As 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.
Jack 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.
Firstly 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.
Tommy 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.’
In 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.
John 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.’
Kenny 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.’
Lastly, 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.’
All 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!
If 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.
So, 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
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.’
I 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.
It 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.
Further 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.