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British Marathon Running Legends of the 1980s

by kirsty
Friday 25th October 2013

Book review: Run247 columnist Kirsty Reade reviews Gabrielle Collison's book British Marathon Running Legends of the 1980s

Ever wondered how Britain could be such a force in the world of marathon running in the 1980s but come 2013 not field a single man in the World Championship marathon? Where did it all go wrong? Could we become great again? Gabrielle Collison wondered this too and took a very innovative approach to answering this question. She carried out 18 in-depth interviews with top marathon runners from the 1980s to find out things like how they trained, what they ate and what their lifestyle was like, to see why they were so successful and to try to shed some light on why standards have been in decline despite all the advancements in sports science.

This book is a transcript of the interviews which means that you can compare training regimens and other info. I was worried that it might be quite repetitive but actually it was fascinating reading as many of the interviewees are real characters. The interview format also made it a good book for dipping in and out of. If you like your statistics, as a lot of us runners do, then there’s lots for you in this book. There’s an appendix which lists the British men and women in the world top 100 for the marathon in the 1980s (a lot), in the 1990s (still a fair amount but a lot less), and between 2000 and 2009 (it’s a bit depressing).

So where did it all go wrong? The author, Gabrielle Collison, gives a great answer to this question in her interview (HERE). What I took away from the book is that we’re just a bit soft now compared to these guys in the 1980s! Some of them ran a huge amount of miles - 100, 120 or even 140 miles. Steve Brace averaged 80/90 miles for 52 weeks of the year! And he raced a lot too; when he ran his PB of 2.10 in Houston in 1996 it was his 49th marathon and a lot of them were in the 2.10s, 2.11s and 2.12s. Martin McCarthy didn’t take a rest day for 6 years! And Jim Alder would ‘drop down to 100 miles in October to have a bit of a rest’! As well as the volume, the intensity of the some of the sessions described in the book made my lungs ache just reading about it. And most of them did this on top of very demanding jobs. For instance, Jim Alder was a bricklayer by day.

A lot of their training was trial and error as they didn’t have teams of sports scientists as we do now. It was interesting to read all the interviewee’s attitudes to drinking during marathons. Sheila Catford (Boyde) didn’t drink during races at all and John Boyes won the Miami marathon in the heat without drinking anything but some of the interviewees were just starting to experiment with electrolyte drinks with mixed results. Some of them were also experimenting with carbo loading diets, also with mixed results. My personal favourite was John Boyes’s admission that he used to ‘eat loads and drink loads, including beer’ when training and he had two bottles of Heineken the night before he ran his PB. Is this the secret? Sadly not.

This is such an interesting book and it really sheds light on how training methods, diet, kit and the world of sponsorship and prize money has changed. I learned a lot from reading it and I would say that if you are a marathon geek you will love it.

We caught up with Gabrielle Collison and asked her a few questions about the book and about marathon running in general. Click here to read the interview


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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