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Interview: Where did it all go wrong for British marathon running?

by kirsty
Friday 25th October 2013

Interview: Run247 columnist Kirsty Reade asks Gabrielle Collison, author of British Marathon Running Legends of the 1980s

Question Was it hard to track down all these greats of marathon running?

Answer No, it wasn't too difficult, as I knew Alan Storey well. At that point, he was the director of the London Marathon. He had also been the coach or given advice to several of the interviewees. He gave me as many contacts as he could. As the interviews were initially for my MSc dissertation, and I only needed a certain sample number, I just went for those I could get hold of easily. At that stage, I didn't know I would be publishing a book or I would have tried to get hold of even more "legends." Having said that, I think the book is already big enough! I did have the foresight though to ask them all if they would mind their interviews being used in the future for articles or books.

Question Who were your favourite interviewees and why?

Answer This is a tough question as they were all absolutely amazing people, and they approached things in their own unique way. However, if I had to pick one person, it would probably be John Graham. I just liked his no nonsense attitude, funny stories and maverick style. One thing that stood out to me though from all the interviews was Charlie Spedding's meticulous planning and goal setting, and how he approached the mental side of things. He placed a lot of emphasis on visualisation.

Question Did you take anything away from your research to apply in your own training? If so what? 

Answer Well, I feel a bit of a fraud, as I have never run a marathon; I was more of a 5/10km runner. By the time I'd finished the dissertation, I had also virtually retired from athletics, so I cannot say that I applied any of it. I am sure I would have done so had I still been competing. Mind you, I used to get injured fairly easily, so I don't think I could have coped with most of their training. I think this is what separates the good from the great i.e. being able to cope with large amounts of intensive training and not getting injured.

Question In your opinion why has the standard of British marathon running declined since the 80s? 

Answer If I can change the question around slightly, I can certainly point to some things that I think made us a lot better back then and some interesting observations I made.

The first thing I discovered was that while there was a fashion for high mileage, there was a wide variation in training methods. There was no “holy grail” to follow. Most of them felt that running was not a complex sport and that it just involved a great deal of hard work and doing a lot of it. The runners tended to use the terrain and facilities at their disposal and their preferences and the influence of their immediate peers frequently came into play. Several of them had coaches, but they didn’t appear to be particularly reliant on them, tending rather to talk to one another and swop ideas and advice, quite often over a post-training pint.

Although following fairly simple training methods, one thing was definitely apparent and that was pushing themselves to extremes to accomplish their goals. Most of their training was done very hard and very fast with, at times, little respect for their bodies. They relished training in an almost masochistic fashion and were a bunch of extremely disciplined, driven and focused people. Running well was their number one priority and they made sacrifices along the way in order to reach the top. Ultimately, it led to success. However, it has to be said that a few are now paying the price in terms of chronic injuries.

Despite this dedicated and committed approach, there was no pattern of full-time athletics or vast fortunes being made from running marathons at this time. Many of those I spoke to had jobs, and some of those jobs were pretty physical and demanding. There was still a lingering attitude of amateurism perpetuating through the management and officialdom at this time and athletics was really seen as a hobby, not a profession. There was certainly no coherent and organised structure for the funding of athletes, and any sponsorship was bitty and piecemeal.

Unless they went overseas to places like the US, (and this was only possible for the select few with no family or work commitments), there was generally not much money to be made. Any appearance money tended to be undercover and winnings were often in the form of prizes, not cash. Moreover, any money won had to go into a trust fund. It was therefore largely not possible to make a secure living from marathon running, especially for those with families to support. However, it may be that because of this, they didn’t compromise their performance in order to get a payday. They ran purely to be the best, to have championship success and to reach their utmost potential.

Many had a childhood background of participating in a number of sports and activities, including some athletics and running. This seems to have helped produce fit, competitive individuals with a measure of self-discipline and determination. They had the opportunity to do a lot of sport at school and were encouraged by their families and teachers.

On the whole, there were fewer entertainment options for young people and relatively little affluence. Sport was considered the thing to do in your spare time and sedentary past-times like computers were not an option. There were also fewer sports to choose from: football and athletics being the major two.

Perhaps two of the biggest factors at this time were peer group influence and the running boom of the 1980s. Not only did direct peer group interaction influence many of the runners in terms of deciding to do a marathon, but it was also responsible for raising the standards. The already well-established UK running club system and “harrier tradition” continued, along with groups of like-minded individuals around the country training together in a Kenyan-esque way. It was extremely competitive to make teams (both club and championship) and there was almost an ethos of “survival of the fittest.”

A more general long-distance running subculture or scene also existed whereby the high standards set in the previous decades were continued because this was what was expected with anything less dismissed. Every race was competitive and running fast was the norm otherwise you would be beaten.

The ‘80s running boom, which had crossed over from the US, and the publicity surrounding it also created a lot of interest and this appears to have increased the standard in general. There was a big base to the overall running pyramid and so the summit was high. The charisma of the marathon at this time created by the media and overseas stars likewise gave the marathon an extra appeal and led to runners talking about it and dabbling with it. There was no fear of the marathon; they were not daunted by it. It was just a natural progression and the event was not put up on a pedestal.

One other factor worth mentioning on the women’s side was that that the elite women ran in with the main field in most marathons at this time. Many women felt this helped them achieve good performances.

Personally, I am not convinced that we can go back to the halcyon days of the 1980s. Times have changed and some of the conditions that produced such good marathon runners back then may not be so easy to reproduce now or in the future. I’ll be happy to be proved wrong though.

Question Who do you feel are the greatest marathon runners Britain has ever produced?

Answer Another tough question to answer as it depends on what you criteria you base it on e.g. medals, records, incredible feats etc. However, I’ll say on the men’s side it would be Steve Jones and Charlie Spedding. Steve due to his amazing solo 2.07.13 run in 1985 in Chicago, which is still the British record, and Charlie due to his Olympic bronze medal, which he won in the heat and smog of LA in 1984.

On the women's side, other than the obvious - Paula Radcliffe, it has to be Joyce Smith. Joyce had the misfortune of growing up in an era when distance running for women was extremely limited; the furthest she was allowed to run when she started out internationally was 800m. As the years went on and women were allowed to compete at the longer distances, she found her forte in the marathon and won London twice on the trot, the second time in a then British record of 2.29.43. She also became the oldest woman to win the race at 44, a record which I believe still stands. At the age of 46, she went to the LA Olympics and placed 11th.

As an aside, it is a shame that I couldn't include Steve in the book. Originally when I did the study, I was due to meet him at the London Marathon that year to conduct an interview. We did meet up, but we didn't have time to fit it in. I think we just drank some beers! Later, before I published the book, I contacted him in Boulder to try to do it on Skype, but although he was willing it didn't work out.

Question What do you think Mo's going to do in his debut in the VMLM 2014?

Answer I'd rather not speculate. Despite being a writer, I am very much a believer in "actions speak louder than words." To quote from Charlie Spedding's interview: "...I think a lot of people nowadays want to prove that they can produce the performance before they go and run it in the race, and for me that is completely wrong." To state the obvious, the marathon is double the distance of a half-marathon and there have been many great 10km/half-marathon runners that haven't made it over the marathon distance. Mo has all the credentials to win the race and run a very fast time; he also has a very experienced marathon man in Salazar advising him, but let's wait and see.

Click here to read our review of Gabrielle Collison's British Marathon Running Legends of the 1980s


About The Author

Kirsty Reade

I’d describe myself as borderline obsessed with running, racing, reading about running, and watching others run so hopefully I’m fairly typical of Run247’s visitors. I tend to do longer races, particularly off-road marathons and ultras, but am pretty much a fan of any distance. I'm passionate about helping runners of all levels to improve through running communities I'm involved in, such as Underground Ultra and Free Range Runners. 


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