Reality behind the marathon: How can we achieve future success?

Tracy Barlow: Thames Valley Harrier blogging on the road to London
April 28, 2017
Anna Boniface: Reading AC grafter achieving distance success
May 3, 2017

Reality behind the marathon: How can we achieve future success?


Gabrielle Collison is a former AAAs 3,000m medallist and achieved international honours on the road and cross country. She is also the author of British Marathon Running Legends of the 1980s, a book that looks into why British marathon running standards gradually started to decline despite advancements in scientific backup, training methods, equipment and more.

One week on from this year’s Virgin Money London Marathon, Gabrielle offers her insight, takeaways and thoughts for the future of British marathon running

With another London Marathon over, I found myself once again discussing the state of British distance running with an old running club mate. We asked ourselves how 63 years ago, Essex Beagle AC’s Jim Peters could run a world record marathon in 2:17:39 on a restricted diet (1954 marked the end to wartime rationing in the UK), wearing plimsoles and with no drink stations.

His time would have consistently placed him in the UK top-10 over the last 10 years and high up in this year’s British marathon championship. We debated some big questions: Why do we no longer have any world-class British marathon runners? Would Mo Farah or Callum Hawkins make the grade? Could we have any potential winners of the London Marathon again – barring importing a number of Kenyans to wear UK vests?

The conversation moved on.

‘Look at social media,’ my club mate said. ‘Nowadays, everyone can be a virtual star at the click of a return key. People talk a lot, but what has anyone actually done apart from Mo?’

I considered his point after the call had ended. Talk of day-to-day training, injuries, diet, sponsorship, spring-loaded trainers, races, altitude training, being a full-time athlete, or aspiring to be a full-time athlete, pervades on various forums and sites. But what is the reality?

Stats behind marathon standards

Let’s not forget that the full-time employed Steve Jones set a British record of 2.07.13 in 1985 that still stands today, and that in the 1980s, there were 45 British men in the world top-100. This compares with only 18 in the 1990s and four in the last 17 years i.e. fewer men in the last three (almost) decades combined than the 1980s. (However, it should be pointed out that Jon Brown in the 1990s is arguably one of the UK’s greatest ever marathon runners).


It is clear that the number of countries in the world marathon rankings has increased over the years, notably with a flooding of the road market by high-altitude born African runners in particular. There have also been suspicions of drugs programmes in a number of countries to assist athletes – now becoming increasingly apparent with Kenya’s 40+ positive tests in two years. However, there are virtually no male British marathon runners running near the times that many in the 1980s ran.

Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, British marathon running standards not only stagnated but also declined. This was despite the continued advancements in scientific backup, training methods, equipment, full-time professionalism and sponsorship.

Halcyon days of British distance running

In the 1980s, the UK rankings show that there were eight men who ran under 2.10.00. This was a time considered as a benchmark for world-class performance and a time under which most major marathons were won. During the 1990s, only two men ran under 2.10.00, and in the 16 years that followed until the end of 2016, just three.

According to UK Athletic statistician, Ian Hodge, in 1980, the 100th best UK male clocked 2.26.28 and this improved to 2.19.52 in 1983. In the 21st century, on average, fewer than a dozen athletes have gone under 2.20 year on year, with the average top-100 times stopping at 2.33.00.

Since Charlie Spedding’s bronze medal at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, only Paula Radcliffe has achieved a medal on the world stage by winning gold at the 2005 World Championships in Helsinki. However, there have been a number of bronze medallists at the Commonwealth Games and Jon Brown’s two outstanding 4th places at two different Olympic Games.

Big city marathon success

Many big city marathon wins were achieved by the likes of Steve Jones, Charlie Spedding, Mike Gratton, Paul Davies-Hale, Geoff Smith, Hugh Jones, Priscilla Welch, Veronique Marot and Joyce Smith in the 1980s – and Steve Jones held the world best for five months (2.08.05, Chicago, 1984).

In the 1990s, Allister Hutton, Eamonn Martin, Paul Evans, Marian Sutton and Liz McColgan also achieved big city success. However, in the 21st century, only Paula Radcliffe has done so to date.

Since Tony Milovsorov’s 2.09.54 run in the 1989 London Marathon, there have only been four other men to break the two-hour ten barrier: Mo Farah (2.08.21), Richard Nerurkar (2.08.36), Jon Brown (2.09.31 & 2.09.44) and Mark Steinle (2.09.17). A rather damning statistic.

Reversing the trend

In 1996, the Flora London Marathon recognised the worrying decline in standards and joined forces with the then British Athletics Federation (BAF) and the Foundation for Sports & Arts to launch a scheme with the aim of trying to help improve standards.

The scheme involved a mixed squad of 20 elite British runners and 10 coaches jointly funded by the three bodies to the tune of £60,000. It was known as the “British Athletics Endurance Initiative” and offered services such as warm-weather training, altitude training, competition support and medical screening.


While this help was welcomed, and probably much-needed at the time, it was perhaps just as important to listen to and seek out the advice of the previous generation of marathon runners, who had performed with such great distinction. Charlie Spedding, for one, was surprised that no one other than Tony Milovsorov bothered to ask him how he achieved his success. Speaking in 1996, he said: “I was always surprised that no one asked me how I prepared for LA and how I coped with the heat…but I am just one example of that.”

More recently, the London Marathon Charity has evolved, which gives far greater sums to British Athletics for athlete support and altitude camps, as well as for the set up of the High Performance Centre (EPACC) at St Mary’s College, London, which pays for two full-time coaches.

Common factors to success

As part of my MSc Sports Science degree course in 1998, I aimed to seek out the thoughts and opinions of some of the top-ranked marathon runners from the 1980s in order to find out if there were any common factors surrounding their success. I interviewed 18 elite men and women of varying levels and asked them similar questions with regard to their training and lifestyles. I also interviewed three men from the previous era as a pilot study.

The first thing I discovered was that, while there was a fashion for high mileage, there was a wide variation in training methods. There was no “holy grail” to follow. Most of them felt that running was not a complex sport, and that it just involved a great deal of hard work and doing a lot of it.

The runners tended to use the terrain and facilities at their disposal, and their preferences and the influence of their immediate peers frequently came into play. Several of them had coaches, but they didn’t appear to be particularly reliant on them, tending rather to talk to one another and swap ideas and advice, quite often over a post-training pint.

Although following fairly simple training methods, one thing was definitely apparent and that was pushing themselves to extremes to accomplish their goals. Most of their training was done very hard and very fast, quite often with many miles at race pace, and at times they had little respect for their bodies. They relished training in an almost masochistic fashion and were a bunch of extremely disciplined, driven and focused people. Running was their number one priority and they made sacrifices along the way in order to reach the top. Ultimately, it led to success.

Athletics as a hobby – not a profession

Despite this dedicated and committed approach, there was no pattern of full-time athletics or vast fortunes being made from running marathons at this time. Many of those I spoke to had jobs, and some of those jobs were pretty physical and demanding. There was still a lingering attitude of amateurism perpetuating through the management and officialdom at this time and athletics was really seen as a hobby, not a profession. There was certainly no coherent and organised structure for the funding of athletes, and any sponsorship was bitty and piecemeal.

Unless they went overseas to places like the US (and this was only possible for the select few with no family or work commitments), there was generally not much money to be made. Any appearance money tended to be undercover and winnings were often in the form of prizes, not cash. Moreover, any money won had to go into a trust fund. It was therefore largely not possible to make a secure living from marathon running, especially for those with families to support.

However, it may be that because of this, that they didn’t compromise their performance just to get a payday. They ran purely to be the best, to have championship success and to reach their utmost potential.

Distance running subculture

Perhaps two of the biggest factors at this time were peer group influence and the running boom of the 1980s. Not only did direct peer group interaction influence many of the runners in terms of deciding to do a marathon, it was also responsible for raising the standards.

The already well-established UK running club system and “harrier tradition” continued (which now seems to have decreased), along with groups of like-minded individuals around the country training together in a Kenyan-esque way. It was extremely competitive to make both club and international teams with no “easy” England or British vests, and there was almost an ethos of “survival of the fittest.”

A more general long-distance running subculture or scene also existed whereby the high standards set in the previous decades were continued because this was what was expected with anything less dismissed. Every race was competitive and running fast was the norm otherwise you would be beaten, just as it is in Africa today.

Marathon there to be beaten

The ‘80s running boom, which had crossed over from the US, and the publicity surrounding it, also created a lot of interest and this appears to have increased the standard in general. There was a big base to the overall running pyramid and so the summit was high.

The charisma of the marathon at this time created by the media and overseas stars likewise gave the marathon an extra appeal and led to runners talking about it and dabbling with it. There was no fear of the marathon; they were not daunted by it. It was just a natural progression and the event was not put up on a pedestal; the event was there to be beaten.

One could say there has been another running boom of late with the advent of Parkrun and other events. However, this does not seem to be in the same club-centric way that it was in the 1980s.

So what can we do, if anything, about the current state of British marathon running? Do we even want to do anything about it? Is the marathon event that important to us? Certainly, some sports have achieved better results since lottery and other funding, but clearly some sections of athletics haven’t.

Even if Mo Farah moves full-time to the marathon, he will only be one man. Personally, I am not convinced that we can go back to the halcyon days of the 1980s. Times have changed and some of the conditions that produced such good marathon runners back then may not be so easy to reproduce now or in the future. I’ll be happy to be proved wrong though and maybe this is a question for a working group that could be created by the LMC and UKA.

Words by Gabrielle Collison, the author of British Marathon Running Legends of the 1980s
Image from Virgin Money London Marathon