By Brian Witty
Hal Thomas passed away on January 31st, 2006.
Once described by legendary trainer, Ern Holder as “Pound for pound, the best grass track runner ever”, Hal Thomas has a record of achievements which, particularly viewed in the context of his age at the time of making them, will stand supreme for decades to come.
His record should not be forgotten by members of the SAAL and followers of our great sport, and particularly by the younger runners who did not have the opportunity to see him run.
Hal Thomas was born in 1935 and grew up in Coburg, Melbourne. His father was a central umpire with the VFA and Hal and his brother, Barry, used to run with him during his training sessions.
As a schoolboy he ran in Cross Country events. He won the Metropolitan Schoolboys Cross Country Championships at 14 years of age and the Victorian State Cross Country Title at 15.
He left school to become an apprentice jockey. Five years later he was called up for National Service and was successful in taking out the Armed Forces 10 miles Cross Country Championship.
He registered as a runner with the Victorian Athletic League and during the winter months boundary umpired, sometimes officiating at the same games as his brother. He enjoyed success as a runner with the V.A.L, particularly in circle events. His trainer was Jack “Pop” Clarke. Hal would, in later years, often make reference to “Pop” Clarke’s training methods – it was obvious that the old trainer had a great influence on his career.
Hal left Melbourne in 1972 and came to Adelaide. The first money that he earned in S.A. was from running the boundary with the S.A.N.F.L but he stopped umpiring after Umpiring Director Fred Beare “told me I was too old and too slow and he wanted younger blokes to run the boundary”.
He became Secretary/Treasurer of the S.A. Athletic League and in April 1973 at the age of 37, he ran a close second in the Stawell Gift to Bernie Moss. At the same carnival he ran second in the Arthur Postle 70m sprint to Peter Boase.
He then went on a spree during the remainder of that year, winning the Mt Isa Gift, Sprint (70m) and Backmarkers (120m), the Keilor Sprint, the Prahran Gift, Plympton Gift and Bay Sheffield as well as S.A. State Championships over 70m, 90m and 120m. He was crowned Caltex S.A. Sports Star of the Year for 1973.
On New Year’s Day 1974 he went to Maryborough, Victoria and ran brilliantly to win the Gift in 11.8 seconds and the Midland Sprint in 7.2 seconds. He was 38 years old.
On reaching 40 he competed in Veterans’ events and in 1981 at Christchurch, New Zealand he was successful at the World Veterans’ Athletic Championships winning gold medals for the 100, 200 and 400m events (45 - 50 years age group) as well as for the relays.
During his 40s and 50s Hal Thomas competed in Open and Veteran/Masters events enjoying success at regular intervals. He frequently appeared in the final of the Sportsman’s Over 40s Handicap at Stawell winning the race on several occasions and at 54 years of age he won the open Postle Sprint which he’d finished second in way back in 1973. He won Veteran events at Maryborough and at the Bay Sheffield.
At the very first Camden 400m Classic he ran off the backmark in the final, conceding starts of up to 19m to all of his younger opponents. He was 44 years of age.
He was General Manager of the S.A.A.L in the mid 80s and several years later served for a short time as Junior Vice President. In 1990 he was made a Life Member of the League.
He attended another World Veterans’ Games in 1991 in Finland, bringing home silver medals for the 100m, 200m (55-60 years age group) and the two relays. Following Finland he went on to Scotland where, two weeks after his 56th birthday, he won the open 110m Sprint at Inverkeithing, beating the son of David Deas who he’d beaten 25 years previous at Bendigo when he (Deas) had visited Australia on a running trip.
Hal Thomas worked in the Fitness industry, managing a Lifestyle Gym on Cross Rd before operating his own Spa and Fitness Centre at Glenelg Oval from the early 80s.
He “ran water” for the great Glenelg football teams of the mid-eighties. “Hundreds of young footballers and aspiring athletes were coached by him. He taught them to run, massaged their injuries away, manipulated their bad backs, told them what to eat and how to shape and strengthen their bodies.” Graham Cornes, Advertiser February 4, 2006.
Two time Premiership player Tony Symonds said “From 3:30 on a Friday afternoon there was always a steady stream of Glenelg players lining up at Hal’s Gym for a rub down. I used to arrive at around 8 o’clock so that I would get a good hour or so with him. You would come away feeling totally ready for the next day’s game.”
At Stawell in 1993, shortly after undergoing a hernia operation, he tested positive to a banned substance, which he claimed to have used to speed up his healing. He subsequently had his Life Membership revoked and was banned from competing and training runners for four years. He served out his suspension and was able to win (an Over 35’s race at Flagstaff Hill) upon his resumption.
He kept training runners (his Gym was closed in 2003) right up to the time he became ill (mid 2005).
He currently holds the Australian Record for 200m – 24.02 seconds for the 55-60 year age group – set in 1992.