Hampshire Runner

He Pants in Hants

Camp

Years ago, when runners actually worked for a living, they had to fit training around the day-job.  Sydney Wooderson, world mile record holder in the 30s and 40s, would come home from work as a solicitor, and then travel on to a south London track – Motspur Park or Tooting Bec – and perform time trials.  One day he’d do a three-mile jog, then a fast 660-yard trial.  Another day, he’d do a mile slowly, then a three-quarter mile test.

Of course, most runners – club runners, charity runners, runners who run to keep fit, joggers – still have to fit their exercise around what pays the bills, but the advent of the professional runner has led to another phenomenon – the training camp.

A professional athlete’s year is punctuated by spells, usually abroad, sometimes at altitude, putting in intense preparation for their competitions.  Reports of Mo Farah’s training in Iten, Kenya, or Paula Radcliffe’s in Font Romeu, make us scrubbers envious of the time to focus solely on running.

Nothing to do but sleep, run and eat, and sleep, run and eat.  Doesn’t that sound great?!

John Ngugi, the Kenyan Olympic 5,000 metres champion from 1988, was famous for turning up at the Kenyan team’s training camp in really poor shape, and then flogging himself to catch up.  The Kenyans trained three times a day, but Ngugi took that further by substituting their easy half-hour in the morning for a 13-mile run.  And, of course, he would complete the other two sessions each day with the team.

Boxers are famous for their training camps, usually revolving around conditioning in the early morning, and then more boxing-orientated training later on.  Most will do ‘roadwork’ – i.e. running – upon rising, then exercises, and finally possibly a dip. In the winter months, John Conteh used to break the ice on the Highgate ponds to get his swim in.  Marvin Hagler used to run the last part of his roadwork backwards: he didn’t like retreating in the ring, but if he had to, he said, he wanted to be ready.

Many boxers’ camps then feature press conferences in the mid-morning to keep the fighter focused on the task ahead.  In the late afternoon, they hit the gym for sparring, skipping and other fitness routines, usually in three-minute bursts to simulate the rhythm of the fight itself.

The other use of the boxers’ training camps is to keep them away from the opposite sex, a boxing trainer’s fixation memorably summed up by Rocky Balboa’s, Mickey, in the maxim: “Women weaken legs.”

Training camps – in a more restricted form (probably less sparring, possibly more sex) – are open to us lot too.  Other responsibilities permitting, you can turn holidays into camps.  When I was at university in Bristol, the Cross-Country team would congregate early for the spring term and drive down to Merthyr Mawr in south Wales, which features the highest sand dunes in Europe.  There, we would run three times a day for 3-4 days, maybe a relaxed hour morning and evening, with a more testing pre-lunch session on the dunes.

This might consist of a simple time trail round a circuit of sand.  It might include a two-man relay up and down the Big Dipper (you can imagine!)  It might be anything that really, really hurt.

Dunes help you breathe less easily.

In later years, when I was race walking, I went and stayed with my Aunt in Swansea.  The entire time was training-orientated.  Get up, cup of tea, walk between two and four hours in the morning, have a bath, breakfast and go back to bed, to rise in the late afternoon to do a fast hour’s speed session.  Two weeks later, I set a personal best of 4:39:18 for the 50km walk, and four days after that, a personal best of 13:52 for the 3,000 metres walk.

Training for the Quadrathon (2-mile swim, 50km walk, 100-mile cycle, marathon run), I stayed with my great friend, Rod Lock, in Southampton.  Days would be 4-hour walk in the morning, and an hour’s hard hill running in the afternoon.  Or a swim session first thing, and a 100-mile cycle out into the New Forest for the rest of the day.

Camps though can backfire, especially when they involve altitude training.  Ron Hill and Paul Nihill were favourites for the Olympic marathon and 20km walk respectively in 1972.  They both came sixth, and blamed mistiming their descent from altitude for their relatively poor performances.  Even Sebastian Coe, who got most things right in his running career, seemed to do the same before the British Olympic trials in 1988.  He was reigning 1,500 metres champion from Los Angeles four years before, but would not be in Seoul to defend his title, finishing out of the selection positions in his national championships at Crystal Palace.

Training camps are generally positive experiences, though.  With no other physical stresses, more sleep than usual, the right food, and total mental focus, the runner can push his or her body further.  Of course, we are all human, and even training camps need to acknowledge that fact, and build in rest periods, easier days, lighter sessions and alternative exercise.

But most of it is hard work: as Mo Farah himself admitted after running the last 400 in 52.81 to clinch his final Olympic gold in Rio, “I run 49 seconds for 400 metres in training.  That is the type of training I have do to be the best in the world.  That is the reality.  There is no other way to win.”

Those 49-second 400s were sometimes carried out at the end of a 20-mile run at altitude!

Beginnings

It was all Pele’s fault.  Well him and Jairzinho and Gerson and Tostao and Rivellino and Carlos Alberto and all the rest of the great Brazil World Cup winning side of 1970.

You see – I was 12 and I was football-mad.  I just about remembered the previous World Cup, and the 1970 England side were supposed to be even better than the 1966 winning team.  But we were beaten 3-2 by West Germany in the quarter finals; they then lost 4-3 to Italy in the semis; and then the Italians lost 4-1 to Brazil in the final.

The whole tournament was amazing, but Pele was its star – shooting  from his own half, selling Mazurkiewicz, the Uruguay goalkeeper, an outrageous dummy on the edge of the penalty area, bringing THAT save out of Gordon Banks in the group match, laying off the pass for Carlos Alberto to score in the final.

I loved it.  Trouble was, a couple of months later, when the English football season resumed, West Brom versus Millwall just didn’t cut it.  What an anti-climax.  Pele had spoilt it all for me.  Football would never mean as much again.

Into this void of sports fandom rushed athletics.  Dave Bedford was setting records; David Hemery, Olympic 400 metres hurdles champion in 1968, was still running; people like Brendan Foster and Alan Pascoe were emerging; and on the evening of 10th August 1971, my life changed forever.

I was staying with my grandmother in south Wales, and was watching television, when the European Athletics Championships came on.  The men’s 10,000 metres was the first event.

The championships were held in Helsinki, in front of a Finnish crowd who were mad about distance running but who had not had a champion since the days of Paavo Nurmi in the 1920s.  Dave Bedford had been setting European records, and whilst he could obviously run very fast, he did not have much of a sprint finish.  The whole thing was set up for a classic race.

I watched mesmerised, as Bedford led for lap after lap, but could not shake the other runners, who, to the delirium of the crowd, included a Finn.  With 300 metres to go, that man, Juha Vaatainen of Finland together with Jurgen Haase, the defending champion from East Germany, burst past Bedford and sprinted away.

It looked like they were running a 100 metres race.  It was otherworldly.  It was like nothing I had ever seen before – in any sport.

In the end, Vaatainen prevailed by a yard, and the crowd went even wilder than they had been before.

I did not know what to do.  I just sat there.

Then I did the only thing that made any sense.  I went outside and ran up and down the long, steep hill on which my grandmother lived.

You see, I was just trying to connect with those athletes, to be part of their world of athleticism and pain.  I was desperate to join in the same activity – and although obviously nowhere near as fast – like them, I was running, and, like them, I was trying to run as fast as possible when tired.

After running up and down that hill a few times, I felt that the gap between them and me, which had been vast at the beginning, was a little narrower.

And I guess I’ve been trying to close it, inch by inch, mile by mile, ever since.

 

Nutters

Well, by now, you probably think I’m a nutter.  But let’s just assess the competition, shall we?

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Neil Black, the Performance Director of UK Athletics, was once a physiotherapist, whom I went to see in 2000 when my leg went annoyingly numb after the first 200 yards of any run.  We were chatting, as you do, about runners and running, and Neil said that his colleague had a theory about his running clients.

“50% of the people who come in here,” he said, “are serious athletes who want to adopt an aggressive approach to injury rehabilitation.”

“Yes.”

“30% would get better on their own.”

“Yes, and the other 20%?” I asked.

“The other 20%, Steve, are nutters.”

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Emil Zatopek was a nutter.  It’s not just that he won 4 Olympic gold medals, and is still only man ever to win the 5,000 metres, 10,000 metres and marathon in a single games (Helsinki 1952).  It’s more the training that got him there – the track sessions of 60×400 metres for days on end, running with his wife on his back, running in place on the laundry in the bath when his wife insisted he help with household chores, holding his breath while on sentry duty during national service – and holding it till he blacked out.  (How much discipline does THAT take?)  He was once described as being in body more machine than man, and in spirit more boy than man.  I think that’s about right.

Dave Bedford certainly did nutty things.  On 7th February 1970, while still a junior, the man who would set a world 10,000 metres record three years later, won the Southern Senior and Junior Cross-Country Championships on the same afternoon.  He had about 20 minutes’ rest between the races, winning the senior by 55 seconds and the junior by 61 seconds.  An idea like that would only occur to a certain kind of person.

Geraint Thomas, winner of the Tour de France in 2018, talks about training rides where he doesn’t eat any carbs before going out on his bike for three hours: “You are grumpy because you are so hungry but it trains the body in a particular way.

“But sometimes I like to test myself.  Instead of going three hours, I will go four.  Or five.  Sometimes I go six hours.  I am not even sure if that is good for you.  But it is about proving something to myself.”

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Mark Pickard held the UK 24-hour running record for a time, and won the London to Brighton.  I remember him for his almost insane need to finish every race.  He only ever dropped out of one.

He had run the Hog’s Back 10 on the Saturday, and then travelled down to Wales to run the Newport to Tredegar 22 miles the next day.  He hadn’t eaten anything before the 10, and very little after, arriving at his Youth Hostel to find no food.

The next morning, he could not find public transport to the race headquarters, so jogged fully clothed most of the way to Newport.  He was by this time very cold and tired.  It was 16th December 1979.  Wearing a mesh vest, he felt cold pretty soon after the start of the race, which commences at sea level and climbs several hundred feet into the Welsh mountains.  Eventually, he fell and knocked himself out.

He was taken to hospital, where the food was ‘pitiful’ and he spent one night.  When he found that they wanted to keep him in longer, he discharged himself, bought a huge portion of fish and chips, travelled home……… and went out for a run, because, by that time, he “felt OK.”

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Graeme Obree was a world champion cyclist in the 1990s, famous for designing and constructing his own bikes out of washing machine spares and bits of old lawnmowers.

The hour record (circling a velodrome for an hour to post the greatest distance you can), alongside winning the Tour de France, is perhaps the most prestigious achievement in cycling, and Obree set out to do it one day in July 1993.  He failed, but immediately after finishing, he had a revelation.  Instead of using his new bike, if he could just use his Old Faithful (washing machine parts), he reckoned he could do it.

Now, the window of opportunity was small, because the track and the correct officials would only be available for a matter of hours.  He asked if he could try again the next day!

That night, he drank loads of water, so that he would wake up naturally every hour or so, when he would urinate, crucially stretch his leg muscles, and go back to sleep.

Now, to have the mental and emotional energy to ‘go to the well,’ to dig that deep, less than 24 hours later – let alone, to recover physically – is something that even the cycling journalists of the time could not fathom.

But early the next morning, he got on Old Faithful, and sure enough set a world hour record.

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Don Ritchie was not a nutter, but he was the greatest ultra-distance runner of all time.  Among many, many great races, in 1978, he ran 100km on a track in 6 hours 10 minutes and 20 seconds.  It was a world record that has never been beaten, and it equates to just faster than 6-minute miles all the way!

What fascinated me was his build-up to the race, which took place on a Saturday.  Until Wednesday, he was still running 14 miles to work and 14 miles home at night.  On the Thursday, he just ran to work, and on Friday, he rested.

I had the privilege of sharing road and track with Don many times, and I got to know him a little.  I once asked this modest man why he ran so much so close to such an important race.  “I may have benefitted from a different tapering strategy,” he said, “but three days seemed to be appropriate for me then.”

For anybody else, that would be nutty, but for a man who was used to churning out 28 miles day in, day out, 14 was an absolute holiday.  Don’t try this at home.

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You will have noticed that I have included cyclists here as well as runners.  It’s true – even amongst the addictive excesses of endurance athletes, cyclists are known for their nuttiness.  I am sure they won’t mind me saying this.  Well, they probably will, being nutters.  But the 70 mph descents, the agonising mountain climbing and the peculiar demands of multi-stage races put even an ultra-runner’s pain in the shade.

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Am I a nutter?  I can only look back in agony.

When I was race walking, I would go out for 4 hours every Sunday morning.  One week, I could not face it.  I walked a mile down the road and turned round and walked back.

I chastised myself all the week.  The next Sunday, I went out as usual, but I had a cunning plan: I sprinted the third hour.  That made the last 60 minutes somewhat painful, but obviously I had to make up for the transgressions of seven days earlier somehow.

One weekend, I competed in the National 100km walk championships on the Saturday, finishing 9th but 3rd team.  I travelled back from Essex to south London.  Two running friends came to stay that night, and the next morning we went for a run.  At lunchtime, I ran in the Sunday Times Fun Run in Hyde Park, before catching the coach down to South Wales to stay with my aunt, where I ran along the front before dinner.

When training for the 24 hours, I once ran over 50 miles on each of the three days of a Bank Holiday weekend.

I also remember deciding that I needed practice running when I was tired, so one weekday morning, I got up at about 2:30am, ran a marathon distance, showered and went back to bed for an hour, before rising again to do a day’s work.

When training for the Quadrathon (2-mile ocean swim, 50km race walk, 100-mile cycle, marathon run), my typical training day would consist of a run of up to 20 miles from home (Croydon)to work (central London.)  At lunchtime, I would race walk a few miles to the local pool, swim a mile, and walk back.  Then at night I would cycle home via a circuitous route that occasionally included Brands Hatch, where most of the cycle leg would be taking place.

Needless to say, this lifestyle choice involved careful logistical planning, which only occasionally went wrong, necessitating the re-wearing of yesterday’s shirt, the borrowing of somebody else’s towel, or wearing running shorts under my suit trousers.

The Quadrathon probably boasted the largest ever collection of nutters in one place.  It included the Crane brothers, who had just run from one end of the Himalayas to the other, various world record holders at obscurely long distances, Boy George’s brother, the bloke who held the Guinness World Record for carrying a hundredweight of coal for an entire marathon, and me.

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Of course I’m a nutter.

First

Lying on the grassy outfield, I tried not to think about the next 24 hours.

If I really did want to represent Great Britain, then the European 24-hour Championships was my only realistic hope.  I had long realised that I was too slow to qualify at any shorter distance, and this ultramarathon – the last resort of the untalented trier – was what I was left with.

I was lying by the track in Humberside on 16th July 1994 with half an hour to go before the 24-hour race started.  I was in good form, having won a surprise bronze medal at the National 100km championships the previous month.  I had run 134 miles in 24 hours in 1987, and I knew I needed a bit more than that to catch the eye of the GB selectors.

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My wife and I had travelled round the world 1991-92, and the time to think made me focus on what I really wanted from my running life.  I realised that a GB vest might just be within my reach if I trained hard and performed well.

So I entered the National 100km in 1993 and a 24-hour race late that year.  I did ok, but 1994 was the year I really had to deliver.

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And so I set off on the endless task of going nowhere, round and round the 400-metre track.  Hours came and went; tiredness came and didn’t go.  Darkness fell and the stadium clubhouse hosted a disco.  I think every runner did the actions to ‘YMCA’ just to relieve the tedium!

Now the prerace favourite had been Paul Bream, who had run over 150 miles in a race in Germany.  Here, he reached 100 miles in the lead, with me in second, and then encountered some problem or other, and retired to his tent.

I could just see his socks poking out of the flaps.  I of course hoped he would not reappear, so I made sure that I ran, not walked, past his tent on the next dozen laps – to convince him of the futility of rejoining the fray.

Well, I don’t know whether those dirty, underhand tactics were the cause, but he did not re-emerge, and I soon took the lead.

I passed 100 miles in a personal best (PB) of 16:43:13 – 16:40 is 10-minute miles – and 200km in another PB of 21:33:20.  But I was suffering.

During the last few hours, I found it hard to run at all.  I was something like 18 miles in the lead and sure to win.  But I was going to miss my 134-mile PB by about a mile.  There was nothing I could do.  I had nothing left.

And then, with 25 minutes to go, “Come on, Steve, you can do this.”

It was my wife, and – as always! – she was right.

Somehow, I started running 8-minute miles, adding a precious lap every two minutes or so until the gun released me from my agony.

I had added a vital mile to my PB, running well over 135 miles.

It was a performance that led to my being invited to join the GB Ultra Squad in 1995, and then winning that long-sought-after British vest a year later.

My wife drove me back to Hampshire.  It was the night of the football World Cup final, but I found it hard to concentrate or even stay awake.

I had been to hell and back – well, Hull and back – but, in the long run, it was worth it.

Last

Lying on the grassy infield in lactic acid agony, having finished last in my School Sports Day 1,500 metres, I realised my Olympic dream might be over.

You see, I loved running, and I was desperate to be good at it.  Inspired by David Bedford, who had led for 24 of the 25 laps of the 1971 European 10,000 metres, and by Juha Vaatainen of Finland who, running the last 400 metres in 53 seconds in front of an ecstatic Helsinki crowd, had led for the 25th, I was determined to be a great runner like them.

I would go out at night and run round our garden.  I reckoned it was about 30 laps to a mile, avoiding the washing line, zigzagging across the patio and ducking under the trees, and I calculated I was getting very close to 4 minutes.

Go on like this, I thought, and it would be at least one gold medal, maybe two, later that year at the Munich Olympics.

It was 1972.  I was 14 years old.

So the Sports Day 1,500 came as a bit of a shock.

How could I try so hard, and come up so short?  How could I train so much, and achieve so little?

I had to reassess.  I kept on running, and the next year, I was second instead of last.  I tried decathlon.  I tried race walking.  I tried anything to find an athletics event I’d be good at.

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Of course, I was not alone in finding early success elusive.

Paula Radcliffe was 299th in her first national championships.

Geraint Thomas, who’s done all right recently, apparently came last in his first cycle race.

Charlie Spedding, who won the London Marathon gold and Olympic marathon bronze in 1984, even called his autobiography, “From Last to First.”

Mamo Wolde, who won the Olympic marathon gold in 1968, took years to find his true event, competing in the 1,500 and 4×400 relay(!) in his first Olympics for Ethiopia.

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But my talents were far more deeply buried than even any of these.

I ploughed on at university, coming near the back of the field in every cross-country race.  I remember being out of sight of any runner in one wintry competition, and slipping over on the ice.  I lay there for what seemed like ages, trying to find my glasses in the snow, assuming I was last.  I wasn’t.  There was a runner behind me and his name was Winterbottom, although it was my glutes that had been in close proximity to the seasonal freeze.

I remember when I took up race walking after university, I vowed that, if I ever came last in a race, I’d give up.  A couple of weeks later, a 3,000 metres race at Crystal Palace produced a classier field than I had anticipated.  Still, I was comfortably ahead of the only man behind me with a lap to go …. until he produced a sprint finish I could not match.  My PB was no consolation.

But gradually things improved.  It’s amazing what running 120 miles a week can do.

My times plummeted, and my results soared.  I even won a few local races.

But it wasn’t until I turned my attention to ultra-distance running that things really took off, and national medals and a call-up to the British team followed.

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Now, I am not saying that everyone can go from last to first, but as long as you ‘last’ at something, you won’t be last in the end.

I haven’t made an Olympic team or won the Tour de France (yet), but at least I’ve carried on running long enough to have outlasted my last place.

And you can too.

Extract

 

Sometimes in winter, when I am walking my dog across the frozen fields, I will get really cold and start to feel sorry for myself.  Then I remember Stalingrad – I wasn’t there, you understand, but Antony Beevor’s book of that name evokes the suffering of both sides so vividly that you almost believe that you are indeed out there on the Russian steppe.  In arctic conditions, the Soviets kept German POWs in simple rings of wire – no huts, no tents, no shelter, and little winter clothing.  Beevor says that at night they had to stand together in threes or fours, with a blanket over their heads to keep their warm breath in, trying to sleep, “like horses.”

And so then I think, out there in the field, no, this is not really cold.

On Wednesday, I had a tooth extracted.  I was in the dentist’s chair for an hour and a half as she pulled and wrenched and drilled and levered.  It was worse when the anaesthetic wore off.

Thursday morning is breakfast networking, and I have challenged myself to run before it every week for quite a while.  In fact LAST week was my 99th consecutive run before BNI.  So, obviously, you know me well enough by now to know that I could not stop at that number.

I felt sorry for myself when I got up at 4:45; I felt sorry for myself when I went outside with Roni; and I felt sorry for myself when I started the painful process of actually running.

But then I thought of my friend, Guy.

Immediately I extracted myself from my little world of woe and tried to inhabit the world of a man with terminal prostate cancer who is in constant and intense physical pain – exacerbated by the mental anguish of not knowing how long he will be there for his family, and if he will see his daughter graduate.  And yet here is a man, who, if you met him, would come across as the most positive, engaging, sociable and happy person in the world.

He is the bravest person I have ever met………… with the possible exception of my mum, who refused injections when having a filling: “I’d much rather have a bit of discomfort for a few minutes than that awful numb feeling for hours afterwards.”

My mum had Parkinson’s Disease for the last 30 or so years of her life, and in one meeting with her consultant, she said:

“Oh well, there’s lots of people worse off than me.”

“Yes,” he replied, “but that doesn’t help you now, does it, my dear?”

She thought that was wonderful, and, I guess, in the circumstances, it was, but considering once again my weak and woebegone self – cold in a wintry field, sore post-extraction – it is sometimes instructive to extract oneself from one’s immediate woes and consider, for a moment, the wider context of all human bravery and endurance.

Hard

Horace Ashenfelter, a 3000-metre steeplechaser and full-time FBI agent, had to train for his event at odd times.  This included running up and down the stairs in his office block during quiet periods, and hurdling benches in his local park late at night, for half an hour at a time.  He reckoned that anything that was hard was good training for an event as merciless as the steeplechase, and he won Olympic gold in 1952.

David Hemery, Olympic champion in the 400 metre hurdles in 1968 in a world record of 48.12, was urged by his coach to turn up for pre-season training in a reasonably fit state.  Hemery devised a routine of 50 press-ups, then 50 sit-ups, and finally a 800 metre stride-out……. which he eventually repeated 20 times, for a 1000 press-up, 1000 sit-up, 10-mile run session!  And this was pre- pre-season training, remember.  His actual pre-season training included up to 23 miles of running a day – and this for someone whose event lasted less than 50 seconds.  “For me, the hardest way is the best way,” he said.

The history of running is of course littered with athletes being hard on themselves.  Jim Ryun, the American who ran a sub-four minute mile in high school, frequently ran 40×400 metres – and performed weight-training in the intervals between the efforts!

But Daley Thompson, in a recent interview, opined that today’s athletes weren’t as hard as those of his generation.  He gave the example of Dave Ottley, an Olympic silver medallist in the javelin, who trained under Thompson’s coach for a period in the 80s, and who once complained about his sore stomach muscles.  His coach asked why his stomach was sore, and Ottley said it was ‘all those sit-ups’ that the coach was making him do.  The coach had written, “Do 4-6×20 sit-ups,” (daily).  Ottley had read it as, do 46×20 sit-ups!  “The point is,” said Thompson, “he did them without question.”

And talking of athletes being obedient to their coaches………  A few years ago, I was advising a runner who wanted to mark her 50th birthday by running 50 miles over one weekend.  We devised a training programme and a route, and she set to.  Injuries and other commitments intervened to make it a less than perfect build-up, and two weeks before the scheduled ultra-run, she emailed me to say that she had lost so much training (and confidence) that she was going to do 50km instead.

I thought about it and then replied along the lines of, “You can do 50km if you like but you will regret it afterwards ………. This is not about it being manageable or easy to do, or anything like that – it is precisely because it is difficult to do that you are doing it, and why we run marathons and test ourselves anyway.  I repeat, it is because it is difficult that you are doing it, and why you wanted to run 50 miles in the first place.”

And then the clincher, “And because I will shout at you if you don’t do it.”  (I know my athletes!!)

The lady in question said that, once she had received that email, she simply decided that she could do it – and did it.

As one experienced fell runner said to a newbie, “Anyone can be fit.  It’s being hard, that’s hard.”

 

Running: coaches aren’t like buses – not many of the right ones come along at once

Almost every runner wants to improve, and one of the most effective things you can do to bring about improvement is to get a coach. A coach can provide the experience, the guidance, the inspiration and the sheer accountability that can propel you to the next level.

But coaches are not like London buses – you don’t get many of the right ones coming along at once. So what should you look for in a coach?

Communication: there should be regular communication – and you should be happy not only with its regularity, but also with its quality and two-way nature. It should start with an in-depth conversation about where you are, where you want to get to, what training you are doing and have done in the past, what aspects of your lifestyle affect training volume and intensity, and so on. It should then move forward into a planning phase, a testing-it-out-to-see-if-it-works phase, and then an ongoing exchange of views. I give my athletes a schedule for 8-16 weeks; they email me every Sunday night with feedback on how it has all gone; and we talk if things need changing. Interestingly, Peter Coe always referred to Sebastian as, ‘my athlete,’ not, ‘my son,’ in a coaching context, to ensure that the communication took place on the right level of respect.

One size does not fit all: if your prospective coach turns up at your first meeting and announces, “Here is your 16-week marathon plan,” run! Don’t run the bloody schedule; run away, I mean. Every training plan has to be as different as the individual capabilities, experiences, lifestyles and goals of its subjects. I didn’t give the National 100km champion the same schedule as the 40-year-old mum just starting out on her 5km journey, for instance. Coe and Ovett were superbly well-matched athletes, swapping the world mile record by tenths of seconds in 1979-81, but their training was very different: Peter Coe’s schedule for his son was a track- and gym-based focus on speed, speed, speed; Harry Wilson’s plan for Ovett was more endurance based, with Ovett not being scared to race the odd half marathon and eventually taking Commonwealth 5,000 gold. Your training plan should be the product of probably several lengthy conversations and trial periods.

Achievement: your coach should ideally have achieved a decent level of success in running themselves in order to deliver advice, instructions, schedules and pep-talks in a way that is credible to their athlete(s). It is difficult to commit to your coach’s “17-mile tempo run, with the last 5 all-out,” when you know they’ve never done it themselves. Think what you like about Alberto Salazar, but he has run the 150-mile weeks, won the big city marathons and set the world record (New York, 1981, later found to be a marginally short course) that mean he has certainly been there, done that. So, when he tells Galen Rupp to do mile repeats an hour after a marathon…………..

Cut to the core: a coach with that sort of experience will have confidence – and thus the ability to tell it like it is. Sometimes a coach has to talk pretty straight to an athlete. I remember coaching a national level 100km runner some years ago. He was good; he was very good – he had won national medals; but he just could not break through to the next level. I looked at his schedule. It was obvious: he was doing too much. He was not giving himself the easier days, the days that would allow him to run the harder days at the level he needed to, to move on. He took my advice, and six months later he won the UK 100km championships and set a personal best.

Heart: a coach has to have a passion for running, but so does the athlete. The athlete has to have dreams – and the dedication to do the things necessary to put those dreams within reach. Every athlete will miss sessions, or have to tone the schedule down at times, but the coach is going to get pretty pissed off if this is happening regularly. If the coach is racking their brains to define the best schedule, and standing by the track in all weathers, and thinking forensically about results – and the athlete’s dedication does not match that commitment, then the relationship is going to be pretty short-lived. Herb Elliott, the unbeaten Australian miler, coached by Percy Cerutty, was struggling with motivation at one point. Cerutty took Elliott to the track and proceeded to run a mile all-out himself, collapsing at the end in a terrible state. “You’ll run faster miles,” he told Elliott, “but you’ll never put more effort into one.” After that, Herb’s motivation was not an issue.

I coach athletes – some are old, some young, some fast, some slow, some I coach formally, some informally, some face-to-face, some remotely. What they share is that passion to improve. I guess if you don’t have that passion, I don’t want to work with you. I would almost go so far as to say that, if you read the blogs on this site and you’re not inspired by at least most of them, then we’re probably not right for each other.

If that sounds harsh, OK. If you say, “Right on!” to it – and you want to improve your running – then maybe we should talk.

still@hgrmarketing.co.uk

Getting the word out

When I started school at 5 years old, I almost immediately developed quite a bad stutter.  Teachers would ask me questions and I wouldn’t be able to get the answers out; I would stutter and stammer, and tears of frustration would follow and flow.  In time, the teachers learnt to wait for me or, worse, stopped asking me questions at all.

(This is not about running, you say.  Give me time, I say, it will be relevant.  I will get the words out eventually!)

No one knew quite why I had developed this problem.  One theory was that the nurse giving me the mandatory school medical had held me down when I squirmed too much during the ear examination.  I went to speech therapists, who were kind but ineffective.

Every new year and every new teacher would present a new challenge as they did not know my situation (why had no one briefed them?), and I would have to take each of them through the whole excruciating induction course to my stutter……..

New teacher: “What’s the Latin for lion, Till?”

Me: stuttering peters out into silence.

Teacher: “You were supposed to learn this for homework, Till.”

John Grenville, the class tough guy: “Scuse me, Sir, Till probably knows the answer, but he sometimes has trouble with his words.”

Teacher: mumbled apology

An only child, I was isolated even more by this difficulty, but I forced myself to challenge it by doing things like entering verse speaking competitions – I even won one or two.  Sometimes, the words would flow out, and sometimes they were dammed.

I became School Captain, but Speech Day was a challenge too far.  At the practice of my speech in front of the headmaster and staff, I stuttered and stumbled my way through the few lines given me to deliver.  They asked me if I would like the Head Girl to make to speech instead.  Significantly, I asked to phone my mother, thinking I would be letting my parents down terribly by dodging this responsibility and this honour.

Even more significantly, I was surprised when she immediately urged me not to do the speech.  My parents so rarely let me off – or, rather, so rarely encouraged me to believe that I could let myself off.

I was sometimes sent to deliver messages, and I can remember struggling particularly badly one day to tell two of my parents’ friends about a change in some social arrangements.  When they next talked on the phone, I heard the phrase, “Poor Stephen,” more than once.

By university, I could converse well enough; it was just introducing myself, saying my name (well, when someone asks your name, there’s no way round saying, “Steve Till,” is there?).  That was the stumbling block, and social occasions were fraught with worry and embarrassment.  In normal conversation, once the introductions were over, I was still prone to stuttering, but I could always find an alternative word if I felt that one later in the sentence would trip me up.

But there was something else going on here too.

The effect of my stutter was multifaceted: at the time, it felt like a curse, but I now see different, positive strands to the way that it influenced my life.  Because I could not speak, I thought more.  Because I could not express myself orally, I wrote: I wrote poetry voraciously from the age of about 11.  And, crucially, because of my stutter, I developed the aforementioned verbal gymnastic skill in dodging difficult words.

****

Researchers have said that 10,000 hours of mindful practice is the requirement to reach expert level in any given skill.  Musicians, sportspeople, writers, artists – all seem to fulfil that condition.  Even the ultimate child prodigy, Mozart, who started writing symphonies practically in the womb, conforms to the “rule” that he needed 10,000 hours of focused practice before he began to produce his best work.

Now, I am not claiming to be a Mozart, or indeed an expert, but surely it can be no coincidence that my stutter forced me to practise verbal gymnastics for several hours a day, encouraged me to think deeply, and prompted me to express myself in writing, so that by my mid-teens, I had probably clocked up the requisite 10,000 hours of intense creative preparation………..right about the time when I started to produce award-winning poetry.

****

I left university and started work.  Ironically, I gravitated towards roles involving public-speaking – sales, marketing, training roles.  I could do these, because I could always find different words or alternative phrases.

But I hated the phone.  So many times I had to hang up, when the other party asked my name.  It was my dirty little secret, and I knew with absolute certainty that I was a fraud and if my seniors ever found out about my stutter that I would be fired.  Of course, that’s not true; they would probably have been fine, but in the cut-throat world of US-led software sales in particular, it was dog eat dog, and it seemed to me that any weakness would be ruthlessly exposed and castigated.

I remember calling my manager from my car phone and not being able to say who it was.  I had to hang up.  The next time I saw him, I apologised about the terrible line which kept breaking up!  He said, “No problem…….. for a moment I thought you had a terrible stammer.”

That was like a knife through me.

I was right – it was an awful, shameful secret, which no one must ever know about.

Of course, some of my friends knew.  My wife-to-be knew.  I remember saying to her, “What if I can’t get the words out, when we’re taking our marriage vows.”

“Don’t worry, I will wait forever for you to say those words.”

****

Years have gone by, and the outward signs of my stutter have all but disappeared, but it is still there, and so even today, in every conversation, I mentally dodge words or reframe sentences to make them deliverable.  Only another stutterer would detect the hesitations, the reframing, the ummms and errrrs that ease my voice into difficult words.

But the stutter has had more effect on me than just enhancing my verbal expression.  I think, for obvious reasons, it has made me face challenges – challenges like running round a track for 24 hours – and it has made me feel that if a stutterer can win a verse speaking competition, be the prompter in the school play, be asked to give after-dinner speeches, deliver training courses, run seminars and host networking events, then I can meet other challenges too.

And it has also made me cynical about the loudest mouths, the quick wins, the sound-bite generation and the X Factor wannabees, and made me correspondingly appreciative of the quiet, the strong silent types, if you like, the unsaid, the deep, the background, the underlying patterns, the truth beneath the surface of life – and approving of those for whom long term commitment and unshakeable loyalty are where the real meaning in life resides.

One example: as you know, I love running.  I love watching running videos.  And for some reason I have always loved watching running videos of athletes in training, far more than those of their races.  Why is this?  It had puzzled me for ages.  Surely races are far more exciting and meaningful – they are the outcome, the proof of the pudding, what it’s all about.

But, no, I prefer the training videos…………..because I value most of all the commitment, the work that has gone on behind the scenes, private, hidden from view, that no one is shouting about, but is the reason behind the public race performance – which makes it the more truly meaningful activity.

****

This revelation, along with all of the others in this blog, and so many more, have come as a result of my work for the last nine months with Stephanie Walters of The Positive Element, whose wonderful skills and empathy have empowered me to see the truth about myself for the first time in 60 years.

****

For years, my stutter was my curse, my bete noir, my weakness, my dirty little secret.  It made me feel bad about myself, ashamed – made me feel that I was flawed, incomplete, disabled, weird even – and that therefore I had to hide it at all costs – or, if found out, to apologise profusely for it.  Only now do I know that it is my gift: stuttering has given me my creativity, my facility with words, my ability to think on my feet, my determination, my courage, my commitment, and even my value system.

But it has given me more even than that.  It has finally come full circle and put me at peace with myself.

Realising the positivity of my stutter has been the key to my realising the positivity of my life.

****

I remember Ronnie O’Sullivan, the snooker player, being interviewed after one of his World Championship wins.  He was asked if he would go on and try and win a record number of those titles.  His reply was along the lines of, “I am really not as mentally strong as guys like Ray Reardon or Steve Davis; I can’t take the pressure year after year, so I will just try and win one or two more.”

Of course, that mercurial mental “weakness” or inconsistency, was also the gift that made him the greatest genius ever to hold a snooker cue, able to record the fastest 147 break, and to play incredible shots – shots that no one else could make or even attempt – when, crucially, he was in the mood.

What honesty, what humility, to admit what he saw as his weakness!  And how great to be so at peace with it, to the extent of cheerfully describing it to millions of viewers!

Because my flaw, like Ronnie’s, is also my gift, the grit in the oyster that makes the pearl, as the old metaphor has it.  And only now can I roll back all of the angst, the pain, the frustration, and the desperate secrecy associated with my stutter, and give it its full due.  In many ways, and in terms of whatever I am as a human being, it is because of my stutter.  It has been the making of me.

My curse has become my gift.

My quietude has given me so much to shout about.

My silence has given me my voice.

So…… for how many of us is this true, that what we or others perceive as our weakness is really the source of our strength?

That is the word that I want to get out.

Discovering the truth about the part that my stutter has played in my life has enabled me to move from ashamed to proud, from feeling bad about myself to feeling good, from feeling cursed to feeling blessed.

So…….. no more apologies.  If my stutter has made me quiet, if it has made me hesitant, if it has put me on the margins of social events, then I am OK with that, because only when you are quiet can you think deeply, only when you are hesitant can you make the right decisions, and it is only those who are NOT the life and soul of the party who see what is really going on in life, the underlying patterns, the true meaning.  (How much those extroverts miss!)

And that is me – quiet, hesitant, always in the kitchen at parties, yes……… and strong, thoughtful, creative, quick-witted, determined, courageous, committed too – and, you know what?  For the first time in my life, I am OK with that.

The Trail Runner’s Sonnet

The outcome of this trail’s unknown to me –

How far I’ll go, or where my steps will run –

Enough for me to hear and smell and see.

The path will tell me when my journey’s done.

Relaxing now as cares dissolve like mist,

And letting worries find their own way home,

I listen to the trail as quietly it insists,

Let all else fade, and make this time your own.

Reality is earth and air and sun,

Until a junction forks my chosen way.

No signs, no flags, no footprints lead my run,

No words except the ones the trail can say:

Enjoy the feel of movement over ground,

Remaining just as centuries have found.

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