In a celebration of John North’s life we thought this week it was apt for a second look at Issue 11’s interview with him, here it is…
John North- never going to slow down
John North, the ever-cheerful, super-fit marketing guy from Karrimor has been a bit under the weather recently, what with having had cancer twice in the last seven years, (the latest treatment finished just weeks ago) and needing a replacement hip on top of all that. John has always been active – super active. He started running in his teens and soon found that he enjoyed being fit, exercising and winning stuff. For the next few decades, he was regularly running 100 miles a week. He took up mountaineering and caving too, and, while taking a year off from running in his early 30s due to an injury, took up cyclocross.
This was something else that he found he was good at, ending up 18 months later in the British team at 34. He’s raced the famous Three Peaks Cyclocross race many times, winning it in a 1980 battle with the Swiss national team. He started working for Karrimor in 1989, after having been in engineering for most of his life, though his association with the outdoor company goes back to the ‘60s and he still tests equipment on the hills for them.
John got into mountain biking on the early ‘90s and was instrumental in getting Karrimor to sponsor the now fondly missed, NEMBA North of England Mountain Bike Association race series, and he reckons that the firm’s title sponsorship of arguably the biggest race series the UK has really put Karrimor on the map. The outdoor firm known only for its panniers and fleeces started getting known for mountain bike clobber too and John helped develop the range. So what got him into mountain biking? The love of the hills? The challenge of the trails? Nope…racing again…
“ I love competition. Oh and mountain bike races happen in the summer, so its warmer than cyclocross”.
John doesn’t just have a string of wins to his name, he’s set some records too, some that are likely to stand for a long time. John was the first runner to do the ‘Bob Graham’ in under 20 hours. (It’s a loop in the Lake District – 42 peaks, 80 miles and 27,000 feet of climbing). 18 hrs 36 min – despite having to stop and look for his pace runner in the mist on Helvellyn.
He also has a record that is likely to remain unchallenged in these, er, enlightened times. John holds the record for riding the Pennine Way, set back in 1978 before riding on footpaths was the social crime that it is today. And his time for the 256 mile journey? A rather sleepless 2 days 8 hours 45 minutes. John remembers that back in the ‘70s and even the ‘80s, it wasn’t a problem to ride wherever you’d normally walk (or in John’s case, run). “Bikes on trails weren’t a problem until mountain bikes started to become popular in the late ‘80s.”
It’s reasonably well known that John’s had cancer-secondary bone cancer – for years. In fact, he seems to have had cancer for as long as I’ve known him. He shrugs this off in the same way that you might regard a common cold: “ I got cancer seven years ago. I got over it. It reoccurred this year and I got over it again. It stops life getting boring.”
In fact the biggest problem he seems to have had was that it slowed him down a bit on the bike as he couldn’t train during his treatment and he inevitably lost weight, dropping below his nine stone race trim, but it didn’t get him down: “I just got on with life. I had to beat it as I didn’t like the idea of the alternative. No matter how bad you have it, though, there’s always someone worse off. I find children who have cancer amazing – their enthusiasm is incredible. And Lance Armstrong is obviously a big inspiration- he shouldn’t be alive, yet he’s just won five Tours de France, I hope he makes it six next year.”
And now that John’s got over cancer again, he now has to worry about needing a replacement hip: “The specialist put my X-ray on the lightbox, looked at it and said – ‘and how many years were you running 100 miles a week then Mr North’ – ’Oh, is it that obvious?’ I said – apparently it is. “So I’m waiting to get a new hip, which is limiting my riding a bit. I have to ride every day or it gets stiff, but any longer than an hour and a half and it complains too. I’ve told them I want the lightweight titanium hip, I don’t want to carry any extra weight.”
Getting out on his bike is something that John still loves at a time when many of his peers are looking forward to a pipe and slippers: “I’m not going to slow down. Life’s for living and you’re a long lime dead. It’s all about using your fitness while you can.”
As if to prove it, he’s taken up Audax riding – road enduro rides – as an alternative to racing. “Just for fun”. Like the one he did in Switzerland last year that involved 43 cols in seven days around the Swiss, French and Italian Alps.
You’d think that with such a life full of riding, he wouldn’t have any time left over for anything else. Well, you’d be right actually. Apart from riding, work, cleaning the car, and watching bike racing on TV, John really doesn’t have any time left over. He’s a big, big fan of the Lakes and spends many weekends up there with his friends, like Barrie Clarke and Caroline Alexander – fellow singleminded racers. However, he doesn’t see where the next generation of racers like them are going to come from.
“I don’t know where the Barries and Carolines of the future are. I don’t know why either. Perhaps the BCF could have done more to encourage new riders in the ‘90s, but its the same with athletics, where are the Coes and Ovetts of the future too? Are schools getting over PC? Training, and getting fit seems too much like hard work to many kids. In the 1900s people were fitter than they are now. Not as healthy, but fitter. There’s a widening gap between the fit and unfit in society. It’s probably a good thing though, because otherwise the trails might get too crowded for us.”
And it’s on the trails that John’s at home. If he’s not working at Karrimor, running the Helpdesk, doing marketing and product development, he’s testing rucksacks in the evenings, or spending weekends in the Yorkshire Dales, or his beloved Lake District where he reckons Ambleside has riding to match the rest of the world (though he still harbours a desire to see Moab and Utah while he can).
He doesn’t drink anything stronger than tea, but, with a twinkle eyed, mischievous smile, he admits a few other weaknesses: “Fast cars and even faster women. I have the same taste in bikes, cars and women. I like them light, fast, and a good hard ride – print that if you dare.” So, having won events in a heap of different disciplines, beaten cancer a couple of times, what’s left to do? Again, the cheeky smile…
“What’s left? To be shot dead at the age of 90 by the justifiably jealous husband of a beautiful and sexually demanding young woman as I cross the finishing line at the end of a race … But in the mean time I’ll have to make do with a Notts & Derby cyclo-cross race this coming weekend.”
And finally, a tip for other, older riders: “don’t worry about not being as fast as you used to be, or not recovering as quick, just enjoy it.” Surely a case though, of ‘Do as I say, not as I do’.
John North has no intention of slowing down any time soon.