Runner at the Sharp End #3: John Hutchins

I recently met John Hutchins at an event hosted by the team behind the Brighton marathon, which involved a coaching seminar on the Saturday night and a 20km time-trial run on the Sunday morning. John, like many of the amazing runners I met on the weekend, was really friendly and happy to talk to me about his racing and training and what really struck me about him was the fact that whilst holding down a full time job and family commitments, with a baby having arrived only a few months ago, John still manages to fit in the training necessary to compete at the highest level. Indeed as I write this I am sitting with my feet up recovering from the Wokingham half marathon yesterday, where John beat his previous personal best on a fairly undulating and certainly windy course, to record a brilliant time of 66:48 which was good enough for 4th place. So my thanks go to John for taking the time to tell us about himself and his running as well as sharing some brilliant tips from a runner who is certainly at the sharp end.

To begin with could you give us some background about yourself and your running? What distances do you run? What are your personal bests (and what were your first times for those distances)?
John Hutchins in the 2011 London marathon

I guess you’d call me a road runner these days, although I’ve run pretty much run everything from 800m upwards on the track and I still dabble in some cross country over the winter. My best event is the Marathon – I’ve run 2:21 for my first two (in November 2010 and April 2011) and I those are probably my best performances over any distance. I ran a fairly quick half in the Hague last year (67:06) and a decent 10 miles in the Great South Run 2010 (49:56 – and yep, I sprinted like Mo to stay under 50!). Off the back of those runs I was kindly given the chance to run for England in the Elgoibar XC, and then I was picked (but ultimately too injured to run) for the England team in the Odense marathon last year. Technically I’ve run 3 marathons, but the first was when I was 18, when I ran 3:56… My first 10k was about 32:30 back in 2004 and I think my first half run in anger was 68:26.

 

How long have you been running and why did you start in the first place?

I can remember my mum asking me to go to the shops from time to time when I was a kid and pegging it all the way there and back just because it took less time. So I guess I’ve always been a runner.  I did cross and track for my school and joined my club (Basingstoke) back then. But I kind-of gave up when exam work got tough around GCSEs and A levels with a view to getting properly involved once I got to Uni. Once I got there I joined the Uni team, got back in touch with Basingstoke and since then I haven’t looked back!

Are you coached? And if so, by whom?

Yep, my coach is Martin Tarsey. He’s an ex-Basingstoke athlete himself and has coached me since I rejoined Basingstoke. He coaches quite a range of distances-from 400m up to Marathon. His other athletes include Mark Berridge (47.1 for 400m and 1:48 for 800m) and some other very capable track runners like Dave Ragan and Max Roberts.

(Aside from your coach, if you have one) who or what has been the biggest influence on your running and why?
A Onesie. Ben Moreau may or may not have looked like this

It pains me to put this in writing, but I’d have to say my mate Ben Moreau. We were best mates at Uni and have stayed so. We train together sporadically, but I’m always chasing him. He’s a talented runner, but he puts the work in as well-so he’s a great example for anyone to follow (except for wearing a onesie/GB kit as pyjamas).

What is the best piece of running advice you have ever been given? Who gave you that advice?

I’ve always had a tendency to gun all my runs-whether it’s racing (lead from the front), track reps (kill the first two), tempo running (start fast and then die a horrible death) or easy runs (which usually don’t turn out to be that easy…). And then I get tired. And then I feel rubbish. And then I go into a bit of a stagnant patch.

So the best bit of advice has come from most of the people that know me well-particularly my wife Joanne, Tarsey and Ben, and that is to run the way you feel. If you’re doing a tempo and you feel rubbish, don’t fight it, just cruise and be able to run the next day. Likewise if you feel great on a steady run, let yourself run a bit quicker (within reason), but recognise that if you feel slightly jaded the next day, just back off – it doesn’t mean you’re cheating!! Sometimes I find that holding yourself back when you feel great is just as bad as running too hard-and this is going to sound a bit sad-sometimes you need to feel that rush that you only get when you’re going quick, but you could go all day…

What is your favourite bit of kit and why?

The Basingstoke boys ran a training weekend in Studland for a few years. We used to have proper running tees made up for it. I love my first ever one which has my Basingstoke nickname “JT” (nothing to do with a trouser snake) on it.

What has been, or where is, your favourite race?

My favourite races have been the Florence marathon and the Elgoibar cross country. Florence because it’s a beautiful city, the crowds really get behind you and because it was a breakthrough race for me. I loved going through halfway feeling good and pushing on, waiting for the hurt to kick in, only to find out that I didn’t feel too bad. Elgoibar because it was a unique experience. The race is really historic and has a formal opening ceremony the night before. The course was crazy-set in the foothills of the Pyrenees and with a lap of a tartan track in each of the laps!

What do you think has had the biggest effect on you improving your times?
  • Mileage
  • 2 hour+ runs
  • tempo running

Hard to tell which of these has the biggest impact – each adds its own little piece. High mileage for me is 80+ per week. That’s not a great deal in comparison with the elite elite marathoners, but it’s just about all I can fit in around family life and work.  2 hour+ runs give you that marathon specific training that nothing else can – where you run close to empty and actually prove to yourself that you can run the whole distance. And tempo runs prove you can run quickly and make running slower feel easier.

With the benefit of hindsight, if you could give your younger self any advice, what would it be and why?

I’d probably say to myself that I should train easier, but more often.  I used to get really tired and have to take days off to recoup.  Much better to take things easier and improve aerobically.

Do you stretch enough?

Nope. But I also have chronic Achilles issues as a result.  I’m like an old man in the mornings.  Word of advice to anyone would be DO CALF RAISES. I’ve started, and they’re helping, but I wish I’d done them all along…

What do you think about the general state of running in the UK and, assuming you don’t think it is perfect, what could be done to improve it?

It’s obviously not as good as it once was.  Other sports and pass times seem to have stolen / stifled the talent that once came through the ranks. Having said that, I think London 2012 is a good stimulus for change. I also think the runBritain Grand Prix is a great way of encouraging good club runners (not just the elite elite) to race in high quality events. The atmosphere, organisation, serious competition and the fact that there are a series of races to target are all awesome incentives to train and improve.  Sometimes I also feel like the club structure we have in the UK must have been great when there was mass participation, but now numbers have fallen there almost needs to be a bit of consolidation to drive growth.  But that kind of change is way above my pay grade…

What is your overall ambition for your own running? What do you think you need to do to achieve that?

This year’s ambition is to run under 2:20.  I think I possibly could have been ready for this had I had an amazing run at London last year.  So I’m basically approaching training in quite a similar way, but a bit more sensibly with respect to keeping fresh.  Ultimately I would love to run in a major championships, but I’m just about training at capacity at the moment-what with work and home life.  I guess I will see what I can achieve this year and work out what I could change to continue to improve.

Please complete the following: I run because…

I love everything that running allows me to do; to meet great people, to run in awesome events and to travel; to rarely get bored; to eat ALL the time; to keep fit; to compete; to work hard and get results.  Most of my mates think I’m mental…

I would like to thank John for a really great interview. He is very modest about his achievements but for me he embodies the idea of a Runner At The Sharp-end and I am sure that everyone reading this blog will agree with me that John has given us some brilliant tips and lessons that he has learned that we can apply to our own training. If you enjoyed the interview you can also follow John on twitter @HutchinsJohn.

The art of pacing

Next weekend I am racing the Wokingham half marathon and I think this is an opportunity to attack my personal best. Apart from the desire that most runners have to log a PB once in a while, I think that running a quick half marathon at this stage will give me great confidence with eight weeks to go until the London marathon. So the first step in my planning for the race is always to work out what pace I need to run at to hit my target time. For me, with a half marathon personal best of 1:14:03, I want to know what pace I will have to run to hit 1:13:00. So, 73 minutes (or 4,380 seconds) divided by 13.1 miles… erm, give me a second…yep, nearly there… ahhh, one moment…

Actually I always use an online calculator. The easiest one as far as I am concerned is the Runners World Pace Band Generator. All you have to do is input the finish time you are after, the distance and whether you want the target splits in kilometers or miles (worth checking what the markers will be in at your target race if you are not 100% sure) et viola!

The other option is the McMillan Running calculator. This is actually supposed to help you estimate a range of finish times for every conceivable distance based on previous race results. But you can simply enter your target race time and then check the pace splits under that distance (which are given in per-mile and per-kilometer numbers).

And the target pace is…

Having used the Runners World Pace Band Calculator, I know I need to run each mile of the half marathon in 5min 34secs to finish in 73 minutes.

Not too much technology

Mile Markers are there to be used. Image from Finbar on Tour

Now I know my target pace, I must admit that I tend to shy away from technology on race day. When it comes to training I am happy to use my Garmin to check on my paces and I really enjoy downloading my stats and updating my training diary. But when it comes to racing, I take a different view – simplicity is everything. I simply write the target pace on the back of my left hand and hit the lap button when I reach every mile (or kilometer marker). If the number on my watch is equal to or less than the number written on the back of my hand, then I am on track (and visa versa). To hammer the point home I once ran a marathon  with a friend (his debut by the way) and he checked his pace using his GPS watch, while I used my less-tech trusted method. He finished in 3:01:02 with a GPS telling him that he had run 27 miles! He is such a hard-working athlete that I am convinced that he would have finished in under 3 hours if he hadn’t been relying on a GPS watch that was giving him the wrong pace data. You have been warned.

So I’m off to find a biro and get that number well and truly inked on the back of my hand. The count-down begins!

Runner at the Sharp End #2: Richard Gregory

This is the second in a series of interviews with Runners At The Sharp-end (the R.A.T.S). For an explanation of what I am defining as a runner at the sharp end have a read here. Richard, a member of the famous Ranelagh Harriers, is a fierce competitor, especially in cross-country races and excels at any distance he tackles on the road (his personal bests are testament to that, as you can see below). Here is what he told me;

SF: To begin with could you give us some background about yourself and your running? What distances do you run? What are your personal bests (and what were your first times for those distances)?
Richard going great guns in the 'cross' Image from Ranelagh Harriers

RG: Mostly half marathon and marathon at the moment, with a bit of cross country through the winter.
Half Marathon PB – 70.43 (Amsterdam 2011) and my debut was 81.16 (Brooklyn 2007)
Marathon PB – 2.30.46 (London 2011) with a debut 2.50.54 (New York 2007).

SF: How long have you been running and why did you start in the first place?

RG: Started about five years ago (though I’d run a bit through school – mainly to keep fit for hockey, which I played reasonably competitively).  I was living in New York at the time and had barely exercised for a few years; running round Central Park seemed a good way to get in shape.  A friend then convinced me a 10k race would be fun… a half soon followed, and when a New York marathon place came about (rather by accident) it seemed I better give it a go.

SF: Are you coached? And if so, by whom?

RG: Yes – Nick Anderson – since summer 2010.

SF: (Aside from your coach, if you have one) who or what has been the biggest influence on your running and why?

RG: Any number of friends I’ve made through running – anyone, at any level, who shares enthusiasm for the sport, improving at it, and having a good time along the way.  Simon’s written on the benefits of running with a group, and I’d definitely agree: I love that running has both that brilliant social side to it, and can be the best possible space for some private thinking time.

SF: What is the best piece of running advice you have ever been given? Who gave you that advice?

RG:

Take responsibility for anything you can control; react positively to anything you cannot.

Sounds a cliché, but pretty fundamental to running as much as anything else in life – though at the time it was a throwaway comment from someone (who’ll remain nameless) who should know better!  It stuck with me, not least when a vomiting bug reared its ugly head seven days before the London marathon.  Keeping calm that week was as important as getting better, and thankfully by the Sunday morning I was fighting fit.

SF: What is your favourite bit of kit and why?

RG: Much as I love comfortable kit – and toys – top of the list is two healthy legs.

SF: What has been, or where is, your favourite race?

RG: For atmosphere – New York marathon, very closely followed by London.
For how I ran – Amsterdam half a few years back.  I’ve run faster since, but it was a day when everything clicked: I just felt incredibly relaxed and enjoyed a rare and wonderful flowing feeling (and a huge pb, much quicker than I’d considered possible at the time).

SF: What do you think has had the biggest effect on you improving your times?

RG: More, more consistent, and structured training.  I didn’t have a clue what I was doing when I started out.  Nick’s coaching has been a huge help in learning the different ingredients, and how to put them together.

SF: With the benefit of hindsight, if you could give your younger self any advice, what would it be and why?

RG: Probably just to get stuck in at an earlier age: running’s something I’ve always enjoyed, but didn’t really get into until my late twenties.  Part of me wishes I’d got more involved on the track in my teens; I’d like to know what I could have done over 800/1500m!

SF: Do you stretch enough?

RG: No!  As well as stretching, I’m a big believer in core work (strength and conditioning) – I don’t do enough of that either, but really notice the difference for injury prevention and improved running form.

SF: What do you think about the general state of running in the UK and, assuming you don’t think it is perfect, what could be done to improve it?

RG: Participation seems to be on the up, which is brilliant – anything to help get people out the door and exercising is good news.  At the sharper end – the likes of Paula and Mo are an inspiration, and I’m far from qualified to say what’s needed for more to come through at that level.  In between, it would be good to see greater depth of “good club runners”, as there was in the past, and I would love to see anything that helps inspire more people to see what a brilliant sport it is, and put the work in to find out what they might achieve.  For starters the London Marathon coverage seems to miss an opportunity each year in jumping from the elite race to the masses: there are some wonderful stories of talent and dedication in between.

SF: What is your overall ambition for your own running? What do you think you need to do to achieve that?

RG: The ambition is simply to make the most of chances to keep on improving at something I really enjoy.  The volume and quality of my training has increased markedly over the past year or two: as with any runner, right now it’s just a case of putting the work in, trying to make sure I rest enough, and eating well.  Hopefully that will translate into a great marathon buildup and race at London this year.

SF: Please complete the following: I run because…

RG: Two reasons for me: I get a kick both out of running itself – nothing beats being outdoors and active – and the honesty of seeing hard work turn into improvement.

The weather outside is frightful… so what?

Today London got what seems like its annual dump of snow. Quite a large amount of snow and certainly more than in previous years from what I can remember. And this year, in deference to all the rat-racers and school children, the snow had the good grace to come at the weekend. But for us marathoners, with 10 weeks until the London marathon or less for Brighton, every Sunday counts. So what should you do when you wake up to thick snow?

I got out early for my run this morning

Well rolling over and going back to sleep isn’t really an option I’m afraid. I am haunted by a passage in Charlie Spedding’s brilliant book From Last to First when he describes how he went to a multi-storey carpark to smash out his speed session because of thick snow everywhere else. That, for me, is the essence of ‘where there’s a will, there’s a way’. And I believe we should all be inspired by that level of dedication. I’ll be the first to acknowledge that Spedding was different to most people in his relentless pursuit of excellence, but we can all learn from his example.

So what to do when the snow comes?

There is always the option of the dreadmill. I am not a fan of pounding away on a moving walkway in a sweat-smelling gym, but if you must, it is better than nothing. But ideally you should get out.

Running on snow and ice.

Kit.

As with so much of running, there is a calculation to be made here. Going for a run is good. Going for a run, slipping over and bruising your coccyx or twisting your ankle and missing weeks of training is not good. This morning I went for a run on virgin snow which was loose and therefore tough to run on, but not icy or slippery. So do the calculation: check the conditions underfoot and adjust your plans. For this reason it is really worth thinking about footwear. Normal trainers can be OK although you’re likely to get wet feet, but again, check the conditions underfoot. I dug out my trail shoes – the excellent Brooks Trailblade – and they were ideal. Sure my feet still got soaked, but the Trailblades gave me the extra grip that I needed. I have also read about ‘ice grips’ which are worn over your running shoes and act like snow-chains for the feet. I’ve never tried them though so I can’t comment (if you have please leave a comment below!)

Clothing is less of a safety issue than footwear, but worth thinking about, especially if you are going long. The trick here, as with all cold-weather training, is to layer in a way that allows you to remove layers as you get hot or add layers if you get cold. Arm-warmers are a brilliant idea – I have two pairs: a thicker pair for really cold conditions and a thinner pair for the rest of the time. I wrote about the benefits of arm-warmers here. I also love my Innov8 Debrisock which, whilst not waterproof, will help keep snow from getting in the top of the shoe. There are other small waterproof or Goretex gaiters that you could consider. I consider a hat that wicks sweat and a pair of good running gloves essential.

Running.

I think that the things to remember when running on ice or snow are mainly common sense. It is more difficult to see undulations and obstacles when everything is white. Snow, especially as it starts to get trampled, becomes very uneven. Loose snow is much, much harder to run on than pavement or tarmac or even woodland trails. Packed snow is slippery. All of these factors lead me to the same bit of advice: take it easy and adapt a little. You will highly likely run a little slower on snow and ice than you would in normal conditions. That is OK, the effort levels are higher so you will still get a great training benefit. And you should also look around, enjoy the scenes. It isn’t often we get snow in London, so if you live in the capital, get away from all the black slush and head for the parks and open spaces and just enjoy it.

So there we go. By the time I have posted this the snow in London will be looking decidedly uninspiring. But this morning at 7am it was beautiful and I can tell you that my legs feel every one of the miles that I did today. So be sure to layer up, reach for your trail shoes and go out and enjoy yourself. It won’t be here for long!

“The only antidote to mental suffering is physical pain” Karl Marx

When I started running, pain was something that I understood would be inevitable, but assumed would be temporary and periodic. However as I progressed my training over the years increasing my mileage as well as the intensity of my sessions, I came to realise that pain could be a pretty constant companion. At the moment, as I am logging regular 65-70 mile weeks, I wake up every morning with a very tight, sore right ankle. Following my easy morning run and after an hour at my desk my right knee twinges. By lunchtime there is a pain in my lower back. And before I set out for my session in the afternoon my IT Band feels like a tensioned steel cable. These niggles are a part of being a marathoner.

The regular companionship of mild pain or discomfort has, however, made me think about what it is like for other runners and especially 100+ mile-per-week elite athletes.

Elite runner, elite pain

In Charlie Spedding’s brilliant autobiography, From Last to First, he describes how, when he was training full time, pain was something he had to deal with constantly. This was especially true for his Achilles tendon, thanks to which he almost died after a negative reaction to an operation he was having.

Ben Moreau
Scott Overall

So what about contemporary elite athletes? I had the opportunity to ask Ben Moreau, an aspiring Olympic marathoner, Scott Overall, whose 2:10:55 at Berlin in 2011 secured him the first place on the Team GB marathon team and Alyson Dixon who is also hoping for a place in the Olympic marathon for Team GB.

When I asked Ben about whether he deals with constant pain he said that, thankfully, he doesn’t. However Ben went on to tell me that he has trained through pains that have lasted for weeks and that in fact at the moment – with 13 weeks until his shot for a place on the Olympic team at the Virgin London Marathon – he has a hamstring issue that has been going on since early December (that is for around seven weeks). Ben said that this pain has meant that he has reduced intensity of training somewhat but that his volume of training has remained constant.

Scott Overall was similarly sanguine about pain when I asked him, telling me that

I think the aches and pains that athletes have are natural as I think its quite un-natural to be running over 100 miles per week, week in and week out

and he went on to say that in his experience a pain is often a sign of a problem away from the site of the discomfort. In his case calf pain was due to hip issues:

once I had a calf problem but the cause of this was because my pelvis was out of alignment and the pain was showing itself at the weakest part of the chain. No amount of stretching or icing the calf would help it because the root of the problem was with my pelvis, and it was this that needed to be corrected.

Alyson Dixon

Last weekend I was at a marathon training conference in Brighton and had the opportunity to run with Aly Dixon, who is looking to take the third and final place in the Team GB  Olympic team for the London Games. When I asked Aly about managing pain she laughed wryly, after all Aly has only recently returned from injury having run last year’s World Championship marathon in Daegu with a the double whammy of fracture to the distal phalanx (big toe) and sessamoid (ball of the foot) that she thinks started when she ran the Great South Run in 2010.

Aly is reported as saying that she was in pain during that race “but thought it was because I needed to change my shoes as they were worn out.” Aly went on to tell me that because the pain was intermittent she assumed it was a natural part of having increased her mileage and that it was something she just had to manage. In interviews Dixon described how the physios at Team GB in Korea did a great job at managing the ‘niggle’ to allow her to run after which they discovered the broken metatarsal.

Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional (according to the Buddha)

So we have established, from some of the best runners in the UK, that with hard training comes pain and niggles. There is of course, quite a challenge in telling the difference between natural soreness or tightness and the start of an injury. So what do the experts say? Well Scott Overall told me that

Elite athletes tend to be very in tune with their bodies and would know why something is sore, it might be my calves are sore because I did a session on the track the night before, or my Achilles is sore because I’d stupidly been walking around in flip flops the previous day. A lot of the time there is a reason for the pain and you can generally narrow it down to what’s caused it.

and Ben Moreau gave me tips on how he manages the inevitable discomfort:

  1. if I feel like I’m changing my running style to accommodate it [the pain], I’m on a hiding to nothing and so will have to rest
  2. if it is getting worse constantly, that’s a bad sign, so I’ll rest
  3. assess rest vs healing and see if a reduced training amount now will impact the end goal vs possible benefits

Aly Dixon, now something of an expert in dealing with pain and recognising (or ignoring) injury, told me much the same as Ben – that she tries hard to recognise when pain is constant or worsening and affecting the way she is running and then decide whether, with a goal in mind, rest is possible and appropriate or whether she simply needs to push on and manage the issue.

How does that affect me?

To summerise, it seems that pain is an inevitable part of being a marathon runner and to avoid all pain would mean that the runner was not able to train enough to really reach his or her potential. The challenge comes when the pain is not a niggle but actually an injury. Scott Overall advises that

It’s important to nip these niggles in the bud before they get anymore serious. Keeping on top of things and getting regular physio and even massage can really help – if those things are not an option then just simply stretching or getting a foam roller to massage yourself.

One thing I have learned from talking to Ben, Scott and Aly is the importance of getting to know your body and recognise the difference between a niggle and an injury. Obviously being overly sensitive will mean that one doesn’t run enough whilst not being sensitive enough means that a serious injury could develop whilst the runner stubbornly refuses to acknowledge it.

I think that my advice would be that if you feel sore before you run, get out of the door and go for a 10 minutes warm-up. If after that the pain goes then it is fine to carry on (but get a physio to check out the area of pain anyway) but if the pain really remains or worsens, go home and immediately book an appointment with your favourite physio!

To conclude this ramble about pain, I think that my coach Nick Anderson of runningwithus, gave me some great advice this morning. We were out running together and I mentioned my sore ankle. I told Nick that the pain subsides within a couple of minutes of waking and goes completely once I have been walking or running for a minute or two. Nick said that this meant that the problem is manageable at the moment, but with three months until my ‘A’ race – the London marathon in April – I should get the ankle checked out by a physio now to avoid problems later as the volume of training continues to increase. I think that this is pretty good advice for all you marathoners out there so please let me know what you think and what you are doing to be the best runner you can be despite the pain!

 

 

Is the Kenyan smackdown coming to London?

I recently wrote about the ‘difficult’ problem that the Kenyan selectors have choosing their marathon squads for the Olympics. It might be amusing for the rest of the world to watch the Kenyan selectors squirm, but there is a serious point here – how do you pick only three when your nation has produced such a massive plethora of incredible runners?

How to choose?

One idea that was mooted was that there should be a US-style smackdown with all the Kenyan runners who hope to be in contention racing one marathon and the first three past the post come to London for the Games. Brutal but arguably fair… and at least it takes the pressure off the selectors. The ideal race for this to happen at, of course, is the London marathon – an iconic race perfectly timed four months before the Olympic marathon and with a field that always boasts a fantastic array of the worlds leading runners.

Well it seems as though, whether the Kenyan selectors have sanctioned this plan of action or not, the smackdown is in fact coming to London. The BBC has reported that several of the best runners from Kenya are coming to the Virgin London Marathon in April (read the piece here) including:

  • Emmanuel Mutai  – defending London marathon champion who won last year in 2:04:40
  • Patrick Makau – world record holder with 2:03:38 in Berlin last year
  • Abel Kirui – current world champion
  • Wilson Kipsang – winner of the Frankfurt marathon in 2011 with 2:03:42
  • Martin Lel – three-time London marathon winner and second place finisher in 2011
  • Vincent Kipruto – world championship silver medalist (behind Abel Kirui, above)

Now if I was in charge of picking a team I might be tempted to say that the first three Kenyans in London in April are in the Olympic team, but life is rarely that simple. In a further twist in the plot two others will also be vying for a spot:

  • Geoffrey Mutai who will be racing Boston on April 16 (and who won last year in 2:03:02)*
  • Moses Mosop who was second in Boston last year in 2:03:06 who will be racing in Rotterdam on 15 April

So I would say that if you are watching the London this year make sure you get there early or turn the television on to catch all the action, because I think this is going to be an incredible race. As Dave Bedford quite rightly has said:

With the Olympic men’s marathon due to be held here exactly 16 weeks later, we expect the battle for podium places to be even more ferocious than usual.

Too right Dave, too right!

* in case you are wondering, Geoffrey Mutai’s blistering 2:03:02 is not the current world record because the Boston course does not conform to the rules that the IAAF set out for an eligible course for a world record. But still… 2:03:02 – the mind boggles!

A world record… or is it?

I recently re-read one of my favourite books ‘The London Marathon’ by John Bryant and in one chapter, the author describes a fictional scenario for how the 2 hour barrier will be broken in the marathon;

It is 6 May 2024, London Marathon Day, the date set… after detailed discussions with the Ministry of Climate Control – the day when running 42.2 km should be perfect.

Millions are gathered around the course and a battery of television cameras are focused on the bright orange strip of all-weather running track two metres wide that snakes the miles from Blackheath to Buckingham Palace… Tufimu [the fictional athlete in this fantasy] is not wearing shoes as such for this marathon. His feet have been painted just 90 minutes before the race with a tough, flexible weatherproof coating – and one of the latest wafer-thin energy-return soles have been laser-glued to the bottom of each foot…

Bryant goes on to imagine that the runner will have an ear-piece plugged in to a feed from his personal hypnotherapist and that micro-chips under his skin will feed data back to a control centre, etc, etc. All very amusing.

The 2-hour marathon

But it makes a serious point. The 2 hour barrier for the marathon will, I have no doubt, be broken (hopefully in my lifetime) and it will also probably require a series of developments in both the way the athlete prepares and the kit they use. This was the case when Roger Bannister broke what many considered to be an impossible barrier – the 4 minute mile. In the case of Bannister’s historic run, it was the use of pace-makers that was the new (and in some quarters highly controversial) development, and one which has changed the face of athletics ever since. But does that mean that Bannister didn’t run a mile in under 4 minutes? No, it doesn’t.

That is part of sport. Things develop. Cars get faster, balls get lighter (or heavier or rounder or whatever), tracks and pools get ‘faster’ and sport should look forward. But I don’t believe that sport can, with one obvious exception, look backwards.

Paula Radcliffe’s world record

So how is it that the IAAF has announced recently that Paula Radcliffe’s world record for the marathon – 2:15:25 – set on 13 April 2003, will no longer be recognised as a world record (it will instead be listed as a ‘world best’ what ever the hell that means)? And the reason that this record is being down-graded is that Paula ran it in a race where there were men alongside her. Not men that Paula asked for and not, as we saw in the men’s race in Berlin this year, a peleton of runners in a ‘V’ formation in front and to the sides of her. The pace-makers in 2003 were just in the race, at most offering a target to help with the psychological challenges of keeping up the incredible pace Paula ran at.

Drug cheats

The obvious exception to all this, of course, is when it comes to drug cheats. And there the IAAF is in murky waters. I believe most strongly that if an athlete is found guilty of cheating by taking drugs, then all of their victories and all of their records should be disregarded. If they prove to be as capable clean, as they were when doping, then once they return after they have served their ban, they will surely regain their records. If they don’t… well then maybe the records weren’t legitimate anyway. But certainly in the case of many shorter distance events, almost all of the the women’s world records, mostly set in the 1980’s – before the introduction of mandatory drug testing was introduced – are so far beyond what the world’s current best are capable of, that there is a strong whiff of suspicion. There is a great article about this very subject here.

But Paula Radcliffe is not under suspicion of any misbehaviour. She is however in danger of having one of the most increadible feats of athletics, down-graded because of the occurrence of men on the course at the same time as her (ESPN have a great piece on this storm here). For what it is worth, I for one don’t think that is either sensible or fair and certainly brings into question whether ‘assisted’ marathon world records are going to be banned in which case Kenya’s Patrick Makau had better enjoy breaking the world record (2:03:38) last weekend, because he definitely hid from the wind behind a phalanx of pacers and if there is one rule for women, it is only fair that it should be applied to men. What do you think?