Mark Hookway: Tonbridge medal collective

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Jonny Foreigner: Glenn Hughes
May 20, 2016

Mark Hookway: Tonbridge medal collective

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I first joined Tonbridge AC in January 1975, just before the county cross country championships in Canterbury. I was in the under 15 age group and can recall Keith Penny of Cambridge Harriers winning the senior race. Don Thompson, the 50km Olympic gold medalist finished a little further down the field

From those beginnings, and in my forty years at the club since, I can say this is comfortably the most successful period we’ve enjoyed.

I was a decent club runner (1.56/3.58) and first team managed the senior men sometime in the late-80s. But I didn’t really get involved in coaching until about 2002 when a friend and I started encouraging a small group of under 13s to train and compete.

Since then, we’ve moved through with that first group of eleven year olds and now have four distance running groups, mainly split by age rather than gender, with a good number of coaches and helpers now making it all happen.

I suppose the philosophy we have is trying to focus as much on the added value aspects as the training details. We place extra importance on recognising achievement, communicating inside and outside of training, ensuring enjoyment and motivation, and keeping training interesting.

These small aspects have all played their part in trying to create something that makes everybody both enjoy it and feel part of something worthwhile. I compliment and support all this with my website: www.tacdistancerunners.com.

‘The philosophy we have is trying to focus as much on the added value aspects as the training details’

At the end of the day, we are asking athletes to train hard sometimes with no guarantee of success. However, we try and guarantee a friendly face, someone to talk to and support when needed. I often feel that it’s more about trying to provide an inspiring environment than about what detailed training sessions to do.

And this focus has definitely worked. The U13s won silver medals at the National Cross Country Championships in 2004 and have followed it up with medals through all the junior age groups.

The next step is very much trying to translate this into senior success.

It’s very important to me that we see progress with the seniors. Without that we could be accused of just training our athletes hard at a young age and burning them out. Our National 6 Stage Road Relay win last October was therefore particularly satisfying – despite the naysayers.

Winning there very much showed where we are at in terms of our development. The club’s placings in the event at Sutton Park over the last seven years, discounting the rearranged race at Clumber Park in 2012, have gone 39th, 31st, 24th, 22nd, 9th and 1st – importantly, we have got quicker each time.

‘I often feel that it’s more about trying to provide an inspiring environment than about what detailed training sessions to do’

I suppose factually it was the slowest winning time on that course – but I was also informed that our B team’s 10th place was the highest in the history of the race.

When you consider two of the B team ran significantly quicker than a few members of the A team and six of the twelve runners have run as U20s this winter – in addition to having three of our best runners away in the USA and another two or three unavailable, all of whom are U23 – it’s frustrating that people were so quick to criticise.

Five of the winning team were aged 19 to 22 and, while it was the slowest winning time ever, it was probably the best performance by any Tonbridge squad ever and those in the team ran brilliantly. It doesn’t really matter that it was the slowest as it was our fastest time – and we have been getting quicker year-on-year with what is still a young team.

It’s a shame that, for what was the best moment in their career so far, there were knockers and Athletics Weekly published their quotes. Granted, a lot went our way, but it has to on a day like that.

‘Others in the club must have thought I was a bit bonkers a few years back when I spoke about the aim being to win a national title at senior level’

I am really proud of the fact that we have maybe 20 to 30 good quality runners in the 19 to 22 age bracket, who are continuing to get stronger.

Henry Pearce and Chris Olley made the GB team for the European Cross Country Championships recently, and we also have Ryan Driscoll, who won the National U23 steeplechase title last year, plus a number of sub-3.50 1500m runners.

I couldn’t claim that the success we’re enjoying is something we have seen coming but of course the aim has always been to develop promising junior teams to strong senior squads. It might often feel like we are taking two steps forward and one back but perhaps that’s the nature of it all.

Others in the club must have thought I was a bit bonkers a few years back when I spoke about the aim being to win a national title at senior level – but that’s happened now. The National 12 Stage Road Relay and National Cross Country Championships are absolutely clear targets now.

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