I first met Ben at the Hackney Marshes ParkRun where it became immediately obvious that we were quite evenly matched. At the time I was living in Hackney so Ben and I were neighbours and ended up running the same races a few times. I was immediately and really hugely impressed by Ben’s level of dedication (as well as his amazing sun glasses – more on that later) and it was obvious to me that Ben would be someone that I would find myself chasing quite often in races. He had already set himself the target of a sub-75 minute half marathon and a sub-2:45 marathon when I met him and at a couple of races where we both ran, he came fiercely close to the half marathon target. Then with the London marathon 2012 looming on the horizon, it clearly all came together and Ben ran 73:19 at the Paddock Wood Half Marathon on 1 April and then cruised to an eight minute PB with 2:42:19 time in the London. Truly a runner at the sharp-end, here is what Ben had to tell me and if you want more from Ben follow him at twitter.com/@benjiwickham
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)?
I used to occasionally run the odd 10k. Maybe once a year. I always wanted to do a marathon, but badly strained my IT band whilst training (badly) in 2009, making it almost impossible to run any distance. From there I took to swimming and cycling to rehab it, and built the miles slowly to get to the start line of the 2010 London Marathon. Along the way I sort of turned myself into a triathlete. My previous best time was somewhere around 55mins for a 10k. In training for that marathon I realized I had some potential to run pretty well, and by the time I got to the start I was shooting for sub-3. However, I exploded, running the 2nd half in 2hrs 10min, posting 3:39. Rather than put me off it fired me up to see how fast I could go. So far I have a 16:38 5k, 34:45 10k, 73′ half and 2:42 full. Those last two took some doing 😉
How long have you been running and why did you start in the first place?
I’d say I’ve been seriously running since the build up to VLM in 2010, so maybe just under 3 years, but I’d done a little bit of fun-running before. I always enjoyed the racing and the act of seeing how hard you could push you body over a given distance. As my limits expanded I just kept on looking for the edge, and still am.
Are you coached? And if so, by whom?
I’m not coached, but I read a lot, and listen a lot. I tend to try and absorb every detail about anything that interests me. I have a number of people who I bounce ideas off and discuss anything sports related. Top of the list are Mark Sheppard, who taught me Tai Chi, and coaches a variety of sports, and Hilary Ivory, who is a journalist, author (collaborating on Paula’s latest book), personal trainer, and has a marathon PB of 2:40.
(Aside from your coach, if you have one) who or what has been the biggest influence on your running and why?
Ironically, I’d say the biggest influence on my running was the injury to my IT band. It forced me to take up swimming and cycling, which have been vital in allowing my training to continue injury free, and it forced me to forensically examine my technique. The memory of not being able to run also keeps me sensible when I develop niggles.
What is the best piece of running advice you have ever been given? Who gave you that advice?
Stretch your calves. So many injuries and niggles that I develop can be traced to tight calves. They tend to feel OK, but pull on other bits of your legs, and you develop an injury that seems unrelated… and it’s not until you do a decent stretch you actually notice how bad they are!
What is your favourite bit of kit and why?
Definitely my Oakleys. I think it’s vitally important to keep your face relaxed, as tension creeps into the shoulders and down into the hips and legs. The ability to keep your head up and eyes open is crucial to reducing tension. They also put me mentally in race-mode… physically feeling like a barrier to the outside world. And let’s face it.; I’m a triathlete too… They look cool.
What has been, or where is, your favourite race?
New York Marathon 2011. It was the first time I felt controlled and relaxed all the way through a marathon, allowing me to soak up the sights. Lots of friends on the course, simply the best start I’ve ever seen, and coming down onto 1st Avenue is spine-tingling.
What do you think has had the biggest effect on you improving your times?
Specific training. Lots more slow miles, and less, but more targeted speed work. I leave it really late these days to tailor my training for races and as a result arrive much less burnt out to the start line, and have less injuries.
With the benefit of hindsight, if you could give your younger self any advice, what would it be and why?
You have depths and abilities you cannot imagine right now. I was never picked for any team at school, and was bottom of the class at music. These days I happily play guitar by ear and blitz marathons. I’m not sure I would change my past, but if only I’d known I may have found out sooner.
Do you stretch enough?
See my answer above. Calves, calves calves. And some IT bands for good measure.
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?
Running at elite level to me seems to be coming out of a bit of a low patch. Whilst we aren’t up there with the east africans, there are certainly green shoots. It’s always going to be a hard sell as a lifestyle, but improvements will take years, and there are genuine characters in the sport to help. We need to push these characters. Use the interest that they generate with sponsors and race directors to create massive events, and media coverage off the back. Athletics is starting to get huge coverage these days, and it’s likely that in 3, 4 years time we may see the benefits of that. However, at a grass roots level, I think it’s never been greater. Parkrun, running clubs and local races all combine to make it a genuinely mass participation sport, and one that brings me into contact with all sorts of people. At my level, running has everything I ever need.
What is your overall ambition for your own running? What do you think you need to do to achieve that?
Simply to keep on pushing that edge. I’m aware that my limits will occur before I can set the word on fire with my running, but as long as I’m on my limit, I’m happy. I need to be honest with myself, and push more when I can. You need to learn the difference between your body saying no and your mind.
Please complete the following: I run because…
… by looking for the outside edge of your performance, not only do you learn that edge is much further away than you ever thought possible, but quite probably all your self-imposed limits.