On the 16th of January 1982, a fellow Durham City Harrier and very good friend of mine ran the Orange Bowl Marathon in Miami in 2 hours 14 minutes and 45 seconds. In 2012, that would have been good enough for fourth in the British rankings. Thirty years ago, on a Tuesday night in March, he waited with a nervous group of runners by the track in Gateshead stadium. There were twelve places available on the team for the national road relays, and, despite the fact that he was, at the time, one of Britain’s better marathon runners, he wasn’t convinced that was going to cut it for a place on the Gateshead Harriers team. The selectors had, at that time, an astonishing array of talent to pick from. Brendan Foster had medals on the world stage as well as world records to his name, Charlie Spedding would go on to win bronze in the 1984 Olympic marathon, and Dennis Coates had finished 5th in the Olympic steeplechase. And there were many others not far behind. For the record, my mate did get a place in the team – he ran the glory leg and Gateshead won by two and a half minutes.
In other words, he was a very good runner, and represented Great Britain on more than one occasion. But he was a lesser light amongst a group of distance runners in the north east who knew how to prepare to run fast over long distances.
Roll forward to the present day and the ever-declining standard of distance running in the UK, especially on the men’s side, has been discussed at great length. The answers to the problem, though, are often sought away from home, in the thin air of Iten, Kenya or in the Nike laboratories of Portland Oregon. I spent three months of last year in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, hoping that high altitude and superior coffee would be the answer (and writing a blog about my experiences here http://mikerunsawayfromhome.wordpress.com/), without it really occurring to me that the answers may have been better sought at the end of my mum’s street, where my distance running mate happens to live.
He has been coaching me on and off for the last seven years, and has shown admirable patience with my lack of that very same virtue. I’ve lost interest as a result of injuries on a number of occasions, spent my university summers in India, South America and China rather than on athletics tracks, and generally done a good job of displaying the lack of commitment which epitomises the shift in today’s running culture.
The world of running has changed a lot since its British heyday in the 70’s and 80’s. “It may be hard for anyone born after 1960 to believe,” Kenny Moore wrote, “but runners in those days were regarded as eccentric at best, subversive and dangerous at worst.” Now it seems, in Edinburgh at least, that everyone is a runner. In the running shop I work in, all kinds of people come in with variations of the same story. “For some reason, I’ve signed up to run a marathon, so I need some shoes,” they say, or “the guys in the office have talked me into running in their relay team.” For some, joining the fold as a “runner” has become a good way into office social life. Runners are respected, not mistrusted. Participation has come a long way since Kenny Moore’s time.
The ever-increasing popularity of running should lead to an improvement in standards, with the widening base of the pyramid pushing up its peak. In fact, it seems to have had the opposite effect. When I’m asked by people in the shop how much running I do, I tell them I run eighty to ninety miles per week. The usual response to this is a look of pity and something along the lines of “oh, so you’re a serious runner then.” The assumption seems to be that whilst running is seen as enjoyable, at least to an extent, anyone who does an excessive amount is seen to be killing that enjoyment.
I have nothing against mass participation running. I agree with Haile Gebreselassie, when he says he reckons that the world would be a saner place if everyone ran every day. But the expansion of the market for running-related products, energy foods, pilates and yoga for runners seems to have distracted people from the fact that running training is a simple process. So simple, in fact, that it would appear impossible to fill a monthly magazine with new ideas on how to do it better. Nevertheless, these magazines proliferate, with cover articles like “Train less, run faster!” and “how chocolate cake can make you a better runner!” (no, these aren’t made up). A simple activity has been complicated to suit the needs of sports brands who need to find ways to make money out of a sport which really only demands a half decent pair of trainers.
The argument that sports scientists tend to make when you point out that the likes of Brendan Foster and Charlie Spedding achieved all that they did without nutritionists and scientific testing is that they would have been even faster if they’d done these new things too. Huge amounts of scientific data are compiled on the benefits of training at altitude and on new forms of strength and flexibility training. But those trying to apply scientific methods conveniently fail to recognise the simple objective fact that British distance runners were faster thirty years ago than they are now. A lot faster. And that is the only test that really matters.
The most important aspects of a distance runner’s training are patience and consistency. These things are not glamorous. They don’t fit in particularly well in today’s society. There are no quick fixes and no immediate gratification. But there is satisfaction in something done to the best of your ability and with conviction. There is solace in repeating a simple activity until it becomes smooth, efficient and, of course, faster.
For the next few months, I’ll be referring to my coach’s training diaries for 1981 and 1982, and writing about the experience of doing the simple things right and trying to replicate the kind of training that was done in his day. The diaries represent two years of accumulated sweat and effort on his part distilled into numbers – 9,037 miles to be precise. They are pretty short on description, with the prize for most commonly used adjective going fairly overwhelmingly to “tired”, and contain only occasional elaboration (“tired – knackered actually”). They chronicle the day-in-day-out toil of trying to run 26.2 miles at as fast a pace as possible and the conviction that anything worth doing is worth doing right.
And so I’m off, to publicly try to challenge the theory that my generation are doing it all wrong. I can’t deny that it’s easier for me, after all. I’m a student; my coach had a marriage, a mortgage, children and a full time job to worry about. His final words of wisdom as I walked down his driveway: “Mike, lose those diaries, and I’ll kill you.”