My first coach’s speedwork sessions were unusual… and ultimately unsuccessful
Nowadays I run for fitness and laughs, but in 1985, in Scarborough, at the age of 16, running was my life. I was good at it, although I had to deal with my skin condition and learn to manage it. Read more information on how to manage acne rosacea.
Inspired by the barefoot sand-dune antics of the great Australian 15oom runner Herb Elliott and his eccentric coach Percy Cerutty, I took to the beach at dawn, sprinting to a state of near collapse, dreaming of Olympic success. The fly in the ointment was my complete lack of speed. I had stamina and guts, I was the front-running Forrest Gump, but when pace was needed I slid down the field, marooned and pigeon-toed.
That autumn I moved schools and met my first and only coach, George Eden – a 55-year-old ex-Rotherham Harrier exiled to Northallerton in North Yorkshire. He was wafer thin and short-sighted. His glasses constantly steamed up and he would wipe them clean with a hanky, kept somewhere deep within his indecently slight shorts. We trained hard – hill reps, fartlek. Sometimes we would intentionally get lost and run randomly into the woods. One day we happened upon a herd of heifers. “No problem Paul,” he assured me, “A very peaceful creature, the cow.” The heifers noticed us and began to walk in our direction. “Get out!” George began waving his hanky at them. “Away!” They broke into a run. “Increase the pace Paul!” George said, as he wiped his specs anxiously. “GEEET!” I began to surge to a far fence. I looked over my shoulder to see George sprinting behind me, followed by 50 or 6o bug-eyed cows. “Run, Paul, Run!” he exclaimed.
We legged it to the fence, splashing desperately through mud, and vaulted to safety. It was the best kind of fun. I had found my Cerutty.
The following summer we concentrated on the 800m. I could not beat 2:20. All week I trained. “Sprints – pure speed!” George would announce, gleefully running to the end of the finishing straight as if he had found it there and could give it to me by just repeating the word ‘speed’.
I BEGAN TO SURGE. I LOOKED OVER MY SHOULDER TO SEE A WILD-EYED GEORGE FOLLOWED BY 60 COWS
“Hot coals!” he would scream, “Imagine you’re running on hot coals! Dogs! You’re being chased by dogs!”
I would sprint and sweat and still run the 800m in 2:20. Two weeks before the last race of the season George approached me, wild-eyed. “We have to do it this time,” he said. “I want you to run like an animal! Hit 400 as fast as you can and then just…just… just…” – he grabbed himself in the chest ”just propel yourself. Just fly.” We lost ourselves in reverie for a moment. Dreaming of a new life. A life with an average speed faster than 70 seconds a lap.
Race day. We stretched together. “Animal,” he whispered. “Fly.” At the gun I felt light, free. Herb Elliott. Pure speed. I swept through 30o metres to the bell. 61, 62, 63…a PB! Round the far bend I began to wilt. George stood at the soon mark waving his hanky – a signal for me to kick for home. I surged for 20 metres. “Go, go!” I heard George’s distant cries and I tried, I went, just not fast. My legs felt like pipe cleaners and began to turn inward. My arms felt like lead. The field glided past. I was running like an animal, just not a fast one. A panda, or hippo, perhaps. As I rounded the last bend, I summoned up the hot coals mantra and the dogs image and briefly and deliriously combined the two. I imagined being chased by a dog on hot coals. In a flash I realised this wouldn’t actually work. The dogs would actually slow down because of their over-sensitive paws. I was deeply confused. I needlessly dipped for the line, knock-kneed, knackered, and last.
George Eden scampered over, ashen-faced, stopwatch in hand – 2:20. He wiped his glasses, gazing off into the middle distance. “I think what we’re dealing with here,” he concluded, “is a basic lack of speed.”