Watching the National Cross Country Champs at Parly Hill yesterday I was struck by something. That was the identities of two runners in the top 10 in the men’s race. This was the crowning race of the cross-country season, on a tough and muddy course at the ‘home of cross country’. Yet in 3rd place was an Olympic Triathlete and in 7th a leading fell runner. They were both running on surfaces that you might not expect them to be on, and in a race that you might not expect to be in their respective programmes for the year. Let’s look closer at those two athletes.
In third place was Alex Yee, who won the silver medal in the Men’s Triathlon at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics [in July 2021] and the gold medal in the Triathlon Mixed Relay five days later. He was also the winner of the 2021 Super League Triathlon Championship Series. He was of course a very good runner before concentrating on triathlon. For instance, he was 3rd as an u17 in the National in 2015, so is very familiar with cross country. He always has an edge in the running at triathlon, and is no slouch on track and road. On 19 May 2018 Yee set a PB in the 10,000m of 27:51.94, less than five seconds outside the British under-23 record of 27:47.0 set in 1971 by Dave Bedford. On 8 August 2020, in the Podium 5 km at Barrowford, Lancashire, Yee ran 13:26 behind winner Marc Scott in 13:20, the second fastest 5km time ever by a British athlete.
The seventh placed runner was Dan Haworth, of Matlock AC. He has recently become a real force in the competitive fell scene, along with clubmate Billy Cartwright. Dan was second (to Billy) in the English Fell Championships in 2021, and also set the fastest leg time in the British Fell and Hill Relay that year. Digging deeper, one finds that Dan Haworth is no stranger to the National (which I believe Alex Yee had never run as a Senior before). Although he only finished 119th in 2019, he improved that to 19th in 2020 – excellent progress, chipping more off this year, and challenging for the podium, as we will see. Dan also had good cross-country form this winter. He won the Notts/Derby County Champs and was 3rd in the Northern Champs race.
So how did the race yesterday pan out? I am not party to their respective thoughts and ambitions, but this is how I see it, both from watching at the time and reviewing the video stream later. Towards the end of the first lap Yee was in something around 30th place. As they passed me out on the course for the first time Haworth was sitting tight in lead pack of four, and looking comfortable. Yee was moving gradually through, and had got up to 13th place. As they ploughed through that second lap Haworth became isolated in 4th (photo: copyright Steve Chilton).
Yee moved through to 7th and then up to 5th, in his graceful style. Somewhere on the third lap (all very obscured on the stream as they were lapping the masses by then) Yee moved past Haworth into 3rd place. Haworth was being challenged hard on the last downhill and run-in and lost a couple of places, to finish 7th, whilst Yee stretched out for a fine bronze medal (photo: copyright Karen Murphy).
Later that evening I got to thinking about parallels to this situation. Having profiled top fell runners John Wild and Kenny Wild, I knew they had both had several cracks at the National in their time. But, here’s the thing – neither of them finished as high in the National as Dan Haworth just has.
Kenny Stuart ran his Nationals AFTER he had won the British Fell Championship (3 times in 1983, 1984 and 1985). He finished 25th in Newcastle in 1986, 17th at Leeds in 1990, and his best was 10th in 1988 at Newark (ironically on a pretty flat [race]course, as I recall). Kenny Stuart liked cross-country, won the Cumbria County champs a handful of times, but never won the Inter-Counties, despite several attempts.
John Wild competed 7 times at the National from 1974-1983, and his best result was BEFORE he turned his attention to being a fell runner (and winning the Fell Champs in 1981 and 1982). That was his 8th position in 1977, also at Parly Hill. Despite winning the Inter-Counties cross-country twice (in 1977 and 1980), John Wild reckoned that he was a high mileage trainer in his heyday. But he says that he rarely performed to the level he should have in the National cross-country championships. For the months of November, December and January he was fine, but he seemed to get jaded, which he claims wasn’t anything to do with the extra distance of that race.
Now for an interesting connection between these two eras. In 2017 Dan Haworth was thinking about taking his running more seriously. He had read my book on John Wild and Kenny Stuart* and reckoned he could learn from their training, as detailed in the book. He contacted me at the time and we discussed how that might work, and I also put him in contact with John Wild (there was a Derby connection between then).
The following link will take you to Dan Haworth’s blog, where we discussed the book and the possibility of following some of the training ideas: https://sabbatycle.wordpress.com/2017/10/16/running-hard-blog-tour/
Dan followed through on the idea, and noted the following on another blog post: “In October  I decided to try and train like two fell running greats Kenny Stuart and Jon Wild. After some conversations with Steve Chilton, author and documenter of Stuart and Wild’s most exciting 1983 season of running rivalry, examined in Running Hard, we chose training themes of consistency, speed, hills and stamina. With training philosophies based around “full on, no days off, multiple double days each week, sometimes 3-session days,” it was set to be a bit of a change from the slap dash running I have done before.”
You can see that full blog at: https://sabbatycle.wordpress.com/2018/01/17/some-time-running-hard/. It gives his impressions on how it was going. Seeing his later results there was certainly a good bounce of training effect achieved by ‘running hard’.
* The book – on John Wild and Kenny Stuart’s parallel life stories – can be obtained from good bookshops, or (if you must) from the BigA by clicking on the link: Running Hard: the story of a rivalry.
Footnote: Georgia Taylor-Brown, also an Olympic medal winning triathlon, finished 4th in the ladies National yesterday.
Finally, a question: do you know any other males or females whose main focus was NOT cross-country who have come 1st, podiumed, or even in the top 10 in previous National Cross Country Champs? If you do, then let me know in the Comments.
I like a good running book. These are the ten best books on (or around) running that I read last year (but which were not necessarily published in 2021). These are my reviews from my Good Reads pages. Four 5*, five 4* and one 3* this year. Despite working on my fifth manuscript all year long, I got some good reading in – always the best alternative to writing when you need it.
A Quarter Glass of Milk: The rawness of grief and the power of the mountains – Moire O’Sullivan (O’Brien Press, Mar 2021) 5*
Moire O’Sullivan shows immense courage in writing a book about coming back from her husband’s suicide. The inability for her, and it seems her partner, to understand what is going on in their lives is particularly heart-rending. The recovery process, which has certainly not been easy, is written with the commendable intention of helping others. It is quite revealing how many people she speaks to afterwards then open-up about their own issues, often depression-linked. Hopefully they all benefited from talking openly to each other. At a simplistic level it was sad to see Moire losing her running mojo, but uplifting to see how she took on other challenges to bring herself to some kind of new-normal, as she brings up two very young children. Written very well, it is an inspiring read.
Faster! Louder!: HOW A PUNK ROCKER FROM YORKSHIRE BECAME BRITISH CHAMPION FELL RUNNER – Boff Whalley (Great Northen Books, Sept 2021) 5*
A fascinating book about a very interesting character, who managed to combine a punk lifestyle with being a champion fell runner. What makes it so believable is that Boff was also in the same music scene, and was a clubmate of Devine’s. He was there and did it, on both fronts. He has a delightfully honest explanation of the problem of recalling situations or conversations of yore. His answer to that is explained early in the book, when he says to Devine: “…. the bits you can’t remember, the conversations and the details and all that – I’ll make those bits up.” I really like Boff’s relaxed writing style and thoroughly recommend the book.
Relentless: Secrets of the Sporting Elite – Alistair Brownlee (Harper Collins, July 2021) 5*
Alistair Brownlee (and his named co-author) have compiled a very interesting account of what drives people at the top of their sport, and all the hard work they have to put in. He has used his priviledged position to interview many top sports sports people, some of whom may be something of a surprise. The two most interesting chapters for me were on Kilian Jornet (and how he has balanced his love of different sports and life itself), and the one on failing, which Brownlee points out many top sportsmen do much more than they succeed. It is fairly unusual, in my experience, to find a book from an active athlete that is so deply researched, well written and full of interest.
Joss Naylor’s Lakes, Meres and Waters of the Lake District: Loweswater to Over Water: 105 miles in the footsteps of a legend – Vivienne Crow (Cicerone Press, Sept 2021) 5*
A beautiful book on just one aspect of Joss Naylor’s amazing legacy. His run around the lakes, meres and waters was undertaken in 1983. He recently re-walked most of it (he is now in his 80s), accompanied by photographer Stephen Wilson and author Vivienne Crow. Naylor relives moments from the day and comments on the landscape and nature that surrounds him, including the changes that he notices. The book is enhanced by some photos from the original round, and benefits from a generous and well-designed layout, that shows off Wilson’s photos well. It was an amazing achievement back in the day, and the book is a brilliant re-telling of the tale.
In It for the Long Run: Breaking records and getting FKT – Damian Hall (Vertebrate Publishing, May 2021) 4*
Damian Hall has been a journalist much of his life and has shown he can research and weave stories, but can he write a book about himself and his move into ultra running? He writes fairly briefly about his upbringing and admits to not having it particularly easy. He also says that on reflection he had ‘a kind of chronic outsider syndrome’. Rejecting team sports, which he did not excel at, he took to running, eventually entering a half marathon. This was something of a lifechanger and the rest of the book details his descent (or ascent, depends on how you look at it) into off-road trail/ultra running. When he realised he needed coaching advice he seemed not to be able to settle on a suitable coaching arrangement (working with several different coaches and going solo sometimes). Eventually he became a coach himself, as he moved towards supporting himself (and his family) by coaching and with sponsorship (seemingly reluctantly). Having described his obsession with the UTMB, several record ’rounds’ he achieved (including solo/unsupported ones), and some ‘fastest known times’ on long-distance challenges (I do not like the acronym FKT), he gradually became edgier as he moved to the climax of his ultra career (so far) and describes the build-up and execution of his record for traversing the Pennine Way (beating friend John Kelly’s record set just 8 days previously). He displays a fine turn of phrase in highlighting the highs and lows of that effort, with some good banter about, and with, his top quality support crew. So, to answer my initial question, he DID write well about himself. It is a fascinating read if you are remotely interested in ultras, being in the ‘lumps’ he so loves, running itself, and also how you can do all this and try to contribute less to climate change by making some life choice changes. As a tribute to the author I have included as many explanations in brackets as I can (where possible), as I have never seen so many in one book, and am pretty sure my editor wouldn’t have allowed them (all).
Cross Country: A 3,700-Mile Run to Explore Unseen America – Rickey Gates (Chronicle Books, April 2020) 4*
A very interesting window into the experience of running across America. Many excellent photos of down-home Americans and each a snapshot of the place he is passing through. Gates really seemed to want to meet the ordinary Americans on his travels. Hard to imagine running that far with a selection of trolleys and carts. It is worth looking out his video of the trip too for further insights.
Inside a Marathon: An All-Access Pass to a Top-10 Finish at NYC, Featuring a new Boston Marathon Chapter – Scott Fauble and Ben Rosario (Independently Published, June 2020) 4*
A fascinating insight into the sports training of a top athlete, both on a day-to-day basis and over a season. It is jointly written by the athlete and the coach, so you get two differing perspectives on each ‘period’ of training. The athlete (Scott) writes in a somewhat quirky style. I lost interest in his burrito choices. The coach (Ben) explained himself well, including when (and why) he changed sessions as he reacted to circumstances.
Win at All Costs: Inside Nike Running and Its Culture of Deception – Matt Hart (Dey Street Books, Sept 2021) 4*
It is a well written book, written in a journalistic style, and gives a good backdrop to the main players in the Nike/Salazar scandal. Some of the stuff about Nike practices from some of the main players is very unpleasant indeed. It is important to expose how big companies abuse power, and in this case athletes. A recommended (and depressing) read, which just might lead you to re-think your choice of athletic clothing.
Game On: The Unstoppable Rise of Women’s Sport: The Unstoppable Rise of Women’s Sport – Sue Anstiss (Unbound, Sept 2021) 4*
For many, many years women have struggled to get the same recognition as men in their chosen sports. Is this now changing? Anstiss argues that it is, and that investment will provide a secure basis for the future of many sports, so sportswomen will soon be getting the backing and the facilities they deserve. Her interviews with leading sportswomen are the basis for assessing the situation, mixed together with much factual background data give a convincing positive case. Anstiss writes well and hopefully books like this can inspire the next generation as they come through.
The Meaning of Sport – Simon Barnes (Short Books, Aug 2007) 3*
Simon Barnes understands his sport and its meaning and importance in society. He writes very effectively on the subject. The book does jump about between different sporting events, but somehow it remains coherent. He’s particularly good on boxing, which he hates, but has had to report on. He argues that it relies for its success on the deliberate infliction of irreversible brain damage. He adopts the term ‘Redgrave’ as a measure of sporting greatness, which is quite neat and justified too.
So, what was the best book on running published in 2021? Well,no contest really. It has to be this one: All or Nothing at All: The Life of Billy Bland – Steve Chilton (Sandstone, paperback July 2021) – available from the author, the publisher, and all good bookshops. Check it out.