While Charlie Hulson was far from a complete unknown, having been a regular fixture in the GB team at U23 level, stepping up to take senior honours was still something. The manner of his win, coming at the tender age of 21, came as a surprise to many.
Charlie joined the likes of Brendan Foster, Julian Goater and Richard Nerurkar as one to have won the National title on the classic course. It was a breakthrough performance that introduced him as one to watch. The path to success, however, hasn’t run so smoothly since.
Over the last couple of years, Charlie has gone professional, switched coaches, suffered a few injury setbacks and ultimately returned to doing what he’s most comfortable with. The results have swiftly followed.
‘I’ve learnt a lot though from my experiences,’ says Charlie. ‘The main thing has been not to rush anything. For any runner, not forcing it and chasing fitness is massive. You’re much more likely to progress if you don’t try and force it.
‘I’ve got back into a real routine. After my result at Telford, I’m confident I’m back now and training how I want to train.’
It’s that result that has put Charlie firmly back on everybody’s radar. After ice and snow put paid to the event before Christmas, the race in Telford two weeks ago saw Charlie beat a still-stellar field, including world champs steeplechaser Ieuan Thomas, in a personal best time.
His 29.12 clocking is a time that places him, unsurprisingly, top of the early-year rankings. It would also easily put him in the top-10 road 10k times in the UK in each of the last ten years. Importantly, it’s a result that sees him looking likely again to fulfil the potential he showed at Parliament Hill almost three years ago.
‘I thought that, in order to reach my ambitions and to get anywhere in the sport, I needed to go pro. I saw it as a great opportunity, as I’m sure anybody would.’
‘After winning the National, the opportunity to go full-time with New Balance MCR came up,’ recalls Charlie.
‘At the time, I thought that in order to reach my ambitions and to get anywhere in the sport, I needed to go pro. I saw it as a great opportunity, as I’m sure anybody would, and moved into the athlete house with Ross Millington, Ellie Kirk and Jonny Mellor.’
Unfortunately, the opportunity to switch set-up from Paul Roden and the Sale Harriers training group to go full-time at Team New Balance MCR under Steve Vernon wasn’t met with the same enthusiasm by all.
‘But I suppose running can be like that sometimes,’ adds Charlie.
‘Everybody was suddenly out to beat me because I had taken the opportunity to go full-time. I was in a position all aspiring athletes wanted to be in. It raised everybody’s expectations, not least my own.’
A stress response prior to joining meant his pro turn didn’t get off to the best of starts, but Charlie soon returned to form and winning ways at the high-profile Armagh International 5k in 2016.
But Charlie is nothing if not his own man. He readily admits he ‘must be a nightmare to coach’, with his own thoughts and ideas on how to get the best out of himself. And, though he enjoyed relative success in his 18 months with the New Balance team, the warning signs were flashing early.
‘I got myself fit pretty quickly but already had doubts about the style of training and living the full-time athlete lifestyle,’ remembers Charlie.
‘I don’t have anything against the training, and at that point I didn’t know that it wasn’t going to suit me. I was putting everything into it and hoping it would work out. After running 13.43 on the track, I was more motivated than ever to go after the 13.30 Olympic QT. But it didn’t happen and, race after race after that, my body just packed up.’
Tired and frustrated with the way things were going, Charlie started to revert to old habits in the hope of rediscovering his form. He quickly found that combining two styles of training just wasn’t compatible – though it took another six months or so for him to turn his back on the full-time athlete life completely.
‘I ended up trying to force it. I tried to chase times and fitness and started to not enjoy what I was doing,’ says the Welshman. ‘I was training a lot but doing training I was sure didn’t suit me.
‘I’ve been running a long time and know what’s been successful. For example, I’ve always tended to do my steady runs quicker. I’m happy to listen to coaches, listen and take on their advice, but I need to be happy with the way I’m training to get the most out of it.’
Continually plugging away at something he didn’t truly believe in finally took its toll. The dream hadn’t quite become a nightmare, though it hadn’t turned out the way it was supposed to. Charlie packed up his things and moved back home with his parents, in a village just outside Chester. He’s now working in his dad’s bakery, fitting his training in around baking bread and working behind the counter.
‘I love it,’ admits Charlie. ‘I’ve always worked there. It can be demanding but it’s generally pretty good to fit running around. I do have to refrain from taking home all the leftovers at the end of the day though.’
‘I ended up trying to force it. I tried to chase times and started to not enjoy what I was doing. I was training a lot but doing training I was sure didn’t suit me.’
Now working with Steve Vernon’s former mentor and Welsh endurance supremo, Chris Jones, the pair have stripped things down and focused on the nuts and bolts in an effort to draw the best results out of Charlie again. The proof of the turnaround has been self-evident since September.
‘I’ve been coached by Chris since just before last summer,’ says Charlie. ‘We took stock and went back to basics. I wasn’t really enjoying running back then. I was just sick of it. I didn’t have any interest in it. So every run was done easy. We worked day-by-day. There was no plan. I’d call Chris and we’d decide what was best that day.
‘I was on Strava a lot, using that to stay motivated. I do a lot of my running on my own and, after two months of steady runs, slowly building, I got fit and we put a plan in place.’
That plan has seen Charlie go sub-30 for 10k in Cardiff, run pretty much exactly to 5-minute-miling plan at the Cardiff Half Marathon (65.33) and finish 14th at the Liverpool Cross Challenge – something of a disappointment in the end after missing three weeks to pneumonia and pleurisy in the build-up.
Looking back on what has happened since winning the National and you can see that Charlie’s win at Telford, while small fry in the grand scheme of things perhaps, is huge for the coming year.
‘I’ve been running a long time and know what’s been successful. I’m happy to listen to coaches, listen and take on their advice, but I need to be happy with the way I’m training to get the most out of it.’
It’s a confidence-booster that’s a product of getting the groundwork right – not only to return to personal best shape but to rediscover the pure love of running again. Keeping busy and sticking to what he knows best seem to be Charlie’s preferred way of doing things. And who can argue?
While the 24-year-old has taken a couple of alternative routes over the last few years, the experiences have certainly given him a greater sense of clarity on what he wants to achieve – and how he now intends to go about achieving it.
With the National Cross Country Championships returning to Parliament Hill next month, how fitting it would be to see Charlie’s fortunes come full circle.
Words by Chris Rainsford
Images from Charlie Hulson