Coached or uncoachable?
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.