Is scarcity and discomfort good or bad when it comes to marathon running?

I have recently been reading a book, called Kings of the Road, by Cameron Stracher, about the golden period of marathon running in the US, around the late-1970s and early ‘80s.

This period followed on from the publication of Jim Fixx’s book The Complete Book of Running, and witnessed Frank Shorter, Bill Rodgers and later Alberto Salazar pass the crown of the world’s best marathon runner from one to the other in succession.

The decade-long dominance started with Shorter’s Olympic gold in the marathon at the 1972 Games in Munich and probably ended with Salazar’s win at the Boston marathon in 1982, when he raced Dick Beardsley in what became known as the Duel in the Sun. At the end of that race, Salazar was rushed into hospital and received 6 liters of water intravenously. Despite being ranked as the number 1 marathoner in the world that year, he never really recovered and was unable to race to the same level again.

(l to r) Rodgers, Salazar & Shorter at the 2013 Honalulu marathon
(l to r) Rodgers, Salazar & Shorter at the 2013 Honalulu marathon

One of the things that really interests me about this period, was what motivated these three men to train and race in the way that they did. Everything you hear about them suggests desperation: 180 mile weeks, 200 mile weeks, training through injuries, running in every condition imaginable, living in absolute poverty due to the restrictions on earning imposed by the American athletics bodies. Why were they so driven? The answer is complicated, as with all things psychological. And I am not qualified to give a definitive answer, but my opinion is that there was a scarcity of luxury and love that they were driven by.

Scarcity is the mother of determination

Shorter revealed in an interview in 2011 that his well-respected father was a drunken tyrant at home, who mercilessly beat his children with the buckle end of his belt and raped his young daughters for seemingly trivial reasons. Rodgers felt deeply that he was an outcast from society, having applied for conscientious objector status to avoid the draft in the Vietnam war. Salazar grew up in an aggressive and revolutionary household dominated by his father, an over-zealous refugee from Cuba who was driven by hate for Castro and the regime he installed there.

It seems to me, then that certainly in these cases, discomfort – both physical and psychological – was the fuel for their extraordinary focus on the marathon and their physical and mental ability to ignore pain.

However two new books seem to oppose one another on the benefits or otherwise of scarcity and discomfort.

The benefits – or otherwise – of discomfort

In his new book, Hunger In Paradise: Beat The Hell Out Of Complacency, author and philosopher Rasmus Ankersen argues that the biggest challenge when it comes to achieving success and fulfilling potential is comfort. He applies his thinking about the importance of battling complacency to the world of business, in the same way that Jim Collins did in his book From Good To Great. But Ankersen’s argument is equally true for marathon runners. After all, is that not the reason that in the countries that used to dominate marathon running – the UK, Italy, Sweden, the US, etc – there has been such a marked decline in performance? As Cameron Stracher write in the epilogue at the end of Kings of the Road

In the end, running fast is not about fame or fortune. It’s not even about winning. It’s about pushing the human body to the limit, testing our endurance, finding the will to triumph when the black maw of defeat engulfs us.

Why bother with all of that, when you have a perfectly comfortable life with myriad distractions like work and TV and computer games and expensive shops and restaurants?

Do east African runners benefit from discomfort?

Discomfort is what the Kenyans and the Ethiopians and the Moroccans who are dominating distance running have in abundance. The alternative to training hard and consistently from the moment they are old enough to run followed by racing harder than anyone else before them is… nothing. No jobs, no education, no welfare state. Nothing.

The counterpoint to this argument, though, is made in Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, in which they argue that the spiral of poverty is actually deepened by the rash and badly thought out decisions that poor people make.

In this book the authors argue that poverty or scarcity acts like blinkers, creating tunnel vision where decision-making becomes haphazard and illogical. Where actual measurable intelligence is depressed to the same degree as it is by missing entire nights of sleep, just by contemplating further loss.

Is discomfort good or bad for runners?

So which of these two positions is right? Is Ankersen right in arguing that scarcity (as opposed to comfort) is required for greatness? Or are Mullainathan and Shafir right to say that poverty itself diminishes people’s ability to think clearly and make decisions that will help lift them out of the situation they are in?

I think that both are true.

In the case of America’s greatest marathon runners, Shorter, Rodgers and Salazar, their lack of comfort was the driving factor that sent them on a trajectory towards marathon greatness. But I would argue that their single-mindedness was also detrimental in the wider scheme of things: Salazar drove himself to the verge of death on at least two occasions whilst racing and indeed was clinically dead for 14 minutes when he suffered a heart attack on the Nike campus in 2007. As Stracher notes in Kings of the Road, Shorter and Rodgers “walk like men twenty years older”. They seem to have been blinded to the dangers of pushing themselves ever harder.

And in east Africa, poverty is most definitely the driving factor when it comes to the seemingly endless stream of exceptional runners dominating distance running. But the story that we see – runners like Gebrselassie, Wilson Kipsang, Paul Tergat, David Rudisha  and many, many others – only represents the successes. All of these runners have pushed their bodies to the absolute limits to attain the levels they have and the road to those successes are littered with those who tried and failed. So in that way a lack of comfort is the same double edged sword that created and broke greatness in the US 40 years ago.

Conclusion: does it matter?

Why does this matter? Well I suppose in one sense it doesn’t: who really cares that in running terms, whilst more and more people are participating, less and less people are actually getting better at running? But I do also think that in the UK and the rest of the ‘first world’ where there are huge problems associated with a complete absence of scarcity, we could do with finding ways to motivate ourselves to be more active and push the boundaries of what we are capable of achieving physically. For me, running is the most natural activity we do. In an ironic up-turning of the normal way of thinking, it may just be the people who have less comfort, that will end up being the ones who have the most precious things of all: health and happiness.

What we can’t learn from Mo Farah

Yesterday at the Diamond League athletics at the Alexandra Stadium, I watched Mo Farah race in the unusual distance of 2 miles. And whilst it was great to see him boss the field of athletes assembled and witness what was undoubtedly a sort of lap of honour (well eight and a bit laps…) after his amazing visctories at the Olympic Games, there was something missing. Here’s what I think it was…

There was nothing to learn from his victory. Nothing that we didn’t already know.

Mo and the rest of the world learned a lesson from this

The race followed a rather familiar pattern: the field went out slow, so slow in fact that I could have stayed with them for the first 800m, then the pace wound up but nowhere near fast enough to trouble Steve Ovett’s British record for 2 miles which he set in 1978. After a mile or so, Mo moved to the front of the group, with his old team mate Chris Thompson, and the bunch became a line as the athletes began to stretch out. But still nothing particularly exciting. Then with 300m to go a cheeky American by the name of Bobby Curtis decided to kick and as Mo spotted him out of the corner of his eye, he simply accelerated away opening a gap of 30m in a few seconds.

Now please don’t get me wrong, it was great to see Farah win and I am sure he had to find some strength to do it, coming at the end of a week when his wife gave birth to twins and he has been dragged hither and thither making TV appearances and showing up at events and functions. But he made it look easy. There was nothing to learn about tactics or grit or team work. There was just a great athlete kicking away from a field of merely good athletes.

The same is true for so many endeavours. I have known it in my running ‘career’. When I blew in the London marathon in 2010, walking through a water station to try to rehydrate in order to just finish under 2hrs 45min, everyone wanted to learn from that: what had I done differently? What had gone wrong? How would I cope with heat in the future? Was it the heat?

But this year, when I ran the same course but PB’d with 2:38:30, no one wanted to know what I had done right or how I had coped with the conditions better. In fact one person told me how lucky I was, to have been able to run a time like that (what the…?) whereas when I tanked the year before, it wasn’t a matter of bad luck.

The same goes for Farah. When he was outkicked at the end of the 10,000m in the World Championships but an unknown Ethiopian Ibrahim Jeilan, there were questions asked like did he kick too early? Did he kick too late? Who was Jelian and why did Farah and his coach Salazar not know about him? Why did he tie up at the end?

After his 10,000m and 5,000m victories in London, there was no questions asked. There was, seemingly, nothing to ask.

But here is my question – should we not question the manner of victories and the training required to achieve them, at least as much as losses? If we are to create more top class runners, don’t we need to know what Farah has been doing to allow him to kick away from a decent field in the way he did yesterday afternoon in sunny Birmingham? Now I am not naive enough to suggest that Mo and his coaching team are about to give away the family secrets, but maybe, amid all the arm-waving and adulation, we need to start to analyse the victories at every level to work out what went right. That is half of the battle when it comes to improving ourselves.

Will he, won’t he? The Galen Rupp saga continues

Thomas Boyd/The Oregonian

Since reporting a few weeks ago that Galen Rupp, the US 5,000m record holder and Mo Farah’s training partner under Alberto Salazar, had decided to enter the US Olympic marathon team selection race (here) at the Houston marathon, it has now been announced, by Ken Goe in the Oregonian, that Rupp has decided not to contest for a place in the marathon team for the London Games.

At the time that Rupp announced he would race there were rumours that it was all a bit of a ruse to get under the skin of certain other runners, especially those who might make it hard for Dathan Ritzenhein, a team mate of Rupp under Salazar, to qualify. After all, stress is very disruptive for anyone training for a marathon, not least someone training to beat the best runners the US has to offer and thereby qualify for the greatest athletics competition of them all. The inclusion of an unknown quantity over the marathon distance and an undoubtedly first-rate runner at lesser distances, could be just the thing to create a few sleepless nights.

Nevertheless, conspiracy or not, Galen Rupp is not going to debut at the marathon this weekend because as Goe reports, he is worried that running a marathon would damage his chances of honing his finishing speed in advance of the Games in July. So peace is restored. America’s marathon runners will only have to worry about other marathon runners. And by this time on Saturday we will know who will be coming to English shores in the summer to try their luck over 26.2 miles of our fair city’s streets. Good luck chaps. See (some of) you in August.

Is the US becoming a marathon super-power?

There has been much written about the recent emergence of the US as a force to be reckoned with in distance racing. The likes of Chris Solinsky (10,000m PB 26:59.60), Bernard Lagat (5,000m PB 12:53.60), Ryan Hall (marathon PB 2:04:53), Meb Keflezighi (marathon PB 2:09:15), Dathan Ritzenhein (marathon PB 2:10:10), Brett Gotcher (marathon PB 2:10:36) and Jason Hartmann (marathon PB 2:11:06), to name but a few, all point to a bright future for US distance running. But as American coaches and commentators are at pains to point out, becoming a great distance running nation is a slow process (and as an aside I would argue we have not even really started on this process in the UK in any meaningful way yet).

History repeating itself?

Since heroes such as Alberto Salazar, Dick Beardsely, Bill Rodgers and Frank Shorter lit up the world running scene, there has been something of a lost generation. But now the athletes I have mentioned above are looking like the green shoots of recovery. And from what I understand, these luminaries at the pointy top of the pyramid are being followed by a larger and larger group of hard-working and determined young runners.

But the really exciting news that has been announced this week is that Mo Farah’s training partner, and another star in Alberto Salazar’s group at the Oregon Project, Galen Rupp, is due to run in the up-coming US marathon trails for the 2012 Olympics. This is big news!

US Olympic trials

The way the US picks its athletes for the Olympics, certainly in the marathon, is by holding a race. My understanding is that this ‘do or die’ way of choosing the team for the Olympic marathon is something that US Olympic committee is very proud of, albeit the process has had it’s share of controversies over the years. Indeed the tone of the text on gives some insight into how dear the idea of a one-off smack-down, is held:

Most countries around the world use a selection committee to choose their Olympic Team Members, but not the USA. Prior to 1968, a series of races were used to select the USA Olympic Marathon team, but beginning in 1968 the format was changed to a single race on a single day with the top three finishers selected to be part of the Olympic Team and the fourth and fifth finishers designated as alternates. As a once-every-four-years opportunity to be selected to the Olympic Marathon team, the USA Olympic Team Trials is arguably the most important marathon that many will run.

This year the ‘race for a place’ will be at the Houston marathon. The race’s website excitedly announced the news, thus:

On January 14, 2012, for the first time ever, USA Track & Field and the Houston Marathon Committee will host the men’s and women’s Olympic Trials Marathon on the same day, at the same site. This historic event will determine the three men and three women who will represent the United States in the marathon at the 2012 Olympic Games in London

So back to Galen Rupp. His personal bests are pretty impressive:
Mile – 3:57.72
3,000m – 7:42.40
5,000m – 13:07:35
10,000m – 26:48.00
Half Marathon – 1:00:30

What does Rupp’s entry really mean?

And now he is going to try for the US Olympic marathon team. Or is he? There is talk that he is going to start the race to help pace team mate Dathan Ritzenhein, at the behest of their coach Alberto Salazar. Taking the conspiracy theories one set further there is also talk that there is no intention for him to run at all – that in fact this is a red herring to put other competitors off their training and give Ritzenhein a psychological advantage. Or maybe he has just decided that he wants a crack at the marathon. Whatever the reason for his involvement, if Rupp races and does as well as I and many others think he will, then one of Ritzenhein, Hall or Keflezighi might not be coming to London next year. Which is interesting in itself…

… but not half as interesting to me as the thought that Salazar might be grooming his top runners for marathon super-stardom sooner than many predicted. And his top athlete? Mo Farah. Now his marathon debut would be exciting news!



The benefits of running with the pack

Don’t tell my wife, but I harbour a dream of going to Kenya for a fortnight to go running. I realise that financial considerations make the chances that I will rather remote. But I will keep that dream in my heart. It might surprise you to know that the reason I want to go to Kenya is not for the benefits of training at altitude. I have previously spent many weeks at a time at altitude in the Alps, Pyrenees and the Andes in Peru. But a fortnight at two and half thousand metres does not a champion marathoner make. No, the reason I want to go to Kenya, is to experience the early morning group runs.

The Kenyan way

Personally I really love the social aspect of training, whether chatting whilst on a long slow run or encouraging others on the track whilst completing a hard session. In Kenya, the runners seem to make a virtue of running in a group, as described by Toby Tanser in his book “More Fire, How to Run the Kenyan Way”:

The chilly pitch-black darkness that spreads around the high-altitude training center like a watchman’s cloak will soon disappear; the sun rises with the speed of a jugglers hand on the equator. There are no street lights in Kamariny, and there is little noise to be heard save one noisy rooster cleaning his throat. Although it is barely 6:00am, a group of well-trained athletes, with hardly an ounce of fat apiece, silently mill around the camp…

No words are spoken, as some athletes are still sleeping in the camp. There is a group of visiting European runners, and they will wait until after breakfast for their run. Another group of runners who usually leave at 7:00am will still be sleeping now. The Kenyans, however, typically all run together on non-specific training days. The leave in a group and then the tempo and distance are worked out literally on the run.

And during his time in east Africa, Adharanand Finn ‘enjoyed’ many group runs, often with elite level athletes. In one of his first despatches in the Guardian he writes about the first time he joined a group on an early morning run in Iten, Kenya

runners suddenly start appearing from everywhere, materialising out of the darkness. Within a few minutes there are around 60 crack Kenyan athletes standing around. Some of them are talking quietly and stretching. They are mostly men, their long, skinny legs wrapped in tights, some wearing woolly hats. I suddenly feel out of my depth. What am I doing?

Without any announcement, they all start running, heading off down the dirt track. The pace is quick without being terrifying, so I tuck myself into the middle of the group. Up ahead the full moon lights the way, while behind us the dawn is creeping across the sky, making it easier to see. The last few stars go out as we hurtle along out of the town and into the African countryside.

You can read more here.

Running groups around the world

All over the world, groups of fantastic runners congregate for training. Nike and the US Olympic team utilise Alberto Salazar’s Oregon Project where Mo Farah has recently stated that he and Galen Rupp do nearly all of their training together.  Liz Yelling has written and spoken about training with a group of top runners in Bournemouth, and I could cite instances all over the world where runners train together to push each others performances to better and higher levels.

As well as knowing the benefits of training in a group anecdotally, I want to know if there is any actual evidence that training in a group is better. Almost every book, article or blog I have read has stated that the majority of the greatest elite distance runners in the world do most if not all of their training in groups.

The coach’s perspective

From a coaching perspective, Nick Anderson, who coaches runners of all levels of ability with RunningWithUs [] says:

The group brings competition, support and fun when athletes are working hard. At the highest level of running, competition as found in group sessions is crucial.

Similarly, in last weeks Marathon Talk podcast, the new superstar of British marathon running, Scott Overall, talked about the importance of training with a partner. Of course at his speed it is difficult to find enough people fast enough to keep up with him to make up a ‘group’!

Given the ubiquity of training in groups and the perceived benefit, I wondered if there was any scientific evidence to accompany everything I intuitively know? Well, Stuart Holliday, from The Focused Mind, gave me valuable information for this piece, starting with some background on Norman Triplett, the psychologist who in 1892 researched what eventually became known as Social Facilitation (you can read more about that here).

Psychology and Social Facilitation


Triplett found that cyclists had faster race times in the presence of other cyclists. Triplett theorized that the faster times were due to the effect of the members of the group increasing each other’s level of competition. Further research in other sporting situations confirmed to Triplett that the presence of others increased individuals’ performance levels. Findings across a number of different sports suggested that when individuals perform a familiar task, the presence of others leads to a performance enhancement. When individuals perform an unfamiliar task in a group, the opposite has been shown to be true.

I personally think that in the case of running, it would be extremely rare for a runner to find their competition performance deteriorating due to the presence of others – after all how many marathoners talk about the immense boost they receive from crowds by the sides of the roads in big city marathons? However, if a new runner does join an experienced group for a track session, it can be extremely daunting.

Stuart goes on to say that rather than worrying about how one performs in relation to others, the other runners in the group should be used as a gauge. Stuart advises runners to not feel too downhearted if on your first few sessions you feel like you’ve been left behind. Unless you use a watch, what you won’t have noticed is that your lap times get quicker week by week.

Holliday offered further advice when he told me “Stick with the weekly track sessions with others. You will find yourself getting faster and be able to sustain consistent speed for longer periods. But make sure you compare your performance against your previous efforts and not against others! As I’ve found training with some Kenyan and leading British runners, it can be a fruitless task training with certain individuals! Equally, on those long training runs, having a running buddy or two can keep the spirits up as the legs ache after 2 hours.”

Personal experience

Personally I’ve benefitted enormously by running with others on my personal running journey. I’ve been encouraged and supported and can feel and see the improvement in the training cycles leading up to big races, such as the London marathon this year or 2010’s Florence marathon. And a final word from Stuart Holliday really emphasises the value of running in a group: “Don’t forget its a two way street though. Even the fastest runners appreciate a word of encouragement and such help in training can mean the difference between getting or missing a PB in the race situation.”

I believe (and now have the evidence of well established research) that running in a group is really beneficial. I feel a definite performance boost from cruising along in a group on a long run or blasting round the track in a speed session with others. Running in a group provides an incentive and encouragement that plodding along on my own will never do. If you don’t believe me, when I’m back from Rift Valley I’ll tell you all about the benefits on a group run! Just don’t tell my wife…

Ice, ice baby!

I have been running for around 6 years now and I have to admit that I have never been a fan of ice-baths. I suppose that in an attempt to avoid the unpleasantness of immersing myself in cold water, I imagined that they were only for elite athletes or only for injured athletes… of injured elite athletes. Basically I was too chicken!

Last year in March I went on a week long training camp to the Algarve with my coach, Nick Anderson, and a group of the runners he coaches. You can read about the week here. It was a great week of training with so many things that I would incorporate into my training if life and work didn’t get in the way so regularly – at least 8 hours sleep every night, training with a group of totally positive people, spending the day between two runs resting by the pool, hydrating and fuelling well, running off-road for most of the easy runs… the list goes on and on.
And there was something else; after every run we would arrive back at the hotel and all wade straight into the unheated outdoor pool.

Now I’ll admit that there is a world of difference between an unheated swimming pool and a proper ice-bath, but I think all of us on the camp realised the benefits of cooling our legs down immediately post-run. It is a habit that I have tried to resurrect in the last couple of weeks. But being the curious type I decided to try to understand what the benefits are and how plunging into cold water helps us as runners.

The theory

The basic theory is that by immersing oneself in cold water – ideally between 12 and 15ºC – blood vessels are constricted which reduces blood flow, swelling and tissue damage. There is also talk of an additional benefit once one gets out of the water, which is that the re-warmed muscles increase bloodflow post ice-bath and this helps “return the byproducts of cellular breakdown to the lymph system for efficient recycling by the body” (according to Nikki Kimball, a physical therapist in Bozeman, Montana, who was named USATF’s Ultrarunner of the Year in 2004, 2006, and 2007).

This is just the tip of the iceberg (I know, that was terrible… sorry) as far as cooling is concerned. The latest technology, adopted by those at the cutting edge of training methods like Alberto Salazar at Nike’s Oregon Project, is the cryosauna; an upright tube that athletes climb into and which is filled with liquid nitrogen which cools the athlete’s skin with temperatures as low as minus 170 degrees Celsius. Click here for a great interview by Steve Cram interviewing Mo Farah in a cryosauna . Quite an amazing bit of kit and dangerous if mis-used; only recently the US sprinter Justin Gatlin suffered mild frostbite from climbing into a cryosauna with wet socks on. Ouch!

The debate

There is a huge amount of debate in the running world about the potential benefits of ice-baths with many runners pointing out that there is very little, if any, scientific evidence for ice-baths delivering any advantage at all. Indeed a study published in 2007 in the British Journal of Sports Medicine concludes with this statement: “The protocol of ice-water immersion used in this study was ineffectual in minimising markers of DOMS in untrained individuals. This study challenges the wide use of this intervention as a recovery strategy by athletes. “ (Effect of cold water immersion on repeated cycling performance and limb blood flow Br. J. Sports. Med. 2011;45:825-829)

However there are other studies that take the contrary view, in particular a study by the French Ministry of Sports which concludes by stating that “Overall, the results indicated that the WBC [specific whole body cryotherapy] was effective in reducing the inflammatory process. These results may be explained by vasoconstriction at muscular level, and both the decrease in cytokines activity pro-inflammatory, and increase in cytokines anti-inflammatory.” (Time-Course of Changes in Inflammatory Response after Whole-Body Cryotherapy Multi Exposures following Severe Exercise. Source, Research Department, National Institute of Sport, Expertise and Performance (INSEP), Paris, France.)

To ice, or not to ice?

So where do we go from here? Well, I think that the scientists will continue to debate the issue for a while yet. For me, I take a slightly less scientific view. I believe that cooling my legs helps me recover from strenuous sessions and long runs more effectively. I also think that elite athletes like Mo Farah and Paula Radcliffe would not use ice-baths and cryosaunas if they didn’t have a positive effect.

But more than anything I think that it may just be that leaping into a cold bath makes us feel like serious runners who are prepared to endure discomfort for the sake of improving our results and that adds immeasurably to the psychological strength we need to go hard in those sessions or on race day. I am a strong believer in the theory that one reason for the east African dominance in middle and long distance races (though not by any means the only explanation) is the hardship that the runners there know, which makes running feel like an easy option. That may also explain the dominance of other countries in the past, where strong economies now mean that few endure the sort of hardships that were common even in the UK a generation or two ago. Who knows, but for now I’ll be maintaining my ice-bath routine and secretly hoping there is a definitive study that says they do no good!

And I will leave the last word to David Terry, M.D., an ultrarunner who has finished the Western States 100 and the Wasatch Front 100, 10 consecutive times. “Ice baths don’t only suppress inflammation, but help to flush harmful metabolic debris out of your muscles” and with his record of ultra running, if he says it, it must be true!

The Mo Farah interview

So here it is – my first video interview and I bagged a really good one. Mo Farah.

To give you some background, the interview was at an event organised by Nike and Sweatshop at the Trackside Cafe at St Mary’s University College in Twickenham, where Mo gave a talk to an invited group of athletes, primarily young athletes, and was later presented by the Nike team with a pair of one-off red and white track spikes in the Arsenal livery.

As you can tell from the start of the interview, I didn’t have much time with Mo, but it was really great to meet a hero of mine and I can confirm that he really is a lovely chap. I can also confirm that he is an incredibly hard-working individual and I hope that whilst he can do massive good for young people through his inspirational feats on the track, he also gets a chance to train effectively so that he gets the Olympic medal I and many others believe he deserves.

I hope you enjoy it.

The final question you must all be asking – did Mo get a PB. Well not quite. Before the editing job (excellently carried out by Sistak) the interview took 8min 20sec, which would be a massive PB for me but a light jog for Mo!


A Mo-tivating Interview

It is not often that one meets their hero. Tonight that is exactly what I did; I met and interviewed Mo Farah.

Mo was the guest of honour at an event that Nike organised at the track at St. Mary’s University College, Twickenham in London. Mo was there to provide advice and inspiration to a select group of youngsters and he was kind enough to take a few minutes to talk to me.

Talking to young people and encouraging them to strive to be the best they can be is clearly close to Mo’s heart. At the question and answer session after our interview, Mo was asked what must be one of the most common questions he hears now: how did you first get started in athletics? The answer is simply that the PE teacher at his first school, a man by the name of Alan Watkinson (who incidentally was on hand tonight to receive a generous round of applause) saw some potential in Mo and encouraged, bribed and coerced the young, football-mad Farah to join a running club in Houndslow. From there it was simply a matter of his fitness, dedication and enthusiasm combining to create the superb runner we see today.

Mo has a singular belief that anyone, especially any young person, can get into sport. When I asked him what he would say to youngsters who say that they can’t run, he looked a little puzzled for a moment before stating simply that they can run, they just have to try. He went on to say that he thinks that the answer to getting kids involved in sport is to make it fun for them.

So does Mo see himself as a role model? Actually I’m glad to say that he told me that he does, especially to those who already run. And that was apparent from what I saw tonight. The kids surged towards the stage he was due to appear on – giving the Nike organising team a bit of a headache as they tried to get everyone to move back to make it easier for the whole room to see Mo in the Q&A. And when Mo sat down to sign autographs after the Q&A session the line seemed endless. Nevertheless Mo shook hands, signed autographs and posed for pictures long after the PR people would have whisked him away. He really seemed to love interacting with the young people present.

My interview with Mo was a very rushed affair – I told him that I was going to try to get through the questions in a 3,000m PB time (which for him we didn’t, but I would have been very happy with 8 min 20 secs!) and in that time Mo reminded me again of why I love this sport of ours – he is warm, engaging, enthusiastic and very, very successful.

I hope to have video footage of the interview online in the next couple of days. But in the mean time if you need any more reason to make this man your hero, check out the footage of his 10,000m triumph in Barcelona on the BBC. Simply fantastic.


U2 can decide to carry on

Earlier this week I heard U2’s hit “Where the streets have no name” on a radio being played in another room. Suddenly I was reminded of the classic YouTube video – well it is a classic as far as I am concerned! – of the dual in the sun. This was the 1982 Boston marathon in which Alberto Salazar and Dick Beardsley ran the entire distance neck and neck, finishing within two seconds of each other. The video is quite amazing, especially towards the end as the commentators get ever more excited. Check out the crowds and the impressive array of technology used by the television companies to broadcast the race, which goes some way to illustrating what an important sporting event it was.

Equally compelling viewing is the video that usually pops up to the side of the race coverage video – that of Dick Beardsley describing the end of the race from his point of view and, I guess, with the benefit of hindsight.


What strikes me about Dick’s monologue is what he thought during the final few hundred meters of the race. Dick Beardsley had been leading the race, albeit only by the length of his arm, for most of the 26.2 miles. However Alberto Salazar was the favourite and, as Beardsley acknowledges, Salazar  was considered to have the better kick, so it was no surprise when Salazar dropped the hammer with less than a kilometer to go and passed Beardsley just as his hamstring cramped up.

Dick could have eased up at that point. With a cramp in his hamstring and against one of the greatest marathoners of all time and certainly of his generation, Beardsley knew that second place was his and there would be no shame in that. But he didn’t…

Instead he put in one of the fiercest comebacks in any marathon and with only a few hundred meters to go, Beardsley went for the win.

So what does that mean for us? Well I think the simple lesson is don’t give up. I know that in the end Dick Beardsley did not win the 1982 Boston marathon. But he did know as he crossed the finish line that he had given his all and exceeded everyone’s expectations of him, perhaps even his own expectations. I think that the way he raced and didn’t give up also illustrates the kind of man he is and the level that he was training at. He gave it his all and this is what I think that everyone should do, whether that is running the first 10K or the 100th marathon, giving it all allows us to find out what we really are capable of.

So have a look at the videos and remind yourself of your aim. Then in every way you can make sure you give it 100%… you never know U2 might find out that you are capable of more than you ever thought possible.