It was after I finished the Belfast marathon in May 1986, that I learned of the McArthur Dervock marathon, to be held two months later. I had never heard of McArthur and I had never been to Dervock, despite having grown up within 15 km. As my recently widowed father still lived on the family farm outside Portrush, returning in July would give me another opportunity to visit him.
Since early 1985, I was based in England, with a job involving an increasing amount of travel, and the job had to take precedence over my running. But I still loved participating in races, and ‘collecting’ them became an absorbing hobby; Dervock would be a new addition to my ‘collection’.
Dervock is a small village in North Antrim. In the 2011 census it had 302 households, with a population of 714. In that census, 99% of the inhabitants were recorded as being protestants, with only 1% catholic. In a province with a significant catholic population, the Dervock census underlines the fact that there still exists a marked divide between the two cultures.
There used to be a railway station in Dervock, on the narrow-gauge branch line connecting Ballymoney to Ballycastle, 25 km to the north-east. The line was opened in 1880 and eventually closed in 1950.
Dervock is the ancestral home of the US president, William McKinley. assassinated in 1901. His ancestry can be traced back to David McKinley, born in Dervock and who migrated to western Pennsylvania in the eighteenth century. It was also the home of Kenneth Kane McArthur.
Ken McArthur was born in 1881 and at the age of 20, migrated to South Africa, where he joined the Johannesburg police force. In Dervock he had worked as the local postman and was known to often race against the train, when on his rounds. But it was not until he was in South Africa that he started to run competitively. He was an unlikely talent as a runner, for he was a tall man at 1.88 m and weighing over 77 k.
He ran his first marathon in 1908, beating the existing Olympic silver medallist, Charles Hefferon. In 1912 he was selected by South Africa, his adopted country, to compete in the Stockholm Olympic marathon. The race took place in sweltering heat and McArthur won the gold medal in the time of 2 hours 36 minutes and 54 seconds. During the race, one athlete died of heat exhaustion.
McArthur returned to South Africa, but never competed again, having injured a foot in an accident. He settled in Potchefstroom, just outside Johannesburg and died there in 1960. McArthur ran in six marathons and was never beaten. The Potchefstroom stadium is named after him.
I ran the Dervock marathon twice, in 1986 and the following year, with times of 2:54:06 and 2:5142. It was not until I was researching this article that I realized that McArthur’s best time, that of Stockholm, was 2:36:54, only 33 seconds better than my own best time of 2:37:27, run in Miami in 1981.
So, not only were our best marathon times almost equal, we were both raised on a North Antrim farms and we both migrated at an early age, in my case at 18 to Canada. And whereas McArthur often used to race a train leaving Dervock station, I often used to race a bus when I was dropped off at the stop near our farm.
And here I am today, after more than six months, still patiently waiting for my South African residency visa.
I feel quite sure that McArthur did not have to wait so long for his.