Tim Hutchings: Cross country and me

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Tim Hutchings: Cross country and me

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The National holds a special place in the domestic calendar. It’s where 1500m guys can race marathon runners and where club fellas, the backbone of the sport, can line up against Olympic medallists. It was rightly considered the climax of the English winter and long may that continue

My two National victories rank very highly amongst my personal favourites, of course, and it’s true that, in order to beat athletes of the calibre of Dave Clarke or Micky McLeod, you had to be in world-class shape.

As the new year of 1983 dawned, it became clear my future was at 5,000m. I’d run a 3:54 mile and 13:24 for 5,000m and made the European and Commonwealth teams at my new distance. In truth, I’d only really scraped the surface at the longer event and was still learning. I maintain that 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.

In the years before my first National Cross Country, Nike had been giving me gear and offered to pay for me to get some warm-weather training done in the US. I hooked up with a Danish guy called Alan Zachariasen, a very strong marathon runner, and we basically trained for 3-4 weeks together in the February sunshine of Arizona. I won a 15k race in Phoenix and ran OK in a 10k – it’s always hard to gauge fitness from races when they fall amidst heavy training – but that trip set me up for the National at Luton.

I’d never run the National in the age group races and didn’t realise, I guess, what a huge event it was. I turned up at Luton tanned, lean and probably a lot fitter than I realised. History shows that I eased away from Dave Clarke on the last lap and won by a big margin – 15-20 seconds I think. But frankly, I was almost too naïve to appreciate what I’d done at the time because Dave was a bloody good cross country runner.

‘I maintain that 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’

Most frustrating of all was that the World CC was at Gateshead three weeks later but I had to pull out of the England team with shin splints; and then watch Dave come seventh at the Gateshead Bowl arena on a course that suited me perfectly. I was pretty good at hills and actually won the televised Gateshead Cross Country the following winter on a similar circuit, so I like to maintain that had I been in that World Champs race, I’d have medalled and possibly won, but hey ho.

The 1986 National was through several inches of snow over Newcastle’s Town Moor, with two big hills, like camel’s humps, breaking up the generally flat laps we ran. Again, I won very easily from Dave (Clarke) having done all my prep that winter from my south-west London base, running with Gary Staines and John Gladwin most days. Wimbledon Common, where we trained, really is a hidden gem for steady running with miles of soft, wooded trails.

I’d been doing quite a few weights and a lot of threshold sessions on grass; I’m convinced that to race well on grass and mud, you’re best doing some work on grass so your cadence is adjusted, but I was ready for almost anything that day.

The 1986 National was one of the last run over nine miles and that distance through mud and very slippery ice and snow was the undoing of yet another World CC race for me. In winning, I tweaked a hamstring that needed two or three weeks to settle down and the Worlds was in Switzerland just three weeks later. So while I started the race, it was a hopeless effort. I got a stitch early on and finished way down the field.

‘I’d never run the National in the age group races and didn’t realise, I guess, what a huge event it was’

It’s a crying shame that, no thanks to the IAAF, the profile of cross country has suffered drastically these last twenty years. The knock-on effect is that it has been eased out of people’s consciousness and therefore, to some degree, it’s been left out of top athletes’ racing programmes.

Of course it’s possible to get fit without racing cross country but I think most runners would be stronger and tougher if they did incorporate it in to their schedules, using it both as an end in itself and as preparation for the summer.

Aside from the fact that it’s healthier for the generic world of athletics if a third discipline alongside track and road is given more profile, I genuinely believe it gets you fitter for the road and the track races ahead. After all, used as part of a comprehensive package of training, e.g. steady mileage, long runs, tempo runs, hard reps, weights, circuits, hills, and so on, it represents the coming together of so many elements of what makes a good runner, such as strength, speed, agility and ability to change pace. I wouldn’t mind this current generation of top western distance athletes not using it if they were running faster than previous generations, but they’re not.

‘I’m convinced that to race well on grass and mud, you’re best doing some work on grass so your cadence is adjusted’

For the masses to come back to it, the sport of cross country needs to be presented in a new and innovative way, for example, it has to be held near centres of population, with easy access and parking. There needs to be a carnival atmosphere, with music, good information over the PA, hot food and drink, a short lap that lends itself to spectating with achievable but exciting obstacles and guaranteed mud and other surface changes to create variety, and this all might be a slightly different package to the elite races, where of course the obstacles would have to be tempered.

The current format of a few stakes in the ground on a windswept field out in the country, with no PA, no food, nothing remotely spectator friendly, just will not hack it in this day and age, yet that is how it’s generally presented and funnily enough, how it’s perceived by the media.

The demise of the World Cross Country under the IAAF this last 15-20 years, has been an utter disgrace, but I’m hoping Seb Coe is going to inject innovation and new life in to the sport (as soon as he has time!).

Currently, it doesn’t demand enough of skills different to those needed to be good on the track or roads and frankly, people are bored with the East African dominance. I could write for hours on this, but let’s just say the evidence of the last few years speaks for itself, with the World Cross Country Championships now only being held in alternate years, the ultimate insult.

‘I wish people would look at the glass as three-quarters full with Coe at the helm, instead of bleating on about it being a quarter empty’

But that’s probably the least of the sport’s problems at the moment. As an elite competitor back in the ‘80s, you tended to be blinkered and totally focused on bettering yourself. To an extent, I think that’s still true for most elite athletes. However, with the internet and social media and everything else going on, it’s probably been less surprising for this current generation of honest elite than it would have been 20-30 years ago. That’s not to say that we didn’t suspect others of doping but we had fewer ways to create a “churn of concern” so to speak, fewer ways to investigate and express our fears and suspicions.

I guess that finding out as we did a few months back, that the doping issue was quite so systemic and state-sponsored in Russia, was still a shock. That attitude you’d think, was a product of the propaganda and Communist culture of old, but in truth I think while national pride is still an issue in nations where there’s no freedom – and let’s face it, there’s no real freedom in Russia under Putin – the financial incentives combined with insufficient punitive measures, are what have created the cesspool of a system that’s been uncovered this last year or so.

My despising of Lamine Diack, his sons and others who have been shown to be corrupt, is immense. While I was not a huge fan of his mumbling, incoherent attempts at communication – and it frightens me to think that what I saw in press conferences was what potential sponsors might have been met with – I never dreamt that he and his inner circle could be so evil, so thoroughly lacking in moral backbone in their behaviour, to the extent that the entire sport has been appallingly bruised and damaged for years to come.

One ray of sunshine: I thoroughly believe that despite what’s been written, Seb Coe is the right man to drag the sport out of the mire. Not perfect – no one is or ever will be – but he’s passionate about getting the sport right for the 21st century and I wish people would look at the glass as three-quarters full with him at the helm, instead of bleating on about it being a quarter empty.

Interview by Christopher Rainsford
This article appears in the first edition of Left Spike from March 2016