Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Yelling for joy


Yelling for joy

Celebrating her twelfth appearance at the European cross-country Championships last weekend, British distance-running stalwart Hayley Yelling proved she is neither the shy or retiring type (quite literally), as she stormed to an unprecedented and eye-poppingly dominant victory, writes Nicola Bamford.

With renewed vigour and love for the sport following her competitive retirement exactly a year ago, the 35-year-old certainly did not need the luck of the Irish at the Dublin event, as she ran the race of her life to capture the continental title she last took in 2004.

A far cry from her despondent former self after languishing in nineteenth place at the 2008 event, Yelling took the senior women’s 8km race by the scruff of the neck from the outset and maintained a comfortable lead throughout.

Surging through the mud of Santry Park in the Irish capital, the maths teacher from Marlow; who made a shock return to competition when winning the European Trials last month, secured a seven-second victory over a classy international field, leading the British women to team silver.

Yelling revealed: “I can’t believe it! I feel great – I’m in shock! I just wanted to go out hard because I know that’s how I race better – to just go out and hang on for as long as possible. I expected them to all come, but luckily they didn’t. I was running scared!”

Understandably overjoyed to be back competing well in a British vest after her sabbatical, Yelling explained: “Dublin was amazing – the support was too. The course was perfect for me, even though I’m not the best in mud. Even though I was knackered, I was smiling to myself during the race in disbelief.”

The sister-in-law of British Olympic marathon, Liz Yelling, Hayley continued: “I had no expectations at all - I just wanted to enjoy it. I was thinking about the team really. I’ve been back in training sessions for about a month.”

Yelling only attended the Trials in Liverpool to accompany a friend and certainly had no strong aspirations. Her shock win there, however, was only a glimpse of the greatness which was yet to come.

Evidently, it is Yelling’s laid-back attitude and refreshed outlook towards her training that is surprisingly reaping the benefits: “I think it’s just from all the years of training. What was all that 100 miles a week about!? I’m enjoying it so much; I want to get out of the door and run.”

A handful of extreme adventure races over the summer, followed by a windsurfing holiday ensured Yelling kept her fitness base high. She then returned to her long-time coach in Windsor – Conrad Milton but still insists on not having a training schedule to rule her days and only running during the week so she can “have fun at the weekends.”

“It’s nice to not have the pressure anymore – I want to run when the alarm goes off in the morning,” she explains.

The infectiously-bubbly runner is back in school to work this week but plans to use a couple of Christmas parties as “an excuse to celebrate” her recent achievements.

Her latest outstanding performance comes after years of agony, following missing the 10,000m qualification standard for the past three Olympic Games by between a mere 0.14 and 4.29-seconds.

Although understandably thrilled by her superb, instant return to top-class form, Yelling insists she is not planning a permanent switch back into the international spotlight: “I might do a few more races and see how I’m doing but I’m not looking as far as the World Cross or anything. I’m just enjoying my athletics and not putting any pressure on myself and it seems to be working."

Long-term, Yelling is adamant that she’ll be too old for the 2012 Olympics, but for 2010, the BUPA Great Edinburgh International cross-country in January may crop up next on her spontaneous calendar. Fans may also occasionally spot her on the track this summer and a possible tilt at the Commonwealth Games 10,000m in New Delhi in October is not off the radar – but only if (in the words of the new European Champion) “I’m still enjoying my training.”

Judging by this incredible athletes’ new lease of life, running’s never been so fun.

Brussels international XC preview


IAAF Brussels International cross-country preview

England will send full teams to the IAAF Brussels International cross-country this Sunday, as the Belgium capital welcomes many athletes who just missed selection for last weekend’s European Championships, writes Nicola Bamford.

Leading the way for the senior men will be Blackheath and Bromley’s Mike Skinner. The 30-year-old finished a fine thirteenth in last weekend’s European cross-country Championships in Dublin and will be duly supported by 21-year-old New Marske Harrier; Ricky Stevenson, who was eighth under23 in the Irish capital. Lewis Timmins; the 22-year-old from Gosforth and eleventh under23 last weekend, will also compete; with Altrincham’s 31-year-old Dave Norman completing the English Lion’s squad; managed by Eamonn Martin.

The England ladies’ team – managed by Sue Lamb - will be spearheaded by 22-year-old Woodford Green with Essex Ladies athlete; Felicity Milton and Charnwood’s 35-year-old Tara Krzywicki. Kendal’s 27-year-old Rebecca Robinson and Hillingdon’s 28-year-old Julia Bleasdale complete the outfit.

The junior men’s squad is made up of Winchester’s 19-year-old, Phillip Berntsen, 19-year-old Bristol athlete, Richard Peters, 17-year-old Stroud runner, Tom Curr and Warrington’s 18-year-old, Harry Ellis. Keith Holt will manage the team.

The junior ladies contesting for England and managed by Barbara Cutting, are City of Norwich’s 19-year-old Dani Nimmock, Bedford’s 16-year-old Emily Wallbank, Aldershot’s 16-year old, Ruth Haynes and Team Southampton’s 18-year-old, Louise Webb.

Full report to follow...

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Mo Farah feature


Fly-Mo: the smiling assassin

Carrying the long-distance hopes of a nation during a turbulent 2009, Britain’s amiable athlete, Mo Farah spoke to Nicola Bamford about how he has embraced the Kenyan lifestyle in order to match strides with the Africans and add more gold to his collection.

The 26-year-old West-Londoner, from Somalian descent, has adapted his daily life over the past couple of years to a more simplistic, professional approach which is paying dividends with his athletic performances at home and abroad.

Nights out and drinking sessions in the capital were replaced with a solitary existence in his Teddington home with African world-class runners; a move introduced by his agent, Ricky Simms; the man charged with keeping the great sprint sensation Usain Bolt in order.

Regular trips to ‘runner’s paradise’ in Iten, Kenya have also been added to the Adidas sponsored-runner’s agenda; the last of which he has recently returned from:
“Training went well – I was there for five weeks as part of the GB training camp then I trained with some top Africans. It was very hot, which I love and there were so many great training routes; all I did was sleep, eat and run,” Farah explained.

The Alan Storey-coached runner is no stranger to adapting to new surroundings. Aged 10 and without a word of English in his vocabulary, he uprooted to England, where his talent was spotted by his PE teacher. Reluctantly pushing his first love of football aside, Farah achieved great success as a junior athlete; winning a silver medal at the European Junior Cross Country Championships.

As a senior, the Newham and Essex Beagles athlete broke through in 2006, when he sped to a World-class 13:09.40 for 5,000m, ahead of taking the runners-up position at the European Championships.

The outgoing ‘Fly-Mo’, as he is affectionately known to his athletics fans, then captured his first major title at the 2006 European Cross Country Championships, followed up by an impressive 11th at the World Cross Country Championships. 2007 and 2008 witnessed sixth-place finishes in the World 5,000m and World indoor 3,000m for Farah, yet he failed to progress through his heat in the Beijing Olympic Games. After a six-week training stint in Ethiopia, however, he took second place at the European Cross Country Championships.

Farah’s 2009 campaign, he admits, has been a rollercoaster. With a British indoor 3,000m record, European indoor gold and a British 10km road record under his belt, Farah’s prospects looked strong to capture a long-overdue World medal; but in the global Championships in Berlin this summer, he finished a disappointing seventh.

Farah explained: “I had a great start to the year but I was disappointed to miss David Moorcroft’s British 5,000m record and to come only 7th in the Worlds.”

Never one to lose focus of the tasks in hand, though, Farah has an immediate target for a realistic medal this weekend; the European cross-country Championships in Dublin. Eager to replicate his 2006 win and gain revenge over his great nemesis; the eight-time winner Serhiy Lebid of Ukraine, Farah said: “It’d be so nice to win but it’ll be tough, particularly against Lebid and there are lots of fast guys entered, so it’s not going to be easy. Lebid’s my main rival; he prepares for this race for months and he’s very dominant – this is his Olympics – but he can be beaten; I showed that in 2006.”

On his chances in a competition where a mud-bath is predicted for Sunday’s event, the British rankings leader from 1500m-10km said: “I prefer solid ground but I know I’ve done the work so I’m looking forward to it.”

Based on his BUPA Great South Run victory over 10-miles in October and successful stint in the hills of Kenya, the ‘smiling assassin’ should be up there in the medals in Irish capital and has aspirations of a bright 2010:

“I like running indoors so after Dublin, I’ll return for a training block in Kenya then target the World indoors (in Doha in March) and then maybe the World cross (in Bydgoszcz shortly afterwards), before doing the 5km at the Europeans in the summer. I’m not really thinking about the Commonwealths (in New Delhi in October).”

In the long-term, Farah has hinted at turning his attentions to the marathon (“but only when I’ve stopped running fast over the shorter distances”), and most likely after he has conquered his aims at the 2012 London Olympic Games. But for now, Farah’s concentration is set firmly on relishing the ‘luck of the Irish’ by gliding to gold in the continental cross championships – and avoiding the Guinness – unless he wins.

Olympics blog


"London 2012: A long sunrise with a short sunset? – Nicola Bamford examines whether Britain’s Olympic spectacular will be a ‘Games for all’."

In 963 days Britain will become host to the 2012 Olympic Games, with its Paralympic equivalent arriving thirty-three days later. The greatest sporting show on Earth will undoubtedly provide the finest multi-sport entertainment and sporting infrastructure this country has ever witnessed, but questions loom as to whether – in the long term – this magnificent event will provide a ‘Games for all.’

When Britain and the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games (LOCOG) were awarded the World’s most sought-after competition in July 2005, promises such as legacy and the 'trickle down' effect were pledged as emerging bi-products of being hosts. Contrary to LOCOG's prediction, however, these benefits may be of little assistance to improving the sporting and physical activity behaviours of the British public.

Many would presume being fortunate enough to have the Olympic Games on our home turf would automatically transform the sporting ethos of Great Britain. Justifiably, the majority of our nation sees this opportunity as the greatest sporting spectacle to visit the British Isles in our lifetimes; yet this remarkable prize; finally won after two unsuccessful attempts in 1992 and 1996, brought with it an anticipation which has ignited a plethora of expectations, concerns and pressures. Can the London Games pass its greatest test? - changing the health of our country.


Questions have begun to arise, such as 'will hosting the Games inspire a generation of new sporting enthusiasts and revive and inspire a physically active nation?' or alternatively, 'will the Games merely provide a huge financial strain and discourage society from sport with its' elitist, pressurising philosophy '?

Despite sport evidently emerging into the consciousness of the nation since we won the right to be hosts, has such a life-changing decision for most managed to act as an alarm bell to the sedentary public? The desire to impress the world with our elite and our sports-mad, healthy nation is such that an abundance of sporting initiatives and strategies have emerged nationwide in an attempt to revolutionize the sporting and physical activity behaviours and resistance of the Great British society.

Statistics show that only 46% of the British public take part in sport more than twelve times a year, yet the London 2012 website claims that "there are few nations where sport is such an important part of the national culture as it is in the UK." Still, this quote is not a lie – as a nation, we do love our sport but only as spectators from the stands or in front of the television. Yes, there are thousands of gym-addicts, who fun-run, play in football leagues and compete at high levels; but there are many, many more that let their remote control do the work.

Spectator nation

Without wanting to sound too pessimistic, a quantum shift in social attitudes, so that physical activity starts to resonate as a clinical need, not just a lifestyle choice is desperately needed in our country. If anything, it would dramatically ease the financial burden on our public services (the NHS spends £3,000 every minute on combating illness which could be prevented by physical activity).

LOCOG claims that "grassroots participation would be boosted. An already sports mad nation would get fitter and healthy," so how can our ‘spectator nation’ improve its’ physical activity rates? Or will the event merely provide a form of entertainment and have no motivational effect whatsoever?

Assumptions about stimulating participation through sporting role models, trickle down effects, legacy and media coverage are at best single variable theories of behavioural changes. The Games may have some role to play, but only as part of a systematic and strategic developmental approach. It is time to wipe the rose-tinted spectacles.

London themes

The four themes of the London vision are: delivering the experience of a lifetime, leaving a legacy for sport, benefits the community through regeneration and aim to support the Olympics movement.

If LOCOG fail to install a lasting sporting legacy, then the Games will have a long sunrise and a short sunset; emphasising the need for a national strategy to embed the Olympics and sport in general into the heart of the nation.

Promises, promises
The most significant promises from LOCOG centre on regeneration and legacy. The Olympic Games lasts for just over two-weeks but it takes seven years of meticulous planning and preparation, thousands of paid and voluntary staff, countless organisations and billions of pounds to deliver. It is therefore crucial that the Games be organised as to provide a lasting legacy to the host city, the country and the rest of the world.

The community regeneration inspired by London 2012 should, in theory, provide a springboard for reducing health inequalities and for encouraging people across the country to take up sport and develop active, healthy lifestyles; yet how will the Games inspire the entire population when many live hundreds of miles away from our capital? Can the immense media coverage the Games are expected to attract motivate individuals who cannot access and thus benefit from the regenerated areas? To combat this however, the Government has committed to installing nation-wide sports schemes and initiatives in sports centres, schools, clubs and even workplaces.


The Games will use a combination of new sporting venues in the Olympic Park, existing world-class facilities and other inspirational and historical locations, such as Wimbledon and Wembley Stadium. London 2012 is committed to 'excellence without extravagance' and it is for this reason that new venues are being built only where clear legacy needs have been identified and sporting and business plans developed for post-Games use.

The hard benefits from hosting the Games such as the Olympic stadium and the Aquatic Centre are far outweighed by the soft benefits of providing 12,000 job opportunities to disadvantaged people, engaging local people and enabling them attain new skills, education and training as well as, most importantly, initiating the entire nation's step change into a physical activity culture. However, the critique here is the word local - does this indicate that people outside of London will be overlooked and therefore discouraged from taking up, and getting involved in, sport?

The Olympic Park will lie within some of the UK's most disadvantaged boroughs and will be home to world-class sporting facilities for elite and community use. If the promise of 'facilities for all' is kept, then it will have a positive effect on the British sports industry, as it will open many doors of sporting opportunities to the majority of the British population; recreational sports enthusiasts and beginners to physical activity.

The 'feel good factor'

Hosting the Games should install a 'feel good factor' in the nation, due to feelings of national pride and being inspired by the physical endeavours of the world's greatest athletes. This has been witnessed in the UK before with, for instance, the 'Wimbledon effect', which ignited a short-lived increase in tennis participation rates. London must ensure this sudden public enthusiasm remains long after 2012 in order for the Games to act as a true driver for physical activity change.

Britain cannot assume that the 'shop window' theory of placing our best athletes on show, will transform the nation's perception of sport and physical activity, nor will the vast amount of media coverage.

It is however, hoped that Britain will experience a 'trickle-down effect', in terms of the 'excellence' tier of the ‘sports participation pyramid’ affecting the lower tiers of performance, participation and foundation. Those at the top of the pyramid (Olympians) will inspire and motivate those underneath, with the breadth of the base determining the pinnacle of the top.

Whereas using stars such as double Olympic middle-distance gold-medallist Kelly Holmes - with the "On camp with Kelly" initiative - may be productive with sports enthusiasts, perhaps the use of potential stars or even individuals who have recently found enjoyment in a new sport, would be more appropriate role models to the currently sedentary.

Post-Games participation

There is little doubt the athletes competing in London 2012 will enthuse youngsters to follow in their footsteps, however, enthusiasm is only one of many ingredients required to produce future sporting stars – or at least, regular exercisers.

Due to a lack if survey evidence of the effects of an Olympic Games on national sporting participation rates, it is essential London learns from this mistake. Australia (post-Sydney 2000) experienced a small increase in seven Olympic sports, yet nine sports suffered a decline; with only 4% of Australians becoming more physically active.

Culture change

In order to capitalise on London 2012, sports clubs and leisure centres should show strategic thinking by installing marketing campaigns and promoting their sport or facilities in the run up to the Games and not rely on the anticipated 'trickle-down effect'. By additionally hosting the Paralympics, Britain must also raise the awareness of, and opportunities for, disability sport.

It is ironic how the USA for instance, is the most successful Olympic nation with the largest talent pool, yet it has the highest obesity rates; whereas Finland has the greatest participation rate, but is low down on the Olympic rankings. Can Great Britain find a balance between the two?

The Games are only one element of a much broader long-term development programme to increase national sporting participation rates and improve the health of our nation. The responsibility of revolutionising the British culture into a sporting and healthy one should not be left to LOCOG alone; individuals and the wider sports community must help to exploit and deliver the opportunities London 2012 presents.

Your writer – Nicola Bamford is a long-distance runner and sports journalist, who specialises in covering athletics and the Olympics. She has plied her trade writing for athletics magazines and the websites of national and international athletics governing bodies.

Euro xc trials preview - 2009


European cross-country trials, Sefton Park, Liverpool – Saturday 28th November

The crème de la crème of Britain’s best mud-larks descended on Liverpool’s Sefton Park last Saturday, with aspirations of securing national selection for next month’s European cross-country Championships in Dublin, writes Nicola Bamford.

The most impressive and surprising performance of the day came in the senior women’s race; as former European cross-country bronze-medallist, Hayley Yelling came out of retirement to storm to a comfortable and majestic victory.

The 35-year-old Windsor, Slough, Eton and Hounslow UK cross legend stole the show after only three-weeks’ intensive training and was equally as shocked as the spectators; “Maybe relaxing is the way forward! I had no pressure so I just wanted to enjoy running really. I didn’t expect to do well so it’s a bit of a shock. I’m really happy so just want to keep enjoying it and put no pressure on myself.”

With triple European junior cross-country Champion and hot favourite for senior gold; Steph Twell (20, Aldershot, Farnham and District) missing the event on medical advice – although pre-selected for the continental Championships – it was Chester le Street’s Freya Murray who many had their eye on for an expectant win.

The 26-year-old put in a sterling effort to cope with Yelling’s determined endeavour from the gun and the BUPA Great Yorkshire and Capital international run winner this autumn did well to maintain the winning advantage.

Murray said; “I’m really pleased. Hayley went off like a rocket so I was just trying to hang on for as long as I could. I’m looking forward to Dublin and I’d like to run as hard as I can and get into the top10. It’d be great if the women’s team could do as well as we did last year, so it’ll be great to be a part of that.”

21-year-old Woodford Green with Essex Ladies athlete; Jessica Sparke performed superbly to finish third overall and first under23. Runner-up on times in the English cross-country relays, she said; “I felt pretty strong the whole way. I was a bit disappointed I let the front two women go but I’m definitely pleased. In Dublin, my aim’s to go and run hard and hopefully get into the top-10.”

Bedford County’s 24-year-old Katrina Wootton capitalised on her fine 9th place in the Great South Run with third place in the senior category.

In the absence of European Cross-Country silver-medallist; Mo Farah - who is currently preparing for Dublin with a six-week stint of altitude training in Kenya, recent Gateshead cross international winner Mike Skinner provided a thrilling victory in the senior men’s event.

The 30-year-old Blackheath and Bromley runner – quickest in the cross relays in Mansfield last month – dominated the leading pack for the entire race before unleashing a devastating finishing kick to break training partner; Ben Whitby.

Skinner revealed; “I tried to settle into a nice rhythm in the middle of the leading pack then found myself quite comfortable in the top-three. I was surprised how strong I felt on the home straight; it was quite muddy but I had the strength to keep kicking. I’m on about 100-miles per week at the moment and I’m really fortunate to have a great training group of guys – they bring out the best in you.”

Closely behind 32-year-old WSEH athlete; Whitby, was Newham and Essex Beagles’ 23-year-old Moumin Geele. The BUPA Great Yorkshire 10km runner-up however, does not hold a full UK passport despite being a UK resident; leaving the third automatic selection spot to Aldershot’s Andy Vernon; the 2008 European under23 cross-country silver-medallist.

In the under23 women’s race, Holly Rowland and Stevie Stockton took the second and third automatic spots; behind Sparke. Rowland – 21 representing Norwich – was 7th quickest senior in Mansfield and Stockton – 20 from Vale Royal AC – was 7th senior in the Gateshead international recently.

Rowland said; “I think I went off too fast so I was dying in the second half of the race, so I’m so pleased I managed to stay there. It’s such a bonus to go to Dublin.”

Akin to Sparke, under23 Ricky Stevenson made a big splash in the senior race. The 21-year-old New Marske Harrier followed up his impressive Gateshead 2km victory and long-course fourth-place by replicating the latter position in the senior event and said; “As a track runner, I don’t really like the mud but when I got into it, I felt really strong and enjoyed it all the way around until the end. Hopefully I’ll get a medal in Dublin.”

22-year-old Lewis Timmins (Gosforth) and 20-year-old Norwich runner; Ashley Harrell took the second and third spot, respectively.

Further proving that age is no barrier; two under17 athletes took the under20 events. With reigning European junior cross silver-medallist; Charlotte Purdue (18, AFD) missing the event – but like Twell, also having been pre-selected for Dublin – club-mate; Emelia Gorecka took advantage.

The 15-year-old; who was fastest in Mansfield, performed brilliantly to upstage her older contemporaries and shock even herself; “I tried to give it my all. I’ve been ill all week so I just wanted to see how I could run. I didn’t think I’d win it at all! I felt a bit down still with my cold but I just got stuck in, that’s all you can do. I’m going to the World School’s next week so I can’t wait for that.”

First under20 was Shildon’s 18-year-old Kate Avery; little surprise following her Birmingham cross-country win and Gateshead second-spot, whilst 19-year-old Stockport Harrier; Jess Coulson made a superb return from two injury-ravaged years to claim the runner-up place. With Gorecka too young for selection, Victoria Park’s 17-year-old; Beth Potter gained her chance for an automatic GB&NI vest.

Avery said; “The race went really well but I didn’t think the mud would be as bad as it was. I just want to see how I go in Dublin.”

Coulson added; “The race went off like a rocket so I just settled in on the first lap and started to come forward. The finish was so muddy and really much longer than you think it is. Coming into the race, I was feeling good but the finish was so hard. It’s great to be running after 2-years of running so I’m looking forward to Dublin and the banter.”

The happiest winner of the day was another unexpected victory; as 16-year-old Richard Goodman overcame the shock and desperation of realising his missing front number just before the starting gun, to steal the under20 show. Fastest junior in Mansfield, Goodman evidently used the fast-pumping adrenaline to good effect. He said; “These lads are so much older than me and I haven’t raced for 4-weeks. Training’s been solid and I’ve stepped my mileage up to sixty-miles per week. Training’s been amazing and this week, I’ve just been relaxed – took a day off school (don’t tell my teachers!) and I just believed I could win. I was crying on my way up that last hill. I look up to these lads so to beat them...”

Leeds City AC’s 19-year-old James Wilkinson - quickest in Mansfield and third in Gateshead – took the under20 title ahead of Aldershot’s 17-year-old Jonathan Hay (the Gateshead winner).

Six athletes from each age group (U20, U23 and senior) will represent GB&NI at the European Cross Country Championships in Dublin and full teams will be announced on Tuesday 1 December.

Charlotte Purdue - Eng XC Relays preview


Saucony English Cross-Country Relays; Sat 31st October, Berry Hill Park – Athlete Feature: Charlotte Purdue

One athlete with aspirations of providing a Halloween ‘treat’ for her coach, team-mates and supporters this Saturday, will be middle-distance starlet; Charlotte Purdue, as she looks to speed to individual and team glory at this weekend’s Saucony English Cross-Country Relay Championships; writes Nicola Bamford

The 18 year-old Aldershot, Farnham and District athlete has had a superb start to the 2009 winter season; with a plethora of personal bests and outstanding performances. Firstly, the Mick Woods-coached athlete registered a 5km road best of 16:17 at the BUPA Great Capital Run in London’s Regent’s Park last month; followed by a 10km road best of 33:07 in the BUPA Great Yorkshire Run in Sheffield (finishing a fine fourth in classy senior international field) and a eye-catching international 2-mile win at the Great North City Games in Newcastle.

Evidently on a phenomenal early-season roll, the bubbly and mature young runner then clocked the fastest legs of the day at the Southern and National senior English Road Relay Championships, respectively; before sensibly withdrawing from last weekend’s BUPA Great South Run with illness.

Now, with a clean bill of health and bundles more enthusiasm and determination beyond her tender years, the ‘On Camp with Kelly’ (Dame Kelly Holmes) star, is hoping to make yet another impact on the national scene; with a storming leg in the under20 women’s race around Mansfield’s Berry Hill park.

The European junior 5,000m and cross-country silver-medallist will be tackling the third and final stage of the 3x2.5km relay race; in which the Aldershot girls start as red-hot favourites amongst the 55-starting teams.

In the 2008 edition, Purdue clocked the second-fastest split of the day (8:05) behind team-mate Steph Twell (the Olympic and World 1500m representative and three-times European junior cross-country Champion) and now with Twell in the senior ranks, the World cross-country Championships 14th-placer will be set for individual glory.

Using this weekend’s race as a stepping stone to hopefully going one better this year, by capturing gold at the continental Championships this December in Dublin, Purdue explained; “Every race I do is important to my season, other-wise I would not do it. But I think the Mansfield relays are important, as it shows the rest of the country the standard of our club and it’s an enjoyable race to compete in. It’s a good race to use a speed-work for the Euro’s, as that’ll be a fast race!”

Purdue continues; “I think that they’re a good race for younger athletes to compete in as they are fun and there is not much pressure. I think for older athletes it is a good opportunity to enjoy racing as well as maintaining the competitive atmosphere.”

On her favourite memory of the event, she divulges; “Every year I have raced at the relays except for one and each time the race is different - I love the course and the fact that it is shorter than most cross-country races, as it feels like a track race, except with up hills and it’s always really muddy!”

With the aim for one of Britain’s arguably most promising distance-runners “to make sure I race well and to win for my team!” there will certainly be no ‘tricks’ up her sleeve to succeed; just good, honest hard work and willpower.

English XC Relays preview - 2009


Saucony English Cross-Country Relays, Berry Hill Park, Mansfield, Sat 31st October, 2009.

The official date of Halloween 2009 additionally marks a special occasion for the glorious Berry Hill Park in Mansfield as this year, the Nottinghamshire venue will be celebrating not so much ‘trick’ but more ‘treat’, as they reach their 21-year milestone of hosting the annual Saucony English Cross-Country Relays; writes Nicola Bamford.

The landmark achievement also pleasantly coincides with record entries for all bar one of the ten age-group events; with a magnificent 1197 teams registered to compete on the day. The senior men’s event will see 214 teams battle for supremacy over the notoriously flat, soft and dry course; with an equally-impressive 138 squads entered in the women’s equivalent.

The under17 men’s event has gathered 130 team entries; supported by 126 registered in both the girls and boys under15 categories. The under13 girls and boys events have attracted 123 and 110 teams, respectively and the junior (under20) men’s race will have 91. The under17 and junior women events have the lowest amount of teams entered for the day’s timetable this year; however, both categories have seen a marked increase in participation since last years’ event; with 84 and 55 teams entered, respectively.

The popularity of arguably England’s finest cross-country team competition is evidently flourishing year on year; aided by the participation of the nation’s best mud-larks. The senior men’s and women’s course records, for instance, are held by none other than current and former internationals, Chris Thompson (AFD, 14:18) and Hayley Yelling (Bedford, 9:35).

The very first English cross-country relay Championship was held in 1985 in Crystal Palace Park, and then again in 1987; leading to a Mansfield take-over in 1989 for the past 21-years.
Over the years, the event has grown in stature thanks to the dedication of all the officials, sponsors and those who have provided the facilities and services for the event. The inaugural addition, back in 1985, featured just three team championships, in which just 41 teams; comprising only 149 runners finished. In contrast, two decades on, the 10 race categories in 2008 witnessed 721 squads complete the event; with 2,316 athletes finishing – showing just how much the event has grown and matured - Happy 21st Mansfield!

Mr ‘Athlete Development’

Buzzing away in the South of England at a pace not to dissimilar to that of his athletes in training; a man’s phone rings incessantly: this is a man very much in demand and with such coaching credentials, experience and popularity, this is the man with the Midas touch on middle and long-distance running – this is Mr ‘Athlete Development’.

A UK Athletics Performance Coach and Coach at the prestigious St Mary’s University in London, Mick Woods does not look as if he’s about to retire from the job he also calls his hobby; despite turning sixty earlier this spring. He has a reputation to uphold as the coach who can develop almost any athlete into a national or international-standard athlete, and a job to see through with three of his original female recruits in particular, who are quickly turning into stars on the world running scene.

Steered by his deputy head-teacher to the Aldershot, Farnham and District club in the English county of Hampshire as a fifteen year-old in 1964, Woods had average success as an under17 and under20 athlete and jokes with regards to his protégé - who we shall discuss later; “Steph’s (Twell) 1500m PB is faster than mine!”

With his strength evidently lying with his endurance base, Woods experienced success over the marathon distance; “I was 21st in the very first London marathon in 2:20:12 in 1983 and also achieved 2:20-2:21 seven times.” He admits, however, that sub-2:20 was his aim and this he believes, was not achieved due to being self-coached; “I don’t advocate being self-coached. I’ve always said if I was coached by someone like me now, I would have gone a lot faster.”

Nevertheless, not one for resting on his laurels, Woods soon found himself in a coaching capacity at the AFD club and was soon to realise that desire for attaining great athletic success; albeit with others doing the running for him. Initially setting the training sessions for his group of training companions, it was in 1986 – at the age of thirty-seven – that Woods began coaching around 10 boys and men – still as an active athlete but by his own admission; “my training dropped away a little from then.”

In 1993, he started working with females – the very first female recruit in fact, is still training with him today – and Woods embarked on a school recruitment drive in the local area to bolster the groups’ numbers. Combining his job with British Telecom in the years between 1982 and 2004, Woods gradually progressed his youngsters and occasionally raced himself; running 31:42 for 10km on the track and road at aged forty.

On the men’s side, he achieved success working with current GB representatives; Chris Thompson (current best - 3:41.04/28:45) and Colin McCourt (1:46.73/3:38.51) in their developing years, and today coaches 19 year-old 3:42.29 runner; Simon Horsfield.

In particular though, it has remained that with young women, Woods has achieved the most success; producing a seemingly-never-ending production-line of utterly dominant female athletes. He places his reason for success as being down to providing his athletes enough attention and the factor of success breeding success; “the girls have always had role models at the club so each group of youngsters have always aimed to better the previous years’ girls group and pushed themselves,” he explains. “Females are good at responding and are very focused – they develop faster. Steph (Twell), for example, made the decision at aged14 that she could be really good so she became more switched on and got British records at aged 16/17. Emma (Pallant) and Charlie (Purdue) too have developed with measured progression. These three athletes are very good role models; it’s good I can coach them as mature seniors. The endurance aspect of my training is essential each winter so in the summer we can work towards the higher-intensity stuff for the track.”

Twell; the 19 year-old World junior 1500m Champion, three-time European cross-country Champion and Olympic 1500m semi-finalist; together with Pallant; the 20 year-old World junior 1500m bronze-medallist and Purdue; the 18 year-old European junior cross-country runner-up have been coached by Woods since the ages of ten, nine and eleven, respectively. Twell – who currently sits in eighth in the senior World 1500m rankings, with a superb time of 4:03.62 and studies Strength and Conditioning Science at St Mary’s, “showed her determination at a very young age,” Woods recalls, “she was placed on our ‘B’ team for the national cross-country relays and went onto record the fastest stage of the day.”

From falling into a coaching role to totally monopolising the British endurance scene and developing athletes into world-class runners, Woods explains how he learnt his trade; “My coaching was progressive over the years; an evolvement in my training. At first, I wasn’t sure how far to push the women so we did light sessions. I gained experience from every athlete I produced, and I pushed the boys harder as I was more experienced from my own experiences as an athlete and so I adapted this training, although it was a disadvantage as I’m a male.”

Admitting it was “difficult to get ball rolling” as it “took longer to get athletes into GB teams,” Woods steered his under15 boys to their first national title in 1994 then progress with his female athletes kicked off in the year 2000; “the start of the AFD express,” he recalls.

Woods now coaches twenty athletes at AFD, but can have as many as fifty turn up to train at any of the three club sessions he steers each week; in addition to the work he does at the UK Athletics Performance Centre with world-class development and podium-level athletes at the university.

Naming Peter Coe (double Olympic Champion, Seb Coe’s father) and 1980 800m Olympic Champion; Steve Ovett’s coach; Harry Wilson as coaches he admires Woods explains how a famous quote of Coe’s sticks in his mind; ‘Yes, I’m killing him all the way to the top’ – “A lot of people think the same of me; that I’m trying to kill my athletes with my training but I admired him; I liked the toughness of his training, his attention to detail and how he used science to aid their progression. I’d love to achieve what he did, I believe I can; it’s my ambition to coach and Olympic Champion.”

Woods may yet achieve his ultimate coaching dream, for he has single-mindedly masterminded a potential 2012 domination, courtesy of Twell, Pallant and Purdue, and they certainly seem on-course to achieve on the world’s biggest sporting stage in three years’ time.

Stating Twell and Pallant’s gold and bronze medal-winning display in the 2007 World junior 1500m Championship as a major coaching highlight, Woods describes it as “an amazing performance from both of them and it was great how we all prepared so professionally.” Other performances he is particularly proud of include Twell’s Olympic appearance, her three European junior cross-country victories, with Pallant and Purdue also inside the top five, and getting five of his athletes to the 2008 World cross was also “hugely important for me. I’m always proud of all my athletes who achieve their goals,” explained the England Athletics 2008 Coach of the Year award winner.

Already experiencing significant success in the middle of the summer season, Woods; who has considerable experience at coaching GB junior and under23 teams at international championships; pin-points the performance goals of his three middle-distance protégés; “For Steph, the aim is to get to the World 1500m final in Berlin this August and hopefully to improve on 4:03. Emma will aim to medal in the European under23 1500m final and is close to the Berlin ‘B’ 1500m time and Charlie is aiming for a European under20 5,000m medal.”

Married for thirty-seven years with two adult children, Woods evidently has many more men and women who look to him as a father-figure. “I just enjoy coaching at performance level and I want to see my job through to 2012 and beyond because I believe my girls can make an impact. I want to remain professionally involved in the sport, as the last five years I’ve spent working for UK Athletics at St Mary’s University has helped me develop as a coach massively; through the knowledge I’ve built over the years with other sport professionals, I’ve gained so much and this has benefitted my athletes – no doubt, my job has made me a better coach; St Mary’s is such a great environment to work in; I would never have dreamed I’d be doing my hobby as my job.”

And what a great job Woods is doing.