Almanac Pro-running: A photo that defines a sport and an athlete

Les Williams breaks the tape photo:Irene King

Les Williams breaks the tape

Great photos, like great athletes, are timeless.

A photo, taken at the right moment, gives meaning to that moment and conveys a mood, romance and raw emotion with no need for words.

Famous US photographer Annie Leibovitz, built a career around taking iconic photos that tell stories.

In a sport considered one of Australia’s most historic, there is a photo that sums up not only the sport, but the passion and emotion of the athletes that inhabit it.

It is an extraordinary professional athletics photo, taken not at the famous Stawell Gift as you would expect but at the finish of the Keilor 300 metre masters final.

Somewhat like explaining religion to a non-believer, explaining professional athletics to non-runners is frustrating at best and long the subject of clumsy conversations.

Taken by Irene King, the photo captures the last moments of a professional footrace perfectly and from my perspective defines the sport.

Almost like lining up at your local take away restaurant at dinner time, nine runners finished a race packed together, straining for the tape and the win.

Professional athletes, Neil Brennan, Martin Barrow, Mark Howard, Les Williams, Scott Shillito, Jamie Johns, Shane Buckingham, Mandy Emmett, Dale Jones and Richard Wearmouth, are now part of folklore.

Like an Annie Leibovitz picture, the photo reads very well and presents a rainbow of colour strewn across the track.

From the outside and within a blink of an eye, the backmarker in red, Brennan, was almost parallel to the ground after having crashed past a heaving Martin Barrow in Blue. The yellow of Mark Howard seems resigned to his fate as the grey of Les Williams, arms held aloft, takes the win in front of the fast finishing pink runner of Scott Shillito.

It was everything we like to see in a ‘pro’ race. A bunched final 30 metres, physical toughness, hard running back markers pushing wide, and front markers using their handicap to force the ‘backies’ to dig deep and get around them.

It was a race in inches but magnificent by any measure.

You could argue that there are more famous professional running photos. Chris Perry crossing the line ahead of Mick Guilieri in the 1982 Stawell Gift is a good example. Maybe even the picture of George McNeil crossing the finish line at Stawell is another. Both magnificent photos no doubt but none convey the meaning of professional athletics, quite like this photo.

For the winner, Les Williams, it was his 64th win on the professional running circuit, and his first in seven years.

Williams says he is about 6ft tall but I am sure he is giving himself an inch or two. He has to be 5ft 10 if anything.

He has a slight frame that is decorated with a few tattoos and there isn’t an ounce of fat on him.

An easy going guy he is always up for a chat and to use Aussie lingo, he is a ‘good bloke’.

A serious competitor on the track, he is a delight off it, and is known by everybody on the circuit.

His memory of the race itself was hazy but he clearly recalls the moments after his win.

“I didn’t really know what was going on but as soon as I hit the line people came from everywhere, it was amazing. It was an incredible race”.

“How good was the picture, I mean you have people in sixth spot throwing at the line, it was that competitive”, he said.

With a rugged earthy look and a tanned complexion, Williams has been running professionally since 1972.

16 years old at the time and with the grand old stager Charlie Booth by his side, he remembers his first race like it was yesterday.

“It was at Keilor funnily enough and Charlie entered me in the mile. I was a sprinter and I am not sure why I was in the mile. Everybody was in the showers when I came in, I was that far last”, he laughed.

“In those days, pro running was a long process and I got thrashed early on”.

“Charlie was the inventor of the starting blocks and the bloke who got me into pro running. He is really responsible for me being in the sport”.

Other than Charlie Booth, he was trained by the likes of John Bell, Fergie Speakman, John Hawke, Wally Meacham and Marteen Beer.

Now 60 years old and with 44 years of experience in his legs, he has some great memories of a sport that has been good to him.

He rates his win in the 400 metres at Stawell, his Zatopek mile win and his two Bendigo 400 wins, as career highlights.

“I was lucky with the blokes that trained me. I won 46 races with Wally and we won in events from the 70 metres through to the mile”.

Now a grandfather, he could be forgiven for sitting back and relaxing at his home overlooking 90 mile beach and reflecting on a great career. Those that know him know that this couldn’t be further from the truth.

“I love the sport, it has been my whole life and I can’t see myself changing”.

“Not many people get a chance to run in front of big crowds at Stawell and also in front of 80,000 people at the cricket”.

Once Williams starts talking about professional athletics, he gets on a roll and is tough to stop.

“In the 70s and 80s the sport was huge and every week you were running in front of big crowds. You not only had the Stawell Gift but there were races like the Dandy Dollar Dash which had prizemoney of $10,000 and a car”.

With far ranging opinions on the sport, he admits the modern day version is somewhat different to what it used to be.

“It is still very competitive but there isn’t as many runners or race meetings around these days and the prizemoney isn’t the same”.

“In the past pro running was always in the major papers, now it hardly gets any publicity”.

With a son that has also run in the ‘pros’, it appeared to be a real family affair.

Dismissing the thought, he laughed and said, “my son ran a bit but the last time my wife Debbie watched me run was in 1983, when I won the 400 at Stawell”.

A character on the professional running circuit, Les Williams doesn’t need a photo to underline his contribution to the sport, it was simply appropriate that someone like Les was in that race, and in front when the photo was taken.

Almost like a movie script, the photo tells a unique story about a sport and an athlete, both of whom should never be forgotten.

Image: Irene King

About David Griffin

Lover of coffee, sport and human endeavour. A writer and life enthusiast with a shameless admiration for dogged persistent people that get 'stuff' done.


  1. What an amazing story, David. Les is a wonder.
    And – in the photo – how about that guy on the far left?

  2. Thanks Smokie,
    Great to hear from you……Les is a champion no doubt.
    He also has a “heap” of other stories as well.
    Love the guy flying through the air! He was the backmarker. Great run.
    Thanks for your message..
    David G

  3. Kerrie Cross says

    This is a lovely article David. So well written. As you know, I am working with Les to tell his ‘story’. I trust that I can quote some of these evocative lines.

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