THE WAY FORWARD
SHORTLY BEFORE HE DIED THIS MONTH, GORDON SURTEES SENT AW HIS THOUGHTS ON BRITISH ENDURANCE RUNNING
IFELL in love with athletics as a youngster and I am becoming increasingly concerned about its well-being. Additionally, I believe the envisaged problems of the future actually took root during the years of involvement by my generation and therefore there is a feeling of guilt.
For many years cross country has been regarded as the foundation of endurance events and almost all our top endurance athletes, whether 800m or marathon runners, have featured prominently in cross country at some stage of their development. The only real exceptions are those athletes who stepped up from 400m to 800m.
Therefore examining the winter season might be a good starting point to discover what is going amiss, the likely cause and a possible solution to the problem.
The highpoint of any season should be the world or European championships for those gaining selection, but for the majority of athletes it should be the national championships and the Inter-Counties.
The latter event provides the opportunity for the better class runners from the individual domestic countries to compete against each other in a meaningful competition. Sadly, the recent main domestic events cannot compare with past standards.
The events themselves are excellent with real cross country courses, tough and demanding and the huge number of participants are ably managed by, undoubtedly, the best officials in the world. Why then do we have reason to be pessimistic?
In the past the Inter-Counties was sometimes referred to as the Nationals without the stragglers. Athletes fought to represent their county and it enabled teams like Yorkshire to revive the War of the Roses with Lancashire and any other county that picked up the gauntlet. Yet lately some of these counties have struggled to field a fullstrength team.
The English National was, in the past, regarded as a big event in terms of importance and prestige is now only regarded as big in terms of the number of participants. The recent championships feature a spectacular cavalry charge at the gun and, as the races progress, there is a stream of never-ending runners and eventually the lapped runners almost obscure the leaders. There are a number of good athletes at the sharp end but, sadly, not great depth.
It is now a case of ‘never mind the quality, feel the width!’
Perhaps an insight into the problem was illustrated by an article in AW last year about an athlete who had completed 47 consecutive National cross country championships. I respect ageing athletes who are still active but about 20% of the first 600 finishers are now veterans and heaven knows the overall percentage.
Any national championships, whether on track or country, should surely be a contest of the best? Numbers need to be restricted to athletes competent of a certain standard and there is no reason why any competent veteran should not be included. But our prime event should not be open to all and sundry.
Man’s aim should always exceed his grasp. To compete in a national championship should be a challenge and not the result of leniency. Any lowering of entry standards will never achieve improvement.
Basically the problem we face in cross country is a deterioration in standard of our main events and a lack of depth at the sharp end. The cause, I believe, is a lack of incentive which has brought a change of attitude.
Some years ago top athletes competed in the Nationals in the hope of gaining selection for the World Cross Country Championships or its equivalent. As there is no longer selection at stake there is little incentive for better class athletes to take part and they turn their attention to other attractions, possibly more lucrative road races. Even in the Inter-Counties some of the main athletes may not have taken part in it if it had not been involved in the financially rewarding Cross Challenge series.
In comparing the current situation with the past, it is necessary to remember that the world has changed and we need to adapt to such changes. At the same time we must accept that not all changes have been beneficial and there is a need to retain some of the old methods.
A major problem is that many of my generation and I suspect that many of the older athletes who, over the years, have run in the Nationals are traditionalists and most reluctant to change. Tradition dies hard.
In seeking a solution, I recall as a youngster having a problem with boils and carbuncles. In those days there were no magic pills or antibiotics, home treatment was unscientific and painful but it worked. It worked on the principal that sometimes it was necessary to be cruel in order to be kind.
That may be the attitude we need to adopt in order to restore our major events to their former glory. It may mean ruffling some feathers, hurting some feelings but much more important it may require a break from tradition.
Funding is dependent on what we achieve on the global stage so we need to plan and use common sense in our preparations for such a challenge. Radical change may be required.
The World Cross Country
Championships is now a biennial event and we should be persuasive in getting similar status for the Euro Cross Country Championships and staged in alternative years with the World Cross. This would ensure a major championships each March.
Using National or Inter-Counties Championships as selection races would provide incentive for top athletes to participate but they would need to be held at a date conducive to athletes peaking at the right time.
At present the Euro Cross is usually held at about the same date as the county championships, but what athlete really wants to be at peak fitness at that stage in the season? It is akin to a track athlete hitting peak form in May.
The difficulty will be to persuade the traditionalists that if we are to succeed at major level, our cross country competition calendar would require some refiguring. Future success may be dependent on what we are prepared to give up, or change, in pursuit of such success.
One of the drawbacks of cross country is that it does not put bums on seats, spectating is free and events do not attract TV. So it is dependent on funding from whatever source. Success attracts funding.
Veterans may be upset at such suggestions but they should accept that current methods are not greatly successful. They should also remember that they do actually have their own national championships so they are not really being deprived.
In welcoming future generations into senior ranks, we must ensure that we provide the opportunities and incentives to help them succeed at the highest level. We have the best officials in the world in cross country. Let us do whatever is necessary to be able to say the same about our athletes.
Changes will not occur overnight. It will take time and involve lengthy discussions and negotiations. It will be difficult to amend the fixtures calendar but not impossible.
Mo Farah has shown what is possible. The Kenyans can be beaten. Not every time but they are beatable. What Farah needs is a depth of support and we must provide the means to produce that strength in depth. Things will only happen if we make them happen.
THOUGHTS ON THE ROAD
When it comes to road racing and the marathon and half-marathon, athletes and coaches need to appreciate that selection is not just about getting a tracksuit or improving a CV but actually producing a performance on the day whatever climatic conditions exist. When representing Great Britain and Northern Ireland at major level, selected athletes have a duty to attain racing fitness and this is only possible by a balanced preparation of training and racing.
As a former King Scout, I have never forgotten our motto “Be Prepared”. Some years later, having been made redundant, I obtained a job teaching painting and decorating which reminded me of that scout motto. The great majority of time and effort involved in decorating is in preparation. No matter how expensive the material, or how skilled the decorator, perfection will never be achieved if the preparation is not of the highest standard. Any blemish will show through and spoil the finished article.
Athletics is exactly the same and neglect or short cuts will lead to poor results. If you take out a mere handful of athletes, we are left with a situation where a number of athletes do not appear to know where they are going or how to get there. More worrying, is that the people running our sport do not seem interested in giving support or direction to the athletes who are not listed as ‘podium potential’.
However, the main problem lies with athletes and their coaches. Few of those who would like to run in major championships have given much indication that their preparations are deserving of such an honour. How many, for example, test themselves in marathons or half-marathons that are run in typically warm championship conditions or in small fields with no pacemakers? If not, why not? We need to send tradesmen to major events and not apprentices.
There are of course different ways to prepare for a marathon, just as there are different ways to climb a mountain. Climbers do not make their debut on Everest, nor do they prepare on Ben
Nevis. They gain experience by gradually increasing both the severity and height of their climbs and eventually arrive at base camp in peak condition, ready for their final assault.
They need to show their mettle. They have not got there without planning their route and taking into consideration the conditions they will face. Nor will they have arrived at the base camp without planned assistance and financial support.
If we want our athletes to join those who stand at the top of the world, there needs to be a change of attitude by athletes, coaches and the governing body. All concerned can learn from climbers, the right preparation and support.
Mo Farah is world class at any distance or on any surface but we need to prepare for a future without him. It needs the governing body to get involved, to take the lead and also take a greater interest in both cross country and road running, especially in the senior men’s section. Athletes and coaches must also recognise that success is the result of not only correct but long term preparation to be racing fit on the day that matters.
The future is both an opportunity and a challenge. We have the talent to take the opportunity and meet the challenge but all concerned must work towards that common goal.
We have the best officials in the world, let us be able to say we have the best athletes as well.
Tony Morrell: the 1:44 800m man and 3:51 miler was one of many top runners coached by Gordon Surtees
Quantity over quality: Gordon Surtees felt it has become too easy to enter the National Cross Country Championships
Ikem Billy: another sub1:45 800m man coached