Coached or uncoachable?

coachedAs I pulled in to the John Charles Sports Centre a large group of top triathletes had just finished a morning swimming session. I was there for an interview which I had arranged to be in the Centre’s café. Being slightly early I joined several others in having one of the warm home-made cherry scones that seemed to be the (re)fuel of choice for these athletes. Sitting down with scone and coffee I acknowledged the presence of my interviewee, who was finishing what looked like a post-training debrief with one of the athletes.

maitlandJack Maitland is Director of Triathlon at Leeds Metropolitan University, and part of the British coaching team for triathlon, and thus working regularly with the Brownlee brothers, who are based in Leeds. He was also previously an outstanding fell runner, having won the British Fell Champs back in 1986. I was there to interview him as he was a contemporary of, and fierce rival of, Kenny Stuart and John Wild. These two are the central characters in my latest book project, which I am current working on. It is parallel biographies of the two of them, and also tells the story of the incredible 1983 fellrunning championships that year, when they went head-to-head over a full season of 15 races.

Halfway through the interview I could see out of the corner of my eye first one, and then two, Brownlees come and sit at a table nearby. Resisting the urge to halt the interview and gush over to them and ask for a selfie, I did swing the questioning off topic and asked Jack the Coach about working with the two of them. What he told me surprised me somewhat, and caused me to reflect on what Jack had already told me about his own athlete/coach status when performing, and also the attitude to coaching of several other top fell runners that I have had the pleasure of interviewing in the process of writing my first two published books, and now this third manuscript.

I had assumed that Maitland would be applying a strongly scientific approach to his coaching of the World Class triathletes in his care (think Brailsford’s ‘power metering, and marginal gains’ approach in cycling). It seems not, as this was Maitland’s reply when I questioned him about it: ‘Actually that is interesting, as my way is pretty non-scientific. It depends of course what you mean by science. There is planning, organisation, recording and structure, which are all important. But heart rate monitors, power meters and lab tests, well we hardly use that at all. Our athletes have been tested. So I learned a lot from testing them and used that information. I don’t think it is that valuable to keep testing them, you know from their training form and their race form how they are doing.’ He then told a quick story about being tested himself. ‘I did have a VO2 max test once, when I was starting triathlon, and I remember it being pretty high [but he couldn’t recall the result]. The guy doing my test said I should take up cycling!’

Looking back over the discussions on training and coaching that I have recently had with some of the top fell runners there does seem to be a bit of a pattern shown. As a sweeping generalisation these top performers have certain traits in common. Shall we say: driven, motivated, singular in approach and often somewhat ‘individual’ in their approach to their training and their preparation. What follows are some quotes from, and backgrounds for, some of those top athletes. All come from either the published versions in my books or from the original interview transcripts.

BurnsallReeves01Firstly then, Fred Reeves – who won the Grasmere Guides Race eight times. Early on Reeves began working with coach Dennis Beavins, when he turned professional. This helped him strike the right balance, ensuring that flat speedwork continued, particularly to complement the tough downhill training. Reeves noted: ‘My training consisted of running over 70 miles per week, mainly on hills and trails around Coniston, plus 2 speed sessions per week with Dennis and the other runners during the race season. Grasmere was always difficult for me – quite steep and fairly rough, but it was always the one to win, and there was always a lot of hype, press coverage and big crowds to add to the tension. I had no special diet – I even enjoyed a few cream cakes during training, which once resulted in a headline from one desperate reporter “Cream Cake Fred sprints to victory”. I always ate cheese and honey sandwiches one and a half hours before a race.’

Beavins promised he could coach Reeves to win the Grasmere Guides race (the premium pro race), but this coaching relationship seems a world away from that propounded by the Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus, whose take on coaches was: ‘You say you want to be an Olympic champion. But wait. Think about what is involved …. You will have to hand your body over to your coach just as you would to a doctor. You will have to obey every instruction.’

Come to think of it, I know a couple of coaches who subscribe to a version of that philosophy. My underlying philosophy as a coach is to work towards making myself redundant, and to make the athlete as self-reliant as possible.

Going back to Fred Reeves, there is the imponderable question of whether he could have been a top class marathoner if he had moved to the event earlier and trained more specifically for it. Being 5 ft 10 ins tall, and weighing 9 st 7 lbs in his peak years he had a good physique for the event. There were reports of tests done on Reeves at Leeds University in 1981, which prompted the national marathon coach to suggest he still had potential at the marathon, even though he was 36 years old at the time. Reeves was recorded as having a body-fat ratio of just 6.64 per cent, a resting pulse rate of 42 beats per minute, and a VO2 max of 79 millilitres/minute/kilogram.

sedgewick71Tommy Sedgwick was Reeves’ great rival on the pro scene, and his take on this was that a sports professor contacted himself, Billy Bland and Fred Reeves to test them and find out how they trained. He noted that: ‘Fred was more technical than me, and had a coach. I tried to explain to the professor what training I did, by writing it down for him. Also, I have the greatest respect for Billy Bland, but he is rumoured to have responded at the time “I go out the back door, run on the fells till I’m knackered and then come home”. No technical stuff with him then, but Bland’s stamina was tremendous.’

Billy Bland won the British Fell Champs in 1980, and set what is still the fastest Bob Graham Round (BGR) time, of 13 hrs 53 mins, in 1982, directly between two victories in long Lakeland fell races. When I interviewed him for ‘The Round’ book last year he commented: ‘My focus wasn’t on the BGR. I just stuck it in mainly because my brother was going to have a go. Which coach would have told you that was a good idea, stuck between two long races? None.’

For the same book I talked with Mark Hartell, who still holds the record for an extended BGR, with 77 peaks completed within 24 hours, from 1997. He commented on topics he had ruminated on with Billy Bland over the years. ‘Billy and I have had good chats at BG Club dinners. He has said to me that his wasn’t some kind of genetic natural ability. He firmly believes that he simply worked harder than anyone in training at the time. “If the weather was bad then I would run on the spot in the kitchen for three hours”. I am sure that is an exaggeration, but the point being made is that he may have felt a degree of disappointment that other people around haven’t had a better go at some of these things.’

BlandLangdaleIn several ways Billy Bland was something of a trail-breaker, although he himself fully acknowledges that his actual training regime was very unscientific. There was no room for a coach, track sessions, repetitions, or even tapering down for races with him – just hard training. A typical training run was up Glaramara, Allen Crags, Esk Hause, down to Angle Tarn, on to High Raise, and finishing down Greenup, a two to three hour effort. For a change he might do the five tarns – Styhead Tarn, Sprinkling Tarn, Angle Tarn, Blea Tarn and Watendlath Tarn – fifteen miles in around two and a half hours. He was especially good at reading rough ground and making steep descents, sometimes deliberately taking to rough ground to try to throw others off his tail. In a profile he once stated: ‘The rougher the going the more I aimed for it. That doesn’t mean to say I really enjoyed it. But if you’re travelling across ground faster than somebody else then you sort of like it. I got a reputation for being able to find my way around a course.’

So, what of Kenny Stuart (three time British Fell Champion) and John Wild (a two time champion)? Well, you will have to wait for the new book to get the full details, but for now note these comments from the two of them.

from John mather FB linkJohn Wild was a noted tough trainer, who was coached at times by Don Woodruff, and later by Alan Warner. Of the former he said: ‘Later on Don’s coaching became quite challenging. When I was in my late 20s he would suggest a double session, like doing two hill sessions on the same day. I would do a hill session at lunchtime, and the same hill session in evening, and I would be doing better on the second one.’

Ken_NIMRAKenny Stuart’s take is: ‘Being fascinated with the sport and liking to read, I bought a few books, which proved ground-breaking for me. All the time I was on the fells I was self-coached. Actually though, Dave Cannon coached me when I came off the fells to have a crack at marathons.’

In 1984 Kenny’s wife Pauline Stuart was queen of the fells, but claimed that she didn’t know what the Ben Nevis record was, although she had done the race twice already. She set a course record that still stands, and says she was inspired by the comments of another athlete’s coach. ‘I knew the course suited me. The main reason I was inspired to do it was because I overheard this well-known coach talking at the start. “Ros Coats is here, Pauline isn’t going to have it her own way. She never tries hard enough, she always looks as if she is out for a breeze.” I thought damn you, I’ll make sure I win this. I got really annoyed, and it fired me up. I was absolutely determined, which is why it was a good time, and I beat the coach as well, much to his disgust. I showed them I could run really hard.’

JebbLastly, here are some thoughts from Rob Jebb, British Fell Champion in 2003 and 2006. The first race Rob Jebb entered was the Buckden Pike junior race, which his father had allowed him to enter even though he was technically under-age. Finishing one place from last he nevertheless enjoyed the experience. He recalled to me that: ‘My father was my early inspiration as a junior and also my coach, but I also trained with the [Bingley] Harriers on Tuesdays for a long run and on Thursdays for speedwork, having joined them in 1984 at the age of nine.’ Nowadays Rob coaches himself. ‘When I was younger we used to have coaches at the club. Dennis Quinlan was a big influence. He made me believe in myself, and he did coach me for a couple of years. I just used to run with others as well and go training hard with them.’ In his view it is not rocket science, although he did do track sessions when he was younger. ‘Nowadays I may go to Kendal to do some flat work on grass now and again. I have had a VO2 max test but I have forgotten the figures. It was before I was twenty, someone just gave me chance to do it at the time. I don’t use a heart rate monitor either.’

BrownleesAll this took me back to the conversation with Jack Maitland. I had asked him about the similarities and differences between Jonny and Alistair Brownlee. He replied that: ‘Alistair and Jonny are similar aerobically. Johnny perhaps has a little more speed and would win over short distances. Once you get beyond a certain distance Alistair’s 2 year training age advantage would take over.’

Maitland also made an interesting point about himself and his own attitude to being coached, and subsequent move to being a coach. ‘I was largely self-coached. I wasn’t a very coachable athlete I think it was fair to say! When I got into triathlon I was bringing some of what you might call running expertise to it, whilst Robin Brew brought swimming knowledge, for instance. I got the idea I could do some coaching as I was already trading information.’

So, coached or uncoachable – which are you? I can certainly think of some others, including club mates, who take the latter label!

twocoversIf you have enjoyed this little wander through the coaching maze you might like to read more in: ‘It’s a hill, get over it’ and ‘The Round: in Bob Graham’s footsteps’. I also have another take on the subject coming out in issue #7 of ‘Like the Wind’ magazine next month.

‘The Round: in Bob Graham’s footsteps’ – early reviews

TGObookofyearSo, is ‘The Round: in Bob Graham’s footsteps’ worth its place on the TGO shortlist list for Outdoor Book Of the Year? [voting here, till 15 Nov]

Who am I to say. But this is what some others have said about the book:

‘Steve Chilton writes with authority, documenting the development of the Round from a more-or-less idle challenge to its present status. There are extensive profiles of many of the challenge’s most significant individuals: innovators, record setters, recorders and supporters.’
The Westmorland Gazette

‘We found this book to be an informative and interesting read, and feel it will become a valuable historical addition to the small library of previously published books on fell running and endurance.’
Kenny and Pauline Stuart

‘One of the best reads ever of this exclusive club… very special.’
Joss Naylor, legend

‘Unfailingly inspiring.’
Claire Maxted, Trail Running Magazine

‘A great read, a real insight into the history of the BG, the records and the people behind them.’
Richard Davies, review on Amazon

There is something legendary about the BGR. Steve Chilton has interviewed the men, and the women, people of rare determination and doggedness, as well as extraordinary fitness, who have completed the Round.’
Cumberland News

If you want to know a little more you can ‘Look Inside’ at Amazon,
or read an extract that was published in Trail Running Magazine.

Other challenges are available …

forblogI have recently become rather obsessed with the Bob Graham Round (BGR). Last week I had my eyes opened to a running event that I now feel tops the BGR (or indeed the other two main rounds in the UK) for the challenge it presents. I already knew of The Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB), which is a race around Mont Blanc, and has a record time of over 20 hours, but being on the route really brought home what a challenge it must be to race it.

Whilst staying with friends in Chamonix we traversed about 7 miles of the route, pretty much the final run in to the finish in Chamonix. Due to a decrepit knee (mine) and a stressed hip (one of my friends, who has previously walked to the North Pole) we were walking rather than running. As we had managed to bag four days of superb autumnal sunny weather this was actually a bonus, as we were able to take in the scenery at our several rests. The range of the colours of the trees, and the sight of the snow-capped ranges around Mont Blanc itself (which we had been amongst earlier in the week), were just delightful to behold.

forblog2It was very runnable terrain, and with little navigation required on the section we did, which was probably as well as we had managed to leave our map back in the apartment. But it is worth remembering that all runners will do some of the route in the hours of darkness, with the extra challenge that offers, and that we were on one of the easier sections.

There is no real point in making a comparison, but I am going to! The table shows some of the basic details of the UTMB and the three classic UK rounds.

Event Distance (miles) Summits Height gain (feet) Record time
Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc 103 ? 31,000 20 hrs 11 mins
Charlie Ramsay Round 60 24 28,000 18 hrs 23 mins
Paddy Buckley Round 61 47 28,000 17 hrs 42 mins
Bob Graham Round 62 42 27,000 13 hrs 53 mins

It is not unreasonable to suggest that UTMB is the ‘hardest’ of them. If you read Nicky Spinks’ blog she certainly found it so (but then at the end she analysed why it had not gone well), and remember that she is the only person to have done all three UK classic rounds in under 20 hours each. The perceived wisdom is that the Paddy Buckley is harder than the BGR, and the Ramsay Round harder still (partly because of its remoteness – for training on and supporting).

Anyway, enough speculation and back to reality. I would like to go back to witness the UTMB event itself in August 2016. If not that, then maybe the annual Climbing World Cup in Chamonix, which happens in the square just outside our friend’s apartment. But, if you are looking for a challenge, don’t just think BGR but how about the less frequented Buckley or Ramsay rounds. Or strike out abroad for the UTMB, or even better still make up your own challenge.

The Round front coverFurther reading: there is more about the UTMB in Lizzy Hawker’s ‘Runner’, and on The Bob Graham Round in my second book The Round: in Bob Graham’s footsteps’. For more about the Paddy Buckley Round or the Charlie Ramsay Round you will have to wait till I get round to writing a book about them! Actually that is not so, as I do know that a manuscript for a Ramsay Round book is now being worked up by a friend of mine.

There are, of course, details on the web of all these events. This Strava link gives the UTMB route details. A Google search will bring up loads of videos which give a flavour of the UTMB terrain.

Launch videos: ‘The Round: in Bob Graham’s footsteps’

This first video was recorded at the London launch of ‘The Round: in Bob Graham’s footsteps’. In it I explain a little of the background to the Bob Graham Round and illustrate a recent one I supported. There are a few questions from the floor at the end. Thanks to Angus Macdonald for the recording and to Mark Long for editing. [Warning: it is over 25 minutes long]

Steve Chilton Book Launch – The Round in Bob Graham’s Footsteps from Steve Chilton on Vimeo.

vlog9The second video is from Sandstone Press, and is one of their regular video blogs announcing new publications from their extensive range. This one covers three new titles: A Petrol Scented Spring by Ajay Close, The Round by myself and Truestory by Catherine Simpson.  [For those with a short attention span the really interesting part starts at about 2 mins 10 secs in – but DO watch it all]

Read ‘The Round’ extract from Trail Running Magazine

Trail Running Magazine‘s issue 28 (Oct/Nov 15) has in it an extended and edited extract from ‘The Round: in Bob Graham’s footsteps’. It concentrates on Bob Graham himself, and hopefully serves as an introduction both to the subject and to the book itself. You can read the three page extract here. Click the following link: Read the extract [PDF file].

An antidote to life’s worries and expensive adventure races

Blog post prompted by watching the Bear Gryhlls Survival Race this weekend in Trent Park, N London, and a posting by Jonny Muir.

hangingI had this post in my head for a while as a cri de couer to get out more, but it morphed to include some thoughts about events like the BG survival race.

Why do increasing numbers of people choose to run off-road, whether it be in races or just as a place to train? Isn’t it just a crazy thing to do, to chose to go running and include as many hills and as much rough terrain as possible?

There is no simple answer, but I hope to partly answer those questions. Some of us are escaping from the stressful urban environment that many of us live in. On a run off-road, away from cars, traffic lights and such-like, you have time to think, and can right many wrongs in your life, and the world. There is also a sense that treadmills, road running and marathons in particular are now passé. Many who participate in these arenas have been trying trail running and also fell running in order to revitalize their running, and perhaps to bring some element of ‘challenge’ to it. Sports psychologist Dr Victor Thompson recently suggested: “Humans are essentially animals and animals are, by nature, lazy. But some people choose to do something about it. For years people will have been pushing themselves in their careers, but after a while you need a new challenge, another goal. They’ve been to the gym, they’ve done that, time for something new.”

toughmudderBut for some the challenge of a tough off-road run is not enough. This need for ‘extreme’ challenges results in people feeling that they have to enter events like Tough Mudder – a 10 to 12 mile obstacle course featuring mud, ice baths, barbed wire and electric shocks – and a hefty entrance fee. Tough Mudder – which an insider has described as “a marketing company that puts on events” – puts enormous effort into branding, which surely accounts for the entry fee levels. However, I question whether the addition of artificial difficulties that this type of event incorporates is really necessary.

Give yourself the challenge of even a medium length fell race (such as the Fairfield Horseshoe) and you will have all the challenge you need, together with beautiful views – if you are lucky, and have time to take them in. You could take it a little further by planning to complete one of the 24-hour challenges, such as the Bob Graham Round, the Paddy Buckley Round, or the Charlie Ramsay Round. The training prior to either of those events will give you a whole series of wonderful new experiences, as you run up and through some of the higher and remoter areas of England, Wales and Scotland respectively.

Why not enter what is considered one of UK’s toughest races? The Dragon’s Back race goes along the spine of Wales, and over its five days has 16,000m of ascent in its 300km. The website asks if you are tough enough to enter what is ‘not a trail race, it’s an incredible journey’. This year’s race was won by Jim Mann, with Jasmin Paris in second place. Both are established fell runners, and both showed their excellent fitness and navigational skills over the demanding course, which included the Carneddau, the Snowdon range, Cader Idris and the rough and trackless terrain of the Rhinogs amongst its highlights.

climbingBut, back to the Bear Gryhlls Survival Race. I went along to see for myself why over 1,000 people had paid anything from £80 to £120 to enter either of the 5k, 10k or 30k ‘races’ that were being held in the park that I train in nearly every week with the athletes I coach at Barnet & District AC. I saw loads of people seemingly enjoying themselves. I could see that many had trained quite hard to ‘survive’ the event, when they might not have been motivated to do so without the incentive of the event. However, despite that, I still went away thinking it was unnecessarily artificial and ridiculously expensive. You can make things as tough as you like for yourself without doing these sort of events, with their heavy whiff of commercialism (you had to pay £15 to go in to the BG Festival area, where you could spend more money at the various trade and community stands).

Fellow authors Boff Whalley and Richard Askwith have both published books extolling a return to running on the wild side. But you don’t have to go to the extremes described by me above. You could do as Jonny Muir’s blog post suggests, and join an athletic club (Barnet & District AC, if you are around Herts/North London) and run some tough cross country races. Equally, even the simplest of runs on the fells or off-road in Britain’s beautiful countryside can give you some tough, yet magical, (and rather less costly) experiences.

I still have vivid memories of an evening training run from Kendal Youth Hostel out to Scout Scar many years ago. As my training partner and I ran hard up to the viewpoint there we saw the vista of a glorious sunset over the Western Lake District spread out before us – we sat down and marvelled at how lucky we were.

‘The Round’ – book launches

image2‘The Round: in Bob Graham’s footsteps’ was launched at two events, in Keswick and North London. The first took place on Saturday 19th Sept at the iconic Moot Hall in Keswick’s main street. This was the only real choice as it is the venue that is the normal start and finish point for the Bob Graham Round. I hired the community room at the Moot Hall which holds 40, and all the tickets were sold. There was a real buzz as assorted family, friends, clubmates, and some noted fell legends, gathered for the 6pm start of the event. After some drinks and networking my friend Mike Cambray, whom I have shared many an adventure on the fells with, took the floor and formally introduced me to the audience. He started with an observation that he had known me for 42 years. How appropriate was that for a book about an event that covers 42 peaks and was first completed by Bob Graham at the age of 42?

audience by MoiraI then showed a few slides, some from the book and some of my own (and friends’ ones) from a recent Round I had supported. I did forget to thank a couple of people – so here’s thanks to Lucy (Bookends) and Alex (Moot Hall Information Centre) for help with the event. I also forgot to ask if there were any questions – then got one in the network time from someone, and I couldn’t answer it!

With Billy Bland (left)What was most pleasing was that some of the main players that I had interviewed for the book rocked up to the event. It was great to chat to Nicky Spinks right at the beginning (who couldn’t stay) and to see Steve Birkinshaw and Billy Bland stroll in and settle down, almost unnoticed – except by me who was by now excitedly whispering to friends ‘look who’s here’! Kenny and Pauline Stuart had provided a fulsome cover quote for the book (having read the manuscript) and also kindly joined us for the launch.

Book Launch-3563Bookends shop in Keswick had kindly agreed to provide books for the event, and Lucy did a fabulous job selling them to attendees before and after the formal bit. In the networking time in the latter part of the event is was great to see folk having the opportunity to chat with each other and gradually see Steve, Billy, Kenny and Pauline gather small crowds around themselves. I signed books for those that wanted it, and a good number got theirs counter-signed by one or more fell legend(s), which was great to see.

Book Launch-3579It was great to have Mike there, plus my wife Moira and son Josh. We repaired with some of our friends to the Dog and Gun for a celebratory drink and a chat, then for fantastic fish supper at the famous Old Keswickian chip shop, seated in style upstairs. The event venue, pub and food (all iconic Cumbria locations) were all within yards of each other in the centre of Keswick – an evening to savour.

Early onOn the Wednesday after the Keswick launch I held a second ‘launch celebration’ at Middlesex University, in Hendon, North London (my employer). Thirty friends, workmates and athletic clubmates attended an informal event in the Grove Atrium. For this audience I told some stories about the Round, its innovators and included more pictures and some video clips from the Round I had supported in July. This time I remembered to ask if there were any questions, which produced some interested discussion. Again a good number of books were sold and signed, and a post-event pint and pizza were taken at the Greyhound pub, in which I used to spend far too much time earlier in my life. There will be a short video available of this event shortly.

‘The Round: in Bob Graham’s footsteps’ can be purchased directly from me (signed) and from bookshops, such as Waterstones, Bookends, Fred Holdsworth’s and Sam Read’s (the latter three all being in Cumbria) and online.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,182 other followers