Once again on Parliament Hill, amongst a sea of familiar vests, one made its way to the front. The green and gold of Wallsend, a distinctive undershirt beneath and a 20-year-old quickly making his mark.
Sam Charlton has established himself as one of Britain’s most exciting prospects, winning English Schools, Inter County and National titles in 2019 and going onto being a record breaker on the road.
On Saturday in the National Junior Men’s race he came fourth.
Foundations in football
When you think of Wallsend, most conjure the junior football club, Wallsend Boys Club where Peter Beardsley, Alan Shearer and Michael Carrick first learnt their trade.
Charlton was no different, playing for the club as a youngster and his introduction into athletics was a touch of fortune. He told us:
“At the time I was playing for them at around U8s to U10s. I did the Junior Great North run for charity as part of the club by chance. There was a lad on my team who was doing it, he was ill on the day and said do you want to use my number?”
Charlton entered the U11s race, finished 65th and said he loved the experience of racing against people his own age. Despite continuing with the football it was enough to tempt him back.
52nd as an U13, 46th the next year, in 2016 Charlton came ninth as an U15.
At this point Wallsend realized they might have a bit of a talent, even if they couldn’t have anticipated the degree to which that would prove true.
Representing the North-East
Paddy Dinsmore, Sam’s first coach was the first to spot it, setting the centre-midfielder a plan and weening him away from football.
Paddy is one in a number of good people from the North-East for whom Sam is keen to place credit. Another is Bill McGuirk, former head of the English Cross-Country Association, one of Wallsend’s first founders and a giant in Tyneside running and beyond.
“It’s a really good feeling when we get to represent them guys because they’re the one that have pushed us up to that top level and just believed in us when selecting to represent teams whether it’s the Inter-counties, Northumberland Schools, whatever. They’ve given us that belief that we could go and achieve something.”
Taking each step at a time
Reassuringly for any athlete reading this, success takes many different forms and one of the first fond memories Charlton has is his first English Schools in 2017.
“I think I was 126th. At the time I was over the moon with that because the way it was told to me is that you’re 126th in the country for your age. That sounded like a huge deal and it still is because there’s thousands of kids that go out to their school events. It was quite exciting at the time.”
That result goes down as Charlton’s worst English Schools performance. The next year he came sixth before winning it as a first year Senior Boy in 2019.
Dealing with the pressure
With such a rapid rise, you’d expect some pressure, going from not even knowing your competitors to being the guy everyone wants to beat.
Charlton, however, has largely seen each step as an opportunity rather than a potential stumbling block.
Whilst he admits moments where it has weighed on him, generally he’s maintained that outlook, seeing every race as an opportunity to showcase the green and gold.
A British record
One occasion where that wasn’t possible is one of Charlton’s best races to date. Racing the Abbey Dash in October, Charlton adorned the purple of Leeds Beckett, making his debut over the 10k distance.
Jon Gascoyne’s 1991 British U20 record of 29.35 had withstood almost 30 years of record attempts.
“When I got to 5k and saw the clock on the lead car and saw 14.39, I was doing the maths in my head thinking I’ve overcooked this a bit. I’ve messed this race up and gone through too fast. But then I kept building into the race and everyone told us before the race you’ll get to 7k and you’ll usually get that bite and really struggle at that point.
I got to that and I was waiting and waiting for that bite to happen and it never came. I didn’t really understand what was going on. This doesn’t really feel right, I just feel like I’m getting stronger and stronger.
Seeing the clock when I turned the corner for the finishing straight. I was looking ahead trying to see what it was and it was still in the 28s. The clock must be wrong. I’ve crossed the line and I’ve seen 29.20 odd and I was having to double check that the time was right and I was double checking with people that the course was definitely the right distance because obviously the year before it had been short.”
The course wasn’t and Charlton had taken 18 seconds off the junior record, finishing fourth in a stacked field.
Nudging that ceiling higher
We’ve seen countless examples of juniors who’ve achieved similar feats and then failed to make the next grade, but there seems little to indicate that will be the case for Charlton.
Under the patient tutelage of Helen Clitheroe, his biggest week ever is a modest 59 miles and the Wallsend man averages between 50 and 55 miles with three quality sessions. It’s much less than many of his training partners at the Leeds Talent Hub and without putting too much emphasis on it, Charlton believes it will be one day useful for his progression.
“There are some guys who are already on really high mileage at my age and don’t really have many more places to go with their training. For example a lot of the five k, ten k guys in their peak they’re probably running 100-miles a week. There’s 40 more miles I’ve got to build upon in my training to get to that level.
I think she’s (Helen’s) quite excited to see where she can take my training to. Of course I’m really excited for that too because I think that will make a big difference as well.”
British 5k record attempt
Just a few weeks ago at the Podium Under the Lights, Charlton came within two seconds of the 5k record, running 13.56 for fourth.
It wasn’t even a record he still thought he was eligible for but has since learnt that he has until August. On 12 March at Podium he will give it another go.
“I think it would be silly not to be aiming at that. I’m only two seconds off. I think it’s definitely within my reach. The BUCS was only six days before that race and it took me five of those days to actually pull myself around because that mud really drained my legs.
I was getting a bit worried that week of how it was going to affect the 5k. I was just having to do everything I could. I’m not very good at keeping on top of my stretching and stuff like that but last week I was on it because I knew I had to. My easy runs were at 7.30s when normally they’re at 7 minutes. I thought I’ve got to do everything I can just to recover my legs.
To be honest on the day they felt good but they didn’t feel as good as I know they can do and I think that was down to having that race still in my legs a bit so I think that just gives us extra positives for that next race on 12th March at Podium.
I just hope the conditions are good. It’s Podium, there are always top athletes there to drag you round so hopefully we can find that two seconds somehow.”
Two more seconds for an athlete who has made giant leaps over the last few years. On 12th March look out for the green and gold, showcasing the North East on a national level once more.
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Featured image – Mark Hookway