Jimmy Ashworth – “Running gets under your skin”

Even if you wanted to, it would be almost impossible to replicate the approach to running of Jimmy Ashworth. The world, for better or worse has irrevocably changed.

Jimmy’s a familiar face for many endurance fans but for most of his early life had little intention to get involved in the sport.

Jogging for fitness

“We got married, we had a young family and I was putting weight on. I thought I’ll do something to get fit and I just went out and did a bit of jogging. My wife said why don’t you join a club? I went down to join Bingley Harriers, they set of out the door and bang.

We hadn’t even crossed the football field and I got dropped so I just turned round and went back, said to my wife I flipping hate it it’s a waste of time.

She said give it another go and I did, lasted till the end of the football field, got dropped and then I just stuck at it because I did enjoy it.”

Within six months he entered his first 20-mile road race, running 2hrs 6 minutes on his 21st birthday. Though he would take almost half-an-hour off that time in later years (1.41.05 to win the 1984 Inter Counties 20), it was enough to get him hooked:

“It suits my nature, addictive personality. Running it’s one of these things that gets under your skin, it is an addiction, it’s an obsession. I think you must have that nature surely to succeed at the elite level because especially living in this country the weather can be against you quite a lot. I just went out and ran because that was all I was interested in.”

Jimmy Ashworth winning the Barnsley Half

Stepping up in distance

Despite settling on the marathon, Jimmy’s first desire was to be an 800m runner. His training partners at Bingley put paid to that.

“When I started to train and run, the two guys who were that little bit younger than me were Steve Binns and Colin Moore. Steve Binns went onto to run 13.27 when he was 19. When you’re training with someone as fast as that at that age and you’re getting left, dropped big style, even though you might be going fast yourself you think I’m not much.”

Binns would later run in the Seoul Olympics over 10,000m and finish fifth in the 1987 World Champs. Moore would run 28.13 over 10,000m. It was perhaps a warped perception of ‘fast’.

For a man who reiterates its always about racing to compete those training sessions forced his hand. Jimmy moved to the marathon and within 18-months of first being dropped at that Bingley session was running 100-mile weeks.

Rewards came quickly but looking back he admits a more gradual approach may have yielded greater success.

“I really believed that if I’d have trained at the volume but not gone into marathon running I’d have been a lot faster over the track and faster over the marathon.”

Marathon miles

What followed, even by the standards of the day was a relentless schedule. For the next ten years Jimmy would average between 130 and 150 miles per week, every week. His biggest? A frankly ludicrous 182.

Typical training week (just the sessions, every day a double)

  • Monday – Fartlek or hill work
  • Tuesday – Track in summer, a road session in winter. Anything from 10 miles sustained effort to repeat miles on the road
  • Wednesday – long run up to 15 miles
  • Thursday – A track session with the same overall volume but shorter reps.
  • Friday – 2 easy runs – for a period of time he ran 15 miles to work in the morning, 5 at lunch and 11 in the evening. “Friday was always my easy day.”
  • Saturday – track session or big session on the road
  • Sunday – Long run, between 20 and 33 miles – No double if he ran 30+ miles

It wasn’t just the running that tired Jimmy out, by day he worked in the scrapyard, his party trick being able to lift a mini engine on to a set of scales with his hands. Tiring physical work, coupled with what most would describe as an exhausting hobby.

“You get used to it, you’re constantly knackered but you actually get used to it. It was part and parcel that you’d be tired, there’d be no bounce in your legs, you were just dead. But I didn’t realise or understand that you need to have peaks and troughs. It was a constant thing. If I was racing this week and it was a 10-mile race and it wasn’t really important I’d drop down to 100.

I’d drop down less if I wanted to run really well but I’d race off 100 mile a week and I would still expect to go well. I remember running a half marathon in 64 minutes and I’d run a 100 mile that week. I’d drop down to about 70 for marathons.”

Jimmy Ashworth (far left) at the Great North Run 1988

Burning out

For Jimmy it’s hard to say the approach didn’t work, his 2.11.43 in winning Berlin still sits 43rd in the UK all-time list and he had four further Inter-Counties titles to boot.

It saw him travel to Lille, Venice, New York twice, win in Miami and Manchester and run 62:24 over the half. But there’s a part of him that, 35 years later, still leaves him questioning what might have been.

“With hindsight it were far too much. The balance between rest and recovery wasn’t there. There wasn’t the recovery there should have been to support the quantity I was doing. This is why I ended up being worn out, why I had a short career.

I sort of packed it in when I was 32, sort of dabbled around but I’d stopped training hard. I probably had maybe 12 years at it from starting running to finishing.”

Jimmy Ashworth at the 1989 Venice Marathon – Gelino Bordino winner of the 1988 Seoul Olympics (no 7)

Finding your limits

Jimmy’s running was built on a lack of compromise and whilst there’ll always be a morsel of regret there’ll be much more that will be thankful for finding out just how far he could go.

“I remember chasing Steve Jones at the Birmingham AAAs half marathon and he set out like a bat out of hell. A couple of guys followed him and I think the turning point was at two miles. You could see the pack was way away and really the race was over, I’d committed because I wanted to compete.

I didn’t set off thinking I need to look at my watch and do five-minute miling. I think the attitude would stay the same. I’d blow up a lot more because I’d go with the pacers because I wanted to compete. I think science is a great tool but so much gets stuck on the watch, instead of noting what’s happening with the group. Maybe if they committed and went with it they might surprise themselves.”

To see Jimmy run in today’s era, aided by the new shoes and gifted by the experience of his previous career would be some fantasy prospect.

In his story, there’s lessons to be learnt, both in pushing yourself to the limits and stepping back when you’re about to cross them.

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Featured image courtesy of Jimmy Ashworth twitter

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