Well, by now, you probably think I’m a nutter. But let’s just assess the competition, shall we?
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.”
“30% would get better on their own.”
“Yes, and the other 20%?” I asked.
“The other 20%, Steve, are nutters.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
Of course I’m a nutter.