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.

Run 2015

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.

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.

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

What’s next

In the television series The West Wing, President Bartlet often concludes his administration’s efforts on a particular issue by saying “what’s next?”. It’s a signal to his team that it’s time to move on. They may have worked tirelessly to prevent a world war, or stave off a major disaster domestically, but their efforts are complete, and they have other things to focus on.

As I ran over the finish line of the Belfast Marathon in 2hrs 59mins 17seconds (49th place), I had a similar desire to refocus. Yes, I was utterly delighted to have broken the three hour mark, especially in front of my parents and son back in Northern Ireland. But it wasn’t a euphoric feeling, it didn’t feel like the end of something, only the start.

My target of running a sub three hour marathon started in earnest back in 2013. When I set the goal, I bought a really nice bottle of wine to reward myself with when I succeeded. I was fully focused, but it took a few marathons and a lot of training to get there.

In reality, Belfast was the first marathon that I was adequately prepared for. It was the first time I hadn’t suffered an injury in my build up, and the first time I didn’t peak too early. A clear twelve week block of training, lots of long tempo runs midweek, and double run days, delivered in the end. As I stood on the start line I knew that I was the right weight, had the correct nutrition, had trained properly and that the data showed I could run a sub three hour marathon. While I had hardly slept the night before the race, it didn’t matter as I had ticked all the boxes.

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When things got tough running up significant elevation on the Antrim Road to the halfway mark, and into headwinds from around 15miles, I simply told myself the numbers added up and that I was going to do it. When the rest of the pace group, and the pacers, dropped off, I repeated that mantra. I knew I was ready and was not going to miss my opportunity.

With just over a mile to go, I was determined not to leave anything to chance. A 6.15mins final mile saw me flying towards the finish line feeling fantastic. To see my mum, dad and son Toby a few yards from the end ensured I had a huge smile on my face. I had done it. Wow. Phew.

Post mararthon with Toby

Yet, even while having my timing chip removed from my laces, and trying not to allow my legs to wobble too much, I was already thinking about how much quicker I could run a flat marathon, or a half marathon if I trained specifically for it. What is wrong with me!?

So, I am now refocusing. I will target quicker races over the summer, with lots of parkruns, 5ks and 10ks. And with more speed, and less miles, I hope I can work on my half marathon time with a view to beating 80mins. I might even not run an autumn marathon to allow this refocus on speed. Let’s see what happens. All I know is that I have ticked off one major life objective and while hugely proud, I have plenty more to celebrate in the future. I still haven’t drunk that celebratory wine, I am keeping it for something quicker.

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.