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Athletics: Amateurs buoyed by Easton promise to go for gold

WITH its soaring synthesised beats segueing into the plink of the piano, the instrumental introduction to Chariots of Fire has long been a richly evocative piece for many.

Coach Derek Easton with Central Athletics club endurance team, at a training session at Stirling University. Picture: Colin Mearns
Coach Derek Easton with Central Athletics club endurance team, at a training session at Stirling University. Picture: Colin Mearns

The theme will, subconsciously at least, have soundtracked any number of runs over the years, yet few will derive as much resonance from its familiar swell as Derek Easton.

Hearing even the opening few bars of Vangelis' Oscar-winning composition can transport the 54-year-old back to his youth; to the West Sands in St Andrews and the moment in which he unwittingly became part of one of the most revered films in British cinema. Easton was 21 when, as captain of the university's athletics club, he was asked to gather a group of runners to be extras in "some low-budget film" but little did he and his colleagues realise that those two days of work would still be a topic of conversation some 33 years later. "Aye, it crops up from time to time," he says, smiling.

Easton's recollections remain rich. The dismay of the hairdressers as a "bunch of hairy students" turned up needing a short back and sides before filming could commence; the scolding they received for running too quickly and "hogging the camera"; the impressive stamina of lead actors Ian Charleson, Ben Cross and Nigel Havers; and the chaffing of the long, starchy shorts they had to wear.

"We were running that beach all day because we had to keep stopping and starting whenever a jet took off from Leuchars," he says. "And there was a problem with the camera, so we had to come back and do it again. But it wasn't until a year later, once the film was released, that it hit me how big it was."

So big, in fact, that Easton made a cameo appearance at the Olympic opening ceremony last summer, the film's footage doctored to show Mr Bean running alongside him during Danny Boyle's extravaganza.

Yet this weekend the spotlight will fall not on the Bridge of Allan resident but on the six young men from Central Athletic Club who he will lead to the European Champion Clubs Cup Cross Country in Castellon. The party flew out to Spain early this morning, having won November's trial against the best clubs in England and Wales to become only the second Scottish squad to represent Great Britain in the event.

They travel fuelled by the belief they can be competitive despite their humble, amateur status.

Each member of the team is a Scottish internationalist and they train together three times a week as part of what Easton describes as "probably the strangest group in the country". While many of their rivals this weekend are professional athletes, headhunted by some of the continent's most established clubs, the Scots are all local to the Stirling area and train in a 20-strong squad of mixed sex and ability.

"When I took it on in 2000, it was a mixture of old and young, male and female, and I didn't have the heart to break it up or change anything because all these people were there before I got involved," explains Easton, who was a somewhat reluctant conscript.

"A lot of people will say I'm wasting my time with the slower runners but it is amazing how they support the faster guys and vice versa, as corny as that sounds. Some of them are coming over this weekend because they all feel part of it and want to support the lads. The great thing about running is that everyone has their own targets and just because you are slower doesn't mean you are less entitled to take part. It works for us, and I wouldn't dream of changing it now."

And why would he, given the success they have enjoyed? Easton is the first to acknowledge the good fortune that brought together a group of burgeoning talents, each with the application and competitiveness to better themselves and those around them. But he also appreciates the importance of making the most of potential.

Having run for Scottish Universities and medalled at British level, he was once regarded as a promising athlete – only for the glittering career for which he was tipped to never materialise. Now he is determined that his charges will not be left with the same regrets that he has.

"I didn't do as well as I should have and in some ways that drives me as a coach," he admits. "The last thing you want is to get to the end of your competitive career and feel that you haven't fulfilled your potential – and that's what happened to me. I probably just had too much going on in my life, career-wise. Maybe I was taking the safe bet by concentrating on my work but you never know what might have happened if you'd taken different decisions. I'm always cautioning the lads that they don't want to find themselves in a similar situation. Sometimes, though, you need to reach that point yourself before you can appreciate it."

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