A State of Grace
This book is about something that many people don’t realize exists: the art of running.
The way you move, how you structure your training, how you prepare for races, how you build confidence and determination, and how you develop your tactics—all of these elements are part of the runner’s art.
Yet runners often feel their results depend on just two factors. One, of course, is talent. And it’s taken for granted that the other is sheer, pig-headed determination, the will to churn out miles week after week. Nothing else, it is thought, will make a runner fitter. Nothing else will help a runner reach his or her potential: Just spend more time on the roads. Grit your teeth and grind it out. And if you don’t have time enough to do that, you cannot improve your 10K time or achieve your goal in the marathon. You’ve reached your limit.
The thing is, that’s not true.
Sometimes people, for reasons they cannot explain, achieve performances far superior to their previous bests—far better, even, than their most optimistic expectations.
How does this happen?
In running, as with most sports, craft and hard work can take you a long way. Planning, testing, and monitoring—the scientific approach—have their place. Sebastian Coe and his father, Peter, took a rigorously scientific approach to training, and it helped Seb set 11 world records and win two Olympic golds. Clearly, your training should be based on sound scientific principles.
But Seb’s family also had an artistic bent: His mother was an actress; his sister danced with the Royal Ballet. And Seb managed to harness mind and body to achieve a state of grace where timing, balance, relaxation, and concentration worked in perfect harmony—and that was something more than science. Technique, intelligence and the ability to unleash the power of the mind can help take you there, as well.
The point is that human beings are individuals. What works for one might not work for another. Running is a thinking person’s sport. Adherence to a rigid schedule might take one runner to great heights but lay another low with injuries. Each of us, from club runners to international competitors, needs to pay close attention to what works for us and what does not.
Sometimes, if we tune into our own successes and failures, if we think rather than stumble along by rote, we learn surprising lessons. Permit me one example from my own career.
It was March 1981. The English Cross Country Championships were approaching, and they were important to me. I’d run them ever since my days as a youth, when I’d finished second, and later as a junior, when I’d managed third. I had seen back then what a spectacle the senior men’s race was. You’d see 1,800 runners set off in a great, competitive mass, all straining to escape the pack and shoot to the front as they set out on the nine-mile course. The earth would move as they thundered by. The course was three laps of three miles each, and usually by the third circuit the front-runners would lap those in the rear: The whole event was one continuous charge of spattered, heaving men.
The race was very important because it was the selection race for the World Cross Country Championships. The first nine people home would make up the England team. There was only one bite at the cherry, no other way to get to the World Championships. If I wanted to make the team, I needed a good performance that day.
I had been running well all winter, and besides that, I was propelled by a bit of anger. The previous year, 1980, I had not been selected for the British Olympic team despite having run the best 5,000-metre time in the country before the trials. I felt I’d been misled by the selectors, so I had something to prove.
Another factor was motivating me, too, as the National approached. I was a flight lieutenant in the Royal Air Force: Only two months before the race I’d been posted up to Harrogate, in North Yorkshire, nearly 200 miles from my home in North London and my coach, Harry Wilson. So I’d lost all the routine I’d developed down south. I had no complaints—that was part of being a serviceman. But at Harrogate I had been shocked by the bullying attitude of my boss, who told me virtually the day I arrived, ‘I’m going to prove to you, you can’t be an RAF officer and an international athlete. You’ve got to choose which you want to be.’
He regularly obstructed my training and racing, giving me extra tasks just as I was about to go on a lunchtime training session with other RAF runners. My mileage that winter was down. But my inner rage was up, so I was fuelled that year by a bit of bloody-mindedness: I’m going to show the bastard I can do both, I told myself.
I’d spent most of my life proving to various doubters it was possible to do A-levels and be a runner, and that I could get an Oxford degree and be an international athlete. But I’d never before experienced such a negative, obstructive attitude.
‘You didn’t believe all that stuff about the RAF encouraging sport—that was just a bit of propaganda’, my boss told me. ‘Now you’re in the real Air Force. You’ve got to do your job just like everybody else! We can’t have you swanning off all the time while your mates have to cover for you.’
And of course he was right about that. But in my book, that didn’t justify him overloading me with more tasks, just to break my spirit and ‘prove’ that I’d have no time or energy left to run.
So I was feeling fierce and hungry. I felt great relief whenever I was able to break free and run—and even more so when I was able to race.
I’d done well in the Senior National before, notably in 1979, when I’d finished fifth and made the England team for the second time. At the World Cross Country Championship in Limerick that year, I’d finished ninth and was the first English guy across the line, leading England to the team title, though I am unhappy to report that Welshman Steve Jones—another RAF man who was both my good friend and deadly rival—finished two places ahead of me that day.
In 1981, I hoped to do well again and make the team that would go to the World Championship in Madrid. I had reason for optimism: Shortly before being posted to Harrogate, I’d run in the International Athletes Club cross country race at Crystal Palace in south London, where I narrowly beat Steve, edging him out for third place behind two Africans. But two months later, after the upheaval of my move to Yorkshire, Steve beat me in the RAF Championships by 25 seconds or so. Nevertheless, I was encouraged by the way I felt, if not the result, and I knew I was getting back to form.
Then, eight days before the National, I got injured.
In those days, we often raced in shoes that resembled sprint spikes and didn’t have much of a heel on them at all. I was racing in the Inter-Services Cross Country Championships in Portsmouth. The course was flat and fast, and I was really flying. On the first lap, we had to run through a large puddle that straddled the course. That’s common enough in cross country; you run through the water and pray there’s nothing lurking under the surface. This time, though, I was unlucky: I stepped on a brick and bruised my heel. I came up limping a little, but it wasn’t too bad.
Next time round, on the final lap, Steve and I were battling each other for first place. And, once again, it was a pretty good battle. ‘If I am still standing at the end of the race, hit me with a board and knock me down, because that means I didn’t run hard enough,’ Steve once said, according to a May 2007 article in Runner’s World. Steve was a strong, tough, genuine guy—exactly the kind of rival I liked to have. Over the years, I’m sure our friendly rivalry drew out the best from each of us, both for the RAF and for the Great Britain team.
When we reached the big puddle on the second lap, I tried to avoid planting my foot where I had stepped before. But it happened again! A different brick, maybe, but the same heel. This time the pain was so bad I had to stop for a few seconds.
There was only a mile left in the race, and I got going again. Steve beat me by 10 seconds.
I didn’t really mind losing the Inter-Services Championships to my RAF teammate, but I was concerned about overcoming the injury before the National. It was quite painful. Painful to run, painful to walk—painful even to stand on it—and I only had seven days to recover.
The injury happened Friday. The National would take place on Saturday of the following week.
You’re always looking for the perfect build-up before a big race. That’s invariably affected by several factors: the other races on your schedule, how you feel, and even the weather. But normally, preparing for an important event like the National, I would have put in a longish run the Sunday before the race. And I would still have trained twice a day as the race approached.
But on Saturday I couldn’t run a step. So that kind of build-up was out of the question. I iced the heel and hoped for the best.
By Sunday, although it was still painful to walk, I found I could run on my toes round the carpeted lounge at my in-laws’ house without pain. Encouraged, but still a bit desperate, I decided to risk a short jog and managed an easy two miles.
But I was still in pain. And the National was now just six days away.
I had a circuit round the Army base at Harrogate where I trained in the evenings. On Monday, although my lunchtime jog on grass had been a bit painful, I thought it might be worth trying to run on a smooth, well-lit road. When I gave it a go it that evening, I discovered I could run—and that it was actually more comfortable to run fast than to run slowly, because when I ran fast I was more up on my toes.
So I didn’t want to go at a steady pace, and I didn’t want to run far. The only option was a short, sharp session. I tried three times one lap, each about 1,400 metres, with two minutes rest between. My heel, well cushioned in trainers, felt OK. I was encouraged. Though I did some short lunchtime jogs on soft grass that week, my real training had to be fast—weight forward, up on my toes, really going for it.
Heartened that I’d had no adverse reaction, I tried just two of the same 1,400-metre efforts on Wednesday, pretty much flat out this time, with a good four minutes of recovery in between.
It was Thursday, just two days before the race, before I tried running in my spikes. This would be the acid test because I knew I would have to run the National in spikes, if I could run it at all. That lunchtime, I did a fast, sharp workout—six times 600 metres hard, with the last 200 flat out each time—on mercifully soft, muddy grass on the Stray, the beautiful open space that runs alongside Harrogate. If I’d suffered an adverse reaction after that session, that would have been it. No National.
So for better or worse, that was it. No long Sunday run and not my normal volume of training, either. Just three short, sharp sessions—quite tough—on the Monday, Wednesday and Thursday before the race.
The championship that year was at Parliament Hill Fields, just north of London, only a few miles from where I lived at the time. Formerly known as Traitors’ Hill, it’s the entry to Hampstead Heath, 790 acres of hilly heath crisscrossed by paths. I’d been running on Hampstead Heath since I was 13, in school races and for my club, Shaftesbury Harriers, and had won many races there over the years. And for the past three years, up until my move to Yorkshire, I had been training on the Heath two or three times a week. I knew it like the back of my hand.
On Friday I took a day’s leave from the RAF to go down to London and check out part of the course, walking and jogging around in trainers, just trying out the heel and seeing how I felt.
‘Bit lethargic’, I wrote in my training diary. ‘Don’t feel great. Heel a bit iffy’.
The heel, though it had improved, still hurt. The ground was frozen, and I was worried. If the ground was still hard the following day, I would probably not be able to run. I was praying for a thaw—a thaw and lots of rain.
The next morning the heavens opened and during the Youth and Junior races the Heath became a quagmire. It was, I thought, a wonderful, glorious, beautiful day. Maybe I’d be able to race after all.
All the best runners in the country turn up at the National Championships, of course, and the field that year was particularly strong. Following our recent results, most people predicted Steve Jones would win. He was a terrific runner who went on to set the world record for the marathon in Chicago, and he won the London and New York City marathons, as well.
Being Welsh, he had no need to run the English National, because he would automatically be selected to run for Wales in the World Cross. Indeed, as a Welshman he would normally not even have been eligible to run in the English National; his national race was the Welsh Championships, which he won a record number of times, However, in 1981 the rules allowed him to join an English club, Bristol, and thus become eligible to run in the English National, a much more prestigious race, and a title he clearly wanted to win.
Then there was Mike McLeod, the Elswick Express, who went on to win an Olympic silver in the 10,000 metres in Los Angeles in 1984. Not to mention Dave Moorcroft, who’d won gold in the 1,500 in the 1978 Commonwealth Games and would smash the world record for the 5,000 in 1982. And Dave Clarke, who would finish ninth in the World Cross Country Championships in Rome the following year.
A number of other great names in British distance running were there, too—Mike Tagg, Bernie Ford, Tony Simmons, and up-and-comers Steve Binns and Roger Hackney. Plus nearly 1,800 other runners, as well. I think the only big name missing was Nick Rose, who had won the National the previous year but was running the U.S. Championships this year instead.
After a gentle warm-up with Pat Collins, one of my Shaftesbury teammates, I put on my spikes and tried a few harder efforts. The ground was so soft that I put in my 18-millimetre spikes—the longest you could get—for better grip. All around, runners were doing their pre-race strides. I suddenly recognized one of them, an old school friend named Ben Brown, who had beaten me in the English Schools Championships 10 years earlier. I had hardly seen him since. He recognized me, too, veered in my direction—and promptly fell flat on his face in the mud. It was that slippery and, unbelievably, he was wearing only plimsolls. He got up, we wished each other luck and, to my regret, I never saw him again. But I don’t think there’s any way he could have got round the course in those shoes.
I felt strong and loose doing my final prerace strides. But the warm-up doesn’t tell you much. At Parliament Hill, the point when you know what kind of day you’re going to have is after the first three minutes or so of the race. The start is about half a mile uphill. And that can be one hell of a long half mile if you don’t feel good, knowing you’ve still got eight and a half miles to go. Sometimes you get to the top of that first hill and feel like you’re ready for the race to be over.
But there’s no holding back at the start. In a field that huge, it’s important to get near the front right away. If you get trapped in traffic, you’re in trouble.
‘The start of a world cross country event is like riding a horse in the middle of a buffalo stampede’, the American marathoner Ed Eyestone once said after competing in one. ‘It’s a thrill if you keep up, but one slip and you’re nothing but hoof prints’.
And that was certainly true of the National.
The gun sounded and we were off, 1,800 of us, thundering away in a muddy herd. Well, 1,799 of us, actually—Moorcroft was still getting his tracksuit off and he missed the start by half a minute or so. Unaware of this, I reached the top of that first hill in second or third place, feeling comfortable! Then a little dip, a run up another small hill, and I was in first place, only three quarters of a mile into the race. Without any effort! What in the world was happening?
I remember telling myself, ‘Don’t take the lead now.’ The plan had been to wait until the start of the third lap, when everybody would be tired and I could use my strength to try to break away. But the way I felt that day, I just couldn’t go any slower. It would have been uncomfortable. So I thought to myself, ‘It’s OK, I’m moving well. Don’t worry. Just keep your rhythm and keep going.’
Normally in a race you have to really put the boot in and make a positive move if you want to shake off your rivals. But now I just kept running—and nobody came with me. ‘I’m not even trying’, I thought. ‘Where are they?’ I can remember the feeling even now, over 30 years later. Absolute magic!
I never look round during a race, so I didn’t know how closely people were following me. But a good sign was that I couldn’t hear anyone, so I knew I was pretty well clear. But just how far, I could not tell.
I had friends and family around the course—my wife, Sue, and her parents; my coach, Harry; my best running friend, Phil Stamp; and many Shaftesbury Harriers members and supporters, including Dave Bedford and Bob Parker, my old coach. They would yell to me as I passed so I could get some idea of what was going on behind me.
When I came by at the end of the first lap, I found out later, I was a full 40 seconds in front of the next man. ‘Take it easy, Julian!’ I heard Phil shout nervously. ‘Don’t get carried away! You’ve still got six miles to go.’
I knew what was on his mind. He had watched me blow it on the track in a 10,000-metre race at Crystal Palace in 1978—the selection race for the Commonwealth Games that year. In that race, I had intentionally taken the lead early to avoid the puddles and splashing after an absolute deluge just before the race. I had run quite fast for a while. But by the halfway point Brendan Foster had stormed past on his way to setting a new European record of 27:30.5. Mike McLeod and Bernie Ford also came by, and I finished fourth—with just three to be selected. The first of several near misses on my part.
Now Phil was worried I was doing the same thing again. He was trying to encourage me, but I knew what ‘take it easy’ really meant: The translation was, ‘Don’t be an idiot! Don’t make that same mistake again!’
But I kept to my strong, relaxed rhythm. On the second lap, I heard Phil again, sounding somewhat less worried and rather more exited.
‘You’re still pulling away!’ he shouted. ‘It’s fantastic! You’re a minute ahead.’
He sounded like he couldn’t quite believe it—and I certainly couldn’t. It was like being in a dream. Absolutely no effort and no distress—I was hardly breathing!
By the end of the second lap, actually, my lead was 68 seconds, which was unheard of. I had three miles left to run and I felt strong as ever. I kept flowing along, easily able to pick my line and avoid the worst of the quagmire, which during the race had spread like a brown scar across the green landscape.
It was surreal. Normally, a race is physical and noisy, with elbowing, heavy breathing and the clamour of rival supporters. The miles fly by in the intensity of the battle. This time everything was eerily quiet round most of the course. Instead of having the battle on which to concentrate, all I could do was maintain my rhythm. It was like riding a wave.
On that last lap, I began to hear shouts of jubilation from everybody—friends, relatives, and even strangers.
‘There’s no one in sight!’ someone yelled.
‘You’re so far ahead you can stop and have a cup of tea!’
‘Well done, Goat! Are you sure you haven’t taken a shortcut?’
There were even a few slightly grudging shouts of, ‘Well done, Julian’, from the Steve Jones supporters.
People meant well but these comments weren’t especially helpful. I was in the zone, and I didn’t want to switch off and start smiling and waving my arms. I still had a job to do. I remember talking to myself, trying to keep my focus.
‘Keep riding that wave’, I said.
With nobody pressuring me, I never got out of breath. Up the hills, down the hills, it was all the same—feeling good, my rhythm quick, loose and rangy. If only you could run like that every day!
In the end, spattered with mud, I crossed the line in first place. I was English Cross Country Champion! I had won by miles and followed in the footsteps of my clubmate and one-time training partner, former 10,000-metre world record holder Dave Bedford, one of my heroes.
My first comment to the press was, ‘The easiest race of my life. It was just like a club championship.’
It seemed to take ages for other runners to come into view. One newspaper reported that I was in my tracksuit and signing autographs before Dave Clarke, the second-place runner, finished the race.
At any rate, my time was 44:39. Dave Clarke finished in 46:34. I had won by almost two minutes—a record that still stands. Mike McLeod was third. Dave Moorcroft finished fourth—a brilliant run, considering he had missed the start by 30 seconds. My old rival, Steve Jones, took fifth.
And my heel? It never troubled me at all. It was healed.
It’s impossible to say exactly what led to such a special day. But something had happened: I had run 13 seconds per mile faster than some of the finest runners in the world. And if I wanted to run as well as possible in the future, it was important to figure out why things that day had clicked so well.
Some of it always comes down to factors beyond your control. I was pushed along by anger at not having been selected for the Olympic team the year before and by outrage at my boss at Harrogate. The rain, of course, was a gift. And I found that the overwhelming relief at being able to run, following the fear of being unable to run, produced a powerful mental state.
Beyond that, though, there’s no doubt that the different prerace build-up forced on me by my injured heel—my emphasis on faster sessions rather than longer ones—had left me sharp and ready to go. I had to acknowledge that if I hadn’t hurt my heel—and had instead followed my normal prerace build-up—I might not have won that race.
I learned a lot from that experience: In future years I tried to replicate that kind of prerace schedule. Although I didn’t win any more races by two minutes, I often succeeded in racing better than my fitness would have indicated.
And that is what I want for you. Running, you see, is not just a matter of pure bull-headedness, of just churning out the miles and hoping for the best on race day. You can train smarter and learn what works for you. You can adjust your training so you peak at certain times. This is the holy grail—to find out how to get in the zone, how to harness the power of the mind together with your fitness at just the right time.
A significant part of running smarter is good technique—which means running in such a way that you don’t waste precious energy working against yourself.
It’s funny. Everybody recognizes the importance of technique in swimming and cycling. Yet many people think it makes little difference in running. But how do the best runners make it look so easy? They flow, their feet lightly touching the ground, seeming almost to fall into the next step. They don’t squander their energy; they use it to run faster. These are matters of form, technique, timing, and balance.
And if your aim is to run fast, why practice running slowly? Why perfect the art of plodding? If you want to kick past rivals at the end of a hard 10K, why rehearse slowing down as you get tired? Shouldn’t you practice speeding up?
And a lot of runners think stretching is only about preventing injuries. They touch their toes a couple of times, then head off on their 10-mile run. But stretching is also about enabling you to run in a looser, rangier way. When your back and hamstrings are tight, each of the several thousand strides you take in a 10K requires a little more effort. Each stride is a little shorter, too. If two runners have the same level of fitness, the more flexible one will run more easily—and go faster, further, with less effort.
It is also important to think about what, in particular, holds you back, what prevents you from running faster? Is it your breathing? Your legs? Your core strength, arms, or maybe even your stomach, both in terms of your stomach muscles and your intestinal fortitude? Is it your basic speed that lets you down? You can design sessions to break through those limitations. Which routines have led to have good races and which haven’t helped at all? Perhaps you produced your best performance in a training session. Why did it happen then rather than in a race you worked so hard to target?
We live in a so-called technological age, when we expect to be able to explain everything in terms of science—pure cause and effect. We’re bombarded with the science of peak performance and the jargon that goes with it: anaerobic thresholds, blood lactate levels, heart rate zones, and so on. But this knowledge by itself does not make you any fitter, nor does the measurement of any set of parameters guarantee a particular performance. You still have to go out and produce the goods on race day, even if the session you did last week was the best you’d ever done. Of course your performance on race day depends on your level of fitness. But many other factors come into play that allow you to get the most out of yourself on the day.
Nobody has yet succeeded in determining the link between any one training session and an improvement in performance. And I don’t believe anyone ever will, because the ideal amount and intensity of training, and the speed with which it takes effect, varies from person to person. In fact, these factors even vary at different times for the same person. Sometimes a less intense session can be more beneficial than one that’s more intense.
Relying on science alone also ignores the mysterious mental and emotional aspects critical to performance. Visualisation, concentration, psyching yourself up and other people out—that’s all well and good. But what stimulates the real power of the mind? How can you harness this power to unlock your true potential?
Even worse, relying only on the science of what makes us run faster creates an inexorable drift toward chemically aided performance—an increasingly depressing trend that is threatening the credibility of top-level competition and harming the image of almost every professional sport.
A welter of scientific studies is available. They often give ultra-technical, complicated, and contradictory advice on how to train and how often and how hard. But there is no magic formula; there are no magic sessions. We are all individuals with different strengths, weaknesses, and lifestyles; and we have different environments in which we train.
I believe a good 50 percent of training is art, not science. It’s about intuition and feelings, confidence and belief, tactics and motivation, relaxation and concentration. You need to find what works best for you in order to get in the zone and reach your potential.
When I competed internationally, I had the good fortune to run with a number of superb athletes. Dave Bedford and I ran for the same club and shared the same coach, Bob Parker. Steve Jones and I were friends and rivals in the RAF. Steve Ovett and I also shared a coach, Harry Wilson, and trained together. And we were similar as runners: All of us were strong, we all ran cross country well, and we took similar approaches to training. We worked hard—but we were good at making the hard work fun. Unfortunately, only Ovett could sprint!
I learned a lot from them, and you can, too: Throughout this book I’ll illustrate important points with anecdotes from their careers or from my own or from other world-class runners I was privileged to know. More recently, I’ve also learned a lot from my years of coaching runners of all abilities, and I’ll share some of those stories, too.
My hope is to get you to think more about your own running. My aim isn’t so much to prescribe as it is to get both your brain and your feet moving a little faster. This makes running less arduous and more varied, less draining and more invigorating. Running should be about challenge, not drudgery. Above all, it should be enjoyable.
I want to help you reach that state of grace where every component of fitness—physical, mental and emotional—comes together to produce a magical performance of which you never would have thought yourself capable. I’d like you to have days when you exceed your expectations, when running feels effortless—when, whatever your level, you feel the way I did on the day of the 1981 National Championships. I’m going to try as best I can to offer insight into not just the science of performance but also the art of running, for top athletes and ordinary mortals alike.