Open letter to Mo Farah

Dear Mo,

You are a fabulous runner who delivers repeatedly exceptional performances. I admire the way you represent our country; espousing a can do attitude and happy demeanour. You have made running interesting again to the media and the mass population – my kids love screaming “go Mo” when you compete on the TV. Thank you.

However, there is an odd thing that happens when I talk to other club runners – the sort of hardy knowledgable people who run most days and always go long at weekends. The truth is, they don’t identify with you any more. They cite the Great North Run ‘win’, the Twitter war with Andy Vernon and a general no show for cross country events in the UK. The recent accusations against your coach Alberto Salazar have provided a new and much more damaging excuse for them to dismiss your achievements.

At the heart of this problem is the fact that you have a reputation gap between your brand identity and what your team advises you to do. Everyone has a reputation gap, but the bigger it is the less likely you can protect your reputation when a crisis occurs. To read that you have hired crisis experts to help protect you on the Salazar allegations is worrying. Yes, you need a short term quick fix, but please don’t ignore the reality that you also need to think long term and find a way to reconnect with your base in the UK; everyday runners. You must not allow your team to forget one of the key rules for anyone in the public eye; ‘never lose your base’.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t think people are being fair. You and your team have been successfully building a global brand and at times that means doing what is best to achieve that goal. But, I do think you need to do something about it if you want to maintain the support you deserve from runners in the UK, particularly given the ferocity of recent media attacks on you. Here are some suggestions of how you might do that:

Firstly, please take part in a press conference or interview where you answer every single question journalists have for you on the Salazar allegations. I don’t care how long the press conference goes on, you shouldn’t leave until every question has been answered. You should have done this when the news of missed drug tests broke, or when you wrote on Facebook that you were staying with Alberto. It’s a shame that you were instead advised to release a statement that lacked personality (something you have bundles of). When you did speak to the media ahead of the Birmingham Diamond League event you came across really well in difficult circumstances; transparent, angry with the claims and, most importantly, honest.

Let a hungry pack of journalists press you on the detail, and make it clear that once you have finished you won’t be providing a running commentary on the ongoing claims likely to come out about the Nike Oregon Project during the coming weeks and months.

Secondly, please write a weekly blog or newspaper article about your training, outlining your ongoing highs and lows. Runners, and the wider public, want to know how you are getting on and learn from your training regime. It’s great you are on Facebook and Twitter, but we want something more meaty than pictures of you running round tracks looking speedy. Letting people inside your head ensures they feel connected with you and understand your motivations and drive. It engages then with compelling content and knowledge – ideally helping them get better too.

Thirdly, and controversial I know, please engineer a race against Andy Vernon on the track in the UK. Other than doping accusations or world records, running doesn’t get much media interest these days. Athletic reporters are disappearing quicker than you do from the pack in a race. You tend to be the exception to this and command interest whatever you do. Running must harness that if we are to create better and more competitive fields. We all laughed along as you and Andy bashed each other on Twitter. It showed you are both human and care. Nothing wrong with that. But please use the interest it garnered to help running by having a smack down with Andy as soon as possible (possibly in aid of a charity such as Comic Relief or even your own Foundation). Clearly, you will win, but let’s play it up to the media like a boxing fight, with you being pictured squaring up to each other. And hugging and moving on when it’s over. I reckon you could gain at least two weeks coverage for one race if this was handled right. That would be good for running in the UK.

Finally, please run the national cross country championships in 2016 at Donnington Park on 27th February. As I ‘ran’ this year’s race, through the quagmire of mud at Parliament Hills,I wondered how top runners like you would get on. All the best British runners have competed in this Championship at their prime. You have run it before. Yet, it gets zero coverage these days. The runners of Britain love cross country and these championships, and I heard many asking why you don’t run it, and how you might get on if you did. Please come and give our sport the recognition it deserves. If you ran, television cameras would be there and the sport would be broadcast to millions, instead of the several hundred brave souls who turn out to support on the day. And other top UK based runners might decide to compete instead of coming up with excuses for not doing so.This is one of the world’s great running events, it would be fantastic to see our best endurance athlete ever competing in it.

These things are not big asks and I don’t believe they dilute your existing brand strategy or response to the Salazar allegations. You have the power to make people sit up and listen, and pay respect to our sport – which is now under attack. Your brand is strong, but it will only become stronger if you fill your reputation gap and leave a legacy of more people running more often, and preferably competing at a higher level. Put simply, we need more Mo Farahs coming through the ranks. Please do all you can to do that, and thus reconnect with club runners up and down the country.

Yours,

Gavin

#GoJo; Vote for a true sporting personality

Let me tell you story about a lady called Jo. She lives in Devon with her husband Gavin. They met at an athletics club twenty six years ago. They are self employed, not rich, and both work hard at what they do. She turned 41 this year, and gave birth to her second child in 2013. Heart warming, but pretty unremarkable, yes?

Well, let me tell you more. In 2014, less than 10 months after giving birth to her daughter, this lady smashed the world record over 5,000m by a female over 40 years of age and then won a bronze medal in the Commonwealth Games, finishing behind a pair of young Kenyans in a world-class race. Ten days later she headed to the European Championships and won her first major championship title, conquering a talented field a little more than a month before turning 41. In doing so, she became the oldest female (by three years) to win a gold medal in the history of the championships.

This women is a running superstar who has made wearing long white compression socks cool. She is the remarkable Jo Pavey. She finished seventh, and first European, in London 2012 in both the 5000m and 10,000m, but her form in 2014 has been nothing short of extraordinary. She is defying the normal physiological rules of running, getting even better with age, and despite unselfishly changing her training regime to a more relaxed “kids first” approach.

Competing in a qualifying race earlier this year she found herself wearing the same club vest she wore as a junior as she ran to victory against competitors born when she was at university. In a “want it now” consumer society, she is an inspiration for those who believe in working hard to achieve success, and not rushing things.

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Sadly, her performance doesn’t get the recognition deserved. She no longer recieves Lottery funding from UK Athletics (she doesn’t have “podium potential” for the Rio Olympics apparently) and is doing it all on a shoestring. If she was a footballer, everyone would know her name and brands would be queuing up to sponsor her. As she is a female runner, that hasn’t happened. Crazy, but that’s sport.

What is not crazy is that, despite everything, there is the very real prospect that she could win the prestigious BBC Sports Personality of the Year in the Award Ceremony in Glasgow on the 14th December. And this is were we can give something back to someone who gives us so much hope that we too can improve with age and experience.

Jo has been shortlisted against the likes of Rory McIlroy and Lewis Hamilton – who get loads column inches and substantially more profile on television. They are household names, while Jo Pavey spends most of her days looking after her family and home.

McIlroy and Hamilton have a huge quantum of armchair fans. However, what Jo has is a dedicated group of runners who I am confident will do the work to ensure she gets the credit she deserves. And I always back runners to get off their ar@ses and do something worthwhile…

So, let’s make it an early Christmas present for Jo as we start a campaign to get her trending in the minds of those voting on the 14th. Please share your encouragement with family and friends via Twitter, Facebook and other social media channels, for them to back Jo, and vote when the lines open during the live show on BBC One.

Specifically, please share repeatedly on social media on the 12th, 13th, and 14th December. Ideally, you would do this at least three times per day. Please up the tempo of your activity as the show approaches and starts at 8pm on the 14th; we want the campaign to come to a crescendo ahead of voting finishing. We aim to create a burst of social media activity that ensures those who get why Jo deserves to win will do something about it.

Please use #GoJo and #BBCSPOTY in all activity.

Suggested tweets:

Heard about the 41yr old mum of two who can beat Rory McIlroy & Lewis Hamilton with your help? #GoJo #BBCSPOTY http://www.runhabit.com

Don’t miss the opportunity to vote for a true personality to win #SPOTY. #GoJo http://www.runhabit.com

#GoJo Vote for a true sports personality in #BBCSPOTY this year. Read her story here: http://www.runhabit.com

I’m voting for the amazing Jo Pavey in #BBCSPOTY. Here is why you should do the same: http://www.runhabit.com #GoJo

She’s 41, a mum of two and could be this year’s #BBCSPOTY winner. Find out why http://www.runhabit.com. #GoJo.

There have been a number of articles written about Jo that you may prefer to link to in your social media sharing. I have included some below to help:

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/othersports/article-2855274/Wonder-woman-Jo-Pavey-aims-gold-Rio-without-lottery-funding-two-kids.html

http://sport.bt.com/more-sport-hub/women-in-sport/the-best-year-of-my-life-jo-pavey-on-her-remarkable-2014-S11363943889917

http://www.radiotimes.com/news/2014-11-24/sports-personality-of-the-year-2014-jo-pavey

http://www.bbc.com/sport/0/athletics/29682009

Finally, if in any doubt about why you should be voting for this running legend, listen to her interview on Marathon Talk with Liz Yelling a few months a go. What a grounded yet inspirational star. Now, let’s get her the recognition she deserves. Get sharing and voting.

UPDATE: This video from the BBC is great content to add to tweets and social media sharing: http://m.bbc.co.uk/sport/sports-personality/30314184

UPDATE 2: Jo Pavey made the podium. Amazing. Well done to her and all who voted. Read more here.

Letting my inner dog loose

Post-boxes, hydrants and lampposts are much loved by dogs. For an evening last week, I let my inner dog loose and spent one hour running around suburbia looking for the aforementioned street furniture as part of a Street-O event.

A week ago, I hadn’t heard of Street-O when my friend and coach Marc Woodall suggested I join him for an event in Stoneleigh, hosted by the Mole Valley Orienteering Club. “Meet in a pub next to the station”, he said. Sounds informal, I thought, and it is. Turning up at the pub I was met by two guys sat in the corner, pints on the table, distributing maps. Informal is a complement by the way, not a criticism – and the welcome could not have been friendlier to a newcomer.

Once we had paid the £3 fee and had our map, we were off. Marc kindly let me join him for my inaugural event as a Street-O virgin. Turns out it’s akin to an urban orienteering race. The map you are given is of the local area, but without street names or other helpful information. You run with the aim of getting to specific locations (“controls”) on the map, generally under street lights. On the other side of the map you will be given a list of controls with numbers as stated on the map overleaf. There will be clues, such as “hydrant (lower number)”, with the objective to identify the correct hydrant and thus write down the said lower number on the sheet.

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The controls are divided up into three point values – 10s, 20s and 30s. So, ideally, you would spend a few minutes identifying the smartest route to get the highest score achievable. Needless to say, as runners Marc and I simply ran off in one direction towards a plethora of controls on the map – probably a common tactic by organisers to flummox competitors.  It was clearly a mistake and limited our scoring potential.

You have one hour to score as many points as possible, and need to judge how far you are away from ‘home’ (the pub) to ensure you don’t go over the time limit and get penalised points. As Marc and I had headed off on a sub optimal route (with me failing to add any strategic value throughout), we settled for our lot with several minutes left on the stopwatch as we knew we wouldn’t get to the next control and back on time. Instead, we had a quick pint while awaiting our results. It was at this time I realised the genius in hosting such events at a pub!

I was quite pleased to have finished in joint 7th for my first time at such an event. I will definitely do more of these and continue my dog impressions in suburbia. Not only is it a strategic challenge, but it’s fabulous interval training because you have to stop to write down an answer, before speeding off towards the next control. While moving, we averaged 6.49min pace for the 6.5miles we covered, so we were not hanging around.

The biggest lesson I took away was the need to try new things. If Marc hadn’t mentioned it to me there is no way I would have been at a random pub on a cold November evening having great fun on what is essentially a treasure hunt for grown-ups who like to run.

If you want more information on Street-O, please check out http://www.mvoc.org/ and http://slow.org.uk/about/streeto/.

Top marks to Nicky Morgan as she removes guideline for schools suggesting running as a punishment

I have never been prouder of the running community. We are a positive bunch; committed to getting more people running more often, and evangelists for the good running does for body and mind. And today, we have succeeded in creating a better environment for running for generations to come.

Just over six months ago I was out for a run, listening to a Marathon Talk podcast. I stopped dead in my tracks when I heard the hosts discussing new guidelines from the Department for Education that encouraged schools to punish kids with “extra physical activity such as running around a playing field”.

A Google search later, I was reading Jason Henderson’s ‘Memo to Michael Gove’ on the Athletics Weekly website and genuinely questioning what was happening within the Department for Education.

I decided to do something about it and penned a petition on the change.org website. Following a few tweets to key figures within the sport, the petition spread widely via social media, gaining almost 10,000 signatures.

The campaign received some media coverage, and the main players within running contacted me to discuss how we could change the guideline. The easy option was for an all out media campaign attacking the Government position. However, with a man like Michael Gove in post, we decided that was more likely to entrench his belief.

So, with an understanding that the guidelines were to be reviewed later this year, we set off to influence those who mattered that it was wrong to suggest that physical activity, in-particular running, was a negative action – when it in fact helps build a healthy mind and body.

Huge credit must be given to members of the Run Group, a collaboration of multiple players from across the sport who represent millions of runners in the United Kingdom, and who work together to get more people running more often.

Led by David Moorcroft, the interim Chair of the Run Group, Chris Jones, Andy Anstey and Wendy Sly from England Athletics, and Martin Yelling from Marathon Talk, the campaign has been quietly gaining support with key influencers.

Operating collaboratively, all the big hitters of our sport – including Hugh Brasher of London Marathon, Brendan Foster of Nova International, Tom Williams of parkrun, and many others – have been making the case and building momentum.

Their actions have led to Parliamentarians voicing their support for running, with Alistair Burt MP (an active member of Biggleswade Athletics Club) agreeing to lead an All Party Parliamentary Group on Running that will actively work to encourage more people to run more often in the UK.

However, the biggest change came with the appointment of Nicky Morgan as Secretary of State for Education. Unlike her dogmatic predecessor, Nicky is an active member of the running community. She has run the London Marathon, is a trained run group leader and has helped to establish Loughborough parkrun. She gets why running is a good thing and how it can help the Government to achieve a fitter, healthier and more prosperous nation.

It is now clear that once Nicky became aware of the depth of feeling about the guidance, she was determined to do something about it.

Today, she responded to a private letter from David Moorcroft on the issue saying, “I share your view that it threatens to have a negative impact on the sport and on the view young people take of it. One of my priorities as Secretary of State is to encourage schools to do what they can to build the resilience and character of our young people, and I see sport as playing a crucial role in this.” She added “I have therefore asked officials to revise the guidance immediately and to remove any suggestion that running might be used as a form of punishment. A new version of the document – minus the offending clause – will be issued on the Department’s website by the end of the week.” Amazing. Her full letter can be seen below:

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Needless to say she should be praised by everyone within our community. Credit where it is due; she is a politician who understands us and is willing to back us.

David Moorcroft told me earlier: “Well done Nicky Morgan. She understood from the start why this mattered and has delivered a change on an issue that could have had a negative impact on running for future generations. As a former PE teacher who remembers the ‘bad old days’, the inclusion of such a sanction had been particularly disappointing given the Olympic and Paralympic Legacy objective of encouraging participation in school sports and wider society. I am delighted that has now been rectified.”

Running is a great metaphor for life; you get out what you put in, there are no easy fixes. The running community did that with this campaign. We came together, voiced our concerns and signed the petition, always campaigning in a non political and responsible manner.

As Paula Radcliffe said when the guidelines were first highlighted, “Physical activity is a joy, a pleasure: something to be embraced and welcomed. We need the next generation to grow up wanting to be active.” I hope we have made a small step towards that goal today. Well done all.

The running Wombles

Who remembers the Wombles? Those little creatures who appear from nowhere to clean up after the humans who had made such a mess of their beloved common.

Every Saturday morning a similar thing happens in parks and on commons. At around 8.45am the quiet morning will be broken by a colourful mob of happy runners and volunteers, all heading to the start of their local parkrun – a series of free, weekly, timed, 5km runs.

It is an amazing sight; hundreds of men, women and children of all ages, shapes and backgrounds, suddenly coming together to take part in an event that is starting to clean up the inactivity epidemic that is threatening society.

The organisation has grown dramatically since its humble beginnings when 13 ‘pioneers’, led by parkrun’s very own Great Uncle Bulgaria, Paul Sinton-Hewitt, gathered for a run in South London back in 2004.

Over one million people have registered to take part in parkruns across 420 events in ten countries around the world. The UK boasts 275 of those events and with over 50,000 weekly runners makes up around a third of the global parkrun family.

The parkrun team, led by Managing Director Tom Williams, has achieved huge growth and impact on a tiny budget. All their events are completely free to take part in, with local volunteers working together to provide a weekly timed 5k run in beautiful surroundings. David Cameron found it hard to articulate what ‘Big Society’ meant, while all along parkrun was doing just that.

Free does not mean unprofessional. In advance of taking part you register your details via http://www.parkrun.org.uk and are provided with a barcode. When you finish your run at any parkrun in the UK or overseas, you present this barcode to a volunteer who records your finish. Later that day you will receive a text message and email stating your finish time, position and how that compares with previous runs.

And everyone is welcome. It doesn’t matter whether you are struggling to walk one mile or an Olympic marathon runner, parkrun is a positive and welcoming event that thrives on helping people to be the best they can be.

In literature and TV, Wombles are notoriously tidy, polite, and honest creatures. Without a doubt, the same could be said about parkrun volunteers and runners. I am yet to meet someone at a parkrun who is not positive about life, running and the community. It’s a social phenomena that is fighting against all the health and cultural evils of modern life.

It’s already the world’s largest series of timed runs and most likely one of the UK’s biggest volunteering movements – in the UK alone they expect over 50,000 different people to volunteer 250,000 times so that the members of their local community can run together, for free. And with over 7,000 new people joining the parkrun UK family every week, a new series of junior events on Sundays, and the potential for 100 new weekly UK events to be launched in the next 12 months alone, the future is looking extremely bright.

If you don’t believe me, check details of local events via http://www.parkrun.org.uk and arrive at 8.45am this Saturday. And remember,“Wombles are organised, work as a team. Wombles are tidy and Wombles are clean. Underground, overground, wombling free…”