Why Mo Farah’s advisors are risking his long-term reputation

[This first appeared on INFLUENCE on Friday 4th August 2017]

One of Britain’s greatest ever athletes, Mo is what we all want Britain to represent; committed, multi-cultural and a lot of fun. Yet the man who made the nation stand up and scream in joy at athletics in 2012 is in danger of losing the race before the starting pistol has been fired.

Unless you have been living in a cave during the last few years, you’ll know that Mo has faced repeated questions and often spurious allegations of doping. Most of the allegations are not about his actions, but those within his prestigious training group in Oregon, led by infamous coach Alberta Salazar.

The questions have clearly affected Mo who has worked with a consumer PR agency in an attempt to uphold his consumer facing brand. But Mo and his advisors have taken a wild gamble ahead of the World Championships.

According to the respected journalist Ben Bloom they are refusing to face questions from the media in advance so he can instead focus on performance. In doing so, their bet is the majority of people don’t listen to or care about the allegations that have been swirling – fairly or unfairly – within athletics for years.

Needless to say, the media are up in arms. They have legitimate questions to ask yet Mo won’t answer them. This is a grave error and one that misunderstands the severe risks to his running legacy.

Yes, his advisors are right that most people don’t understand nor care about the doping allegations. But the problem is that these people are the floating fans, the people that will move on to the next star in a heartbeat. The core supporters, hardcore athletics fans and the running community, are well aware of what is happening and would much rather hear Mo effectively deal with the questions – as he did when similar ones were raised in the past.

Those who point to his need to focus on performance fail to realise that if he does not deal with these issues then people will continually question how he won and insinuate wrong-doing. What is the point of such a short-term win? And, there is the practical reality that he could have dealt with this a few weeks ago under embargo, and thus not be distracted ahead of the World Championships.

I have written before about my support for Mo, but my frustration at how he fails to communicate to what should be his core support, the running community. Of course, they support Mo, but I suspect they would much rather see a win for Callum Hawkins in the marathon or Laura Muir on the track, athletes who live and train in the UK and whose transparency makes them much more relatable to everyday runners.

My advice to Mo is simple: he should take the opportunity after his race tonight to front up. He should not leave his post-race media commitments until he has exhausted all the questions from journalists. And, he must stop saying “I have never failed a drug test”. It is what Lance Armstrong said for goodness sake! If someone told him to use that phrase he should sack them immediately.

Tonight, I will be in the Olympic Stadium with 60,000 other people to watch and support Mo. He is an amazing athlete who has repeatedly delivered on and off the track for Great Britain. I just hope his media advisors stop thinking in the short term and start to think seriously about how to protect his long-term reputation, and thus his athletics legacy, so he will always be remembered as that.

Keeping things in perspective – I will be back

Disappointed. Crestfallen. Downcast. Despondent. Miffed. Gutted. All words I have used to describe how I have been feeling since an easy run last Thursday.

Yes, after 17 weeks of great training I managed to injure myself with only ten days to go before the London Marathon. Today, after a week of trying to remedy it, I gave up all hope of making the start-line in Greenwich and deferred my place until 2017.

My initial reaction was to be annoyed, deflated. I was being silly. It is only a marathon after all. Yes, it is frustrating to have so many weeks of good training done and dusted and not to use the resulting fitness in a target race, but it’s hardly a big deal when you look at some of the issues others in society face.

As I headed to the London Marathon Expo earlier to check out how brands were activating within the running community for work, I was struck by how fortunate runners are. The thousands at London Excel looked healthy, well off and very happy. They were smiling, chatting freely with others about their race expectations and how their training had gone.

In a word that seems to have gone crazy in recent years, not everyone is as lucky as we runners are. So when things go bad for us, it is important to keep it in perspective. At the end of the day, it is only a race.

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That doesn’t mean I am happy about it. Far from it. I would much rather be lining up in the Red Start on Sunday morning and attempting to bash out 26.2miles at 6.40minutes per mile pace or thereabouts. But it won’t be happening, so why fret over it? One of the key deliverables in a marathon training cycle is making it to the start of your race. I have failed to do that and should simply take it as a learning for next time.

There are plenty of other marathons I can run when back fit, and no one can take the training mileage cycle away from me or the enjoyment derived from it. I was already entered into Belfast City Marathon on 2nd May, with the intention to run it for fun. However, if I can get the leg fixed in time (and that is far from a given), I will race there.

I ran my first sub three-hour marathon in Belfast last year and love it. It is smaller than London and that works for me as I prefer races without the hassle that goes with really big mass participation events. Despite a hillier and slower course than London, it is a lot of fun to compete in.

If I don’t make Belfast, I will have to wait until autumn to run a decent marathon. And until that point I will focus on getting faster over the shorter distances, hopefully using the mileage stored up from marathon training to achieve some personal best times. I may be out for now, but I will be back. Of that you can be sure.

If you are running London, enjoy it. Don’t go off too fast, and don’t finish too slow. By making it to the start-line, you have already done half the job. It is now time to deliver on your hopes and dreams by ensuring your mind stays focused when the going gets tough. Have fun out there!

The parochial economics of Stoke Gifford Parish Council

Parish Councillors are not used to publicity. They do their job in their local communities quietly, representing their electorate and providing access to facilities, such as parks.

This week, however, Stoke Gifford Parish Council in South Gloucestershire managed to gain coverage on every major media outlet as they told parkrun that they could not use Little Stoke park to run their weekly free timed 5k runs.

No big deal, you might say. Are they not merely representing the views of the locality? Well, this is a big deal, and it is questionable whether they really are representing the views of their electorate.

Two years ago this group of 9 individuals seemed delighted to have a local parkrun. The Parish Council supported the event and the benefit it provided for the local community. In a country facing terrible rising obesity levels and a breakdown in community relations, it is not hard to work out why a volunteer organised parkrun that encourages everyone (from children, to mums, to the elderly) to run 5km in a friendly, non threatening environment is a good thing.

Yesterday, they dramatically changed their mind because the park needed maintenance as a result of people using it (is that not what parks are for!?). They clearly have a gap in their budget, and wish to have a not for profit community running event fill it for them. And instead of asking volunteers to help through giving of time to help maintain the park, they have instead insisted on being paid.

The Stoke Gifford Parish Council is practising parochial economics. They talk about maintaining a low council tax, yet they completely ignored the economic benefit gained from having hundreds of people come together to exercise in their community. The savings for local health services are evidenced in parts of the country who actually care about these things, as are the upsides for local shops and cafes with increased trade from those coming from outside the immediate area to the parkrun.

It’s an ill thought through position by the Parish Council and sets a dangerous precedent. Anyone that cares should be encouraging the UK Government, Opposition parties and media all to come out and condemn the dogmatic and ill advised decision as soon as possible.

Parkrun has been one of the best and most exciting examples of how to increase participation and encourage people into exercise in a positive environment. Millions have been attracted to running as a result. How can that be a bad thing? If anything, Stoke Gifford Parish Council should be paying the parkrun volunteers for the work they are doing to help their local community.

So, please, Stoke Gifford Parish Council, see the big picture, stop practicing parochial economics, and start embracing this amazing local community service you are getting free of charge.

Nearly at Greenwich

Some hate marathon training. They see it as a slog. Mile after mile run in the cold and dark of early mornings or late nights.

With just over two weeks to go before the London Marathon, I can sincerely say that I have enjoyed my training cycle and have run more than ever since Christmas.

Most of the miles have been run on my own instead of with club-mates at Guildford & Godalming A.C. While I have missed the company of good friends and have done very little speed-work in this build-up, the solitary action of running in the dark has been something I have revelled in.

Before the clocks went forward, I found running early in the morning or at night amazingly refreshing. The freedom was awe inspiring. And the weather didn’t matter as the darkness enveloped me, protecting against everything else.

I repeatedly found myself lost in thoughts about life and work while running alongside nature. It’s a time to solve problems, create ideas and avoid boisterous foxes prowling in the dark. It is also a time to learn and laugh, listening to Podcasts such as the Elis James and John Robins show, The Rob Watson Show, Running Commentary or the brilliant Marathon Talk.

The only downside of running on country roads is the frequent use of full beam lights by car drivers who don’t seem to comprehend that a runner with a small head-torch is actually blinded by their lights. If a fellow driver struggles to see when you direct them at their car, what do they think the impact is on a runner!?

That aside, it has been a great experience. Unlike last year, when I ran a lot of double day sessions as part of my commute to and from work, I have focused on longer single day workouts. They haven’t been quick, but I will have run well over fifty runs of 10miles or more in length by marathon day. The hope is that this will add more efficiency to my gait and put more endurance in my legs. Let’s hope it works.

You can check out my full training schedule on Strava here. As you will see, I have run 1,023miles, with only 17 days left before London Marathon. At this stage last year, as I prepared for my 2hr 59min 17sec in Belfast, I had run 907.2miles. My mileage is up, has been much more consistent and I am feeling good – though a slight knee issue has arisen in the last few days.

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As I start to think about the start in Greenwich and my race strategy, including target pace and time, I know I should be proud of this training cycle and should take confidence from it. Yet I also look forward to it being over and getting back down to Guildford & Godalming A.C. to enjoy Spring runs with my club-mates. But before that I need to deliver on race day. And how hard can that be!?

Hoppers Hands – not the end of the run

For the last week I have been lucky enough to have been working in San Francisco. I have managed to get out every day for an early morning run. My final run took me to the Golden Gate Bridge just in time to see the sunrise over the city.
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Immediately under the bridge is a fence with a sign on it containing two hands. It reads “Hoppers Hands” in honour of a bridge worker who managed to talk a significant number of people out of committing suicide from the bridge, sadly the world’s number one suicide spot.
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When reaching the sign runners have nowhere else to go. However, before turning back they press their palms agains those on display. It is said to symbolise that the bridge is not the end, but a turning point in life. A nice thought as you run back towards your destination and the rest of your life. And, as I leave this beautiful city to head home.

A Golden parkrun

Crissy Field could well be the most perfect parkrun location on earth. Situated alongside the Bay in San Francisco, it has a backdrop of the Golden Gate and Alcatraz. Absolutely beautiful.

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I was lucky to run it on Saturday while in the city. The Race Director is a welcoming chap called Dale. He made a point of introducing himself to all the first-timers in attendance, many of whom were from the UK.

Warming up with another Brit – Kevin Jones from Cardiff – I heard of how he had travelled the world to take part in parkruns, and was celebrating his fiftieth birthday by visiting California. He is the ultimate parkrun tourist.

The number of participants is usually small at Crissy Field, which is odd considering the hundreds of runners using the same paths as the run is held on. The United States clearly needs to wake up to the parkrun phenomenon.

Those who do come out are a friendly bunch, all waiting for the last finisher to complete their run before heading to a nearby beach hut for some post parkrun refreshments.

I was delighted to be first finisher, just ahead of the aforementioned Kevin. It was a golden start to the weekend by the Bay and I hope it won’t be the last time I run the amazing Crissy Field parkrun.

Injecting some miles into my training

I am now six weeks into my marathon training block. This period focuses on getting the miles in and building up an endurance base. As I have been busy with work and life, it has meant a lot of early or late runs to fit the mileage in. And, unlike last year, I have been trying to get as many nine to eleven mile runs in as possible rather than double up on five or six mile runs a day. That seems to be working well, although I have been suffering from a few niggles around my ankles, but nothing too dramatic.

A few niggles can’t dampen the positive outcomes of getting the miles in though. As a Type One (insulin dependent) Diabetic, there comes an amazing moment in training for a marathon when my body becomes dramatically more efficient. This has a stark change in how I feel and leads to me injecting less insulin as it works better in a fitter body. To be specific, a month ago I would have been injecting 14 to 16 units of slow acting night insulin before bed, but now I am injecting 10 to 12 units. I have experienced a similar decrease in my fast-acting daytime insulin (injected every time I eat) too. The only change is that I am running consistently, and my fitness is increasing. All good.

I am now focused on maintaining a weekly mileage of between 60 and 75 miles per week until a fortnight before the London Marathon. I will start to run quicker too, aiming to use parkruns, 10kms and half marathons to get the body used to running at speeds faster than my marathon pace. And then, on the 24th April in London, let’s see what this more efficient and effective body delivers.

Seeing other clubs

I need to confess; I have been cheating on my running club. The truth is, when I am in Northern Ireland, I run with another club. It wasn’t serious at first, it merely started with a few training runs. That led to the paying of a membership fee, and then the ultimate sin, purchasing a vest and pulling it on for a race. Oh, Guildford and Godalming AC, please don’t judge me…

Yes, I have joined North Down A.C. The club local to where I grew up in Bangor, County Down. I have been taking my children home to see their grandparents as much as possible and when I am there have been enjoying running with one of my oldest and best friends, Keith Gilmore. Keith has been getting into his running in the last couple of years, becoming a regular at the local parkrun. And then he got more serious, joining North Down A.C., and putting the idea into my head to do the same. At nearly forty you think you are too old to be led by my friends, but maybe not.

And thank goodness he did, as it has been absolutely brilliant. When I am back in Bangor I now have the chance to join an amazingly friendly group of runners whenever I want to run. Popping down to Ward Park for the parkrun on a Saturday morning is more than just turning up to run, it’s a chance to say hello to clubmates. I have raced twice for the club, at the Seely Cup 10k before Christmas (coming back from a period out I ran slowly, but loved it) and the Cultra 10k last weekend (despite backing off on the second lap of this very hilly race, I came a respectful 8th). Both have been fun occasions, and I look forward to pulling on my new yellow and blue vest for many more races in the future.

This doesn’t at all mean that I am done with my home club, Guildford & Godalming A.C., far from it. I am still proud to pull on the hallowed green vest when competing outside of Northern Ireland. It just means that I can enjoy my running in my two favourite places with like minded people. It really is true, runners are the most welcoming people you can ever meet. So, wherever you are, join your local running club and meet fellow runners who will only help you to get fitter and faster. Or even better, join two.

The 2,636th fastest marathoner in the UK in 2015

It doesn’t sound great, does it? Not exactly something to put on my Twitter profile. Being 2,636th in the country is not something to boast about. However, behind that statistic is the reality that in 2015 I achieved a sub three-hour marathon, completing a major running objective. Now that sounds better.

However, immediately after my 2.59.17 Belfast Marathon in early May, I lost my running mojo. At times I simply haven’t wanted to run. Shocking. And despite having run personal bests for most distances this year, and run more miles than ever before, it has not felt like a good one. Strange that.

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As I enter 2016, and my fortieth year, I have been working hard to find my mojo. Over Christmas, I have had a great time chasing my mojo around the muddy Surrey Hills. And I seem to have caught it.

My London Marathon training is starting with a renewed focus that hasn’t been there for many months. I am determined to eat better, sleep better, train better and [begin to] stretch over the next four months. And, as a result, run a fast marathon in later April.

I know I am never going to be ranked high enough to sound like a decent marathoner, but as a late starter to running, I can still achieve times that I could only have dreamt of six years ago. It is framing it positively that has helped me to find my mojo. And that in turn allows me to focus on clear, but achievable, objectives for 2016: I am going to run personal bests at every distance.

Happy new year. Bring on 2016.

Back to the future with running royalty

This week saw ‘Back to the Future Day’. The date (21st October 2015) that Marty McFly travelled to in the future during the hit 80s film of the same name, first released 30 years ago.

Back in 1985, life was different. English football clubs were banned from European fixtures. A ‘Walkman’ played cassette tapes. And Sinclair C5s were the future of transport.

Team GB had the likes of Coe, Ovett, Cram, Moorcroft and many others tearing up tracks and helping us punch above our weight as a nation.  And, our marathoners were world class, challenging at every major Championship and breaking world records for fun.

Back in modern day Britain, last Saturday, I was lucky enough to be invited to the excellent England Athletics Hall of Fame Dinner in Birmingham. The event featured key players in the world of sport, and celebrated sporting greats and volunteers from clubs up and down the country. Nine athletics greats, including Olympic silver medallist Roger Black and Paralympic 800m champion Danny Crates, were inducted into the England Athletics Hall of Fame.

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There were many notable moments during the ceremony, but two stood out for me. Firstly, a moving video message from new IAAF President Seb Coe thanking England Athletics for inducting his father, Peter, for coaching excellence. And, secondly, the legendary figure of Basil Heatley presented with his award by club-mate David Moorcroft, who spoke of how Heatley had inspired him and many others within the Coventry Godiva club to work hard and run faster.

During the dinner, I was lucky enough to meet Noel Thatcher, the British Paralympic runner who represented his country at six Paralympic Games, and won five gold medals. A major figure within the running community, it would be harder to meet a nicer guy, or one more willing to help other runners succeed. If you don’t follow him on twitter, you should.

The theme of running greats willing to help us slower runners continued once the dinner and ceremony had finished. To my glee, I found myself in the company of two other members of running royalty, and marathoning legends, in Ron Hill (2.09.28 PB) and Bill Adcocks (2.10.48 PB). These two, along with Basil Heatley (2.13.55 PB), have an average personal best quicker than most of today’s Great Britain runners. In fact, if they ran their best times tomorrow, two of the three would be faster than GB’s quickest marathon runner this year.

Having read so much about them, and having even written to Bill Adcock to get a copy of his book ‘The Road to Athens’, I couldn’t miss the opportunity to ask for advice. The pair were only too willing to chat to another member of the running community. And their advice was simple: “Work harder”. It’s a “long hard road’ said Ron Hill and “not easy”, but “always worth it”.

I was struck just how willing they were to give advice and to chat about a sport they clearly still loved. Here were some of the greatest marathoners this country has ever seen, yet I seriously doubt many young up and coming marathon runners on the national stage would seek them out to learn from them. And that is sad. These guys ran their fast times without nutritional aids, technology or modern kit. They were the best in the world, and generations since have struggled to match their achievements.

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Some of that will be down to societal factors meaning an ‘I want it now’ culture has overcome our ability to work hard – it’s no surprise that ‘cheap debt’ (i.e. credit cards) really burst onto the scene in the late 1980s and our results have suffered since. However, the times of these legends show they were ahead of their time in every way. Maybe it is time for us all to go back to the future and learn from these running legends when we still can?

Back in 1985 in ‘Back to the Future’ the Doc says at one point: “Roads? Where we’re going we don’t need roads.” Shock horror, in 2015 we all need roads. And if you are to listen to the likes of Ron Hill and Bill Adcocks, we need to be spending more time pounding them if we really want to become better runners.