Book review – The London Marathon

Ahead of this year’s London Marathon, I happen to be reading a book all about it. This is pure coincidence as I picked it up off the charity bookshelf a couple of months ago for 50p. It’s been sat waiting to be read ever since but I had to finish off the badly written Chris Waddle autobiography first!

Published after the 25th running of the race, “The London Marathon – the History of the Greatest Race on Earth” was written by John Bryant. A marathoner himself by the time of his death in April 2020, he’d run London twenty-nine times, He was an established writer and journalist who’d worked for The Times, Daily Telegraph ad Daily Mail among other newspapers.

Often the people writing these sorts of books aren’t that involved, simply just writing up what they’ve researched on the subject. Bryant cannot be accused of that. He had run a 2hr21 marathon and coached Zola Budd when she was competing for Great Britain in the 1984 Olympics. It’s very clear he understands what he’s writing about and, also how to write it well. It’s a very engaging book split into twenty-two chapters with each detailing a piece of history or what the marathon experience is about.

I’m only about a third of the way through but so far I’ve read about Chris Brasher and John Disley, the founders. About the first race in 1981 and the dark years which followed in the life of its joint winner, Dick Bardsley. It details the British winners (including Charlie Spedding and Steve Jones) in the following years asking them why we no longer have the same success. It tells of Spirodon Louis, the winner of the first Olympic marathon in 1896 and interestingly that his win may have been assisted. How the marathon distance became established at its current distance rather than its differing distance of 22-25 miles. There’s a chapter about Ron Hill, who I previously wrote about, which confirmed my memory that the first 26.2 years of his streak involved running twice per day and once on Sundays.

Upcoming chapters promise a look whether the women’s time will match the men’s, the rise of African runners, what older runners can achieve, the celebrities and ordinary people taking on the marathon challenge. There’s a look at the logistics of organising as well as the demands on the runner’s body. It features the elite runners, the world record holders of the time Khalid Khannouchi and Paula Radcliffe, as well as discussing the potential for when a sub-2hr marathon might be run. Spoiler – it’s been done.

What is fascinating is how much of this info is now common knowledge. It’s easy to forget how far sports science and our understanding of how to train for, pace and prepare for marathons has come. Reading about the early Olympic marathons, the competitors like Dorando Pietri were breakfasting on beefsteak and coffee; gargling with Chianti, drinking wine and taking drugs such as strychnine ad atropine during the race. There’s even a brief look at shoes, barefoot running and the Tarahumara almost five years before Christopher McDougall wrote all about it in Born to Run.

At 260 pages, John Bryant provides an excellent and informative overview of the London marathon through its first twenty-five years. His well-written account is a pleasure to read, striking an excellent balance between story-telling and factual detail. It’s a book packed with looking at London from many different angles and I know it isn’t going to take me long to finish.

The 2023 London marathon takes place this Sunday, April 23, returning to its traditional Spring slot after three years displaced to October due to the pandemic. While it’s now too late for me to coach you for it, there’s always next year. If you think you might like to be coached, please feel free to contact me. I’m sure I can help you become a fitter, faster runner at any distance whether it’s the marathon, parkrun or any other race.

World Championships – Men’s 1500m

I woke up on Wednesday morning to discover Jake Wightman had won the 1,500m final. Quite a surprise given middle-distance racing has been dominated by Kenyans, Ethiopians and Moroccans for the past two decades or more. It’s only the last couple of years that we have seen the rise of Norway’s Jakob Ingebrigtsen challenging them, which led to him entering this race as the Olympic champion. It’s great to see the African dominance being shaken up as the world catches up on them.

Like Eilish McColgan, Jake has the genetics and support around him to help get the best out of himself. His father, Geoff, was a 2:13 marathoner and ran at the 1990 Commonwealth Games. His mother Susan, nee Tooby, and her twin sister Angela both ran at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. But, even with the family background, you have to have the motivation. Jake himself is a twin, and while brother Sam is still runs as a member of Edinburgh AC, he apparently didn’t continue to take it as seriously after he turned eighteen.

In seeing Jake winning the race in 3:29.23 – a personal best – I wondered how he had ascended to be the champion. He’s just turned 28 and his climb has been slow. Going back only eight years ago to the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, he was knocked out in the heats in a time of 3:43.87, almost fifteen seconds slower than in Oregon.

It’s instructive to look at his UK Athletics Power of 10 record which lists the majority of his official races and times since he competed in the Scottish Schools championships in 2007 just before he turned 13 years old. At that time he was running 4:45 for 1,500 and it only improved to 4:33 a year later. It took the better part of a decade to knock a minute off that and get down to his current ability. As the graph below shows, he was running close to these times in 2014 and since then has been working to eke out the last improvements from 3:35 to sub-3:30. Even so, it’s a steady progression over the first seven years.

It’s the same story with the 800m. He began as a 2:18 runner in 2008 at age 14 and finally broke two minutes at 17. From there it was another two years to break 1:50 and then it wasn’t until he was ten years into his running career that he became the first British man since Peter Elliott in 1991 to break 1:45 for 800m and 3:35 for 1,500m. That is a lot of running, training and development to get near to his best.

Of course what we don’t know is what his training aims were during these periods. For example, from 2012 – 2016 he ran in some 400m races seeing his times improve from 52.7 to 48.3sec.  Again this highlights how it took four years to make a decent improvement from already good times to even better ones – an average of one second per year.

This idea of long term development is one that the average runner doesn’t understand. It takes years to become the best runner you can be. For many runners training consistently for 3-6 months is considered long-term and they’re happy to knock a minute or two off their half marathon time. But as Jake’s record shows with consistent training and a long term approach, you can go much further than you ever expect.

World Championships – Heptathlon

Two days, seven events, sixteen women battling it out for the Heptathlon gold.  The favourite was Nafi Thiam, the back-to-back Olympic champion who also won the World Championship in 2017. Britain’s Katarina Johnson-Thompson interrupted Nafi’s dynasty by taking the gold in 2019 and therefore arrived in Oregon as the reigning World champion.

The seven events of heptathlon are split into sprints (100m hurdles and 200m), throws (shot putt and javelin) and jumps (long and high) with a final 800m race providing a test of speed and endurance. Typically the best heptathletes tend to be good sprinters because their speed helps out in the jumps and 800m leaving only the throws to be developed.

As a running coach, I often feel it’s hard to fit in all the sessions I would like to do in preparation for a race. There’s speed work, lactate clearance and tolerance to be developed and there’s general work on the aerobic base; and there’s limited time and energy to do it all.

So how do heptathletes manage to conquer seven different events? The technicalities of hurdling, long jumping, high jumping, shot putting and throwing a javelin are things that rarely come naturally. Of course most multi-eventers begin when they are ten or eleven years old so the basic techniques are ingrained by the time they get to their late teens and begin competing in championships. But even so, trying to fit in training for seven different events each week must be difficult and I guess all you can do is periodise your training to allow for it. There’s probably a decision to be made whether to try and improve your strongest events vs. eliminating any weakness. These are difficult decisions for any coach and athlete.

I tuned in over the two days to snippets of the events but it was the final 800m race which I watched with most interest given it’s my event. While trained world-class 800m runners are running under 1:45 for men and 1:55 for women, watching the heptathletes provides a different look.

These women are very good athletes there’s no doubt about that but they are second echelon or they’d be 800m specialists. The nature of the heptathlon disciplines pushes them to develop speed and power over endurance and the limitations of training mean they can’t be running 40 miles or more per week as the specialists do.

After six events, the Netherlands’ Anouk Vetter had edged ahead of Nafi Thiam through a massive 58+ metre throw in the javelin leaving only the two of them contending for the gold and silver. Meanwhile the 21-year-old American sensation, Anna Hall, who had been setting personal bests in each event and bouncing around excitedly after each great throw, jump or sprint was favoured to be first across the line. She recently ran 2:03 for 800m and while she wouldn’t be able to reach Thiam or Vetter in the overall standings it was likely she’d take bronze.

The race set off and Hall sprinted into the lead opening up a gap over the others. There wasn’t much drama but down the back straight of the second lap, about 1min20 into the run, you could see Hall beginning to suffer, breathing hard, looking a little less smiley as she dug in. Rounding the last bend, Sulek the Pole and Vidts from Belgium moved up onto her shoulder and challenged. Over the last 50m, Hall found a final burst to sprint away and cross the line in 2:06.67

The others trailed in over the next fifteen seconds and then after walking a few steps, with the competition over, they all collapsed to the floor gasping for breath. I remember the feeling on my first 800m time trial – lungs busting to the very end then hyperventilating to try and get the breath back. For me, it lasted a good few minutes and the unpleasant effects of lactic build-up were still causing me to cough an hour later. On my later time trials these effects were diminished as my endurance had improved.

Post race recovery

Breaking down Anna Hall’s race, it’s instructive to note she ran 23.08s in the 200m event at the end of the hep’s first day. The next best time was Johnson-Thompson’s 23.62s which is a significant drop off. Generally speaking the fastest runners over short distances become the fastest over long distances with the right training.

In running 2:06.67, Hall recorded 200m splits of 28.77, 31.98, 33.45 and 32.47. There’s no doubt she went out a little quick even though she was almost six seconds slower than she’s capable for 200m. The lap splits came in at 1:01.75 and 1:05.92 where a specialist aims to have a 2-second difference between the two. Let’s put those numbers into context the 800m was run at 4:15/mile, the fastest split at 3:51/mile, the slowest at 4:29! All very impressive stuff to us mere mortals.

Anouk Vetter trailed in at 2:20 to take silver behind the champion Thiam (2:13). The commentary team suggested that Vetter’s 7-second deficit, with her throws being better than everyone else, indicated she had spent more time in the weights room than the track. Of course that may have been a little tongue-in-cheek without a more detailed analysis of Vetter’s past abilities or knowing what her coaching were aiming to achieve, but likely there’s some truth in it.

Even so, the race highlights how much speed is an important factor in racing fast but also the need to balance training to build the endurance to support it. Hall may be able to run 200m at 3:05/mile pace but it quickly drops to only being able to run at 4:30/mile when another 600m is added. It really highlights the endurance work that runners need to do if they’re going to be competitive at longer distances like parkrun, 10K or even the marathon.

Anouk Vetter (silver), Nafi Thiam (gold), Anna Hall (bronze) from left to right.

World Championships – Race Walking

The World Athletics championship opened on Friday 15 July 2022 in Oregon, USA. As I’m based in the UK, I’m not going to see much of it live as, while some events start in the evening in my time-zone, the majority take place after midnight.

What I caught on Day 1 began with the field events of hammer and high jump along with a couple of track events, the Mixed 4x400M relay and preliminary heats of the Men’s 100M. But the real highlight was away from the stadium where we were treated to the Women’s 20KM walk!

Race walking is a sport which is somewhat derided and I am being slightly sarcastic when I say it’s a highlight. Yet, I have a fascination with all things sporty and what I can learn from them and I’ve actually watched race walking at some of the past Olympics.  Given it’s similarity to running it’s interesting to dig into the details and analyse.

Race walking at the elite level is surprisingly fast and there are two event distances – 20 and 50km. A little bit shorter than half marathon (21.1km) and longer than a marathon (42.2km). It’s only in the past decade the women have been allowed to compete in the longer walking distance.

There are two basic rules that differentiate it from running.

  1. You must always have one foot in contact with the ground as judged by the naked eye. This “naked eye” caveat was instituted in recent years because with the advent of high definition television pictures, it became clear everyone was lifting off and travelling through the air!
  2. When the front foot lands the leg must stay straight until the body passes over it. The knee cannot bend.

Breaking either of these rules results in a warning red card and if three are received, the walker has to take a penalty stop of 1-minute per 10K of race distance. If they break the rules a fourth time they are disqualified. However, there’s a twist as in the last 100 metres, a walker may be disqualified even if they haven’t had any previous cards which avoids them gaming the system and breaking into a sprint at the line! The drama of the race begins to occur as competitors accumulate penalties or risk everything to go that bit faster.

The commentators made the point that tactically there’s not much you can do in race-walking. Its limitations, as I shall explain, means there is an inherent top speed. It’s not like distance running where you might decide to conserve your energy by sitting behind an opponent and then sprinting for the line!

By always having one foot in contact with the ground, a walker’s stride length is limited by the length of their legs. As one foot leaves the ground, the other must already be touching it.

This begins to highlight a big difference with running where runners can push off with each step and travel through the air. They get a longer stride length by doing this – as much as 2.70m for world class male sprinters and almost 2m for distance runners. The average man walking along the street usually has a stride of around 90cm and when I measured my biggest possible step it was a highly uncomfortable, full stretch 1.35m.

In his book Mathletics, John D. Barrow a professor at Cambridge University analyses how race walkers achieve their speeds and concludes that to achieve the world record pace, it requires the walker to have a leg length of 2.3m. Basically they have to be leaving the ground to go as fast as they do! What the walkers are good at is eliminating any up and down motion. Their centre of gravity always remains level and all effort goes into propelling themselves horizontally forwards.

This means their cadence – the number of steps taken per minute – is a big factor in how fast they walk. The best in the race I watched were hitting a cadence of around 200 steps per minute but again this has limitations. Sprinters achieve very high cadences of around 250 steps per minute but they can only hold onto this for a minute. Middle distance runners tend to be over 200-220 steps and are closer to the race walkers in this respect.

But it’s a key difference between running and race-walking that middle distance runners achieve high cadence by ‘shortening the lever”. When their back foot leaves the ground it comes up to almost kick their backside. This shortening allows the rear leg to travel under the body quicker than if it were staying straight. This is basic mechanics that occurs with the pendulum of a clock speeding up or slowing down depending on its length and which you can easily test by swinging a weight on a piece of string.

What a tall walker gains in stride length, they lose in cadence because their long levers move slower.

The pronounced tilt of the hips and shoulders

Watching a racewalker, you immediately notice they all employ a distinctive wiggling method with the arms notably swinging. The hands stay low to keep the centre of gravity low and help avoid losing contact with the ground.

The reason for the wiggle is that it maximises the length of each stride. It involves rotation of the hips which is counterbalanced by the shoulders rotating. Unfortunately, if you go watch any amateur distance race you will seem many runners at the slower end of the field using a similar technique. This isn’t entirely a surprise as many amateur runners are going at paces slower than race walkers.

Together these factors begin to explain why many amateur runners aren’t achieving better times. Firstly they do too much ‘wiggling’ – their hips and shoulders rotate around the body. While this creates a longer stride, it often causes a heel strike which at best creates braking forces to slow them, but at worst may cause injury. Neither is desirable.

A secondary consequence of hip rotation is that it doesn’t cause the trail leg to swing up which would make their running more efficient. All they’re doing is penduluming their legs back and forth.

Now there are running methods which encourage runners to deliberately lift the trailing leg but I don’t advocate that, it should happen naturally with good mechanics. How far the trail leg swings up is dependent on how fast you’re running. But certainly if you’ve got excessive hip rotation going on, it will be harder to hit the top speeds that enable it to happen.

The most impressive part of race walking is the speed – they are not just ambling down to the shops to pick up a pint of milk. In Friday night’s, 20km walk the first kilometre was completed in 4:20 – the equivalent of a 21:40 parkrun! In Imperial terms it’s 6:58/mile and they went through five miles in under 35 minutes.

The Chinese women, Shijie Qieyang and Hong Liu started out quickly but were eventually caught and overtaken by Kimberly Garcia Leon and then Poland’s Katarzyna Zdzieblo. After 1:26:58 it was Garcia Leon who claimed the first gold medal of these World Championships and Peru’s first ever.

Later on the men’s race took place won by Japan’s Toshikazu Yamnishi in 1:19:07. I didn’t stay up to watch it!

Both of these times were within three minutes of the world records which are:

  • Men’s 20K – 1:16:36 – Yusuke Suzuki (Japan) – March 15, 2015
  • Men’s 50K – 3:32:33 – Yohann Diniz (France) – August 15, 2014
  • Women’s 20K – 1:23:39 – Elena Lashmanova (Russia) – June 9, 2018
  • Women’s 50K – 3:59:13 – Liu Hong (China) – March 9, 2019

Putting those numbers into a more familiar format we find the

  • Men’s 20K – a pace of 3:50/km or 6:10/mile – the equivalent of a 19:09 parkrun or 1:21 half marathon.
  • Women’s 20K – a pace of 4:11/km or 6:44/mile – equating to a 20:54 parkrun or 1:28 half.
  • Men’s 50K – a pace of 4:15/km or 6:51/mile – equating to a 21:15 parkrun or 2:59 marathon.
  • Women’s 50K – a pace of 4:47/km or 7:42/mile – equating to a 23:55 parkrun or 3:22 marathon.

Many amateur runners would be happy to achieve these sort of times. While race-walking is often spoken of in insulting terms, the efforts and results of the athletes are more than impressive.

Olympic thoughts – Fast women

Tuesday afternoon, day eleven of the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, gave me an opportunity to look at world-class 800m running. It was the final of the women’s competition and from a British perspective there was huge interest. Three women making the final brought back memories of the 1980-84 Olympics when British men ruled middle distance running with Seb Coe, Steve Ovett, Steve Cram and Peter Elliott at the top of their game.

Racing two laps of the track, beginning in lanes with a standing start, runners break at the end of the first bend so that by the 200m mark they’re running together. I’d estimate the time for the first 200m was 27.7 seconds, the next 200 was a relatively slow 30.12s to give a first lap of 57.82s. The second lap was 57.39s (29.33s + 28.06s) for a winning time of 1:55.21

The race was won by USA’s 19-year-old Athing Mu and she is something of a sensation, as is silver medallist Keely Hodgkinson who is the same age. There’s a possibility they could be pushing each other to faster times for the next decade. There was almost a bronze medal for Britain’s Jemma Reekie but she was beaten on the line by Raevyn Rogers; and Britain’s third runner Alexandra Bell finished 7th out of eight.

This was one of the faster 800m finals but they’re usually won in the 1:55-57 range. From what I’ve learned about running the 800 the first lap is typically faster with the second about two seconds slower; but today was a negative split. The slower second 200m was the culprit and would have been part of Mu’s gameplan as she has run 49.57sec for the 400m. She would have been confident that if she could be leading at the bell, she’d be able to outpace the rest of the field over the second lap. Consequently she took the lead as the pack formed on the back straight of the first lap and then imperceptibly slowed the pace. She never relinquished first place and went on to win by two-thirds of a second which is huge at this level.

There is nothing slow about these women. The pace of the winning time is 3:52/mile (2:24/km) with the average per 200m being 28.8 secs. If they could do a parkrun at this pace, they’d be done in twelve minutes. But remember, as I wrote in my article on True Speed, top speed is a lot higher.

As it happened the women’s 800m final was followed twenty-five minutes later by the women’s 200m final and gives us a good chance to compare. Having already won the 100m title with the 2nd fastest time in history, Elaine Thompson-Herah was now going for a “double double”. She didn’t disappoint as she went on to run the 2nd fastest 200m time in history at 21.53s – that’s six seconds quicker than the fastest 800m split.

By comparison, the PBs of the three British women for 200m aren’t close. Alexandra Bell ran 25.74s in 2016, Keely Hodgkinson ran 26.5s in 2018 and Jemma Reekie a wind-assisted 27.3s in 2015. These times are not poor by the standards of the rest of us but, as you can see, they’re a long way off being close to competitive over a sprint distance. There’s a genetic element to what event you’re best suited to, but also note how the longer the distance you run, the more you trade off speed for endurance. Mu’s two laps of fifty-seven seconds were significantly slower than her 400m ability.

Olympic thoughts – Empty seats

Day 7 of the Tokyo Olympics brought the opening sessions of the athletics. Empty seats have been a feature of sporting events throughout the pandemic and while the Japanese organisers had managed to break up the monotony of the seating with blocks of black, white, grey and brown creating something resembling QR codes or pixelated photos, it brought back memories for me. I attended the opening night of the athletics at the 2004 Olympics in Athens in a stadium that was three-quarters full.

The spectator-less seats of Tokyo provide a back drop to the men’s 10,000m final

It was the final night of my two-week trip to Greece during which, the second week had been spent rushing between Olympic venues to watch as many different sports as possible. To top it off, it was my birthday so a great way to finish off my holiday before heading for home.

The session started at 7:30pm and went on past midnight. The athletics ticket was the most expensive one I bought at 90 Euros, which was £60 at the exchange rates of the time, but I didn’t mind paying that to watch world-class athletics on my birthday. By comparison the much sought after swimming tickets, cost as much as 200 Euros if memory serves me right. Funnily enough I didn’t go to the swimming!

The Olympic stadium from the outside with Olympic flame alight.

I arrived early from an afternoon at the beach volleyball and took a final look round the Olympic complex before entering the stadium. I knew my way round the complex by now from all the time I’d spent there and I’d seen the inside of the stadium on grainy television from watching the torch lighting and opening ceremony a week earlier. Since then it had been Olympics morning, noon and night.

My seat was at the start of the back straight, opposite the finish line, at the end of the first bend. It was on the lower tier, many rows back and, as I walked down the aisle, there were already many other spectators in place. I had to squeeze past twenty people to get to my seat with all the attendant standing up, sitting down and apologising. Once I finally got to my seat, I realised how cramped it was going to be. Elbows touching with people on both sides of me and my knees against the seat in front. I wondered how I’d get through four hours of this.

As had become my tendency, I said “Hello” to the people either side of me and this turned into a chat with the chap on my left. “Are you on your own?” he asked. I replied affirmatively and he went on to explain that he and his wife had been given complimentary tickets by the IT company for whom he worked. The only problem was her ticket was at the other end of the stadium and they weren’t next to each other. Then he pounced.

“Would you mind swapping with her?”

Always happy to help and not feeling it could be any worse, I agreed and we went back through the embarrassing process of squeezing past the twenty seated people to get to the aisle. Up the stairs and out of the arena. We walked around the outside of the stadium, which seemed to take forever, until we were right below the Olympic flame that I’d seen being lit a week before.

I never questioned what was happening as the man phoned his wife. She came out of the stadium handed me her ticket, I handed her mine, they thanked me and that was it – I never saw them again. I walked up to the entrance, showed the ticket to the checker and they let me in with no problem. I emerged into a section full of empty white seats, my heart leapt into my mouth and I thought I’d been duped.

The rows of empty seats where I was to be seated. More empty seats are visible at the other end.

Rationality took over. The ticket was ok, security had let me in and I was just in a section where there was no-one else. On reflection, the organisers probably wanted to fill other areas first, particularly where my original seat was, as that would be seen on television. I strode down the steps to my seat in row 13 and was able to stretch out. There were perhaps fifteen people dotted around the whole section and I certainly wasn’t bumping elbows anymore.

I relax. Comfortably socially-distanced when it wasn’t needed!

There was no-one within ten metres of me – perfect for today’s social distancing but in 2004 we had different issues. Previous Olympics had been disrupted by a bomb in Atlanta and terrorists in Munich and we were only a few years removed from Sept 11th and the invasion of Iraq, security was always tight. There was a long list of things you couldn’t take into stadia and backpacks were always checked. I bought and lived off snack food and drink from vendors the whole week because you weren’t even allowed to take so much as bottled water into an event. Fortunately the prices were reasonable even if it wasn’t healthy. Looking at the photos I’m surprised at how bloated I look.

I tried to get a selfie at every event. The second heat of the women’s 5,000m going on in the background.

With only empty seats between me and the front, I wondered whether I could move down there but didn’t want to risk a confrontation with security or the threat of being removed from the stadium, so for half an hour I sat thirteen rows back with the raft of empty seats stretching out in front of me. At 8pm I snuck down to the front row and sat within metres of the track for the rest of the night. Whenever an event was due to take place, the competing athletes would enter the arena, parade clockwise around the edge for spectators to see them. For me, they were almost in touching distance.

Denise Lewis and other heptathletes parade past on the way to their next event. Twenty-four hours later, Denise would no longer be the reigning champion.

Some events, such as the men’s high jump and discus, took place down the other end of the stadium so I watched them on the video screen. But situated where I was, on the bend, I got to see the 200m and shot putt of the women’s heptathlon featuring reigning champion Denise Lewis and fellow Brit Kelly Sotherton while, of course, all the other track events went past. It was amazing to be so close to the action. The organisers had scheduled a mixture of events for the session such that, almost every discipline was on display.

Kelly Holmes begins her pursuit of double gold beginning in the 800m.

The highlight of the night was the final of the men’s 10,000m; most other events were heats or qualifiers. I wasn’t into running enough then to appreciate the significance of reigning champion Heile Gebrselassie handing over his crown to Kenenisa Bekele. Of course, these days I know much more about running and looking back though all these photos has given me a new appreciation for what I experienced that night and who I saw.

The final of the men’s 10,000m. Ethiopia’s Sileshi Sihine, Heile Gebrselassie and Keninisa Bekele ahead of Kenya’s Moses Mosop and Uganda’s Boniface Kiprop.

At 11pm some people from the neighbouring section realised it would be much more comfortable in my empty section than their own crowd-filled one so they snuck over. After having had it almost to myself, I felt strangely territorial about them entering my space even though there were more than enough seats for everyone. Maybe it was they were loud and noisy that irked me but no matter, it really didn’t take anything away from my experience. I was just tired after a week of constantly rushing from venue to venue; getting up at 6am, getting to bed at midnight and surviving on less sleep than I needed. Four hours of athletics had been a great end to my Olympic experience. When London rolled around eight years later, I was happy to sit at home and watch on television as I’d already been there, done that.

Another view of the empty seats as I stand below the scoreboard with Olympic torch towering behind it.

I would apologise for the low quality photos and video but it was the early days of digital. My camera was only 3MP, couldn’t record sound and I borrowed a 512MB SD card from someone at work to be able to store more images. Watching these video after so many years reminds me of the serendipity and luck that came my way when I agreed to swap seats with someone I’d never met!

A silent pan round the Olympic stadium – many empty seats

Eventual gold medallist Sweden’s Caroline Kluft runs in lane 3 (lane 1 is empty) while GB’s bronze medallist, Kellly Sotherton, runs nearest the camera. Powerful running in the final heptathlon event of day 1 – the 200m

Kenenisa Bekele in the final 200 metres on his way to gold holds off Sihine with the legendary Heile Gebrselassie twenty seconds adrift and featuring from 21-30secs in

A heat of the women’s 100m takes place in the distance. Heptathletes can be seen warming up in the foreground

Olympic thoughts – Is this sustainable?

Day 5 of the Tokyo Olympics had me watching cycling again with more commentary from Chris Boardman. This time it was the men’s individual time trial which was eventually won by Primoz Roglic of Slovenia.

Boardman accurately predicted it would take around 55-mins to cover the course, not too difficult maths when the riders are going at 48km/hr and the course is 44.1km long. At just under an hour it’s an event that’s comparable to elite men’s half marathon running, or in physiological terms it’s being run at Threshold. For lesser runners that might be a 10-mile run or only a 10K – it’s applies to whatever you can cover in an hour.

The nugget of commentary that really struck me was Boardman’s description about riding at Threshold. He stated:

“The first five minutes is free, you don’t feel the pain. That’s the bit where you have to use your head rather than your heart and then it becomes self-regulating, you start to get a feel for the pace, the pain sets in and then you manage it”

What he was describing was how, when you begin a race the legs are free of lactate and waste products that eventually begin to make them feel heavy and the effort to keep them moving gets tougher. With fresh legs it’s easy to go off too fast – build up the lactate quickly and then suffer; the ideal is to ration the build-up evenly over the course of the race. This is true at all race distances and even true during interval training.

After co-commentator Simon Brotherton mentioned that there’s a “fine line between pushing as hard as you can but not going too far into the red” to viewers, Boardman responded with more gold dust:

“There’s a constant calculation going on between …

How far is it to go?

How hard am I trying?

Is this sustainable? And if the answer is yes, you’re not going hard enough. If the answer is no, it’s too late so you’re looking for maybe”

What a fantastic piece of commentary. I must admit the idea of maybe seems quite novel to me. I’ve probably always pushed myself into maybe without realising it and just aimed to hang on, but I’d usually coach people to keep in the comfort zone of yes. We like things to be black-or-white, yes-or-no; Boardman showed that the best in world are risking playing on the edge with maybe!

Next time you’re on the start line at parkrun remember these quotes from Boardman and see how they reflect your experience. The great thing about parkrun is you can test “yes”, “no”, “maybe” over the weeks and begin to learn what each feels like.

Olympic thoughts – All you need is love

Day 3 of the Tokyo Olympics brought Great Britain’s first golds in mountain biking, swimming and diving where it was a story of at last for Tom Daley. Thirteen years ago in Beijing, the nation watched as 14-year-old Tom became a sensation reaching the final. Four years later, at the home games in London he was one of the “poster boys” with his good looks and friendly, amiable personality but could only win bronze in the 10 metre individual event. Another Olympic cycle on brought another bronze in Rio this time in the synchronised event. Many thought he might retire after his tears at not winning again but he rebounded to win gold in the 2017 World Championships.

An Olympic cycle is a long time. Tom has been lucky to have started early and is now in his fourth Olympics at only 27. Yesterday I read Uzbekistan gymnast, Oksana Chusovitina, has retired after her eighth games at age forty-six – her first was in Barcelona almost thirty years ago.

In the years since Rio, Tom has got married to American Dustin Lance Black and become a father. He credits that with helping him to arrive in Tokyo feeling less pressured to win. In the post-gold interviews Tom said he knew that whatever he achieved, good or bad, he’d go home and still feel loved by his husband and three year old Robbie.

It seems to me that buried somewhere in Tom’s psyche was a belief that he was only loveable when he was achieving. I don’t think it’s an unusual belief particularly among many of the younger generation who are constantly being set targets in school and herded into activities to bolster their future CVs rather than for the enjoyment of doing them. The success of our Olympic programmes in recent years has been down to a harder-nosed approach to success and failure, if you aren’t a medal prospect your lottery funding ends and a lifetime of hard work and trying in your sport is dashed in the stroke of an administrator’s pen. The TeamGB Olympic successes we celebrate every four years hide a darker fallout of athletes, swimmers, rowers, boxers, cyclists, martial artists and gymnasts, among others, who couldn’t make the cut.

But the trap of conditional love is also prevalent among older generations who were simply brought up in environments where love wasn’t easily expressed, mistakes were punished and you had to be a genuine winner for your success to be celebrated – they didn’t get participation trophies.

Unconditional love is a concept that most people don’t understand because they don’t see any further than skin deep. They don’t look at the real person beneath but instead choose to love or hate based on looks, behaviours and material success. They allow their own emotional reactions to project onto the other person rather than accepting them for both their flaws and strengths. They don’t understand unconditional love is about valuing people for who they are, not what they are.

Somewhere along the way Tom must have absorbed some kind of message like this. It’s not necessarily down to his parents, it could be his coaches, his teachers or anyone else he’s come into contact with. He seems a rather sensitive soul and was bullied when younger. Dents to his self-esteem may have been papered over through his diving success. Even when he wasn’t winning Olympic golds, he was still receiving love and affection for being one of the best divers in the world, not simply for being Tom Daley.