Congratulations to Mara Yamauchi on her second place in the London Marathon. She employed the same positive tactics – ie go with the leaders, and ensure the pace if it flags – that gleaned her sixth place in the Olympic marathon in Beijing last summer. And as she said after London, if Paula Radcliffe returns to full fitness in time for the World Championships in Berlin, there is the possibility of two marathon medals for the UK in August. Now wouldn’t that be something!
On the other hand, what about the British men, the first of whom, Andi Jones finished 13th in London, in 2.15.20? While Radcliffe can still win London – albeit that is a diminishing return – and Yamauchi could win London, the possibility of a British man figuring in what the organisers can justifiably call the best marathon in the world is as remote as Prime Minister Gordon Brown winning an award for stand-up comedy.
Never say never, goes the warning. But while some commentators are suggesting Mo Farah, and even looking ahead 10 years and more, to Steph Twell’s debut (talk about clutching at straws!), I would venture that no Brit, apart from Radcliffe and Yamauchi, and certainly no British man will get near to winning London in at least the next quarter century.
It’s not quite that long since the last men’s victory by a Brit, Eamonn Martin in 1993, but the signs of terminal decline were there long before that. Around 20 years ago, I ran into one of my former club-mates, while I was training in the countryside, on a visit to my family home in the West Midlands. He was a schoolteacher, feeling the effects of the Thatcher ‘rationalisation’ of education in Britain. At the end of a litany of woe, including the mass selling-off of school sports fields, he maintained that teachers would stop volunteering to take the kids to cross-country races, or football and cricket matches on Saturdays; because they were being forced to see teaching as a job like any other, to take up and drop at will, rather than the vocation that it had been for so long. And that is exactly what happened, and school sport, not just athletics suffered accordingly.
At the same time, in the wake of dozens of British men, including many non-elites, ie good club runners breaking 2.20 in the second London Marathon in 1982, the fun-running movement took off in earnest. Clubs may have been glad initially to get a boost in membership, but they weren’t ready for people who saw running as a pastime, the ones I referred to in a recent blog, as preferring to run on a treadmill in front of a TV, beside a window looking out on a huge sunlit park. Another pal tells me that he, a former sprinter, recently finished sixth in his club cross country, only to be told that he was senior champion. The ones ahead of him were all vets, ie masters. Yet another pal tells me that some of the joggers in his club refuse to run through mud when they’re training. These are the people who wilfully ignore that cross country running in winter can help reduce marathon times. They are like weekend drivers. To make matters worse, many of these people have acceded to positions of authority in the hierarchy of clubs, when they don’t have the faintest idea of what it takes to become a champion. So young inductees are not going to know either. In short, the club system has fallen apart. And that was the basis of success in British distance running.
It was mob-training in club groups ( as well as their own private blowouts) that produced the likes of Dave Bedford, Brendan Foster, Mike Tagg, Ian and Peter (and Mary) Stewart, Seb Coe, Steve Ovett, Dave Moorcroft, Nick Rose, Dave Black, Steve Jones, Dave Clarke, Julian Goater, Steve Binns, Mike McLeod, Bernie Ford, Tony Simmons, Eamonn Martin, Tim Hutchings, Jack Buckner. And that was just the Class of ’75 to ’85. And I’ve probably left a few names out. As I’ve asked before, if these guys could win Olympic, European and Commonwealth golds, take national titles or world records, and (almost) all run (well) under 28 minutes for 10,000 metres, how come no one, but NO ONE can do it now?
The production line was, first, school; second, club (or, more rarely, university); third, elite competition. I doubt we’re getting out of the starting gate now. In contrast, Yamauchi, married to a Japanese and living in Japan, has the ideal environment to nurture her improvement from a middling marathoner to a world-class one. As she said last week, “Japan makes you raise your game. They have so many athletes training full time for the marathon, the depth is unbelievable. And then, they always have good quality races. At the elite level (in the UK), we don’t have that much depth”.
Radcliffe herself feels that men coped worse than women with these last two decades of fall-out. “Our squad development and group training mentality fell apart,” she says, “men in particular need that more than women, (who) will either be able to get themselves together in a group or they will go out and hammer it in training. In my experience, women can train more closely to their maximum on their own for more sessions in the week than men. It’s just the way the physiology is. By putting men in a squad, you force them to push a little bit harder and train a little bit harder. Women are generally better organised and more consistent. You might see the guys start off a bit faster and probably running at a quicker pace, but they’re fair-weather runners. If the rain or snow comes in, the guys are going to bottle out.”
Yamauchi is more sympathetic, and makes a good point about the comparative (thus far) frailties of East African women. “I feel so sorry for the GB men, everyone criticises them. One thing that is different is that men’s distance running is much more dominated by East Africans than the women’s. If you were a 16 yr old boy in Britain watching the world cross country, what incentive would you have? You may have to be even more devoted if you’re a (British) man”.
Of course, wait ’til the likes of Pamela Jelimo and Janeth Jepkosgei graduate to marathon running. After all, recent Boston Marathon winner, Salina Kosgei began, like them, as an 800 metres runner; but nowhere near as good as the Olympic gold and silver medallists. Kosgei then graduated through the distances, winning Commonwealth 10,000 metres gold on her way to the marathon.
A combination of increased volume training in college, and altitude camps for post-student elites is helping US distance running to come back from a similar decline, to compete with the East Africans. But that US model, implemented half a dozen years ago, is not necessarily the one for European countries. It is certainly not a model for the UK, because we have had a competely different system. Yes, we have inter-university sports competition, but at nothing like the refined, hot-house level that exists in the USA. The UK version was the club system, which has all but imploded.
Ian Stewart, UK Athletics’ new head of endurance has been charged with the task of reversing the downward trend. As the last Brit to win the world (senior) cross country (ahem, in 1975!), winner of European and Commonwealth titles, and an acknowledged ‘hard man’ of the training grounds, Stewart is a good choice, but even he admits that the prospect is far more difficult than he thought when he took on the job six months ago. “I knew there was a lot to do but there is far more than I thought. Some of the boys have been running only 20-30 miles a week. Now we’ve got people like Mo (Farah) jacking up mileage of 100-120 miles a week. It’s a big lifestyle change. In the last 10-15 years there was a groundswell of opinion that said ‘less is more’. We had runners doing more work in the gym. But they’re not doing that in Kenya or Ethiopia, they’re getting miles under their belt”.
There is a review in process, with suggestions of moving the national endurance centre – currently in West London – to a more central location, in the Midlands; and taking bigger groups to Font Romeu, Radcliffe’s altitude training base in the Pyrennees. Farah, a self-confessed former party-animal, has demonstrated the benefits of knuckling down to a lifestyle dedicated to athletic excellence, and the European indoor title is the latest manifestation of that.
But when you can count the number of elite distance runners in the country on one hand, you know this is one recession that has no end in sight.