It was great to be a guest at the International Snowdon Race this year (thanks RO Stephen Edwards for the invite), and watch the action at close hand, some 23 years after I had run in this iconic fell race.
We travelled up earlier in the week to spend some time in wonderful Snowdonia, staying at the Royal Goat Hotel in Beddgelert one night (a nostalgic visit to a hotel from childhood holidays with my parents), and with friends from Uni days another night. On the Friday we took a stroll up Snowdon, choosing one of the less frequented routes for a change of scenery.
On race day it started very wet and we parked up at the Royal Victoria Hotel and bumped in to first Kenny and Pauline Stuart, and then John and Anne Wild. We wandered down to the start area to get the vibe as the rain seemed to be gradually lessening. Getting in to a good roadside position we watched the runners come out of the start field and head off up past the start of the mountain railway, then the hotel and on to Victoria Terrace before hitting the lower slopes, expecting them to get as much of a view as we had on the day beforehand (none). Fancying a coffee and a bite we made for a cafe in Llanberis and came back for the finish of the race.
The youthful looking winner, Italy’s Davide Magnini, came down the last bit of road seeming to be still full of running, although he was over 4 minutes off Kenny Stuart’s course record. He was followed in by England’s Chris Farrell, Tom Adams and Chris Holdsworth (thus taking the team prize). Watching the race video later Magnini showed great style on both the ascent and the descent. His time to the summit (5 miles) was 42-47 (at a pace of 9:52 per mile), with just 23-55 for the descent, giving him a 1-06-42 finish time.
Not long after that, the first lady came in, who was Annie Conway (who was actually not representing one of the national teams, and came home in 1-20-15), followed by Scotland’s Louise Mercer, and England’s Katie White.
After the race we went to the Electric Mountain to set up for the post-race talk that I was doing with Kenny and John. I was worried we might only have a small crowd, but there must have been 60+ there when Stephen Edwards hot-footed it over from the prize giving to introduce us.
I talked for a while about John and Kenny’s achievements, before giving them the floor for some anecdotes. I then refereed a bunch of really interesting questions from the audience, before selling and signing a good few of my three books, including the latest Running Hard: the story of a rivalry (which details the ups and downs of John and Kenny’s lives and running careers).
Back to the Vic for the excellent buffet provided for us (and the elite athletes), before repairing to the garden for a few beers and some banter with John, Kenny and co. When we went to bed the action was just starting (was there a disco?), but we were fortunate to have a room way at the back of the hotel so were not disturbed.
In the morning we had breakfast with John and Anne, chatted with some stiff looking athletes, and headed for Joe Brown’s for a bit of retail therapy, before heading home, via an impromptu road-side swim in Llynnau Mymbyr as the sun was now showing itself.
But what was that ‘Think Spinks’ bit all about in the title (I imagine you thinking)? Well, my fitness isn’t what it was and I am having some issues with one of my knees just now, so was worried if the Snowdon summit bid was a good idea. We set off, me nervously, on the path which starts at the Rhyd Ddu railway station knowing the weather was ‘variable’. In order to try to get me over the nerves my wife (who has obviously read It’s a hill, get over it) suggested I just ‘Think Spinks’ and all would be fine. So, having no cold rice pudding to hand, I resolved to just try to be as determined in adversity as Nicky Spinks always seems to be. So, we plodded on at a steady pace, rarely stopping and soon moving into the clouds. Having memorised the map I was expecting a false summit before we reached the top, and when Moira asked if we had reached it yet I replied ‘no’. In the mist we had not seen it (just after where the Watkin path joins, which we also didn’t see) as the main path contours under it, and thus you don’t have to go over it. As we slogged up another seemingly interminable steep path I began to lose my faith in Nicky, and was heard to mumble ‘I am bored’.
But then there was a strange noise and large spaceship loomed up in the misty cloud above. Lo and behold, we were there, and we rushed past the café and up the steps to touch the summit (and have a photo). A coffee and a short respite was taken and then we set off down. After only a short while the clouds were clearing and we had some marvellous views, seeing the knolls, paths, crags that we had missed in the cloud as we ascended.
Reaching the bottom with very sore legs and a raging thirst we took more coffee in the marvellous independent Beddgelert café next to the Post Office (can you see a pattern developing here) before a brilliant swim from a layby alongside Llyn Dinas.
A great day, and a great weekend. A lot of mental energy was spent in that walk up Snowdon, and I am sure the positive Spinks thoughts had helped immensely.
I thought it might be interesting to see which of the blog posts seemed to strike a chord best, and were thus the most viewed each year since this blog has been going. [For the purposes of this review I am necessarily ignoring the homepage, which always shows up as the highest in the hit stats, yet obviously varies as new posts are published.]
For the first year (2013) it was a blog entitled Why I wrote ‘It’s a hill, get over it’, in which I give some background to how I came to write my first book, having as it seemed no previous inclination to do any such thing.
By the second year (2014) I had started thinking that I should write about almost anything BUT the books I was writing. So, the most viewed that year was Are we now a cafe society? Some of my favourites …. – a subject I had actually thought vaguely of writing a book about!
In 2015 my second book (The Round: in Bob Graham’s footsteps) came out, and I wrote a blog about my experience of supporting a friend’s Round, as a sort of tie in. Good game – a BGR from the roadside support viewpoint was the most viewed posting of that year.
By 2016 I was writing more blog posts (and books!), averaging a post every 3 weeks. The most popular of the year was about attending an amazing event at Brathay Hall to celebrate Joss Naylor’s 80th birthday. Evening with Joss, Billy and Kenny has been the most viewed post of all, so far.
Having recently organised the launch event for my book ‘Running Hard’, and also attended the launch of Steve Birkinshaw’s ‘There is no map in hell’, I decided I would jot down some thoughts on the two events, and consider the good and less good points about ‘doing it yourself’. Hopefully it will provide some pointers for anyone else going down this path.
Although my launch was setup by myself* and Steve’s by his publisher, there were many similarities in style and feel of the two events. Both were held in the Lake District in fairly intimate venues, and were great successes, as I hope the following descriptions will show.
The Skiddaw Hotel, Keswick on Saturday 18 Feb 2017
The venue was originally going to be the Moot Hall (which I had used for the launch of The Round) but it turned out to be unavailable, which was a bonus in the end as the audience probably wouldn’t have fitted in there! The room in the Skiddaw Hotel as very good, with projection facilities, and sound amplification (which we abandoned as it distorted badly). Being in a hotel we weren’t able to provide food or drinks, which I had brought in before at the Moot Hall, but that turned out to not be an issue. Several attendees availed themselves of the nearby bar, and I had a coffee and a glass of water.
I wanted it to be a free event, but we had the support of local bookshop Bookends, who advised me to sell tickets, which we agreed on being a nominal £2 cost. They provided two staff who bought in a load of copies of the book (and some of my other two books). The agreement was that I would get the entry fees and they would keep the money from book sales. This meant that the fees and the money from the publisher paid for the room hire, with just enough over to buy the first round in the pub afterwards!
The venue worked well, having plenty of space. Although we pretty much filled all the chairs they had others to bring out if required. There was plenty of room at the front for anyone who was going to speak, and best of all was that we had it booked for two hours which gave time and space for networking before and after the event, and crucially plenty of space for selling books, which we also did before and after the event. There was also plenty of space for personalised signing of books, which I did mostly by wandering around letting people catch me for autographs.
The tone of the event was set by my long standing friend (and mountain marathon and climbing partner) Mike Cambray, who introduced me, with some Shakespeare thrown in. He also organised a lovely gesture of getting attendees to sign a card with their thoughts at the end of the event, which I cherish greatly. For myself, I talked about the book, and read a couple of passages from it (the first time in 3 launches that I have chosen to do that). I was very fortunate to be able to get both the main protagonists from the book to be there and they both had the floor at different times to say a few words. The one mistake I made was not prompting people during the event that there be a chance for questions later on, as that part of the event never really got off the ground. But it was a great event, and particularly nice to chat with some of the top fell runners who had taken the time out to attend the launch.
* My publisher (Sandstone Press) is in the far north of Scotland, so it was not really practical for them to arrange and attend the launch. They did provide part-funding for the event.
Steve Birkinshaw’s launch:
Wilf’s café, Staveley, Thursday 18 May 2017
The venue was the fantastic Wilf’s café (in Staveley), which was even more intimate than my hotel one, and we were well packed in. Wilf’s had provided good snacks, and wine or soft drinks were also available. On the train on my way up that afternoon I had daydreamt about a pint or two from the next door Hawkshead Brewery, but sadly they weren’t involved.
Two staffers from Sheffield-based publisher Vertebrate were there to coordinate the event and sell books. They had chosen to make tickets available online for £6, and achieved a full house of enthusiastic attendees. The venue worked well, with the food and drink (and mingling) in one room and the talks in another, which suffered from having an annoyingly loud air con system, which couldn’t seem to be quietened.
Steve was introduced by race organiser Shane Ohly, who set the set scene well, before handing over to Steve, who told some stories about the lead-up to the Wainwrights attempt, with really great slides to illustrate his discourse. At two points he handed over to his attempt coordinator, and then to his wife Emma, who gave their perspectives on what it was like to see Steve suffering so much during the 6 days. Steve then took questions, which produced an interesting range, from food, through sleep, to where the book title had come from.
It was good to meet a couple of friends from the fell running scene and to hear about the Wainwrights event and its after effects on Steve himself, and also to chat with the Vertebrate crew about their business and publishing ethos. For more about the launch event see this Vertebrate blog.
The talk at Ecclesall Library in Sheffield Libraries’ Multi Story Festival on April 6th seemed to go well, plenty of interaction and interesting questions (and a good few books sold). The photos show the audience, and myself answering questions and signing books. [For other book talks/events see here] I also called in at the excellent Outside shop in Hathersage and signed copies of my books there.
We went on to the Lakes for a spot of relaxing, and Wainwright bagging (below on Holme Fell), before going to Fred Holdsworth (Ambleside), Sam Read (Grasmere, left) and Bookends (Keswick) to sign their stock of books. It was gratifying to see that all three shops were stocking all three of my books, and say that Running Hard is selling well.
I have now been asked on two occasions to read an author’s manuscript, with a view to providing a cover or publicity quote. I don’t mind doing so, but also insist on my right to not do so if I don’t think the manuscript merits it. Recently I read Gavin Boyter’s Downhill from here: running from John O’Groat’s to Land’s End.
In the book Gavin admits to having had spells of deep depression, and also to suffering with hypermobility (Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome). He tells the story of seeking a major challenge and using his film-making skills to record it, and then write about it. Having made one (not especially successful) short film, he used an unlicenced quadcopter and a GoPro to make the film version of his JOGLE [see ‘The Long Run’ film trailer]. There are tales of some entertaining navigation errors, which are interspersed with good childhood memories. He also makes some personal points about running being ‘me time’ to him, and using it as a ‘brain reboot’, and his ‘life work’, as he approached his middle forties.
Reading another account of a JOGLE may not be to everyone’s taste, but I found it very entertaining. Gavin was not the first nor fastest (as he readily admits), but he did at least go down the Pennine Way and chose a pretty interesting route in many places. It is also very good on the problems faced by ultra running efforts such as this.
Originally I provided two possible quote which were something like: “Good on the realities of running (and filming on the go) a JOGLE, and also the great de-stressing benefits of it”, and ” Entertaining navigation mishaps are interspersed with good childhood stories”. They were combined in the one shown above (which is on the back cover), and also cut down to a single word quote on the book’s font cover. Happy to accept that the publicist knew best!
‘Downhill from here’ is published on 20 April. Info on the book launch at Waterstones.
Racing to the finish line and just being beaten into second place, the young athlete immediately burst into floods of tears.
As her coach, I went over to console her. “Don’t be disappointed,” I said. “There is no disgrace in coming second.”
“I am not disappointed,” she gasped through the sobs. “I am crying with delight. It is the first time EVER that I have beaten the girl who was in 3rd place!”.
I have been coaching for thirty years now (way more time than I was an athlete), and it has given me some great times, particularly since I ‘retired’ from running. My introduction to the possibility of being a coach was wrangled by a senior club member, playing on my guilt by suggesting I go on a course to see what it was all about. Strangely though, looking back now I don’t think I actually had any guilt. As an athlete I managed quite well, thank you, without a coach.
Let’s leave the ‘you weren’t good enough to NEED a coach’ argument there.
True as an assessment of my ability it was, I don’t actually subscribe to the view that you have to be at a particular performance level to benefit from advice on your training. What follows has been anonymised. Some of the people I have coached over the years may recognise themselves, but I have not named athletes as it is about the abstract rather than the particular on which I wish to comment.
I did the coach education courses, and was then thrown into the coaching mixer. So, let’s start with how athletes and coaches get together. In my case the first athletes I remember working with were the older young athletes who trained with my club down at the local cinder track. I organised group training for them and took one particular female athlete on in a more direct coaching arrangement. She became a good friend and although she has moved away we are still in touch. She also delights in quoting my aphorisms back at me, which can be amusing and can also be slightly embarrassing. You may think they aren’t listening, but some take it all in and treat it as gospel! You are the guru to them, at that age, so it is important to be mindful and not ‘banter’ too much with young athletes. There is certainly an art to coaching young athletes, and I honestly think that not all coaches are able to encompass that art.
I can honestly say I have never ‘asked’ to coach anyone, but equally can say that I have never directly turned anyone down. Having said that, some coach-athlete relationships have not worked – you should always be big enough to recognise that, and talk about it, and act appropriately if and when it happens. This also applies to an athlete outgrowing a coach. If you can see it happening (or anticipate it) then start a conversation with the athlete, and jointly work towards brokering a new arrangement that will be of benefit to the athlete.
As a coach I think it is important that you learn your trade and also develop your own style. You need a certain confidence in yourself to do that, particularly if you end up leaning towards a style that doesn’t match those you have seen before as an athlete.
There are many styles, including, for instance, coach as friend, advisor, or svengali.
My experience took a serious turn when the second group I worked with – Seniors this time – attracted a very experienced, but ageing, athlete to it. He, being married to an Olympic athlete, had been there and done that. Prior to those first sessions he was all mouth in the warm-up, and was forever asking me why he was being asked to do this and that, and what was the point of the session. All perfectly valid questions, but not ones I necessarily had the experience to answer at that time in my coaching life. It turned out that this was just nervous energy oozing out of him. After a couple of tough 400m reps, and being burnt up by his younger/fitter training mates, the Mouth was squeaking like a mouse.
I was very much finding my way, coaching-wise, with the previously mentioned first group of young athletes, but was beginning to ‘get it’ by the time the Mouth turned up. But it does remind me of the quote that is attributed to that great athletics coach Wilf Paish:
Every athlete you coach is an experiment of one.
I certainly know I was ‘experimenting’ in those early days, and have apologised to several of those very athletes when talking with them much later about it. Even much later in my coaching career there have been experiments that have been consigned to the bin marked failure.
I can remember working well with a young middle distance athlete, who also competed at high jump and wanted to move to 300/400 metre hurdles. We had successfully worked towards some very good middle distance performances, and I somehow felt I was the right coach to take on hurdles and then also high jump with her. In both cases I was not. My powers of observation, and my ability to break the two events down into their components were both limited. I found I could not then work on those components in isolation either. On one occasion the very presence of the high jump bar in a training session brought on an ‘I can’t do it’ impasse, which I couldn’t resolve. It made me realise we should quietly dissolve the hurdles/high jump relationship. Several years on, we still have a fruitful middle/long distance coaching relationship, although maturity is bringing more self-reliance to the athlete. In many cases (but certainly not all) that move to self-reliance has been the aim of my closest coach-athlete relationships – usually unstated, it should be noted.
As a coach you may have your own style, and way of doing things, but let’s not forget that you have to make allowances for differences in athletes and their way of doing things. A quote I can still remember (but not by whom) from a very early coaching course in the late 1980s was “know your athlete”, and that is SO true. Over the years I have got to know many athletes, and they have shown a huge range of positive, and some negative, personality quirks.
Let’s just look for a moment at some of the negatives. There have been those that won’t listen, or more likely appear to listen and then won’t act. This can be particularly frustrating when an athlete gets injured, pays to have physio or some other treatment, and then doesn’t take on board the advice they have just paid to be given.
How many athletes do we all know that regularly over train, despite being told that, despite breaking down, and despite being tired when it comes to competition? Then there are those that lie about what they do.
Surely the relationship is all about trust.
Equally, however much you want them to have done better in training, don’t ever lie to them when feeding times back to them.
Have you had an athlete who asked you for coaching/advice, and then went off, either overtly or covertly, to ask everyone else under the sun for their advice? Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind someone seeking advice from a number athletes and coaches, but be honest about it and let everyone know that you want to use them as a sounding board, and are in fact setting your own training plan.
Finally, I have memories of athletes who just wouldn’t take their running seriously enough, and seemed to be wasting their obvious talent. Equally, I have known ones that were TOO serious, and had seemed to have forgotten the pure pleasure of training. Now I like a spot of analysis, but as an athlete it can get too serious and everything can be analysed to death. I came across an athlete recently who freely admitted that they needed a coach who would be hard on them, and swear and shout at them if necessary. It was admitted that this could produce shouting and swearing back from the stressed athlete. I knew straight away that I could not work with that (kind of) athlete, if asked to. A quote from coach Dan Pfaff gives a good feel for my take on all of this:
Know your athlete, know your coaching style, and find unique ways to get the best out of them.
When all the training is done, eventually a challenge has to be met – a race. What can you as a coach achieve at this stage? How can you help the athlete? I well remember a coach standing face to face with, and only inches away from, an athlete as she stood on the start line for a race (in front of all the other athletes) and saying to her “if you don’t get a PB then you needn’t come back to training with me again”. Was that helping or hindering the athlete? Was it some kind of personal psychology that the coach knew would produce the desired effect? You decide. I also recall being a team manager once and talking to an athlete new to track running about how she planned to run the 3000m she was going to do shortly (her first ever). She replied that her coach had said “just run like fook until you can’t run any more”. Again, probably not a technique out of my personal playbook.
I actually think there is not much that the coach can do to affect the outcome, come race time. All this shouting, suggesting that the athlete should be further up the field, should be picking it up now, making the big effort, or whatever, is rarely witnessed by athletes I work with. Being there, and making some mental notes on how things went, ready to feedback later is usually the extent of it.
Getting that feedback right is also a tricky art.
I believe that a few positive words afterwards, regardless of the relative level of perceived success is usually sufficient. Having said that it makes sense to find the time to have a frank, and two-way, discussion with the athlete at a more relaxed time and place at a reasonably short time after the event. Whatever the result, I always look for some positives for the athlete to take forward – which of course is not an easy task if things have gone particularly badly. But it IS always possible. Again, if you know your athlete you will know when they will respond to some constructive criticism (on tactics say), and also know how to motivate them to achieve the desired improvement.
So, the race is run, do you expect thanks? You shouldn’t. But sometimes at the time of a particularly fruitful spell athletes will want to thank their coach. I have had presents of wine, a meal and beer. One of the best ever was a framed photo of athlete and coach, jointly holding a coveted county trophy. But what topped it off for me was that it included one of my quotes quoted back at me.
Fantastic though all those gestures were, I think that there is a way of acknowledging what is after all a team effort that is simpler than that. For me, I am happy with a high five or a hug, with the athlete saying something on the lines of “we did it”.
Maybe even a few tears of happiness.
Sharing a ‘moment’ with friend Neil Walker, after helping him prepare for his successful Bob Graham Round quest, and helping support him on the day.
This material is reproduced from the Barnet & District AC club magazine, and first appeared (in a slightly different form) in Like the Wind magazine.