Tag Archives: middle-distance

Whatever happened to British middle-distance running?

Standard

After Mo Farah’s welcome victory (really if any UK Olympian is going to win gold – I’d rather it was one who came here as a refugee right in the middle of the nastiest anti-foreigner moment the last three decades has seen), attention turns to the middle distances. Short of a miracle, no UK athlete is likely to acheive a medal in either the men’s or women’s 800 or 1500 metres (in neither distance has a UK man or woman run one of the fastest eight times this year). The fault is not in the athletes but with the way the sport is organised. 

Aged 16, I could run the 800 metres in under 2 minutes. If I had been on the same track with the new young British sensation Sean Molloy (above), I would have finished about 80 metres behind him: close enough to hurt, too far behind to be able to watch his shoes disappearing into the distance.

At the start of June, Molloy broke the British under-800 metres record with a time of 1:48.24, outpacing times runs by previous promising juniors of the calibre of Steve Ovett, Peter Elliott and many others. His triumph marks a counterpoint to the story I’ve noted before, the decline of British middle- and long-distance running (a reduction in the number of athletes running sub 2:15 for the marathon, a reduction in the number of young athletes capable of doing winter training of over 100 miles per week, a reduction in the number of athletes capable of seriously challenging for 800 metres or 1500 metres golds at the major competitions). He later ran in the World Junior Championships, failing to qualify from his heat running against athletes a year older than him.

Looking at the database of times recorded by UK athletes, two matters strike me: Molloy’s 800 metre times (which are world class) are definitely, if not dramatically better than his times for the 1500 metres (4.02.92; by way of comparison Mo Farah won the 1500 metres at England schools running 7 seconds faster at the same age). This may be a small sign that Molloy is going to be a middle-distance runner for life: like David Rudisha, say, but unlike Lee Merrien. This is a good thing: middle-distance running is a specialist activity, and it is not surprising if the best in any age cohort find their times are closer to those of sprinters than to those of long-distance runners.

Second Molloy has been running competitively since he was 12, when his pbs were 28 seconds for 200 metres and 2:14 for 800 metres. These times strike me as seriously fast for that age. Last year, Molloy ran in no fewer than fifty separate races. While I don’t want to make the point too strongly: I’ve never seen Molloy run in person still less met him, nor do I even know who his coach is, and in common with anyone following British athletics I have nothing but admiration for him. But that doesn’t strike me as the pattern you would associate with a coach confident of his runner, shielding him to maximise his performance in the 5-6 races best chosen to further Molloy’s development.

In tennis, we are all familiar with the story of Laura Robson, Wimbledon junior champion, and struggling since then to break into the world top 100. Robson’s appearance in the mixed doubles final at the Olympics, but her inability there to overcome the pressure, suggests the possibility (but not yet the actuality) of a sportswoman belatedly rising to her potential.

In football, we are familiar with the story of countless English talents undone by the harum-scarum of unneccessary games in their late teens, lots of running about in matches that don’t count for much, setting footballers up for a series of injuries rather than a productive career.

In 2010 and combined 2011, both Mo Farah and David Rudisha took part in exactly 34 races altogether, or 17 per year – just a third as many, in other words, as Molloy.  They are at the most productive stages of their career; they run less precisely because their times matter more.

What middle-distance runners like Sean Molloy need is intelligent coaching, a bit of cotton wool where appropriate, and a plan to get them from where they are to where they are capable of being. Is UK athletics, as presently organised, capable of that combination? I doubt it.

Who to watch in the men’s 800 metres; the extraordinary David Rudisha

Standard

Six of the 12 fastest 800 metres of all time have been run by David Rudisha. A former decathlete, and then 400 metres specialist, Rudisha grew up in Iten, Kenya’s middle-distance capital. He is the son of an Olympic 4 x 4000m runner, Daniel Rudisha (who won silver at the 1968 games where  John Carlos and Tommie Smith gave their black power salute) and was guided to the longer distance by Brother Colm O’Connell, the mentor of many of Iten and Kenya’s greatest athletes.

Rudisha is also an example of a phenomenon I’ve noted before, the middle-distance runner with a relatively heavy build (6ft 3, 12.5 stone), ideally suited to shorter rather than longer distances.

In contrast to his nearest competitors, such as Abubaker Kaki Khamis of Sudan, competition brings the best out of Rudisha. Aged only 23, his trophy cabinet includes golds at the World championships, the African championships, and the World Junior championships. Indeed Rudisha’s gold at the 2011 World Championships came after being spiked in the final. He’s already run under 1.42 three times this year. If anyone at the Games is capable of what Seb Coe described long ago as the middle-distance runner perfect race (two laps, each in under 50 seconds), it is Rudisha.

The physiology of middle- and long-distance runnning

Standard

The press coverage of the London Marathon focuses on two familiar stories: one is the triumph of Kenyan athletes, not just Wilson Kipsang in the men’s marathon, but Mary Keitany in the woman’s event. Behind their victory is a familiar story of Kenyan success: conventionally explained in terms of the pervasiveness of role models and of non-competitive running, and of the knowledge of running as a route out of poverty. The contrast is with Britain, where the avarage age of marathon runners is increasing, and the times of elite marathon runners are worsening and not improving.

The second story is the partial success of the Brits: including top-finishing British woman Claire Hallissey, who took 2 minutes off her personal best in running an Olympic qualifying time of 2 hrs 27 (9 minutes behind Keitany), and will almost certainly be picked as the third choice for the Olympic marathon squad. Compare Lee Merrien, who ran 2:13 in the men’s race (again, 9 minutes behind Kipsang), outside the 2:12 required to join Scott Overall in the men’s London 2012 team. It seems almost inevitable therefore that Team GP will have just 1 runner in the Olympic men’s marathon.

A number of friends have criticised a piece I posted here a month ago, arguing that middle- and long-distance runners have different builds and a different psychology.

With that in mind, it’s interesting to look at the records of Hallissey and Merrien.

I haven’t been able to find a record of Hallissey’s weight or height, but looking at a database of Hallissey’s top times, I see that she runs shorter distances often (she had her annual bests recorded for 800 metres over 5 of the last 9 years), but also relatively poorly. Her all-time best over 800 metres is 2 minutes 18 seconds. (This was the 307th best time run by a British woman that year, in other years Hallissey’s times would put her around 600-700th in the UK rankings).

In other words, she is a light runner with a very high proportion of slow-stretch muscle, and a relatively low-proportion of fast-stretch muscle. This shouldn’t be surprising, it explains why she is good at the marathon. (Presumably, she would be even better still at ultra-marathons). But it’s a very different physiology from a middle-distance runner, who needs a much more explosive finish, and who necessarily has a much higher proportion of fast-stretch muscle.

Lee Merrien is a more complex runner. Aged 32 (33 in a matter of days), for a long time he was ranked only as a middle-distance runner. Indeed his early times over 800 metres were dramatically faster than Hallissey’s: including a 1 minute 49 in the 800 metres. (There’s a 10% gap between their best times over the marathon but a 25% gap between their best times over 800 metres). But he’s been gradually shifting to longer distances: his best times over 800m and 1500m were reached when he was 27, he got his 10k pb at 29, and he’s just had his best time for a marathon.

Merrien’s height is recorded as 181 cm / 5’11”  and weight: 65 kg / 143 lbs.

While this isn’t as spindly as Kipsang, this is definitely a much lighter physique than say Steve Ovett (2 cm taller and 5 kg heavier at his peak).

Merrien is alos relatively lighter than Alberto Junatorena, Ovett’s nemesis at the 1976 Olympics, who was 9 cm taller and a full 25 kg heavier than him.

Natural middle-distance runners do just have a heavier build even than a reconditioned runner like Merrien who started off in the middle-distances before joining the marathon club relatively late in life.