World champion marathon walker Tom Benson has died after a lengthy illness, aged 80.
Preston’s record-breaking “King of the Road,” who held at least six world endurance titles in the 1970s and 80s, passed away at home in Devon after what relatives described as “his toughest battle”.
Brother George said: “Tom was a fighter who would never give in and that’s how he remained to the end. His sheer strength just kept him going.” And wife Pat added: “He fought right to the end. That was just how he was.”
Ex-boxer Tom shot to fame in 1976 after smashing the world record by walking 309 miles non-stop. Over the next decade he conquered all before him, eventually cracking the 400-mile mark and raising a fortune for charity. All but one of his records have since been broken, although his feat of walking 234 miles without even a toilet break will never be bettered after the event was subsequently banned as “too dangerous.” Mayor Coun Veronica Afrin, said: “He was a fantastic fundraiser.”
Tom Benson was the original tough guy and the ex-soldier, boxer and world champion marathon walker’s indomitable spirit refused to be extinguished when doctors could do no more.
Even at 80 there was no surrender, say relatives. And it was so typical of a man who regularly crashed through the pain barrier on the way to a string of staggering endurance records.
“Everyone who knew Tom knew what a fighter he was,” said elder brother George. “He never gave up whatever the challenge. His strength just kept him going long after everyone else thought it was the end.”
Tom passed away this week at a hospital in Devon, after an illness lasting almost a year.
The foot-slogging hero from Preston, whose incredible catalogue of achievements prompted the city council to name a road after him, had lived in Exmouth with wife Pat since retirement.
“Tom was so proud of the records he set, and all the family were incredibly proud of him too,” said Pat who is recovering from a knee operation. “Sad to say most of the people who walked around Moor Park with him have gone too.”
Tom had the world at his feet in the seventies and eighties. During that time he set at least six global records, one of which will never be beaten. The 234 miles he completed round the Aintree Grand National course in 1978, without even a toilet break, was later abandoned by the Guinness Book of Records as “too dangerous”.
Each walk, each world record, was celebrated by his fellow Prestonians, who marvelled at the extreme endurance levels of the electricity meter reader from Ribbleton Avenue. Sometimes as many as 3,000 would turn out to cheer him on.
There were times, usually around the 200-mile mark, when Tom would hallucinate, one day admitting he saw fish swimming on the grass in Moor Park. But he would never give in, even when ankle or knee injuries made every lap an agonising ordeal.
“I think it went back to the days we were brought up by our dad who was a sergeant-major in the Army,” explained brother George. “It was like we were in the Army too.”
Tom “Anvil” Benson was born in Preston, and followed his father into the services and also into boxing – he won 196 fights and lost just 18. As a young Coldstream Guardsman he was wounded in an explosion during the Suez Crisis in Egypt and eventually left the Army.
Walking became his passion, and he was already a grandfather when he made his first attempt at a world record in 1976. The 309 miles he walked in 174 laps of Moor Park over five days and nights was ratified, only to be snatched from him later on a technicality.
More records followed, with Tom raising huge sums for charities as he plodded along. His ultimate effort was a 414.8-mile trek around Moor Park, his sixth world title.
Tragically Tom and Pat lost two daughters, Lesley and Karen, to cancer in the space of two years, a double blow which relatives admit floored the champion.
“To be honest, it knocked him sideways and his health just deteriorated,” explained Pat. “He just went downhill over the past year, and everything seemed to go wrong. But he still fought it, right to the very end.”
Tom’s funeral will be in Devon. Details will be released in the next few days.
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