Tuesday 1 April 2014

Land of Mo-hope and bygone glory

Published in truncated form in Runner's World May 2014

In 1984 Britain was a global force in marathon running, complete with the world record and an Olympic medal. Now, 30 years later, we pin all our hopes on one man who’s yet to make his debut. What went wrong, and can we ever return our winning ways?

Photography: Justin Wood

When Mo Farah toes the start line of the 2014 Virgin London Marathon, the buzz of expectation surrounding him will be electric. His thousands of home supporters – the Union flag-waving, moboting multitudes – will line the capital’s streets in frenetic anticipation. We have been waiting a very long time. Twenty-one years have passed since a British man last won the London Marathon: Eamonn Martin in 1993. A whole generation of Britons have grown up never witnessing a fellow countryman break the tape, not just in London, but in any world-class marathon. Could the wait finally be over?

London will be Farah’s debut marathon, just as it was for Martin in 1993, but the challenge facing Mo is vastly different. Martin, 34 at the time and a former Commonwealth 10,000m champion, out-kicked Mexican Isidro Rico to clinch victory on Westminster Bridge in 2:10:50. Taking nothing away from Martin’s achievement, his winning time was the slowest since the inaugural race in 1981, and is six minutes 10 seconds outside the current course record, set by Emmanuel Mutai in 2011. In distance terms, that’s a gap of more than 2km. The Kenyan averaged an astounding 4:45 per mile and covered the decisive 10km split from 30km to 40km in 28:45 (4:38 per mile) – faster than any British man ran for 10k last year.

With the exception of the 2013 race, which was unusually poorly paced, the slowest winning time in London over the past six years was 2:05:19 in 2010. That’s nearly two minutes faster than Steve Jones’s 28-year-old British record. Can we really expect Farah to win on his first attempt? His Olympic medals are solid (gold) proof that he has the talent, the outright speed and the guts – plus, he holds the UK half-marathon record of 60:59. But does he have the even deeper store of endurance needed to hang with the leaders over 26.2 miles, covering their inevitable brutal surges before outkicking them to victory? Bear in mind, he will have to sustain sub-2:06 pace (4:48 per mile) – 10 seconds per mile faster than Martin in 1993 – just to be in with a chance.

We’ve every reason to feel optimistic for Mo; after all, the form-book deems him the best distance runner in the world. Yes, a British runner is the best in the world – well worth repeating. But, as gratifying as that is, it raises an awkward question: does Farah’s ascent to the top herald the UK’s return to the front of the pack in world-class marathon running? Sadly, the answer is a resounding no. Farah is an exception, a freakishly fast outlier, vastly more successful than all his British contemporaries. The same was true of Paula Radcliffe, whose 2:15:25 world record from 2003 remains nearly three minutes ahead of the second-fastest-ever woman, and an astonishing 7:47 quicker than the next-fastest British female.

The story of British marathon running over the past 30 years is one of bottom-up decline, where only the very top has defied the trend. Paula’s achievements – and Mo’s potential – distract us from the dire reality, which is that no other British marathoners, male or female, are getting anywhere near world-class standard. Our fastest man in 2013 ran 2:15:04 – nearly 12 minutes adrift of the world lead (Wilson Kipsang’s new world record of 2:03:23), while our fastest woman clocked 2:30:46 – 10 minutes wide of the world-leading mark and some 15 minutes slower than Paula’s world record. Britain’s prospects beyond Mo are quite literally too few to mention.

It was not always thus. Thirty years ago, Britain was arguably the best marathon-running nation in the world, with not only star performers but a huge depth of talent too. In 1984, no fewer than 75 men broke the 2:20 mark, and the hundredth-fastest man that year clocked a speedy (by today’s standards) 2:21:32. These days we’re lucky if a dozen men break 2:20 each year, having hit a low point of just five in 2007, when the hundredth-fastest man clocked a very modest 2:37:14. The extent of the decline is startling and disconcerting – especially when you consider how over the same period UK marathon running, in terms of sheer numbers, has grown spectacularly. So what’s going on?

I decided to seek out and draw together, within my home county of Sussex, two people who together should be able to shed some light on what has changed: the county’s fastest marathoner from then, Derek Stevens, who ran 2:12:41 in 1984, and our fastest now, Jon Pepper, who clocked 2:19:10 in October 2013. Derek’s PB would easily top the UK rankings today, but in 1984 it was only good enough for eighth spot. Jon’s best put him 11th in the UK rankings last year, so his and Derek’s fastest marathons are of equivalent merit relative to the standard of their day. Equivalent yet separated by six and a half minutes – more than a mile of running. How to account for this generational slowdown? Or, more bluntly, why can’t Brits keep up in marathons anymore?


Derek is now 59, recently retired from a senior position in local government and runs only occasionally to keep fit; Jon is 25 and squeezes in twice-daily training around his full-time job as a school science technician. The three of us meet at Lewes athletics track and take our seats for a roundtable discussion in the upstairs of the club-house overlooking the home straight.
Derek Stevens (PB 2:12:41, set in 1984) and Jon Pepper (PB 2:19:10, set in 2013)

I begin by quoting Charlie Spedding – whose 2:08:33 from 1985 still stands as the English record – from an interview in the Independent where he is responding to the question, why is British distance running in decline?   
“There’s not one straightforward, simple answer. There are several factors.” Spedding lists the ones he thinks are most significant. “Children are not as active as they were 40 or 50 years ago… Teenagers [nowadays] see people running in fancy dress or trying to lose weight [rather than] as a serious sport. It’s just not seen as a cool thing for teenagers to be involved in.”

Derek is nodding eagerly. “Charlie is right. When I was six or seven years old [in 1960-61], I was running more than a lot of the athletes today run. It was play. We used to run and cycle everywhere. Televisions were still black and white. I think my generation was fundamentally just so much fitter by the time we got to secondary school.”

“I definitely agree with that,” Jon says. “I’ve worked in schools since graduating, and I can’t imagine kids being any less fit [than they are now]… I’ll do a lap of the field as a warm-up and I’ll find only one out of 30 can do it without stopping.”
The suspicion that children have become less fit is backed up by strong and mounting scientific research. A recent study undertaken by the American Heart Association involving millions of children of various nationalities found that on average nine-to-17-year-olds today run 90 seconds per mile slower than their counterparts did 30 years ago – representing a decline in cardiovascular fitness of five per cent per decade since 1975.
And children who are generally less active are naturally less inclined to get involved in a physically demanding sport like running. Jon sums up the catch-22 situation:
“If your level of fitness is low, why the hell would you want to go and run? It’s horrible when you’re unfit! You can’t really blame them.”

Childhood activity not only lays the physical foundations for distance running, it also triggers the urge to compete, often in response to a direct or perceived challenge thrown down by a rival or role model. Consider this classic example from Derek:
“Our school’s sports field was half a mile up a track. We had this cocky teacher – I was only 11 – and he said, ‘I’ll give anyone a shilling if they can beat me up to the field’. And I beat him!” His eyes sparkle as he recalls this seminal victory – the satisfaction is still there, undimmed over the decades.
Jon quizzes Derek on how to nail 26.2 Eighties-style

In Derek’s heyday, he and others like him had an abundance of role models to follow: world-beating marathoners like Jones and Spedding, not to mention track icons like Seb Coe and Steve Ovett. At regional level too, there were more runners competing at a higher standard, and most clubs had at least one or two admired high-achievers. Derek’s first club Bexhill AC counted among its members one of Britain’s all-time greats, Dave Bedford.  “It was a great moment for me, as a 12-year-old, to be running with the man who was then the best in the world over 10k.” Later, Derek joined Hastings AC and often travelled to other Sussex clubs to train among the best in the county. “You need to seek groups out,” he advises Jon. “I used to come over [to Brighton] and run with Ovett and Mark Rowland [who still holds the UK record for the 3,000m steeplechase], and knew I’d get hammered! But you need to do that.”
Derek: "I'd train with Ovett and get hammered!"

Jon’s first club was Enfield and Haringey, and, like Derek, he was inspired by the man at the front in training. “The top guy in our group was a guy called Andy Coleman, whose highlight was coming second in the Great North Run [in 2000]. He ran 62 minutes and nearly won it and was on TV.” Witnessing his club-mate perform so well in a prestigious race clearly had a huge impact. “Seeing that, it makes it very real to you, and I was never looking back then because I realised I could do that. Without that, who knows; it could have just petered out for me. That was massive.”  

But unlike Derek and his peers, Jon’s generation has never witnessed first-hand fellow countrymen winning world-class marathons. Instead, Jon has admired the stars of Derek’s era in hindsight by poring over historic results and becoming a self-confessed “running anorak”. “It seems quite distant,” he admits. “Like something that’s not that real because you’ve never seen a Briton run that fast.” Indeed, it was not a Briton but a Kenyan, Sammy Wanjiru – winner of Olympic gold in Beijing aged just 22 – who inspired Jon to step up to the marathon while still in his early 20s.

Enchantment with East African runners is nothing new, of course – Derek reveals that his boyhood hero was Abebe Bikila, Ethiopian winner of the Olympic Marathon in 1960 and 1964 – but the competitive balance has dramatically shifted. Last year alone, East African runners racked up over 130 sub-2:10 performances, whereas not a single Briton has run that fast since 2005. Have would-be British contenders been put off by what seems like unbeatable opposition?
“No,” says Jon. “It should still be a motivating factor to be the best in Britain.” He flatly rejects the notion that upcoming athletes like him are put off or held back through drawing international comparisons. “It must be something within the British running scene that’s the problem.”
Derek agrees. “It wouldn’t worry me that the East Africans are so good, because I’d want to be the best in Sussex and the best domestically.”

Former world cross-country runner-up Tim Hutchings’ diagnosis is that Britain’s best runners no longer race against one another often enough. Derek broadly supports this theory, though he emphasises that his marathon preparation always took precedence over interim races. “I’d race five or six times within a 16-week schedule, sometimes racing off 100 miles a week.”
Jon takes a different approach, preferring to taper for tune-up races rather than sustaining a high volume; he believes structured preparation with specific efforts works better for him than constant hard training with frequent racing on top.
Derek won the Grandma's Marathon in Duluth, Minnesota, on 16th June 1984, clocking 2:12:41

As regards the particulars of training, then versus now, it’s striking how little has changed – despite presumed advances in sports science. Derek’s regime was based on Arthur Lydiard’s time-honoured principles: a periodised plan with base-building, strength and anaerobic phases, and high overall volume.
“I could always train really hard. Three intense sessions [each week], and good distance stuff, at a good pace… Over the 16-week build-up, I would average 95-100 miles a week.”
Jon has had more injuries to deal with, so his training log reveals more recovery days between intense sessions and slightly lower overall mileage. Even so, his and Derek’s training plans are fundamentally similar, and I doubt that picking apart the minor differences would yield any telling insight.

The fact is, Jon and Derek are of the same athletic breed – dedicated, disciplined and fiercely competitive – but it’s a breed that has become vanishingly rare. Which is the crux of the problem. Marathoning success is a numbers game; each nation needs a critical mass of its population to start young and build a strong aerobic base before undertaking several years of hard, consistent training. Far fewer Britons are doing that now, and among the tiny number who are, ‘excellence’ is defined in relation to one another, so the decline is self-perpetuating.

“I guess it’s easier now for someone like me to say I’ll try to run 2:18 or 2:16 [rather than a world-class time],” admits Jon, “because I’ll still be one of the best in the country and that’ll be all right.” You cannot blame him; reaching sub-2:20 standard requires enormous commitment - why push even harder when you’re already the best in your region and one of the best in the country?
Clipping from 1984 notes how Derek's achievements are hardly noticed by the press

The root of the problem lies not within UK running but around and beyond it. British leisure culture has evolved along the lines of ‘the survival of the unfittest’; with the introduction of new technology and gadgets, sedentary amusements have replaced outdoor play. British youngsters while away their spare time socialising, shopping, or in front of screens, tweeting, texting, gaming – and putting on weight while their aerobic potential withers. Meanwhile, Kenyan kids are outdoors being physically active for as much as 3.5 hours every day – while dreaming of emulating their champion compatriots. It’s no wonder we’re lagging so far behind.

Can Britain return to aerobic health and fall back in love with competitive marathon running? There are glimmers of hope; at last November's Leeds Abbey Dash 10k, the top 82 runners finished inside 32 minutes – a greater depth of quality than had been seen in recent years. A reinvigorated domestic road running scene is a must if we are to revive a culture of competitiveness and draw in new talent. Standards have slipped back a long way, but a turnaround isn’t impossible. Mo Farah’s Olympic success lifted the limit on our dreams by proving that Britons can still reach the top; who knows what competitive hunger he can reawaken if he makes his mark over 26.2.

Alternative theories for the decline

1980s, Derek Stevens
2010s, Jon Pepper
‘Trainers have become overly cushioned and heavy’
“I used to run in a pair of Tiger Cubs, which had no sole to them. It does make you wonder.”
“I’m dead against thick-soled, very cushioned shoes. We weren’t born with half an inch of rubber under our heels!”
‘Athletes aren’t as competitive anymore’
“I was quite ruthless to other athletes. I’ve been in fights in races before. It could be quite cruel.”
“Losing really does piss me off. If I’m really up for a race, I’ll talk it up in my mind to beat someone”
‘Football has become too popular, too dominant’
“That hasn’t changed. Back in the Eighties, we even had quite a good national team.”
“Aged 11-12, I was really into football but my team was awful. We lost regularly with double-figure scores!”
‘There isn’t a big enough financial incentive’
“It’s no different. The appearance and prize money in the Eighties was minimal. It was never a motivation, only a bonus.”
“I don’t think anyone who’s a distance runner [in the UK] these days is doing it for the money. If they were, they’d be an idiot!”
Going back to go forward
Super-ambitious Michael Crawley, 26, decided to follow a training schedule from the 1980s in an attempt to emulate the success of his coach
Mike Crawley has made huge progress since following
his coach's schedule from the early-Eighties

"At the beginning of 2013, I persuaded my coach to lend me his training diaries from 1981 and 1982 (when he ran a marathon best of 2:14). My intention was to compare my training with his every week, using his schedule as a template to build towards.
"The diaries are heavy on numbers (9,037 miles, to be precise) and light on description. By far the most frequently used adjective is “tired”, with only occasional elaboration (“tired, knackered actually” or “eight miles hard, 5.30am”). The sparseness of words on the page is a reminder of how simple training really is; it involves, principally, a lot of running.
"The entry on 7th August, 1981, reads: “10 miles inc. 29mins 53.6secs for 10,000m (22nd), good.” Two days later: “22 miles alone – tired.” The near-constant tiredness was getting him somewhere, then. In how many races in Britain today would you expect to break 30 minutes for 10km and finish outside of the top 20? (answer: none).
"After I ran 50mins 52secs for 10 miles, in September, and finished second, feeling quite pleased with myself, I found an entry where my coach had run 50mins flat and finished outside the top five. I re-evaluated what constituted good running.
"Since then, I’ve built up my mileage to 100 miles most weeks, and run as many as 110 on a few occasions. The change is probably best summed up in ‘more running, less worrying.’ I threw away my GPS and heart-rate monitor and threw a decent chunk of caution to the wind. I stopped doing easy runs unless I was really knackered, and core stability didn’t exist in 1981, so that went too.
"One session that particularly stands out involves running a set distance (usually four miles) flat-out in the morning, then doing it again in the evening, on the same course, and trying to go faster on tired legs. This isn’t ‘tempo’ or ‘threshold’ running – those terms didn’t exist 30 years ago. It’s just called ‘hard’, and it is.
"I realised early on that I wasn’t going to be able to replicate every week of my coach’s training, but after five months my training diary is looking a lot more like his. It now contains what he calls ‘proper’ training, and I’ve got faster – by 1min 20secs over a half marathon (new PB, 66.52) and 50secs over 10km (new PB, 30.03).
"So it turns out that training like runners did in the Eighties isn’t very scientific, is often hard and very tiring, but it works!"

Read more about Michael’s training experiment on his blog: http://acceptableintheighties.wordpress.com/

Other experts asked...
What is the single biggest cause of the decline in British marathon running since the Eighties?

“Modern, overprotective society. Kids are aerobic monsters and need to be let loose at every opportunity when young!”
 Jon Brown, former European Cross Country champion (1996) & twice fourth in the Olympic Marathon (2000, 2004), with a 2:09:31 marathon PB (2005)

“Secular trends in physical activity are primarily responsible for the general demise in physical fitness, which in turn has had a devastating effect on sporting performance. School and university sports, now almost extinct in the UK in comparison to other countries, have done very little to reverse this general demise in physical fitness with dire consequences for health and sporting performance.”
Yannis Pitsiladis, Professor of Sport and Exercise Science at the University of Brighton

UK male marathon times 1980-2010 comparison

1st                    10th                20th                 50th                 100th
2010               2:13:40           2:18:21           2:22:49           2:28:20           2:33:06          
2005               2:09:31           2:18:47           2:24:02           2:29:49           2:35:20
2000               2:11:17           2:18:49           2:22:47           2:28:39           2:34:09          
1995               2:10:31           2:15:02           2:20:17           2:24:57           2:29:57
1990               2:10:10           2:16:03           2:18:57           2:23:01           2:27:50
1985               2:07:13           2:14:20           2:15:31           2:18:34           2:21:31
1980               2:11:22           2:16:04           2:17:52           2:21:11           2:26:25

Top 10 UK marathons: now versus then

1          2:15:04           Nicholas Torry         
2          2:15:21           Dave Webb                           
3          2:15:52           Ben Moreau                          
4          2:16:50           Derek Hawkins                                 
4          2:16:50           Craig Hopkins           
6          2:17:43           John Gilbert              
7          2:18:28           Ross Houston                       
8          2:18:50           Paul Martelletti         
9          2:19:01           James Kelly               
10        2:19:07           Phil Wicks    
(11       2:19:10           Jon Pepper)                                                                            

1          2:08:05           Steve Jones
2          2:09:57           Charlie Spedding
3          2:10:08           Geoff Smith
4          2:11:41           Kevin Forster
5          2:11:49           Fraser Clyne
6          2:11:54           Hugh Jones
7          2:12:12           Dennis Fowles
8          2:12:41           Derek Stevens
9          2:13:24           Martin McCarthy
10        2:13:49           Jimmy Ashworth

Author's note
My own marathon PB of 2:28:46, set in 2012, snuck inside the UK top 50 that year, a fact that I'd been tempted to regard as boast-worthy. During the writing of this feature, my ego trip was brought to a crashing halt when I discovered that, had I been running in the mid-Eighties, my time wouldn't have made the top 300!

Any thoughts on the above, tweet me — @DeeBeeFree


  1. A very interesting and well-researched article. I particularly liked your point about the need for a large national base of fit youngsters, from which statistically speaking it is quite likely that a talented few will emerge. In general I don't necessarily disagree with much that you say but it might be possible to put together an entirely different argument. Firstly, statisticians might have something to say about comparing Britain's best-ever year with the latest year. 1984 was clearly an outlier, even if the mid-80s were a purple patch for British long-distance running.

    Second, all sorts of other (arguably more interesting) endurance sports exist nowadays, many of which Brits are very good at. I'm thinking particularly of triathlon, but mountain running, ultra-marathons, cycling and adventure racing have all taken naturally gifted athletes away from road running. Many dozens, if not hundreds of people compete at an international standard in these events. In the early 1980s their only viable option would probably have been plain vanilla athletics.

    Third, I suspect that the influence of Africans does play a part. If you don't feel you've got a realistic chance of international success you're surely going to be put off the idea of throwing your whole life into marathon running. Having spent a bit of time in Kenya I was struck by the incredible focus and single-minded determination of most runners, not to mention the huge base from which a brilliant few will emerge. Many East Africans have a literal hunger for success. Running is for many the only job opportunity. For Brits, other avenues exist.

    Finally the percentage differences aren't all that massive and they diminish toward the front end of the field. There's roughly a 4.8% difference between the 100th ranked runners in 1980 and now, 3.5% between 50th then and now, 3.7% between 20th, 1.6% between 10th and 1.75% between the 10th ranked runners. These differences could easily be explained by talented athletes doing other sports nowadays, especially the sort of mid-level club types who might be expected to do run about 2:30 with a lot of training.

    Again, i'm not sure I am in any place to disagree with what you or your interviewees say (your PB is nearly 10 minutes quicker than mine!) I'm just always sceptical about the oft-held view that the youth of today are lazy and feckless and that everything was better in the good old days.

  2. Jimmy Ashworth, who won the Berlin Marathon in 1985, in 2:11:43, has responded on Twitter: "Did we train harder in the 80s? I think we ran till we dropped. Maybe too much science has crept in."