Stephen Scullion – Unfinished business

I find Stephen Scullion in a coffee shop in Teddington. Barely a mile from the same track on which he’s plied his trade for almost 16 years, the same Bushy Park where shoeprints have left their mark from mile after mile of tempos, easy runs and the soul-searching in between.

Scull, as he’s known to many, is an athlete whose achievements very few can hope to emulate but one who’s ambitions will have a familiar feel for all those towing the line.

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Chasing a feeling

Only one Irishman in history has ran faster than the Belfast man did running laps of St James Park. A cold and wet October morning leaving some of the world’s best stepping to the side.

2.09.49, three minutes behind a broken Eliud Kipchoge and bettered only by John Treacy’s 2.09.15 on a Boston course many federations regard as record-ineligible.

Yet Scull, sat on a bench drinking his cortado, has every sense of a man with unfinished business.

“I raced three weeks before London in Larne and ran 61.08 for a half. Just how I felt that day. If Larne was 10/10, London was 5. And I ran 2.09 5/10. So London’s just fucked me. If London was 10/10 I could just call it and hang my shoes up and just go f**k it. That was it.

How I felt at Larne, it was one of those days where running just paid you back. It went, you’ve worked really hard, I’m going to help you out today. This is going to be a gift, you’re going to love it and I’m in my home. 20 mile up the road from where I live. My parents are there, I’m running with Mo Farah, who I’ve just trained for a month with in Font Romeu. It was just priceless. It was a gift.

That was special but of course now I’m fucked because I need to get on the startline of a marathon feeling like I did at Larne, so there’s still a better result there. “

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Choosing himself in Tokyo

The last 18 months have been tough for Scull.  His Olympic dream fulfilled, he made the startline of Tokyo after a tumultuous build-up in which, on occasion, the only option looked like stepping away from the sport:

“A lot of this time I’ve forgot a lot of pain can be purely psychological. It doesn’t present itself in an “ow”. It’s more of just a weight or a bad feeling, a sadness. And then what comes with that is you don’t feel as springy in your step. You’re not as confident. You’re not as sure of yourself. So how on earth could you perform on the biggest stage of all?

It’s really terrible timing to be going through the little things that I was dealing with. I look back now and I’m like wow that was heavy. It’s just a shame it was the Olympics.”

Scull earnt that place in Tokyo, no-one else did and it was as much his right to step to the side miles later:

“I was kind of surprised but in a way it sounds unfair. I was almost proud of myself in that moment for picking me. I didn’t pick people on Twitter. I didn’t pick the people that were going to judge you.

 I picked a broken man that was hurting and went today I’m going to stick up for you and if you don’t want to do this, we won’t do it. And I go to the side and I walk off and I didn’t regret that. I still don’t regret that. I’ll never regret that.”

Finding perspective

The 33-year-old followed Tokyo with a return to Larne, just less than a year on from finding that magical feeling on the Antrim coast. His performance was over two minutes slower, leaving Scull sat on his Belfast sofa reflecting on what he describes as his worst year as an athlete.

With one mate sat to his side, perhaps tipsy from a stag do he’s just attended and another laughing at him from another sofa, in comes a video call from a former training partner.

Mo Farah had started the race that day in Larne and had been speaking to a listener of Scull’s podcast. An honest and frank portrayal of the often loneliness and vulnerability of life as an elite marathon runner, Scull is often his own worse critic.

“Don’t you know you don’t owe anybody anything Scull.” The four-time Olympic Champion tells him.

And he doesn’t. The bemused faces to the left and right of Scull give him a reminder of just how far he’s come. From a boy riddled with nerves heading to an Irish Schools XC, an adolescent getting in trouble a few years later, to a man who has held his own alongside some of the world’s best.

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Laps of the lake

It brought him back to a few months before and his stay at altitude in the Pyrenees:

“There was a moment during that camp in Font Romeu, Sunday morning and I’m doing laps of this lake on a long run and I’m hurting and Mo knows I’m hurting, so madness he actually just told me to sit in.

Two mile into a long run I’m hurting and we’re working.

The next 18 miles he just leads. I think we’re running like 5.15-20 pace at altitude and it’s no wonder I’m hurting.

I got to a moment probably about 16 miles where I just went, can you just open your eyes a minute? You have Mo Farah leading you round this lake. On a long run, he’s helping you. The sun’s shining, you’ve no shirt on.

Do you know how much money people would pay to not only go for a run with Mo but go for a run with Mo at this speed as organic as that was? It wasn’t forced there were no awkward hellos, no ‘nice to meet you, let’s go for a run’. It was a priceless moment.”

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Seeking balance

2022 has seen Scull approach running differently, no longer will he excuse himself from social occasions and find himself isolated in his flat, instead he is attempting to find some balance.

“I still think I can get better but I need to do it a different way than I’ve been doing because you’re getting a bit miserable by this point. I’ve said no to every social thing that has existed for 15 years and if I did say yes to something it got way out of hand and I retired because I got too drunk and felt guilty. I thought oh my god I’m a bad runner, I’m a bad person. I quit.

This year I thought let’s try something different, balance, moderation. We’ll go to the pub have a couple of pints, we’ll go home, go for a run the next day and not beat ourselves up about it.

I’ve found that the fitness is seemingly good but I’ve found better balance in terms of happiness and maybe those parts of my personality coming back can lead to, if not better results, then it’ll lead to me still being an athlete for three/four years.

If you kept the trajectory you were on, not only were you getting worse, 2021 was my worst year, you were getting very close to a place where you were like no.”

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Representing his country

For the first time in years, Scull has avoided altitude and instead returned to south-west London. Partnering with European Indoor finalist Jack Rowe as well former GB junior Dan Jarvis, Scull has embarked on what he describes as good honest hard work. He’s pleased with the progress he’s made.

It sees him head to Rotterdam next weekend with a genuine chance of running quicker than he ever has before. A World Champs qualifier of 2.11.30 one goal but further ambitions await.

“I definitely think there’s still a faster marathon in me and I hope to god one day I can run in an Irish vest or a Northern Ireland vest and actually run well at a championship. I’ve had so many sh**e championships.”

A month or so after Rotterdam Scull will go for the Commonwealth time at the Night of the 10,000m in Highgate, North London. 28.30 is a mark he feels confident of bettering and he flirts with the idea of also running a 5,000 (13.30) ahead of those Games.

A marathon at the European Champs has a nice ring to it and then hopefully a reunion with the best on the planet at Oregon.

20 years in the making, ups and downs along the way but continuing to move forward, Stephen Scullion continues to chase that feeling.

With thanks to Stephen Scullion.

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Featured image “2017 London Marathon – Stephen Scullion (2)” by katieteresachan is marked with CC BY-SA 2.0.

Dave Clarke – Three races that made me

Sitting down with Dave Clarke, it’s almost impossible to distill a 20-year-long career into a few thousand words. 12 appearances at the World Cross-Country, three National XC titles and two decades racing the best in Europe, here’s our attempt; three races that made me.

World Cross-Country Championships 1983

Riverside Park, Gateshead, 20th March 1983. Green and gold up front, a string vest resting on the torso of a moustachioed man who would become marathon world champion later that year, Rob de Castella.

To his right Carlos Lopes barely eighteen months from Olympic gold. Alberto Salazar resplendent in undergarments from top to toe.

Bekele Debele of Ethiopia moments away from his greatest triumph. Some Muge about to win Kenya’s first ever individual medal.

Antonio Prieto, the Spaniard working hard to stay in touch and at the back of the pack, a blonde-haired England vest, peering over the top.

The commentator says:

“Good to see Dave Clarke’s got himself back to the sort of form we expect of him. He was the National Cross Country champion last year. He was second at Luton.”

In era where British runners excelled on the track, the roads and the cross, Dave Clarke is on his way to another underrated achievement, seventh in the World Cross Country Champs 1983, his second top-10 placing in as many years.

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But for the man who would go on to win four team medals across the event’s history it is still a case of what if:

I got dropped on the penultimate lap and caught them up on the last and stayed with them all the way round the hills. I just got dropped with about 700 yards to go. I always looked back and I’d been quite ill. Hutchings had won the National but I’d had a lousy awful cold. I spent most of my Nationals in those years on antibiotics.

People say now you shouldn’t race on antibiotics, well I had no option! You didn’t run the race, you didn’t make the team. In some ways I ran very well.

That was a brilliant race but I always just wished if I could stay with them that little bit longer then what would have happened in the last bit? I’d have finished higher than 7th.

But it was a massive who’s who of everyone who’s anybody, these amazing athletes. But in 82 and 83. I hadn’t been injured. I was getting better and better and there was absolutely no reason why when you went into a race that you were worried about anybody. Why should you be?”

1978 English National – Bernie Ford versus Ian Stewart

Barely five years before that run in Gateshead, Dave Clarke had decided he was going to take the sport seriously. Gone were the weeks of running 15 miles and winning the odd Surrey medal, now he would ditch the cricket and various other pursuits that caught his attention.

A few months later he was up in Roundhay Park for the National XC:

“In 1978 I finished third in the national as a Junior. It was a lovely day at Leeds and I watched the Seniors afterwards. This is one of the great Nationals of all-time.

If you were at Leeds and you were one side of the slope you could hear them coming before they came. It was a procession, the who’s who of every single distance runner you’d seen on the television, you’d recognized in Athletics Weekly.

At the front in the last two laps it was Bernie Ford against Ian Stewart. Behind them Tony Simmons, Dave Black, Steve Ovett. It was just this line. The speed they went through was wow.

Ian Stewart, 2604 alongside Bernie Ford, Tony Simmons, Dave Black and Steve Ovett behind – credit: Peter Tempest

Olympic medalist versus the hard man of Surrey

It was a head-to-head coming into the last mile. Bernie Ford against Ian Stewart. The two of them came past me with about a mile and a half to go. They were just side by side smashing it out.

They hit the bottom of the hill. Bernie was the cross-country runner. Ian Stewart was the bronze medalist in the 5000m, he was also a 1500m runner.

You just thought if Bernie doesn’t destroy him up the last hill there’s no way he’s going to win. It’s 400 metres from the top to the finish. They went up the hill side by side, came off the top side by side and then you didn’t see them again. You jog towards the finishing area and think what happened?

Bernie Ford won it by two seconds. You thought no way, how could he have beaten the Olympic bronze medalist? But he did. They were just wonderful days.

You saw so many good people. Then you got on with your own training. That was still ’78 and you’ve got a long way to go.”

When three years later Clarke made his debut at the World Cross, who else would be his room-mate but the man he describes as the hard-man of Surrey, Bernie Ford?

The pair would train together for a number of years.

1982 English National – The first of three titles.

Clarke would finish a distant and lonely second chasing Julian Goater round Parliament Hill in 1981 but returned to Roundhay Park for the Senior National quietly confident:

“I went up to Leeds and Pat Butcher was the Times correspondent at the time. I’d stayed with a lady called Christine Boxer who was a Loughbrough student on the way up. We were at the services and Pat came up.

He said, “Hi Dave can I have a chat about the race? Who do you think’s going to win today because McLeod’s here and he’s in great shape and Moorcroft’s here and all these people. And he went through all these people and I said yeah they’re in good shape.

 I did the warm up with Grenville Tuck (who would finish 46th) and I just ran round with him. Reasonable day, bit windy, little rain but not much. After the race Grenville came up to me and said I knew you were going to win the race, on the warm up I was flat out and you were just chatting to me.

It was a bit of a battle, mainly because on the first lap there was a strong-ish wind against you on the last bit. Roundhay Park was a good course but it had two big hills in it. The last one was “hill 60”.

Generally whenever we ran there there was a hot dog stand right on the top of the hill and also there’d be a bloke normally there with a cigar. And you can imagine you’re there desperately trying to get oxygen and there’s cigar smoke wafting in your face and the hot dog stand next door to you.

Dave Clarke (far right) in the 1982 National, Dave Moorcroft (689), Mike McLeod (925), Barry Knight (3175)

On the first lap into the wind, Mike and I had got away a bit and I turned to McLeod, “do you want to alternate a bit and we can get away from these into a headwind?”

He just turned to me and went “f**k off” in the way only a northerner could do.

So I said that’s a no then is it? We battled against each other all the way round the second lap and near the end of the second, we came to the second of the big hills and there’s this huge crowd lining both sides of the course. Most of them are northerners. It was that time where there was the song Hey Mickey.

There are all these Northerners going, “hey Micky you’re so fine”.

“Go on Mickey, stuff the Southern b**t**d. Go on Mickey stuff him.”

My friend Alex turned up at the right time. In the side of the crowd, I’m running there and he’s going f**k the c**ts and I’m thinking ‘jesus Alex for God’s sake leave it out’. I’m going to get disqualified if you keep using this language.

He was running two metres to the side saying go on get the b**tard and eventually I pulled away from him and ran the last lap on my own.

Dave Clarke at the 1982 National – Credit: Peter Tempest

The most frightening thing of all, when you’re at Leeds you come off the lake, up a slope round a summer house and then straight back down, just 20 metres from where you’d been coming up.

Imagine, I think I won by 14 seconds. As you’re 30 metres down, you’ve got hundreds of people coming up and you’re thinking s**t I’ve got a mile and a half to go, basically there’s 1600, 1700 people chasing me.

It’s quite a chilling sort of situation to be in because you’re thinking if my shoelace comes undone or I fallover or get tired, I’ve had it. I won’t even make the team, let alone win the damn thing.”

His shoelaces stayed tight and his body vertical. He would add two more National titles before he was done, a total only two men in history have bettered.  

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Featured image by John Burles.

Callum Elson – from footballer to sub-four

A footballer three years ago, a distance runner in December, Callum Elson is now a bonafide miler.

On 12 February 2022 Callum became the 217th Brit to run a sub-four-minute mile, finishing second in 3.59.71 at the BU Valentine meet in Boston, Massachusetts.

Fast forward a month and Elson is the NCAA Div II Indoor Mile champion, winning a national title in just his fifth ever mile outing.

It’s an eye-catching rise, one followed by the thousands of followers of his sub-elite focused Instagram, the Distance Project and enough to earn a supportive text from his football-loving dad:

“Who do you think you are, Roger Bannister?”

Football first

Elson is not without pedigree. His mother, Sara, represented Great Britain at the World Junior Champs over 400m Hurdles, but it was football that captured his early attention.

Callum joined his local team and by seven had been asked to play with Leeds United Academy. Four times a week he would train, one of the smaller players buzzing around in centre-mid, and playing with Leeds until he was 14.

Elson still played to a good level after his departure, regularly representing Leeds Schoolboys, but slowly he realized he might have even greater talent elsewhere. Elson said:

“The main attributes (my teammates) would say. One that I was loud because I always shout on the pitch and lose my head a bit but secondly that I would just run around like crazy in terms of the endurance. For whatever reason, getting around the pitch was my greatest attribute.”

Callum Elson and his two sporting passions.

A different kind of double

Elson decided to try out his local parkrun in Roundhay Park, running low 19 minutes as a 13/14 year-old. Parkruns morphed into local cross-country leagues and before too long his juggling act commenced.

“My mum was driving me over to the cross-country in the morning. I would race a local cross-country come like sixth or seventh being a tiny little kid against big guys that were doing it seriously and then I’d drive straight in the car. Spikes off, football boots on. Arrive literally just before kick-off and they’d say ‘oh you’ve had a warm-up Callum’. Then I’d play football for 60 minutes, 70 minutes and that was just the weekend.”

Callum persuaded his school to enter him as their sole representative in the West Yorkshire Schools Cross Country, where he did enough to earn a vest and become a regular at the English Schools. 142nd in 2013, 184th the next, 152nd in his first senior boys.

Callum Elson finishing second in a BMC A 3000 in Leeds in May 2021

Schoolboy success

His years would look the same, play football throughout winter and spring, then run in the off-season.

2017 came around and Callum made a pretty startling breakthrough, one that probably makes the subsequent ones easier to fathom.

“How the age groups worked, when I was the younger age group Emile Cairess was always the one above me so he would destroy everyone. When you’d go to English Schools you’d think, hopefully Emile can come in the top ten and we’ll just fill the numbers in the 150th or whatever.

But for some reason that year (2017) I’d actually won the County’s and I’d thought I’d won the county’s because not many people had turned up.”

National breakthrough

He’d quickly find out why he had won the West Yorkshire title. In Norwich at English Schools he’d start front of the pen and finish 16th.

“You look at the people in front of me and it was Tom Mortimer, George Mills, Angus McMillan, like they’re all within one or two places of me. They’re all now some of the best runners in GB. Some of them running professionally. So whether that was a mix of hitting puberty, being stronger, whether it was actually cumulative as you’ve being doing some training. I just ran really well and thought that’s decent.”

Decent indeed, but not good enough for Callum to leave football behind altogether.

“It probably shocked other people more than me. Kevin Hussey (Ethan Hussey’s dad) was the team manager for us and I think they were like bloody hell that is high.  Butnot good enough for me to start pursuing running and go to Leeds City. Arguably the best club in the country which is right on my doorstep.

I would just start training in the summer, go off play football. Go to uni, play football for three years. So yeah it was impressive.

If I could go back and say to myself today, bloody hell you could be on to something here I probably would but that’s not how it works out.”

Callum Elson competing for AIC in the Cross

Chasing the team atmosphere

Elson went to Durham University, initially trying to focus more on athletics but the buzz of team football slowly drew him back to the sport:

“I’m really big on the camaraderie and the team side of football I really like. That’s what I try and have here (in America) with the college team. Track and field is such an introverted sport sometimes and you get such dedicated people that you don’t always have that team element. I think that’s why so many people are attracted to America because it seems like in the NCAA you have that team atmosphere.”

That’s what I’m trying to always put on people here. It’s like come on, lighten up. Let’s arrive 10 mins early, have a bit of banter as we put on our spikes. Let’s not do 10 x k and leave.”

AIC at the NCAA Div 2 East Regionals

An individual sport?

Probably because I wasn’t part of an athletics club when I was younger that was probably why I had that view that running had always been an individual thing that I would do.

Running does have that team side to it. Thinking back, if I’d gone to Leeds City, people like Emile that have gone on to amazing things. Josh Dickinson, they’re all training in that environment now.

You only have to look at their social media for two minutes to see the camaraderie they have when they’re all training together. It’s good that people can see that through Sweat Elite and different things now.

You see an insight into what running’s actually like. It isn’t as simple as you just turn up to a track and do your thing. Whether it’s in hindsight or I’m just slightly a different personality now, I really see the team element of it.”

Callum Elson and his AIC Team celebrating a conference title.

Moving to AIC

While chasing that team atmosphere at university, staying in touch with athletics over the off-season did have its benefits.

It was Callum’s outings over 5k and 10k that drew the attention of the then American International College coach Lee Mayo:

“At this point (2019) I’m probably doing four or five months where I’m focusing on running. I’m trying to do some 5ks, 10ks. At this point I’m getting pretty decent times in the grand scheme of things. I got down to 15.12.

Those times for Division 2 NCAA are still pretty decent.

Leo Mayo reached out to me and said are you interested at all in American college? Have you thought about it? And me being me, graduating from Durham I either had chances to continue for interviews for graduate schemes and head down to London for a job or have the opportunity to come out to America.

He was like look if you come here in this environment I think you can get down to a level where you can be good enough for us if that makes sense. You’re going to be competitive at the conference level. You’re going to score some points which is what they want.

I don’t think they could have envisaged that I would have gone on to run the times that I have and really pushed on in that sense. That’s the same as everyone in our team. No-one came over as someone that was identified as winning a national title but they’ve stumbled across some hidden gems if you will. Guys that didn’t really have the potential to go to top D1 schools but have come here.

 and now we’ve got a guy who runs 1.48, we’ve got me 3.59, we’ve got a 13.40 5k guy.”

The journey continues

Callum’s progress may seem explosive but the fault lines were already there. A 14.07 5k man, sub 4 miler with a national title to his name, Callum is an inspiration for all those sub-elite athletes hoping to take the next step.

It’s a journey so far built on hard work, discipline and being a student of the sport. To watch it continue, with international vests the ambition, follow the Distance Project for regular updates.  

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Featured image from Callum Elson, the Distance Project.

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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“What excites you the most leads to the best performances” – Matt Leach

Matt Leach speaks to me from across the Atlantic, fitting in an hour or so conversation around 100 weekly miles and life as a software engineer at Google.

It’s quickly apparent he’s an intelligent man but with his athletics there’s a side of the old romantic.  

You’d be forgiven for thinking Leach is a marathon runner now. 2021 saw him improve his best to 2.15.31, finishing 9th in London on his second attempt at the distance.

A very respectable showing, just over a minute outside the qualifying standard for the European Champs and 91 secs outside England Athletics’ own Commonwealth bar.

With a 62.57 half-marathon best, part of a father and son combined world record (his 55-year-old father ran 71.10) it suggests there’s plenty left to come.

Matt Leach – second from left in the British Champs 5000m, 2021 – Credit: Mark Hookway

25 lap return

For now, however, marathon ambitions are on hold with Leach planning a return to the track for the Night of the 10,000m on May 14th. He told us:

“I think a big thing that my coaches over the years have encouraged is do what feels right. I feel like I really want to run fast on the track.

You should do what you want to do. All these races are really cool. The Night of the 10,000m, the London marathon it’s a really fun race and doing what excites you the most leads to the best performances as well.”

Matt Leach running the 2018 Night of the 10,000m – Photo credit: Mark Hookway

It means rather than chasing a Commonwealth standard that 99 Brits in history have run, he instead focuses on an even more ambitious 10,000m time. England Athletics have made the goal for the 10,000m 28:00, a mark only 33 Englishmen have ever bettered.

In finishing 4th Brit in last year’s Olympic 10,000m trials the former Bedford and County man ran 28.22, a second outside his two-year-old lifetime best.

“I feel there’s a lot of time that could come down in the 5k, 10k. 28 flat is a nice round number. I’d like to run that or as close as I can as possible. I feel there’s more time in the legs after last year.”

Long-term goals

Running fast on the track is clearly something important for Leach and it all helps towards a goal he’s happy to whisper quietly; making the GB team for the Paris Olympics.

“I do say it out loud because if I talk to people at work and they say it, they ask this question and the Olympics is the obvious thing to say. And I guess it’s not so out of the question that it doesn’t feel wrong.

I don’t think about it that much, I just want to be as good as I can be and wherever that takes me is where it is. Have fun, try and be as fast and as good as I can be. See what happens.”

Matt Leach at the Watford Open Graded Meeting 1500, 28 Jun 2017 – Credit: Mark Hookway

From Cambridge to San Francisco

It’s an attitude that has got him to this point, so why change it? His time at Cambridge University under the tutelage of Phil O’Dell saw him improve from a decent county-level athlete to third place at the 2014 BUCS 5000m.

It earned him a scholarship to San Francisco University, allowing him to juggle professional ambitions in the tech industry with the next steps in athletics. From there he continued to build.

“From my personal point of view consistency is a big thing. Trying to build miles on top of miles, years on top of years. Not trying to push it too far that you end up getting injured, taking a few steps forward but three steps back.

Every year I try and keep on improving. This year I’m trying to take my strength and conditioning more seriously than I have done in the past.”

Peninsula Distance Club

After university Leach chose to stay on the west coast, linking up with his current coach Dena Evans at Peninsula Distance Club.

“Peninsula Distance Club is a running club based in the Bay Area. We have probably around 50 or so people maybe 20 to 30, who train regularly, meet two maybe three times a week. For a Tuesday and maybe a Saturday session.

It’s almost entirely people who’ve graduated. There’s a fair number of Stanford Phd students as well as people who work in the area. It’s just a really great community and a lot of people who I’ve become good friends with over the years.

We do 800 all the way up to the marathon and there’s been some people who run ultras. We have a big range, a really big group and I think I’ve been lucky to find that after graduating because I do think there’s more of a club system in the UK for once you leave university.”

Matt Leach in the 2018 British Champs over 5000m

Work/life imbalance

I look to wrap up the conversation, aware that Leach is a busy man. That’s clear to see and despite support from London Marathon Events and SOAR, he still essentially pursues his ambitions as a hobby.

“I always had it in my head that when I started running the marathon I would go part-time at my job because it is just a lot more training, you’re really tired all the time. There were definitely days where I was struggling at work because I was too tired.

But the marathon has come, I’ve run it and I’m still working full-time so that hasn’t happened. I do think about going part-time but I think it’s something very personal to each individual. For me I would want to be doing something that isn’t just being a professional runner.”

With big ambitions for the track, a breakthrough year in 2022 may force Leach’s hand but for now he’s happy to juggle it all.

In doing so he provides that little bit of inspiration for every other athlete doing the same.

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“The only way you build consistency is being a step back” – Kris Jones and a summer of twin ambitions.

Kris Jones raced at the weekend in the Scottish Inter-District. He won, perhaps no great shock to many neutral observer but it was significant nonetheless.

Kris hasn’t raced since last summer’s Olympic 10,000m trials. That day in June the Welshman ran 28.23.50, fifth Brit and crucially well under the Commonwealth Games standard. Since fast 10,000 m races are difficult to come by, he tells me that Birmingham felt like his last shot at getting under the 28.30 he required. 

Recovering from long-term injury

Little did Kris know that just a few weeks later problems started to emerge. A stress reaction on his femur.

“I went for a scan and I had swelling on the bone tissue. I tried to read up as much as you can and it [bone injuries] tends to be if you’ve got risk factors. Big changes in your training, issues with not getting enough energy, being deficient in certain nutrients and we were going through everything. I had blood tests and it seemed there wasn’t any factor associated with it.”

Weeks off and little signs of improvement, Kris remembered something about a run after the 10,000 m race. Like he often does running in the mountains and through the forests Kris had been bitten by a tick, removing it like he always does. It is a regular occurrence in his life as a top-level orienteer. But unlike most ticks, this one carried Lyme’s disease.

A test confirmed as much and Kris, aided by antibiotics, walked the tightrope of hoping to avoid some of the disease’s worst effects. Chronic fatigue for months, years on end. Anything like that and Kris’s place with the elite would likely be over. 

Fortunately for Kris it isn’t and his showing over the weekend confirms as much.

Credit: Kris Jones

Orienteering – A family affair for Kris Jones

Whilst his life at the sharp end of UK athletics has been a more recent phenomenon, Kris’s success in orienteering dates far longer.

“I first started orienteering when I was about 11-12, just locally in Swansea. My dad did it and he took the whole family along. It’s quite a good sport for that because you can all go out and do your own race and there’s different levels of difficulty. The kids do shorter, easier courses and the parents do more difficult courses.

I got involved in running through that. I’d join my dad for a run. I thought if I can get better at running I’ll get better at orienteering and it was always that way around. I was making county teams, Abertawe schools, West Wales but I was more interested in the orienteering.”

International selection

It wasn’t long before Kris started making international teams, being picked for British Orienteering in the 2008 European Youth Orienteering champs, where he enjoyed an up and down weekend:

“I was entered for the long distance, relay and a sprint distance. I think it would be a 70-minute race, a 30-minute race and a 15-minute race.

I think I might have been disqualified in the long distance. I punched the wrong checkpoint. I think I ran quite well in the relay, and I won the sprint.”

Three races in a weekend might seem a lot to those involved in athletics but for orienteers it’s part of the beauty of the sport.

“I quite enjoyed that aspect that you could always race. As soon as you’ve done a race you were on to the next one. It’s a little bit less physically intense than running but it’s difficult because you have to navigate. You’re kind of running at a threshold level and you quite often see orienteers racing really frequently because of that.”

Credit: Alexander Chepelin – Kris Jones competing at the European Orienteering Champs 2018

Sticking with the sprints

Kris began to realise the sprint distance was the event for him, aided both by how it suited his strengths and his ability to train.

“To train for orienteering you need to have lots of good terrain. We don’t have lots of it in the UK, concentrated pockets of good terrain.

Quite a lot of people I grew up with orienteering have ended up moving to Scandinavia because they have a huge amount more forest than we do. It’s a much bigger sport out there, so there’s a lot more support in terms of clubs and races and things like that. I never really got on that path to move somewhere with lots of terrain.

The exception is the sprint distance. It’s a 15-minute race and it tends to be quite simple navigation.

The difficulty of the sprint is that you are running at potentially 3 minutes per kilometer. You’re running really fast. The navigation isn’t difficult but some of the decisions are. You’re deciding between two different route choices and if you run an extra 100-metres that’s an extra 20 seconds on your race time. In a 15-minute race that could be the difference between winning a medal or not.

We’ve got loads of really great sprint terrain in the UK. We’ve got lots of towns. Lots of old towns or council estates tend to be like a labyrinth.”

Success came quite quickly for Kris, winning World Junior silver in the Sprint Distance in 2010. Three years later he was 16th in the senior edition in Finland.

Credit: Unknown – Kris Jones at the European Orienteering Champs 2018

Dual pursuits

In tandem with orienteering progress his running also improved, though Kris will admit it was constant consistent progression rather than huge breakthroughs that helped.

15.19 for 5k aged 20, 19th in the BUCS XC in his third year as an undergraduate at Sheffield Hallam, a move to Loughborough for his Masters took it up another rung as did his PHD a year or so later.

“From 2010 to 2015 it was a little bit better each year but I was still in elite sport, improving. I felt like I was an athlete. I wasn’t running fast times on the track or anything but I was GB for British Orienteering and I had aims of getting selected for the World Champs or trying to improve my result there.

Those things keep you moderated, because I think the temptation is to think I’ve got all this motivation to be really good and I’m going to do it all, go really hard but it’s the consistency.

The only way you build consistency is being a step back.”

Without limits

Speaking to Kris he makes it sound so easy, gradual improvements but achievable ones too. Their mind-boggling nature comes from the fact they appear to have no ceiling.

“I’ve always looked at the next step so it’s been quite a few stages where I’ve surprised myself. I ran the Scottish 5k champs on the track and I wanted to run a good deal under 15. I sort of thought I could run 14.45 or 14.40 and I ran 14.20. There’s been a few occasions where that’s happened.”

That was 2016, a year in which he also made significant breakthroughs in orienteering. Fourth in the World Champs in three different events. The sprint, the sprint relay, and the relay.

Steadily Kris was making the rise to the very best, both in the UK as an athlete and the world in orienteering. 14.20 became 14.03 on the road in 2017, 13.45 on the track in 2018, significant improvements that enabled a further step-change moment in orienteering.

In 2018 Kris won bronze in the European Champs in Ticino, Switzerland. In a Euro-centric sport, the result really does allow him to say he is one of the finest on the planet. 

Credit Anwen Darlington – Kris Jones running at the Olympic Trials

Commonwealth ambitions

It’s progress that puts Kris in a well-earned but enviable position as an athlete who would count himself mightily unlucky not to be in Wales’ Commonwealth team. And it should serve inspiration for anyone out their ploughing their own path, taking it one day at a time.

“No-one would have picked at school that I would potentially be in the frame to run for Wales in the Commonwealth Games. I do the same as anyone in a running club. I’m training in my spare time. I buy my own shoes. It’s essentially a hobby, I just spend an awful lot more time doing it.

I think the Commonwealth games you see a lot more of those athletes. Those are the stories that every time the Commonwealth Games come around I almost latch on to.

In Glasgow it was Steve Way. He was a smoker, overweight and then he’s running in the Commonwealth Games for England. In Australia it was Robbie Simpson.

No-one would have picked me for it. No-one would have said watching Swansea Harriers in 2006, you wouldn’t have said that’s the one.

I’ve run European Cross Champs. I’ve run World Half Marathon Champs. I see the Commonwealth Games as the biggest.”

Kris’s win on Saturday will be a welcome relief, one that gets him rolling into the spring with a double on the horizon. The World Orienteering Champs in June and the Commonwealths in August.

With a career of hard graft and challenging moments behind him it’s a summer many years in the making.

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Featured image by Bobby Gavin.

“I need a strong character to coach me” – Luke Duffy on new beginnings with the Run Yard

It is easy to see 2021 as a breakout year for Luke Duffy. A senior GB vest, Euro-Cross relay gold, three second personal bests in both the 800 (1.49.56) and 1500m (3.42.33). By most standards it was an impressive jump. But when you put it in context it suggests there’s plenty left to come.

For three-quarters of 2021 Luke had no coach. The passing of George Gandy in October 2020 left the Loughborough Head of Endurance position vacant for more than a year.

He recalls:

“I ended up waiting and saying whoever they hire (as Head of Endurance) I’m going to get them to coach me but they never hired anyone. I ended up doing the group sessions which were literally just Gandy’s sessions. Gandy was coaching me from beyond the grave. And doing my own runs and tempos and race prep which didn’t really work. It only really worked in that I was running a lot.

I ended up peaking at random times, having a really good run one week and a rubbish one the next. I managed to pb over everything but I didn’t have as big a year as I would have liked.”

Luke Duffy racing in Dortmund in 2020 (3.45.39)

“I’d rather be exceptional at one event than good at loads.”

Luke knew finding the right fit in a coach was crucial:

“I’m probably quite difficult to coach if you’re more laid-back. The coaches I’ve had in the past that have worked for me have always been strong characters which I respected quite a lot. I took their opinion very seriously.”

Luke’s housemate is his long-time Midlands rival Josh Lay, who in early 2021 started training under Matt Yates and the Run Yard group. Other members include Dan Rowden, Ossama Meslek, Sean Molloy and Yusuf Bizimana (when back from the States).

Luke remembers Josh linking up with Matt:

“Josh was really banged up at the time he went to Matt. He was injured the whole winter. I saw it worked for him. Josh ran 3.56 for the mile off probably five weeks training.”

Matt decided that Luke could be someone who would fit well in the Run Yard group and after a few conversations the pair began working together in October 2021.

Training adaptations

Luke noted some clear immediate changes to his training:

“Before, in 2021 and 2020, it’s been plenty of easy running, a session Tuesday that isn’t necessarily that hard just high volume. Tempo Thursday, grass session Saturday, long run Sunday. Repeat that every seven days.

Matt doesn’t really see it like that. He doesn’t really work in seven-day cycles. There are sessions that are there every week. Tuesday will always be a session but then it will be either Thursday or Friday or sometimes a double session Friday.

In between it wouldn’t necessarily be loads of easy double running. It might be an easy run and then a bike or a cross trainer and stuff like that. He’ll throw bike sessions in there and obviously gym. That’s been a lot different. A lot more specific to 1500m running.

I’ve noticed this past few weeks there’s many different ways to skin a cat. You don’t have to go and run a 100-mile a week and do these sessions, do this thing. There’s plenty of other ways to do it.”

Luke Duffy ahead of a Watford BMC 1500m in 2021 (3.42.33)

A changed mindset

The biggest change for Luke, however, hasn’t been physical:

“Another massive difference I’ve noticed is around racing, race day, the lead up to races. There’s a clear view of what needs to be done in the race. You can visualize it and in the race you can be more present if you have a plan.

Last season I’d be on the start line thinking I’m going to sit in the pack and get round and hopefully I’ll run a certain time. We went to Liverpool for the European Cross-Country trial. We walked the course on the day and he took me through every part of the course. What we needed to do on every exact part of the course.

It took a lot of pressure off myself. Let me just tick the boxes of the goals I’ve set for the whole race. Move up at a certain point, at this position. It took the mental side out of it really.”

“No-one’s had that kind of faith in me.”

Luke notes his training prior to Liverpool wasn’t exceptional.

“The times I was doing weren’t necessarily amazing. But to have Matt who had such faith in me. “You should make the top two, we’re going to try and win it”.

No-ones had that kind of faith in me in the past and therefore I haven’t had the faith in myself. Running’s very mental so if you have faith in yourself it can be the extra 1% you need.”

Luke finished second, booking his place in Dublin but after a brief hug it was back to business. He remembers Matt’s instructions:

“Put your trainers on and go and do some strides up on the path. I was like no, there was no way I could do that. I was absolutely knackered. That’s the kind of coach I need really, someone with a bit more of an elite mindset.”

Junior success

Luke’s 2021 success didn’t come completely out of the blue. He was a youth with serious pedigree. Aged 16 he earned Commonwealth Youth bronze in the 1500m. To do so he ran 3.49. No under 17 in the UK got within three seconds of him that year.

“I was a kid. I’d been running for two, three years. I wasn’t even training that much. Everything was just coming so easy to me. The Bahamas year was probably a gift and a curse. It was great to have that but it knocked me back for a couple of years because nothing ever lived up to that. I thought I’ve made it here. I was getting awards and kit drops and stuff like that. Everything was going great and I just thought I’m the best. I can do what I want.”

Luke realized over the next couple of years he couldn’t, getting overtaken in his later years of school and making negligible improvements to his times. What once had been a source of great joy became something quite destructive.

“It was very taxing on my mental health, the way I saw myself. It was like a downward spiral. This snowball effect to where I’d have one bad result and I’d go and train really, really hard for a week, thinking that week of really hard training is going to make me better.

I’d actually just show up to the next race even more tired and run even worse. I’d get to the next race and go this is the race. It’s all or nothing now. I’d end up being on the start line just dreading it, not enjoying being at a race because I put so much pressure on myself.”

Luke Duffy (bronze) and Josh Lay (silver) running at the 2017 Commonwealth Youth Games (winner John Mwangi Waweru of Kenya)

Managing youth athletes expectations.

Luke ultimately has come out the other side. When I put to him why it was that so many junior athletes don’t he said youth coaches have a part to play:

“A lot of these coaches are just there to set your sessions and they don’t really know how dangerous it can be. When they’re all buzzing about their athlete winning English Schools Junior Boys or running 4.06 at U15s and they (the athlete) walk around thinking they’re a god for 4.06 at that age. They don’t realise that’s not a good time but it’s good for your age. It doesn’t mean anything if you don’t continue to progress.

For me, if you ran 3.49 at 16 I can’t go up to a selector and go ‘look at me I ran that at 16 and no-one else ran that when they were 16’. So unless that progression keeps going it’s irrelevant how fast you ran when you were younger. I think a lot of club coaches don’t have that outlook. I was lucky my club coach, Richard Massey, always had a big emphasis on me being good when I was 18-19.”

Reconnecting with athletics

Luke’s love for athletics rekindled at Loughborough, learning to enjoy rather than endure the sport. He is keen to give Gandy the credit:

“My mindset of athletics changed a lot under him. I could never really thank him enough. He definitely saved my career in a way (what career I’ve got) in terms of my mindset, my outlook. Moving to Loughborough was a massive breath of fresh air to me.

Because when you’re in sixth form and training on your own, every race is like “this is it”. Your whole life revolves around it. Whereas you get to uni and you get to a race and think if I run bad, who cares? I’ve got a night out afterwards with all my mates or I don’t want to drop out of this race because then I’ll feel bad on the night out tonight.

I’ll get the piss taken out of me at training or whatever. It took a massive stress out of it going to university and the frustrations definitely went away.”

Luke Duffy at the Podium 5k in 2021 (14.00)

Commonwealth ambitions

Duffy is clearly in a good place and better for the difficult few years he got through. What that means for 2022? Well Yates has high ambitions, ones Duffy won’t completely reveal just yet.

But one he will is the Commonwealth Games 1500m for Northern Ireland, an eligibility he has through his paternal Irish grandparents. 3.39.60 is the standard and it’s one for which the pair both believe Luke is capable.

“The vague goal is just to step up a level. To go from making the final of U23s to a new level. There’s a few levels before you get to the top and I’d like to move up a few rungs of the ladder.

Say if I run 3.38. Matt’s got some bigger goals but I’m not going to go there. If I ran 3.38 I’m one really good winter away from running 3.34, 3.35. When you run 3.34 you’re there. You’re making teams so just get in that position to have another breakthrough the following year. That’s got to be a target.”

It’s been a good first few months at the Run Yard and after a training stint in South Africa we’ll see Luke likely in the British Indoor Champs. Continue the progression and it’s a face we could be seeing much more of in the years to come.

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Featured image by Mark Hookway.

“Perhaps people think they’ve got to slow down so they do” – Andrew Davies on running his best past 40.

Andrew Davies isn’t like most international athletes. Most don’t get their first senior coach at 33, run their fastest marathon at 40 and do it all on the back of a successful career as a semi-pro footballer. But for Andrew none of these facts seem extra-ordinary. They’re all logical progressions when you step out the door and keep moving forward.

Junior success

To say Andrew came out of the blue is somewhat disingenuous. A successful junior, Andrew competed for Wales on the fells, road, track and cross-country.

Andy (far right) in 1996, representing Wales.

But running struggled for his attention as a youngster. Andrew told us:

“I stopped when I was 17/18. I was playing football during the winter. When I heard my brother was doing 70/80 miles a week I was like that’s not for me.”

For well over ten years it stayed like that as Andrew signed for Caersws FC in the Welsh Premier League, a few miles from his Newtown home.

“I started up front but then because we played a 3-5-2 I was in central midfield just running up and down getting everywhere and then left wing-back, left-back, right-back, wherever they wanted. I just slotted in. Not centre back though, couldn’t head or tackle so keep me out wide.”

Highlights included a trip to Bulgaria in 2002 to play Marek Dupnitsa in the Intertoto Cup and it’s a time Andrew still looks back on fondly.

Andrew Davies (bottom right) playing for Caersws FC.

The first marathon

Running, as it often does, never went far away from Andrew and it was travelling in 2006 that gave him his first taste of the marathon distance.

“We got to Australia, did a big loop of Australia and saw there was a marathon coming up in Christchurch, New Zealand in three weeks time. So we signed up for it, did three weeks training. Went up to the Blue Mountains just outside Sydney and did loads of long runs up there.”

I’m not sure how many long runs you can fit in three weeks but Andrew clearly had some fitness, running 2.52 for 16th.

Looking back on it, Andrew recognises Christchurch as the start.

“That was it then. I thought I need to do one a year here. So then I was just playing football and training for a marathon. I was probably doing 75 miles a week back then plus playing and training with football.”

Andrew Davies later competing at the 2019 World Trail Running Champs (15th)

Family connections

Andrew’s brother-in-law Jamie Loxam is also a runner and the two of them started training.

“He knew a few sessions of what to do so we were just going to the local track and doing 800s. There was nothing specific for marathons, I was just getting loads of miles in. I came home from work and just ran for miles. There was no structure to it.”

The miles, even if unfocused, slowly added up. 2.37 in Edinburgh in 2007, 29th in the Three Peaks World Long Distance Mountain Running Challenge (WLDMRC) in 2008. 2.26 in Dublin in 2009, 5th in Belfast (2.33) in 2010. 8th in the WLDMRC in 2011 in Slovenia, then 2.25 in Barcelona in 2012.

As the running ramped up, slowly football started to take a back seat:

“I was dropping down a league, not doing that well. I thought I need to concentrate on my running now, I’m doing well at the marathons. I might as well just crack on with that. So I asked Steve to coach me.”

Andrew Davies with coach Steve Vernon

The Steve Andrew referring to is Steve Vernon, his brother-in-law’s best man. Now one of Britain’s best coaches Steve was, in 2013, still more known for his own running. That year he would finish second in the English National XC before winning the title for a second time a year later.

“He was just starting out his coaching then. He already had Ross Millington and maybe another athlete as well. I was a bit of a guinea-pig for him about coaching the marathon. I think it was a good learning curve.

Even now he’s always learning on the job. He doesn’t have this one approach for every marathon.”

When put to Andrew what Steve would have thought of his training upto that point, he doubts it would have been too complimentary:

“He probably saw that I was dedicated. That I would go out there and put the miles in. That was a good start but with everything else he probably thought ‘what are you doing?’ I could get a good runner out of this if I give him some good structured training.”

International vests

Andrew’s progress since the combination has been hugely impressive, even if he still does 95% of his training alone.

“It’s all done on the internet. Steve sends me the schedules and I go out there and do it. He trusts me to do it”

Within a year Andrew qualified for the 2014 Commonwealth Games in the marathon having finished second in Manchester (2.17).

“It was a proper eye opener. I went to the Commonwealth Games when I was travelling in 2006 to Melbourne. I was like wow look at all these athletes. You just see them behind the barriers and see them compete. It was just amazing to see. Knowing then that I’m one of them was just incredible really.”

Andrew finished 17th that year, before running 2.16.55 in Berlin in 2015. In 2016 he stepped up to the 50k, finishing 5th in the 50k World Championships (2.58.25) in Qatar.

Andrew Davies sporting his Wales vest

By now Andrew was 37 but he was only getting faster. He finished third Brit in the 2017 London Marathon in 2.15.11. That coupled with an injury to Robbie Simpson secured his spot on the World Championship team in the same city.

Andrew finished 31st and six months later flew out to the Gold Coast for his second Commonwealth Games. An 11th place finish in horrendous conditions saw him catch competitors the entire second half.

“Give me another mile I’d have been able to catch so many people but, no, I wouldn’t have been able to run another mile. It was so hot.”

Andrew Davies’s 2 Commonwealth Games Vests and GB edition for the 2017 World Champs

British V40 Record

Andrew’s flourish has been astounding and turned mind-boggling in 2019. Just weeks after his 40th birthday Andrew ran 2.14.36 at the Valencia Marathon, taking 40 seconds off Steve Way’s previous British V40 record.

Now aged 42, Andrew is going for his third Commonwealth team, hoping to run the qualifying time at Seville in early 2022. It is a mark (2.15.30) he got within six seconds of earlier this year.

But how is this all possible? Andrew sees no secret recipe:

“I just think it’s consistency and motivation. My motivation’s great, it always is. I always go out and do whatever I’m told. Just keep doing it day in day out, week in week out, month in month out. You get to the race and you’re there. You’ve done all your training for it.

I’ve got quite a good lifestyle in terms of what I do. You could see it as boring but I don’t do anything stupid. Going out all the time, getting in at 4 ‘o’clock, missing the next day. I’d like to think I recover well and just keep doing the simple things right.”

Do we need to start rethinking what people can do past the age of 40?

“Maybe it’s in people’s psyche, they think they’ve got to slow down so they do. Maybe they don’t set their targets high enough.”

With the fire still burning Andrew Davies looks for one last tilt at an international vest. Or is it stupid to say last?

Full interview below:

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“Performances out there are valued” – Rory Leonard on stateside ambitions.

Speaking to Rory Leonard you quickly get the sense of a man who knows he has found his fit. A GB international and a collegiate athletic powerhouse in Oklahoma State. Three and a half years to hone his craft.

A family affair

But it wasn’t always meant to be that way. Rory’s parents both went to Arkansas in the early 80s. Tony finished 29th in the 1982 NCAA XC Div One prior to a successful career on the roads (13.35/28.08). Sharon herself was 109th in the women’s race and an English Schools XC silver medalist before then. Arkansas was to be Rory’s destination:

“I thought everything was rainbows in athletics and I saw the flashing lights of Arkansas. The amazing indoor track, the amazing outdoor track. Being 18 I wasn’t thinking what I actually needed and what was going to be beneficial for me.”

His parents advice was eventually what made him look elsewhere:

“We started to become disenchanted with Arkansas because it is run like a business. You start to see before you get there that you’re not the big cog in the wheel that you thought you might be.

Whoever offered the most I would have gone to. I would have been swayed anywhere. I wasn’t getting any guidance from within British Athletics. I’d won some good races then. I’d run for GB. It wasn’t like I wasn’t running for GB at the time. Without my dad it would have been difficult to get good advice.”

Rory Leonard at Lee Valley, August 2020 – Photo Credit: Mark Hookway

Following George Gandy

Rory stayed in the North East, opting instead for the less glamorous surroundings of 35 hours a week working in his local coffee shop, before opting to join Loughborough in 2020. Rory came for one man:

“It was really sad when I got to Loughborough because I came for George Gandy. A few months in and it was so sad for the whole athletics community, George Gandy passed away.

I’m not joking, the week before he did pass away, he was at Broc (a field where we do training sessions) and he was jogging around. Everyone was telling him to slow down but you could never tell him to slow down. It was people like that in the UK that made athletics worthwhile.”

Rory Leonard at Watford BMC 12 June 2021 – Photo Credit Mark Hookway

Making the switch to the US

Though he is keen to praise many involved at Loughborough he soon realized it wasn’t the fit for him. It was the US that seemed the answer:

“I realised I need to go to the States. The funding you get over there is unparalleled. I don’t think there are pros that get better set ups than being at a good programme in the college system.

I started talking to coaches again. It was thinking about who’s going to value me, who’s going to care if I get injured and are going to worry about me getting injured. It’s a long-term development. I found that at Oklahoma State with Dave Smith. I could tell I could trust him on the phone.”

16th at Euro XC U23s – Photo provided by Rory Leonard

Strength of depth at Oklahoma State

Rory has loved his introduction to collegiate running:

“It’s been great. It’s been everything I’ve needed it to be so far. The team is everything I could wish for. I’m training with a 27.50 guy every day. I’m training with low 28 mins guys every day. A guy that finished 3rd at the NCAA for 3k Steeplechase (Ryan Smeeton) who’s strong as an ox.

You’re showing up to the track each time with 20 guys who can run, who can really, really run. So even on your bad days you’ve got plenty of people to run with and get dragged round by. Then you’ve got the athletic trainers, physios and strength and conditioning coach that you can see at any time during the day.”

It seems to be paying off. As well as 16th in the Euro Cross U23s, Rory was 79th in the NCAA XC Div One, not that he knows whether that was a good performance:

“I still don’t know if that was a good run. I was seeing colours and stars in the sky. I was just running flat out the whole time. It’s chaos out there but it’s great. The performances out there are valued. It’s a slight level up from the UK because you need that competition to show what you can do against a wider field.”  

Fittingly Rory’s performance helped Oklahoma State to nudge past Arkansas for third in the team standings.

Rory at the NCAA Mid West Regional XC – Image provided by Rory Leonard

Thankful for the support

It’s all impressive progress for an athlete who only switched from football less than seven years ago but he’s clear where a lot of the credit is due:

“My parents did everything they could for me. They paid for physio but it’s expensive in the UK. I was fortunate that my parents valued athletics and appreciated that in order to stay injury free I might have to visit a physio but there’s a lot of people who can’t do that. I’m lucky now that I go to the States and I don’t have to pay a penny for anything.”

With a focus on the long-term and three and a half years to let it play out, Rory has good people in his corner. With all that Oklahoma State can offer it’s a mix that bodes well for the future.

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Featured image provide by Rory Leonard.

“The best part of funding is student finance” – Ellis Cross on stepping up to the seniors

Ellis Cross was a prolific junior athlete. A two-time English national cross-country winner in the U20s, two-time BUCS 5000m champ, 15th in the European cross-country champs U23s in 2016.

These were performances which had Ellis quite rightly thinking about a future as a professional athlete. Keep up the momentum and the career would come.

“I was always of the view that you let the legs do the talking.”

Phot provided by Ellis Cross.

A two-year professional contract with Hoka followed, as well as some sponsorship from a sympathetic local company but ultimately the support stopped short of allowing him the life of a fully-professional athlete.

Making the step to the seniors

Ellis graduated from St Mary’s University into the senior ranks in 2019. Like any junior transitioning into the seniors and as outlined by Jack Rowe, developing into a world class 5000m runner takes time. Ellis admits he’s taken time to adjust:

“There’s a big gap between making that jump and then having enough money as a senior athlete because there’s a big jump in terms of the training you need to put in and your life in general. You go from being a student to being someone who has to work full-time, thinking about the future a lot more.

It’s such a big jump going into seniors, I’m still trying to find my feet really in that sense.

I’ve struggled in terms of time to be able to match that training load. It’s easier throughout the junior ranks because you don’t have to do as many miles.”

Ellis Cross at the SOAR MK Relays – Photo credit: Mark Hookway

Walking the tightrope between volume and rest

Ellis is keen to point out he does have those around him who provide good support. His employer at Up and Running in Surbiton is flexible. He also does some coaching work for Kevin Quinn’s Real Runners but ultimately he faces a difficult dilemma.

The biggest weekly miles I’ve ever done is 82 miles, so not that significant. The past few years have only been 70 mile weeks. I need to push it up to 90/100 mile weeks.

But it’s difficult to up the volume when you’ve got less time than you’ve ever had before. Ultimately more stress in training also needs more recovery. It’s a tricky balancing act where Ellis hopes for significant progress in a short period of time so he gets that extra support, but in an event that requires athletes to play the long game.

Ellis Cross finishing second in the Watford BMC 5,000 in 13.50 – Photo credit: Mark Hookway

Being more than just a good cross-country runner

For years some of Britain’s best athletes have honed their craft on the cross-country circuit. Tim Hutchings on the Sunday Plodcast recalls winters touring Europe being paid good sums to run in local cross country meets.

Strength in cross-country ultimately helped Britain’s best get better, get stronger for the track. But that’s changed and with it a key component of Britain’s success has been cut off. Ellis agrees:

“Cross country is seriously neglected in terms of the support athletes get. If you’re a good cross-country athlete there’s a good chance you’re on nothing in terms of money. Whereas if you go on the road it’s a completely different story.

Because there’s a big difference between you turning up to a Parliament Hill cross-country race in a field of 300-400 people to going onto the road. If you do a big half-marathon you’ve got tens of thousands of people that are turning up and are paying money.

These race organisers have got the money to give to athletes in terms of prize money. It’s just not there in terms of cross-country.”

An undervalued market

Ellis compares it to horse racing. Fundamentally what is the difference between horses and humans racing?

“You go to something like horse racing you get a significant amount of money that is there and people are happy to put money on, they can have a full day out and watch it. You turn up and watch people running and you get nothing.”

Cross-country and the same applies for track ends the moment you leave the event. No broadcast, little publicity two things that could be so similar (horse racing and cross-country) could not be more different. Ellis is keen to point out that the interest is there.

“Athletics is out there, if you engage with the sport it’s a brilliant sport, you watch people race it out. Cross-country it’s the most natural form of racing.

Mark Hookway puts out a race on Youtube, such a small race, an U11s, U13s race of just your local cross-country league and it will do well because people want to watch it. People do want to watch it.

The sport in general is seriously undervalued in terms of what it can be.”

Why does it matter?

These things are important. It’s not just a case of not being able to watch something. It’s about potential sponsors to the event simply not having the showcase. Less sponsors, less money. Less money, less professional athletes. Less professional athletes, less success for Britain on the global stage.

In an era in which every other sport has professionalized, athletics is left in the dark ages. Preserving a semi-amateur status may work when other sports do the same but when they move on they leave athletics behind.

Leaving athletics behind means more athletes like Ellis will face the same lack of support when trying to make the senior grade.

Ellis has many years left in the sport, with big goals he’d still like to fulfil but he has a message for those still with the support of a university:

“I’ve been saying to people at university you’ve got to take that opportunity and make every single moment count.

An athlete in our sport, the best part of funding is student finance.”

When’s it’s gone, it’s gone and taking the next step becomes all the harder.

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Featured image from Mark Hookway.

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