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.”