Norm Charles Turns 80
A Milestone In Our Club’s History
By Keith Lofthouse, July 2011
In the beginning, Norm Charles and a bunch of his mates turned up for a run on a Saturday afternoon with a “couple of bob” in their pockets. They were little more than organised pack runs, but everyone would put two shillings down and off the 20 or 30 of them would charge, along Maribyrnong Road, past the old greyhound track to the creek, across a couple of paddocks, and winner take all.
In February, 1966 the nation converted to decimal currency. There was serious debate that, instead of a dollar, the English pound should be replaced by an “Austral”, but wiser heads realised we’d be laughed off the atlas with a currency that sounds like “a nostril.”
Norm remembers that awkward moment in our history at a time when he was about to embark on an historic journey of his own. Colour TV in Australia was still a decade away, the first episode of Star Trek went to air in grainy black and white, and Norm bought his first house in suburban Sunshine for $3100 pounds.
Later that year, Norm, then a 35-year-old bricklayer, laid the foundations for his iconic race when he bought the biggest trophy he could find at Dunklings, the jewellers, dug deep into his pockets to find $80 in prize money and was rewarded when a field of 70 hopefuls lined-up for the Norm Charles Cup, as our club’s showcase race was first known.
“It was a straight six-miler, out and back at Sunshine, and there were no hills.”
The first race was won by policeman Kevin “Crusher” Webb, who also found fame as a professional wrestler and since then the Norm Charles has been won by a licorice allsorts of athletes – the finest, the fairest and the fickle.
It has always been this mixed bag of runners of all ages and abilities, the keen and the desperate, and the aura of anticipation, expectation and intrigue that comes with the race that makes it so great.
In 1988, Norm paid for a busload of runners to come from Ararat. “On board was a 17-year-old named Andrew Bristow who was a school-boy champion. But the handicappers didn’t know that and he won the $1000 cash. Tony Rendina ran second, and has never gotten over it.”
In his youth, Norm was a more than handy footballer. He captained the Waratahs Under 17s in which the legendary Ted Whitten played full-forward, and he eventually played five VFL games with the Footscray Bulldogs, booting eight goals, to be part of their history as well.
Norm’s beginnings as an athlete were more humble. At age 15 in 1947, at a starting wage of 19 shillings, or $1.90 a week, Norm began his working life as an apprentice French polisher at the Myer furniture factory at Flemington. Once a year, the social club organised a 400 metres foot race around the local oval and Norm was somewhat crestfallen in that first year when he finished second behind Tom Allen, a Richmond footballer who was notable for kicking 13 points in his first ever league game…and then being booted out of the side.
It was that seemingly insignificant social scratch race that ignited Norm’s competitive juices. Determined to make amends for the defeat, he knuckled down to serious training. He rode his bike furiously to Footscray Park where he would dash over 600 metres at fast as he could, and then pedal the three kilometres home.
On that rigid but unorthodox training regimen, Norm donkey-licked the chasers in that rough and ready race for the next three years. Norm suddenly had “form” and the talent vultures began to circle.
The kid had untapped potential and he was all ears when a workmate, “a mad punter”, told him that they could both “make a killing” if he trained for the Stawell Gift. Now Norm has always fancied a bet, and when 18-year-old Norm joined the Victorian Athletic League in 1949 the seeds were sown for a gigantic coup at the iconic carnival some-day in the future. “In those days the VAL ran races every Tuesday night around the old dog track in Maribyrnong Road,” Norm recalled. “Vin Cousins, an outstanding amateur, would clock 1.58 for a half mile peg to peg and had a 14 race winning streak. But I knew he never had a hope of winning at Stawell because he’d be stuck with an impossible handicap.”
Keen to be the best he possibly could be, Norm joined Herb Elliott’s celebrated coach Percy Cerutty at his Portsea training camp. “I spent four weeks over three Christmases there. It was hard slog training, mostly around this sandy, purpose-built circuit. I ran 200 laps one Christmas and felt so young and fit at the end of it that I thought I was Superman.”
Most mornings at the camp, Cerutty’s troops would trudge down to the beach where the coach, who was “as skinny as a rabbit” and had a reputation for eccentricity, would begin the day with a lecture.
“Percy was all about hard training, setting goals and enforcing will power. He would drum it into you that there was no such thing as ‘no’, and you could do anything you set your mind to.”
Back in the real world, Norm trained at his old Footscray stamping ground with Williamstown runner Dave Stephens, who became known as “the Flying Milko.” Stephens, who at one time held a world record for six miles (27.54 minutes) had travelled to Europe to train with Emil Zatopek and had become a milkman to help improve his running. “I was his training horse”, Norm said, “but I followed his lead and for about a year I worked on a bread cart to boost my strength and stamina.”
No challenge was too great a challenge for Super Norm. When he was coaching South Gippsland side Kurrumburra in the mid 50s, a local masochist thought it would be a good idea to have a wheelbarrow race…pushing a wheelbarrow from Kurrumburra to Poowong - a distance of 19 miles!
Norm prepared for the race in the off season, pushing a wheelbarrow for seven miles up Flemington Road to the notorious Moonee Ponds Junction where an obliging policeman would always stop the busy five-way traffic, to allow Norm to push through.
For three months Norm underwent this self-inflicted torture preparing for a race that had only the prize of satisfaction at the end.
But Norm didn’t quite get there.
“I was a mile in front but collapsed in a heap with only mile to go,” Norm said, still with a snort of annoyance, a half century later. “That was the start of my heart problems. I now have a heart that only pumps on one side.”
A dicky ticker, however, was never going to stop him. Before the wheelbarrow incident, Norm had recorded an unofficial 45.32 minutes for nine miles (14.4 kilometres) and it was then he felt ready for a crack at Stawell.
The first of his 56 races there came in 1951.
He was a young man with a shrewd head and, thinking back to Vin Cousins, wasn’t about to show anyone all that he could do.
“I kept running dead because I was afraid of losing my handicap spot, but I thought I could win at Stawell in 1955 when I entered the mile and was given 140 yards. I had 400 pound ($800) on myself at 12-1 and could have bought a house with the winnings.”
The problem was that Norm had applied the hand brake so often in his races that he wasn’t race-hardened and didn’t know how to win!
“I gave this bloke from New South Wales about 50 metres start at the bell, and picked him up too quickly,” Norm recalled.
“I hit the lead at the 100 metres, but he came back at me and we went neck and neck to the line. I went under by about six inches in a time of 4.01 minutes.”
“After that I ran dead for five years, because the bookies had me 6-4 favourite every time. But I learnt that it doesn’t pay to run dead. Cheating like that ruined my running career. One year I had myself set to win and I came down with flu and another year I was stopped in my tracks after standing on a three inch nail.”
Still, he was made an Honorary Member of the Stawell Athletic Club in 1982 and to this day still competes in the Veterans 100 metres – off 25 metres – “just to make up the numbers.”
Norm ran with the Victorian Cross Country League, the club he has supported so magnificently, for 55 years. He shared an Aggregate win with former Secretary and Handicapper, Brian Short. He estimates to have won “half a dozen” races with the club; his last at Jells Park in August 1993. His last run with the club was at Murchison in 2005. “But the heart was playing up, so I walked for most of it.”
He should have added the Murchison race to his parcel of scalps one year, when at the Caravan Park, a tantalisingly short distance from the finish on the footy oval, he had a lead big enough to win the Melbourne Cup.
“When I got to the caravans a camper who seemed to be taking an interest in the race said to me ‘go that way’ and pointed towards a paddock. So I ran in that direction only to be stopped by a boundary fence. Well, by the time I got through that fence and then through the fence on the other side, I’d blown any chance I had of winning.”
Perhaps the scariest race on the original syllabus was a six miler that stretched down North Road from Murrumbeena to the Nepean Highway and back. There are at least 24 sets of traffic lights along that route but no one would stop; no one would slow down.
It was a race that gave new meaning to the term “run for your life.”
Norm, as tough and resilient an octogenarian as they come, would still be running with the VCCL today if his heart would let him. But he still walks and jogs seven laps of the local footy ground, pumps weights - and pushes wheelbarrows, when required, at Norm Charles Underpinning – “the best in the business for over 46 years.”
Norm’s 50th “Norm Charles Cup” is just four years away. Let us reflect for a moment on how much poorer this club would be without Norm’s benevolence – prize-money by the barrow load, raffle tickets by the bucket load, sashes and trophies galore. He supports the Murchison bus and he’d be the first to get out and push it, if it ever dared to stall. Norm doesn’t like to talk about the money, but we reckon his largesse has amounted to well over $100,000, and rising. “I don’t care about the money,” he says. “It makes me feel good.”
In return all he wants at the end of any race is his ritual warm cup of tea and honey because that makes him feel good too.
“I never thought that my race would be going as long as it has,” Norm says in that laconic way of his. “I don’t know if the club will want to make a big deal of the 50th…but I might.”
Happy Birthday -and many more of them- Norm!