewing, things had started to take shape and during the rest of the week hula-hoops were fitted and paint applied to the “body”. The “Beast” was starting to look pretty good. Finishing touches, like the face, which started life as an umbrella, and the tail were being added by the support team, without whom we would have been lost, just prior to our departure for London on the Saturday afternoon. However, we had still to give it a run and there were some doubts as to whether it had the “legs” to go the distance!

Sunday morning. Five-thirty a.m. outside the hotel at Lancaster Gate London, home of the Football Association Headquarters and other august bodies, saw eight grown men climb into the body of “The Caterpillar”. All went well! Early morning pedestrians didn't even turn a hair. London cab drivers, usually not short of words, were dumbstruck. Tourists’ worst fears were confirmed. “Test flight” over and just a bit of chafing here and there, but a liberal application of Vaseline would cure that. Feelings at this time were so high that we did wonder how they would split the winner’s medal eight-ways! This did not remain a problem because I’m told a Japanese gent won the race in two hours and a few minutes. We were a long way from him at the start and considerably further from him at the end!!

After an eventful journey on the London Underground, where I suppose folk are not used to seeing fifty-foot caterpillars, we arrived at Greenwich for the start of the race. While we were there other members from Bourton Roadrunners Club appeared, including Bill Ridley complete with primrose yellow hat. They sniggered, scratched their heads, wished us luck and then disappeared amongst the crowds. We were on our own at the rear of the start in the mist, ready for the off.

The race started at 9:30; the caterpillar crossed the start line at 9:50 last of the 1986 field. I can confirm that there was no one else behind, as I was number eight in the caterpillar ..... the last of the last. But we were on our way, taking part in what is without doubt one the best sporting events of the year.

The atmosphere and support in the early stages of the race were tremendous. Little did we know that it was to get better the further we went. Thanks to Bill the first few miles went well, he certainly knows how to look after a caterpillar. However, the first drinks station at which we arrived posed a bit of a problem. It was proving quite difficult to “park” the beast, the roads still being congested with runners. By five miles we were at least in our stride, overtaking other competitors and feeling that we had mastered the art of caterpillar running! Thankfully “Button” had lost his whistle by this stage, things were going well.

At about eight miles a “pit stop” was requested. It was necessary for the caterpillar to get rid of the excess fluid it had taken on. There being no gents’ conveniences of a suitable size to accommodate us, a long-length of factory wall somewhere in the East End of London served a new and novel purpose.

The miles were ticking by nicely, the Cutty Sark miles behind and just ahead Jamaica Road, complete with calypso bands and more marvellous crowds. As we ran along, the crowd was singing “It’s a long way to Tipperary” and with sixteen or so miles to go there was going to be no arguments about that! By now the sun was out and all was well with the world. The crowds had now taken to the caterpillar. The applause and cheering produced a wonderful sensation of being a start, if only for a few minutes, but one is brought back to earth very quickly when, just ahead is a blind runner with his guide or a competitor in a wheel-chair. That really takes guts. A few words of encouragement as we pass ..... a friendly wave back. We are all united in a wealth of goodwill. This is the human race at its best; for a few hours Reagan and Gadaffi do not exist.

Around the next corner is Tower Bridge. A few moments later we are crossing it and admiring the view. Bob Wilson is spotted but incredibly he ignores us ..... surely a mistake! Not to worry, there are television cameras in front and the viewing public are rewarded with eight sweaty smiles!

The depressing Isle of Dogs section is ahead and with it the halfway mark. Thirteen miles to go and everyone is moving well. There are plenty of pubs around here with good support at each one, no time to stop unfortunately. The crowds here in the docklands are great, loads of encouragement, at times it almost brings tears to your eyes, or is it that the blister which is just forming under my right foot! Most unusual as I have never had one before!

The miles have slipped by nicely, twenty done and we are back to the huge crowds around the Tower. This is the cobbled section and it is proving to be a bit of a stumbling block for some competitors. Fame at last!! Bob Wilson wants to interview us, I hope they are all watching back home. Interview over and we are into the last six miles. In front is John Conteh, who, when we pass him says words to the effect that he is none too pleased to be passed by a caterpillar! But it is all in good fun.

The twenty-two mile point appears and the dense crowds seem to be getting even thicker. Still no problems in the caterpillar and we are passing plenty of runners some of whom look decidedly poorly. Along the Embankment the crowds are so deep that I am sure there cannot be room for more. Over to the left we are able to make out Westminster Bridge and the finish, where one and a half hours ago the winner threw-up his arms in jubilation of victory ..... or was it in the joyful knowledge that he was now at least £16,000 the richer! Everyone is a winner today.

Twenty-four miles done and the finish is approaching fast ..... and what a finish, through Trafalgar Square, under Admiralty Arch and out into the Mall, the Queen’s own front drive. Here the crowds are fantastic and with a tingling feeling of pride we press on kept very much in-line by the Hon. Sec. who thinks we are getting a bit ragged. Past Buckingham Palace, I wonder if She is watching, and on to Parliament Square. Twenty-six miles gone, Westminster Bridge and the finish is in sight. We manage a quick sprint and a few more seconds of soaking-up the atmosphere and we have made it!

The Caterpillar, the first in the history of the London Marathon to complete the course, is processed along the finish chutes to be de-numbered and decked-out in medals. One Caterpillar segment even suggested that we might be holders of some bizarre world record. Who cares? All I want is my Mars Bar, snazzy foil blanket and time to recall some smashing memories. More interviews follow, the brains of the beast are picked this time and then it’s VIP treatment with the stars. What a day!

Looking back on the big day it still remains one of the high-spots in my life. The pleasures of the day are still in my memory. I am sure it is the same with the rest of the “Caterpillar”. So, to Norm, the only man to get blisters on his hands running a marathon, Ian, Tony the one with a boil on his “bum”, Steve the quiet one, Dave the young one, John J who had to put-up with John B running behind him and to my old mate JB who tried so very hard to get under my feet; thanks lads, it was a pleasure to have shared the run with you, to help others.

Bernard J Cartlidge



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“Claud the Caterpillar” made his appearance at the 1986 Mars London Marathon, featuring 8 hardy marathon runners from Bourton Roadrunners, taking the crowds and the media by storm.

Featuring Norm Lane, Ian Prentice, Tony Goodwill, Steve Humphries, Dave Pearson, John Jelfs, John Button and Bern Cartlidge.

They completed the 26.2 miles in 4:14:55 from the gun - pre-chip timing!

Also running from Bourton Roadrunners was Bill Ridley, also running in fancy dress, who chaperoned Claud for the early miles. Bill finished in a fine 3:25:55 from the gun.



Other reports may be found on our recent race reports page.