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.

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.

EA Dinner

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.

Losing toenails, getting intimate with foam rollers and spotting Batman – 9 reflections from my 2015 marathon training

  1. There is nothing quite like the satisfaction of losing both your big toenails as a result of the increased miles. Though, strangely, my wife will not entertain any discussion of this ever happening, particularly over dinner.
  1. It’s a very bad idea to go for a 20 mile run the morning after your wife’s 40th birthday party, with only a few hours sleep in the bank. But, as a running sadist, I made sure it was a very hilly run, and felt smug for having done it.
  1. Despite repeatedly running along a number of routes in recent months, everyday I see something new. Yesterday, I saw a man dressed as Batman (yes, I am assuming it’s not the real Batman as the man was wearing Nike running shoes and everyone knows Batman actually wears a pair of New Balance).
  1. Run commuting works brilliantly when trains run on time. It works less well when your train is cancelled after a marathon paced ten miler, in freezing temperatures, and you are stood on a platform at Clapham Junction with your body temperature falling faster than Madonna at the Brits.
  1. It is possible to train all winter in shorts. It’s not always nice, but you get to cling onto the thought that you are just like Steve Jones, even though he is actually tough, can run a marathon nearly one hour quicker than you and doesn’t have a hot Ribena after every long run.
  1. One run really can make or break your running confidence. One day you are cock of the walk after completing a long tempo run under target time. The next, you are a feather duster, struggling to keep up with a rather large bloke as he ‘speeds’ past you on the Embankment wearing an England football shirt with “Fat Dave” on the back.
  1. Marathon niggles do come all at once, providing conclusive proof to your wife that you really are a hypercondriac. After all, as the song goes: the foot bone’s connected to the leg bone, the leg bone’s connected to the knee bone, the knee bone’s connected to the thigh bone, the thigh bone’s connected to the hip bone, and the hip bone’s connected to the backbone… and I clearly lack one of those, as everything friggin hurts!
  1. From the laughter that stems from my family, one should never ever get intimate with a foam roller in public. Forget Gogglebox, the first television channel to commission footage of runners attempting to foam roll their legs while watching TV could be screening pure comedy gold.
  1. Even on the most horrible, cold, dark, damp mornings in February, getting up at 5.30am to go for a run is a pleasure, and not a chore. It may not feel like it at the start of a run, but it always feels like it at the end. Every day that we run, is a good day.

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A wrong turn

I went the wrong way. I ran an extra 1.6miles I didn’t have to run, up a hill and back again. And, I was only 2miles from the finish when I did. What a numpty. 

Yes, while competing in the brilliant Surrey Original race at Polesden Lacey on Saturday, I committed a rookie error and turned right 2 yards ahead of where I should have done. The signage was beautifully designed and entirely accurate, but my brain clearly wasn’t working. 

I had just overtaken what turned out to be the third place runner in a brutal 21km challenge across mud and up nearly 2000 feet of climb in the stunning Surrey Hills. I was pleased as I had been chasing him down for a couple of miles and was finishing strongly despite not pushing too hard in the race. And then I turned right and started up yet another incline. It didn’t feel correct, but the guy behind followed. It was only when we reached a road at the top of the hill that I realised my error. It’s fair to say my fellow competitor wasn’t too happy…

Annoying, yes, but I still finished 7th (the other guy finished 8th, a couple of minutes back). I would have taken that at the start of the day. It has taught me a lesson on the need to concentrate, especially during the latter stages of trail races. But who can complain when you have your own little fan club awaiting you in the rain at the finish. You have to love days like these. 



We need to talk about running

I’ve been quiet about running in the last couple of months. Unusual for me, I know. Trying to understand why has been difficult, but I think I have gotten there. Put simply, I am cross with myself for allowing my race expectations to dramatically diminish since Christmas, and haven’t wished to talk about it. Enough is enough, to help me pull out of this phase of self doubt, we need to talk about running.

The lead up to Christmas had gone well. I had run some good high mileage weeks and took part in the Portsmouth Marathon (for the fourth time) alongside fellow Guildford & Godalming AC runners as a ‘fun’ last long run of the year. This is becoming an annual pre Christmas event for us, and wearing Santa Hats, we laughed and sung carols most of the way, sauntering home in an easy 3hrs 38mins.

I relaxed my training over Christmas to account for the marathon in my legs and a cold virus, but built the mileage up steadily from a low of 14.5miles the week following Portsmouth. I ran a muddy Guildford parkrun on the 27th of December (20.01mins) and again on New Years Day (19.40mins). All good so far.

Next up should have been the Surrey Cross Country Championships in Croydon. Unfortunately, my wife was ill on the day and I missed the race to look after the kids. The following week I had the chance to make up for that at the third of four League Cross Country matches. Our team have been flying this year and were in prime position for back to back promotions. As co-captain, I wanted to contribute to the team’s scoring. I didn’t. I had a disaster, finishing in an unexplainable 95th position, my worst ever finish for a League match.

Training continued and seemed normal, though I have been staying away from track speed sessions of late; replacing them with 8 to 12 mile tempo runs at or close to marathon pace (6.50mpm). I looked forward to the Southern Cross Country Championships, at Stammer Park in Brighton, given it’s a hilly 9mile course with endurance the key to success. However, after feeling ill the evening before, I knew it was not going to end well. I set off at a very slow pace to see what my body would do. I made it round one of three laps, before leaving the course and handing in my chip. Or as others say, giving up. I was furious with myself. This was my first ever DNF.

I headed to Arizona with work two days later and enjoyed a good week’s running alongside my professional duties. The weather was great, and I was able to run up Camelback Mountain in Scottsdale in the sun, and trot up and down the paths alongside the Arizona Canal. The highlight was my participation in a local 5k race connected with the Super Bowl (being held in nearby Phoenix). There was a buzz of excitement around as two quick looking guys warmed up. It turned out they were both professional triathletes, and that one was the former Olympian runner Alan Webb, who still holds the American mile record (3.46mins). Clearly, they took the first two positions with Webb winning in 15.01, a second ahead of his training partner. I was delighted to finish 6th (winning a medal for finishing within the top three in my age category) in a personal best time of 18.06. At last, a ray of running sunshine.

Back in the UK a few days later and the clouds again descended. I didn’t feel healthy in the day or so ahead of our final Cross Country League match in Croydon. I suspected I had picked up yet another bug on the flight back from the States. However, after much moaning to our squad about the need for a decent turnout to ensure promotion to Division One (which we achieved), I felt I had to run. This was an idiotic decision given how poorly I felt, and I finished at the back of the field in a new personal worst of 101st place. I knew in the first 100m of the race that I should not be running, but I didn’t want to pull out of two cross country races in a row and make it a “habit”. The result? I didn’t run for another week and spent a large amount of time in bed, sleeping. Not good.

Reviewing previous cross country results ahead of the National Championships at Parliament Hill, it was clear I was having a bad year. In my first season (2011/12) of cross country racing I was running much faster and finishing higher up the field. This year my performances had gotten worse and worse after a reasonable start. Without a doubt, I am now a better runner, but I seem to no longer be able to compete at cross country.

I had previously said that the Nationals would be my focus in the first couple of months of 2015. That had already been thrown out the window. Instead, I came up with a plan to finish strong in an attempt to again feel good about running. However, on arrival at the Mecca of cross country, the prospect of an ‘embarrassing finishing position’ left me unsure if I could be bothered to actually run. Most unlike me.

I escaped my teammates and warmed up on my own on some paths, watching the senior ladies race as I did. Cross country is an awesome sport. It has world class athletes at the front gliding across the ankle deep mud and managing to look gracious despite everything. And at the back, you have hardy running workhorses, determined to finish no matter what. Watching the ladies at the back of the field left me in no doubt that I should be running. If they are willing to beast themselves on the brutally muddy course, why shouldn’t I?

I got my spikes on and tested my blood glucose levels. Gulp, they were at 4.0, too low to race on. Was this a sign that I shouldn’t run? I had less than ten minutes to go before the start, so I quickly ate some oat bars, along with any sugary substance I could find in the bottom of my bag.

I arrived last out of my team on the start line, strangely quiet. I wasn’t in the mood to raise anyone’s spirits given how I was feeling. I made sure I was at the back of my pen and when the gun fired, I started slower than I have ever started a race. I really didn’t want to be there.

The first mile was heavily congested at the back and I started to push through the crowds, with my legs feeling good. Usually at this stage of a race I am already hurting, so it was odd to be cruising along at such an easy pace. A team mate appeared ahead and I pushed on to join him, suggesting we work together to cut through the field. We did, and stayed together until the end of the first of two laps. I felt strong at the halfway point and could sense a lot of runners around me struggling. This gave me confidence that I was running well within myself and could run a faster second half. I left my teammate and surged ahead.

Throughout the race I don’t think I was overtaken by any runner who I didn’t subsequently chase down. I had a fast last 800m conditions even with the muddy quagmire of a finishing straight. I felt good at the end, despite my assumption that I had finished in the bottom half of the field.

Our team ran brilliantly and finished 30th in the 6 man competition and 21st in the 9 man competition. I surprised myself by finishing 912th out of 2000+ runners. Yes, my worst ever finish, but a stronger run and a much higher finish than I feared on the starting line.

What does all this mean? I have no idea. What I am sure of is the need to start afresh in cross country next season. After a few hundred yards of the Nationals I had decided to take a break from the mud in the future. By the end I was already planning a proper training regime over the summer, including hill repeats and speed work. Whether that happens or not we will see, but at least I will be competing again – and hopefully not at the back of the pack. It’s good to talk about running, even if it is to yourself.