The finished product

Inspiration from ‘The Perfect Distance’ by Pat Butcher

I have just finished reading Pat Butcher’s excellent book on the golden era of British middle distance running “The Perfect Distance. Ovett & Coe: the record breaking rivalry” (published by Phoenix and available here). I’ll write a specific review of the book soon, but in the mean time there was a theme running through the book that I found interesting because it spoke to me about my own current predicament.

In the closing pages of the book, Butcher writes about the Los Angeles Olympic Games 1500m final in which Seb Coe, Steve Ovett and Steve Cram all ran and which provided British athletics fans with one of the most iconic images ever; the three of them in a line at the bell (see right). The result of that race is that Seb Coe became the first man ever to successfully defend a 1500m Olympic title. But perhaps more extraordinarily, he did it despite battling with injury and illness almost his entire career. Butcher tells us that;

After almost three years of illness, half an elite athlete’s lifetime. He’d [Coe] done it [defended his Olympic 1500m title]. Against all the odds. He had done it.

Perseverance

And that is extraordinary to me in one very clear sense. How many people would have persevered through the sorts of trials and tribulations that Coe had endured? Stress fractures, crippling toxoplasmosis, sciatica and a host of other injuries? I have had a very fortunate ‘running career’ of 5 years during which time I have managed to avoid any serious illness or injury (save for a broken wrist that was the result of being knocked off my bike) whilst friends and contemporaries have suffered all sorts of set-backs. But the remarkable thing is that Coe kept coming back. He took his time, got the treatment and worked his way back to top form.

The same is true in so many walks of life – it is all too easy to see a finished product in any discipline and not realise what had been going on in the background for months, years or even decades. In terms of my interest in running, it is easy to think that sporting greats arrive on the scene as the finished product. But that is never the case. I think that arguably the greatest distance runner the world has ever seen is Haile Gebrselassie and he himself acknowledges that it was decades of running, starting with 10km a day to school and back, that set him up for his achievements in later life. One story that I love, which may or may not be true, is that of Picasso sketching a woman in a cafe;

A woman was strolling along a street in Paris when she spotted Pablo Picasso sketching at a sidewalk cafe. The woman asked Picasso if he might sketch her, and charge her accordingly. Picasso graciously obliged and in just minutes, there she was: an original Picasso.

“And what do I owe you?” she asked.
“Five Thousand Francs,” Picasso answered.
“But it only took you three minutes,” she politely reminded him.
“No,” Picasso said. “It took me all my life.”

The point of this story is obvious, but one that it is easy to forget – achieving greatness, whether that is objective greatness or simply being the best we can be, takes years or decades or even a lifetime of dedication. So how does that relate to my predicament?

The lesson learnt

For the last few months I have been struggling to train at the level that I think I need to, to achieve what I want to, especially in terms of achieving new personal bests. Now I am not suggesting for one minute that there is anything to compare between me and Sebastian Coe, but I do think there is much to be learned from his example – he rolled with the punches and dealt with the set-backs. And in my mind that is one of the things that makes an athlete great. Like all injured runners I need to stop feeling sorry for myself, find out what I need to do to get back to my best form and get there step-by-step . Thanks for the inspiration, Lord Coe!

Lord Sebastian Coe and the Olympic Games

The Olympic Games are coming to London. In just over 300 days. And there is an increasing amount of opinion being spouted about whether London will deliver a great Games, deliver on the medal expectations and deliver on the legacy, the promise of which went some way to winning the opportunity to host the Games for this great city.

It is often said – and I believe it – that if you want to know the truth it needs to come from the horse’s mouth. Last night I was privileged and honoured to be a guest at a dinner hosted by Nike where Lord Sebastian Coe addressed 30 of us and talked about how far the Games have progressed and what is still to be done.

In logistic terms alone organizing the Games is a herculean task. The numbers are mind boggling, from the thousands that are already employed by the organizing committee and the thousands more that will be required in the coming months, to the 70,000 volunteers who will work at the Games to the massed ranks of police, medical and security staff that will be required. Then of course there will then be visitors in the millions. And not forgetting thousands of athletes from around the world.

I often hear people say that sport is an analogy for life and to illustrate the mindset for winning the Games, Seb told the story of one of his earliest senior races over 800m at the European Championships Prague in 1978. In that race he set off at a suicidally fast pace, partly to try to neutralise the threat of his greatest rival, Steve Ovett. However, predictably, having run the first 400m in 49 seconds, physiology caught up with Coe in the last 200m and also predictably as he tied up, who was alongside him? Ovett. What neither of them realized however, was that there was a further threat – an East German athlete who blasted past the pair of them to take gold in the last 20 meters. Lord Coe said that he was on all fours, desperately trying to catch his breath when Ovett came over, put his hand on Coe’s shoulder and said ‘Who the f*** was that?’ With a wry grin Lord Coe told us last night that winning the Olympics was like that, with London as the unknown threat. Paris and Madrid were odds on favourites to win the Games, but with stealth and passion and great preparation, who snuck up on the outside and took it at the line? Yep, London. Lord Coe, undoubtedly a man of great vision, passion and leadership, talked frankly about the challenges that his organization faces, but in my mind there is no doubt that it will all come together and prove to be an exceptional event. And I got that from the horse’s mouth.

But the London Games in 2012 is about much more than the few weeks of competition. There is the issue of legacy. And for that Lord Coe dipped back into his own past to talk about the importance that companies like Nike play in encouraging and supporting young people and ensuring that sport, and athletics in particular, capture the imagination of youngsters and fuel the desire in them to compete and be the best they can be. Can we deliver on that? Well, thanks to Lord Coe and his team I have no doubt that we will have a great Games. But the legacy – well that is going to take a massive combined effort from all of us. I sincerely hope we succeed.