distance runners

Distance runners: Running is a poor man's sport: Bruce Tulloh on the inexorable decline in Northern European endurance running

In 1990 Bruce Tulloh was nearing retirement as a teacher, coaching a small group of elite distance runners and running about 40 miles a week himself. Since retiring in 1994, he has enjoyed a renaissance in his own performance, running 2.47 in the London Marathon that year and coming close to British records for the 10 miles and half marathon two years later. He continues to coach a few distance runners, including Matt O’Dowd and Amy Stiles, is race director of the Safaricom Marathon in Kenya and is on the organising committee of the Great Russian Run – a relay from Vladivostok to St Petersburg. He has two books in print: Running is Easy and Running over Forty, with the third edition of The Teenage Runner out soon

In 1990 I was coaching a small group of ex- University distance runners, the best of whom was Richard Nerurkar. The previous year he had made the British team for the World Cross-Country Championships, but had finished only 5th in the 10,000m trial for the Commonwealth Games. Ahead of him were such people as Tim Hutchings, who had finished second in the World Cross- Country, and Eamonn Martin, who went on to beat Moses Tanui to the Commonwealth title.

Richard knew he had to train very hard if he was to make the British team for the European Championships. He had been averaging around 100 miles a week since his year in Russia in 1985 and had improved his 5000m time to 13.27; so we reckoned he should be able to aim for close to 28 minutes in the AAA championships, which should be good enough to make the team.

As it turned out it was, and he did, and when he went to the Europeans in Split he was in second place at the bell, only to get pushed back to fifth on the last lap.

The following year, Richard set his sights a bit higher and trained for the World Championships in Tokyo, knowing that there would be only one day’s rest between the heat and the final. On a Tuesday in May, he ran 28.55 on our school cinder track, paced by our cross-country team; then on the Thursday he ran 28.39 on the Tartan track in Swindon, paced by Ian Manners.

When it came to the heat and humidity of Tokyo, Richard was well prepared, qualifying easily for the final, then running a personal best of 27.57, but once again being outsprinted in the fight for the medals. By then we knew that his real future lay in the marathon, and after a disappointing run in the 10,000m final at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992 that became his goal. A year later he won the World Cup Marathon in 2:10:03, the first major marathon title for a British runner since 1976, and he went on to finish 5th in the Atlanta Olympics and to set a personal best of 2.08.36 in London in 1997.

From track to marathon

This brings me, in a rather long-winded way, to my first point: that top-class marathon runners come from a track background, and it is very rarely that a world-class marathoner is not able to run a very good 10,000m. Steve Jones switched straight from the 1984 Olympic 10k to breaking the world marathon record in Chicago. Richard Nerurkar ran his best 10k (27.40) only six weeks after his first marathon.

From a national point of view, it is obvious that when you have high standards in the 5k and 10k, more good runners are forced up to the marathon. In 1989, Richard’s 13.27 5,000m put him only 9th in Britain, so he naturally chose the 10k. However, that same time in 2003 would have put him top of the British 5,000m rankings.

If you were a 28.30 10k runner in 1990 you would not have made the top 10 in Britain, but last year you would have been second. Human nature being what it is, this means that fewer runners of real quality are likely to take to the marathon because they can win national titles and international vests running shorter distances – and can also race internationally far more frequently during the year.

Before we begin to lament our declining standards and to agonise over what can be done about them, let us put things in perspective. I have been on the running scene since the mid-fifties; my first hero was the Czech runner Emil Zatopek, who won those amazing three gold medals in Helsinki. I can remember, too, when Hungary was the dominant force in distance running, holding all the world records from 1,500m upwards.

Before that, Finland and Sweden were the strongest nations in the world. They were followed by distance runners from the USSR – Kuts and Bolotnikov – and the Poles, notably Krzyszkowiak. Only one man from these six nations, Sergiy Lebed of the Ukraine, approached world class in distance running last year. And in the whole of Europe, only four men made the world top 50 at 5,000m, five at 10,000m and seven in the marathon. The truth is that men’s distance running is dominated by Africans, and it is only a matter of time before the same applies to women, too.

‘What about Paula’, I hear you cry, ‘and Sonia O’Sullivan and Benita Johnson? Does this not prove that the men are simply not training hard enough?’ No, all it shows is that, for cultural reasons, only a few African women are allowed to develop their talent, compared with thousands of men and boys in Kenya, Ethiopia, Morocco and South Africa.

The situation is not going to get any better, either, because other African countries are following the same path. Uganda, Eritrea and Rwanda won team medals at this year’s World Cross-Country and only one European nation, Great Britain, won a team medal.

So in European terms our distance runners are not doing badly, but there are still two questions to be answered:

  • Why are the Africans so much better than the rest of us and
  • Why are British (and European) standards declining?

Briefly, the answer to the first question is that running is a poor man’s sport, needing only talent and hard work. Africa has millions of poor men and they are willing to work hard because they have nothing to lose. By contrast, the young men of the Western world look more towards the affluent sports – skiing, sailing, motor racing, biking, rowing, triathlon and snowboarding.

The decline in Northern European running has its roots in affluence. In my day, distance running strength came from the clubs in the big cities – Gateshead, Manchester, Liverpool, Portsmouth, Coventry and Derby. It was a sport that cost very little but gave one the chance of success and the glamour of travel. The car workers of Coventry won a stack of international medals thanks to the efforts of Basil Heatley, Brian Kilby, Bill Adcocks and Dick Taylor, but these days the glamour of travel is a far less elusive commodity.

The fact that more and more people are running has little or no connection with success at international level, because the motivations are not the same. Just as the Ugandans are following the same path as the Kenyans, the British are following the same path as the Swedes and Finns. We cannot swim against the tide of history. We have more food, more leisure, more money, more machines and more obesity, but also more diet books, more discos, more gyms, more sports scientists and more leisure clubs.

Running is no longer a sport for hard-training introverts; it is part of the consumer society – a leisure activity involving a bit of gentle exercise, a bit of socialising and quite a lot of buying of designer gear.

This is not to say that we will never produce any more great distance runners, but they are going to be few and far between. The very gifted distance runners will be nurtured and polished with the best of scientific support and marketed like expensive commodities. We have seen this happen with Paula Radcliffe in Britain and Carolina Kluft in Sweden, and it could happen in men’s marathon running too, if the talent is unearthed.

What will it take to produce a world-class British marathon runner? First, he must have basic running ability – which means a high VO2max, a lean body, a low pulse rate and the ability to run 5,000m in 13.20. Such a person will probably show up at under-17 or under-20 level and win medals in European junior competition. Second, he must have both the willingness to train hard and the physique to absorb a high volume of hard training without getting injured. Third, he must be able to develop the unique mindset of the marathon runner, combining an overwhelming desire to win with the patience to wait for two hours before striking.

What sort of training will this athlete be doing? More than 20 years ago, in my book The Complete Distance Runner, I set out a schedule of ‘1990 training’ for the person who was going to run 27 minutes for 10k, as follows:
Sun: am 20 miles, pm 6 miles, inc 12 x 150 fast stride;
Mon: am 8 miles steady, pm 10 x 1k in 2.45;
Tues: am 8 miles steady, pm 10-12 miles fartlek;
Wed: am 8 miles easy, pm 8 x 800m in 2.07 plus 10 x 400 in 61-63secs;
Thur: am 8 miles easy, pm 3 sets of 10 x 250m fast stride;
Fri: am 5 miles easy, noon 5 miles fast tempo run, pm 5 miles easy fartlek;
Sat: am 5 miles easy, pm club track races.
Total distance – 120 miles

Compare this with a typical hard week’s training that Richard Nerurkar was doing in his marathon preparation in the mid-nineties:
Sun: am 22 miles, starting easy, finishing fast, pm gym work plus swim;
Mon: am 5 miles easy, pm 7 miles inc sprint drills + swim;
Tues: am 6 miles steady, pm 10 miles, inc 6 at threshold pace;
Wed: am 10 miles inc 3 x 3000m in 8 mins 30 (5 mins recovery), pm 6 miles easy + swim;
Thur: am 5 miles steady, pm 6 miles easy + 10 x 100m stride;
Fri: am 6 miles, pm track workout, 10 x 1000m, av 2.45 ( 2.30 recovery);
Sat: am 10 miles steady, pm 7 miles.
Total distance – 120 miles plus swimming and exercises

My view is that this is about as high as one can go in mileage terms without the effort becoming counterproductive. However, when in altitude training camps Richard would often put in an early morning run of 3-4 miles, bringing the weekly mileage up to 140. In both the Kenyan and the Mexican training camps that we have attended, three sessions a day and 150 miles a week was considered pretty normal.

How can this be improved on? The answer lies in better science, with more efficient monitoring of an athlete’s state of fatigue. Daily monitoring of stress hormones in the blood would enable coaches to pile on the work when athletes are recovering quickly and ease off when they start to become over-tired.

A good training camp regime – with good food, pleasant company, regular swimming, sauna and massage – enables the runner (and even his coach) to handle a much greater training volume than can be performed by an unsupported athlete. We just have to find the young men who are willing to try it.

In 1990, the world marathon best stood at 2:07:15 and the British marathon best at 2:07:16. Today the world best stands at 2:04:55 and the British best... has stood still! Nevertheless, we are starting to see an improvement. After years of decline, British men’s marathon running reached an all-time low in 2003, in the same year as our women’s marathon performance reached an all-time high. Paula Radcliffe’s 2:15.25, an amazing world record, was 16 seconds faster than the fastest time by a British male – Mark Steinle, who had run 2.09 the year before.

In this year’s London Marathon, our best performance was a steady 2.13 by John Brown, but 12 other British men went under 2.20. This improvement was brought about by a well organised series of training weekends put on by UK Athletics, and by the event organisers providing pacemakers for a 2.15 (Olympic qualifying) pace. Let us hope that this is not a temporary halt in the slide, but the first step towards regaining the ground we have lost over the last 15 years.

Bruce Tulloh

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