Eamonn Martin on British distance revival

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‘It’s a question of who has those last dregs of strength left. Any one of the four could win it’

Watching the final 400m on YouTube of Eamonn Martin’s British 10,000m record-breaking run at the Bislett Games in 1988, you would never have thought it was his debut at the distance.

Sitting on the shoulder of the leader at the bell, Eamonn, tall and imposing, surges ahead of his three main rivals with 300m to run and starts to pull clear with every forceful stride.

‘It’s hurting but he wants this one badly.’

You can hear the excitement in Alan Parry’s voice as Eamonn, moustachioed and with gritted teeth, sprints down the home straight with the stride and form of a 1500m runner, lapping runners and edging closer to the British record.

The ‘84 Olympian elevated himself to a whole new level of notoriety with that run, which was only then surpassed by his exploits in the marathon.

The fact one of the greatest ever British distance running performances nearly didn’t happen makes the feat bettered just twice since ever more fascinating.

‘I wasn’t there just for the ride as so many athletes can be’

‘It was a loaded field back then and I had trained methodically for the 10,000m. They didn’t want me in that event as I hadn’t recorded a time and I was supposed to be in the 5,000m instead,’ recalls Eamonn on his iPad while on holiday in late-April.

‘I got shoved onto the second row but it didn’t bother me. I felt I would either win, break the UK record or drop out, with no real in between. A long period of consistent training had suggested I was very capable of running around 27m 30 or quicker and my objective was to try and win the race. I wasn’t there just for the ride as so many athletes can be.

‘I won the race, which seemed to shock some people, but neither myself nor my coach Mel [Batty] were surprised. Obviously we were ecstatically pleased as races need to be executed – and the fact the UK record came with it was a real bonus.’

In a career that spanned two decades and saw two National Cross Country titles (1984 and ‘92), three Olympic Games (1984, ‘88 and ‘92), Commonwealth 10,000m gold (1990) and success at the marathon (winner in London 1993 and Chicago 1995), Eamonn’s success across a range of distances and disciplines is almost unparalleled.

His record-breaking run in Oslo helped catapult his name beyond purely distance running circles. But it’s his victory at the London Marathon 23 years ago – and the fact he’s still the last British male winner on home soil – that saw him become a household name.

‘It really proved to me and Mel that good planning, a hard training regime and an individual with desire and a level of intelligence is what it takes to be successful’

‘I was pretty pleased to have success from 1500m up through the marathon and also cross country as I considered myself a middle-to-long-distance runner and did not label myself or restrict myself in anyway,’ says Eamonn.

‘Though I think my best performance was my UK record and win in the 10,000m at the Bislett Games, my proudest moment was winning the London Marathon.

‘I was getting towards the end of my career but it really proved to me and Mel that good planning, a hard training regime, an individual with desire and a level of intelligence in preparing for his first marathon, coupled with a flexible racing schedule, is what it takes to be successful.’

As well as being an exponent of cross country during the marathon build-up, the other secrets to the Lion of Laindon’s maiden marathon success are hardly front page exclusives.

Regular short and long road races up to half marathon coupled with having a genuine belief in coming out on top on race day ensured the then 34 year-old took to 26.2 miles just like he had to 25 laps of the track: with aplomb.

That most of those today avoid the mud and don’t follow such a straightforward model is all the more puzzling and frustrating.

‘I ran the World Cross three weeks before London and never raced 20 miles as many tend to do,’ recalls Eamonn. ‘I still think to this day that racing 20 miles in the build-up has the potential to leave your best marathon in that race.

‘I was working at Ford throughout this period and everyone at work knew I was making my debut. The hype was quite a big thing as I was UK record holder for 10,000m and the Commonwealth 10,000 Champion. But I just did the right things. I ran a controlled race on a not so good day weather-wise and won in 2.10.50.

‘I came into the sport when it was highly competitive and it was more about positions rather than times. Times will always matter to a certain degree but I still had that racing mentality in me.

‘Could I have gone faster? You bet. If it meant I had to run faster to win, I would have gone faster. That was the carrot that drove me that day.’

‘It seems today is more about the instant gratification, instant photos and the stories about what one is going to do rather than actually doing it’

The carrot has changed shape somewhat today, according to Eamonn, with the trappings of social media taking the edge off the thrill of the chase – and winning.

With snapping the pre-race Instagram pic of your race number more important than the race itself for many these days, Eamonn warns against the trappings of today’s selfie society.

‘There was no Power of 10 back then, so for me it was always about racing. Times are so important today; position less so. But everything today has to go online or on social media.

‘I’m far from a technophobe but it seems today is more about the instant gratification, instant photos and the stories about what one is going to do rather than actually doing it. Talk is very cheap. Living up to a high expectation is much harder.’

But one of those who raised expectations following his Olympic marathon qualifying debut in Frankfurt last October duly delivered in the capital last month.

Impressed with Callum Hawkins’ 2.10.52 performance in London, the current crop of British distance runners coming through are giving Eamonn more cause for optimism than at any time since his heyday.

‘I think we have come through the ‘less is more’ period and are building up again as a nation. We have a long way to go as we have lost our depth in quality and our genuine belief that we can compete with the best. Mo being the obvious exception, of course.

‘I am more excited about this era and will stand by my previous comments that it all revolves around the 5000m. It is a key distance and pivotal for our future distance runners as it gives them the speed-endurance invaluable to the longer distances.’

Eamonn’s emphasis on the 5,000m echoes the words of his eighties racing contemporary, Tim Hutchings, who recently said ‘5,000m is one of the toughest events to train for and get right as it’s where middle-distance speed and long-distance strength meet.’

Training for and mastering a distance that requires such a blend of qualities can only serve the longer distances well. Only when we have a large crop of high-quality 5000m runners will times begin to tumble once again over 10,000m and the marathon.

‘The future looks better without a doubt. But it is not time to pat ourselves on the back yet’

Andy Vernon’s progression in recent years has been a particular cause for optimism for Eamonn. The 30 year-old’s talent and perseverance has reaped rewards with European silverware on the track and cross country and a place among the UK all-time top-10 over 5,000m over the last few years.

When Andy successfully made the transition to 25 laps last May to sandwich himself between Richard Nerurkar and Ian Stewart in the UK all-time rankings, Eamonn’s suspicions were proved correct, the value of harnessing a strong range over various distances and disciplines evident.

But while the future looks brighter than it did a decade ago, Eamonn is keen to stress that nothing has been achieved yet. It isn’t time to rest on our laurels.

‘To a certain degree, Andy has held the rest of British male distance running together outside of Mo. He has led by example, ran good times at many distances, got stuck into races and competed. The future looks better without a doubt. But it is not time to pat ourselves on the back yet.

‘One point that strikes me is the length of time runners used to be at the top of their game. Coe, Ovett, Cram, Elliott, Moorcroft, Hutchings, me. Yes, everyone had a down year or so for whatever reason but generally we were at the top for a decade or more. 1500m runners more recently appear to be here today, gone tomorrow.

‘This in itself doesn’t help progress the event or British middle distance running as each year or so we have to start again with a new crop rather than add to the existing. This also seems to be the same for our marathon runners of late. I am not sure why this is and where the consistency or desire has gone but we need to fix it.’

And Eamonn is putting his vast experience in the sport to use today in his positions as honorary England cross country team manager as well as coach to leading Brit, Adam Hickey.

After cross country and track success as a junior, flirtations with triathlon and a short time away from the sport, Adam has greatly improved under the guidance of Eamonn over the past four years.

‘I think we sometimes get too elitist. It is not okay for everyone to go away altitude training’

The 27 year-old, who finished second at the English National Cross Country Champs in February, has established himself as one of the country’s most consistent racers and one breakthrough run away from GB track honours.

‘Adam has a lot of potential. He needs more 1-2-1 coaching to get the best out of him and get him to the next level mentally and physically. He is dong that right now and I’m able to give him my time and effort because I genuinely believe he has a lot to offer,’ opines Eamonn.

‘I have seen changes in him recently that will be subtle to someone on the outside but to me are significant and can make a big difference to his attitude and ultimately his performances. Adam has just started to train somewhere near as hard as I used to but he does not have the consistency yet as that takes time and years.

‘He is absolutely getting there though, even if ultimately the marathon proves to be his best event. He will debut over the distance in autumn 2018.’

While athletes of a similar calibre have recently been preparing for track with the benefit of lottery support and altitude camps, Adam and Eamonn are forced to take a more stripped-back approach, though no less meticulous in its detail.

With development opportunities for the raft of runners just below elite level few and far between, Eamonn is sceptical of elitist attitudes and recognises more could be done to help promising athletes negotiate some hurdles in order to reach the top.

At the same time, however, he is wary of offering too much to athletes just below elite level who are surviving on promise alone.

‘I think we sometimes get too elitist. It is not okay for everyone to go away altitude training and it will never be the only way, so sometimes there has to be a plan for those just below elite level.

‘Or do we leave that as the carrot for all to aspire to?

‘It’s not a bad idea when I consider many of the full-time athletes I come across do not train hard enough and spend much of their time trying to avoid work when they have little chance of making it in athletics.

‘They keep the “I am a promising athlete” tag on their social media and sponge off the bank of mum and dad.

‘I do believe, however, that if we can boost the 20th ranked athlete then we can start to push-up from lower down the pecking order and that will mean a little more care for athletes just below elite. What that care needs to be will be part of another debate I would willing be part of.’

And Eamonn’s voice is certainly one we ought to be listening to.

After almost 50 years in the sport and an active involvement in it today, Eamonn is better placed than many to help drive standards forward in the future.

While Mo Farah’s golds in London four years ago helped gloss over a significant lack of depth in the British men’s distance running ranks, the signs going forward are positive. Though it’ll take a few years yet to reach the levels required to make inroads on a world stage again, the seeds have been sown.

Words by Christopher Rainsford
This article appears in the third edition of Left Spike from May 2016