Monday, 25 October 2010

The SuperNova Runners


Landing an exciting career within sport is a much sought-after privilege for most athletes when they hang up their spikes so when athletics events company, Nova International offered four former international distance men the jobs of their dreams, they could only imagine how their inclusion would help transform the sport into what it is today, writes Nicola Bamford.

Through their world-famous Great Run - and more recently - Great Swim competition series, a quartet of experienced athletes have helped bring track, field and road running back into the public consciousness by revolutionising the sport through exhilarating spectacles and innovative concepts to thrust it into the modern era.

As well as making the sport ‘cool’ again, the Nova events have kick-started a running boom by inspiring the nation to get active via arguably, the most successful running and swimming series around the globe.

On the athletics side alone, the Nova bandwagon storms through no less than seven major UK cities each year to Edinburgh, Dublin, Manchester, Sunderland, Sheffield, Newcastle and Portsmouth, where the Great South Run will take place three days from now.

In particular, the Bupa Great North Run and CityGames attracts 54,000 runners to the world’s most popular half-marathon whilst the track and field spectacular along the Newcastle-Gateshead quayside provides a strong rival to the similar concept on Manchester’s Deansgate, four months earlier in May each year.

Such groundbreaking facets to the brand have certainly justified the ‘Great’ slogan and our four ‘SuperNova’ runners here explain what it’s like to look after the crème de la crème of elite sportsmen and women today and organise such events, following their own successful running careers...

In his role as Elite Project Manager on the running, CityGames and swim projects for the past three years, Andy Caine has befriended a lot of athletes.

The 33-year-old – whose father John co-founded the company with British distance great Brendan Foster – is not only responsible for coordinating the athletes’ hotels and travel but he is also in charge of the media, how the BBC broadcast the events and ensuring the elites are well looked after.

“It’s really nice to have a job in sport where I can be involved with the athletes - I can’t imagine a job where you can as much fun,” Caine reveals.

“It’s great to be part of creating something, I take pride in what I and the business does and it’s more emotive, what with my father’s involvement. Brendan’s really good - he gets crazy ideas that we know we can do, as he’s good at motivating and inspiring us.”

Following an athletic career in which he took National and Scottish cross-country silver and ran times of 23:37 and 49:30 for five and ten miles respectively, Caine took up a role with Nike before being offered the opportunity to give back to the sport.

“This job’s not the norm – we’ve got 55 employees in the company and suppliers all over the world. I’m always getting calls and emails so I’m on the job 24/7,” Wilmslow-based Caine explains.

“It (the event) is like a premier for a film with your big names, supporting cast and extras – it’s how we put on exciting events. We’ll pay for athletes that can get the column inches, TV coverage and get the public out to watch. Sport’s becoming more professional so budgets are finite and a business decision – we understand what it’s like from when we ran so we always make sure there’s British-only prize money, too.”

With great events comes great pressure to attract the stars so Caine and co will often travel the globe in search of their next signings:

“I’ve been away for nineteen weekends this year in places like Dubai, Boston, Nice, Hengelo, New York and Hong Kong,” Caine reveals. “You’ve got to be at the main events to establish yourself and meet the right people in order to get their athletes to promote your events. You have to deal with the coach and agent, not just the athlete – you have to persuade all three.

We have good partnerships with some managers but one agent in 2008 questioned why we were bothering with the first Great Manchester CityGames - he didn’t know that we secretly had signed Usain Bolt.”

Ending his racing career in summer 2008, Caine, who still runs a few times a week, continues:

“I’ll run with the athletes on location - it’s good as they think more of you and it establishes a better relationship. I’ve even swam on event day before to understand what the swimmers go through.”

Attracting a plethora of world-class swimmers, the Great Swim series started in 2008 and boasts five popular events per year, with over 23,000 competing in the one-mile series in 2010. Following the algae chaos in Lake Windermere which resulted in the Great North Swim being cancelled this summer, ‘plan B’ venues are set to arranged for next season.

Caine – who finished fourteenth in the 2004 Great North Run (with 65:30), an event he describes as the ‘jewel in the company’s crown’ – gets a great deal of satisfaction from looking after the elites today in areas untouched when he was competing:

“The athletes always come first and always get what they need,” he explains, “travel to take them everywhere, hotel accommodation, training opportunities, physiotherapy, massage, food and they are paid within 30-days of competing – we make a big effort whether it’s Gebrselassie or a regional-level athlete and pride ourselves on treating everyone the same.”

With athletes knocking down his door to get ‘the Nova treatment’ and with him currently working on a city-wide dance competition with Colin Jackson and a research project on child obesity with schools and his former lecturers in Loughborough, Caine is a very busy man but friend and training partner Pete Riley shares the work-load.

Working as Elite Athlete Coordinator, Riley is responsible for the running of the Great Run series and supports Caine in the CityGames events.

The 31-year-old former British marathon international worked at events in the US, in several running stores, for Hilly clothing and on a Nike marketing account before joining Nova in a job which he enjoys so much that his running has taken a back-seat:

“I love my job, I get a good sense of self-satisfaction when I get back to the hotel and take the tie off. The team behind the scenes in head office make the events what they are - we just put the fluffy bits on at the end,” Riley explains.

“Running’s a de-stressor from the work so I’ll always run no matter when or how busy we are and it’s nice (to run) with the athletes, too. I got sick in April just before the big event period for us so that set the ball rolling of me not racing last summer.”

As a member of Leigh Harriers, Stockport-based Riley has not raced since placing fifth in the national cross back in February but with a 63:18 half-marathon and 2:14.31 marathon to his name, there is doubt that his involvement in the other side of the sport may see him decide to compete again soon.

“All the events have unique quirks to them. Beforehand, I’ll liaise with everyone, making sure I know what’s going on with every aspect of the business. Brendan’s really interested with the front end of fields so the pressure’s on us to deliver a good field every time. Everything’s in the planning – I’ll have constant project meetings with the communications and operations people,” Riley reveals.

“So much happens on the day so we need athletes who know what the elites are going through to help out. I’ll be on call from when the first athlete gets up until the last goes to bed. Sometimes it’s chaotic like when Martin Lel pulled out the Great North Run this year - I spent five hours contacting embassies to urgently sort a new Visa for his replacement, Jaouad Gharib.”

Ninth in the 2006 Great North Run, Riley’s roster of other former or present athletes to call upon for help at events include recent Commonwealth 3,000m steeplechase fifth-placer Stuart Stokes, northern cross-country champion Steve Vernon and 2003 World 1500m semi-finalist Gareth Turnbull.

But without great organisation, the elites certainly would not be happy so step forward Mr John Mayock and Andy Graffin.

As Special Project Managers, the former middle-distance duo organise the two CityGames events, in addition to Mayock taking charge of the Great Yorkshire and Great Tesco School Runs.

Based at Nova’s Newcastle head office, Mayock – a two-time Commonwealth and five-time European indoor medallist – oversees the organisation of his four events and acts as a consultant to ‘improve the customer experience’ on the other dates on the Nova calendar.

In his post since 2006 following roles in sports development and with the Sports Council for Wales, 39-year-old Mayock expresses his pride of his duties:

“On event day, I’ll go through the same process that I did when I was an athlete, leaving no stone unturned and making sure every box is ticked. We should be totally focused, not worried on the day, the key is to react and solve issues in any situation by overseeing things,” the Barnsley-born British 2,000m and two-mile indoor record-holder reveals.

“The Tesco Great School Run has had over one million children involved – we’ll do six-week tours of schools with celebrities travelling around to inspire them for the race in June. The ambition is to create the World’s biggest school run programme - we had 5,000 in Manchester this summer – it’s a huge project with great support from the schools.”

Having retired from competition five years ago, Mayock still runs and cycles twice a week but he gets the biggest buzz from his CityGames work:

“Such a creative, innovative concept is a credit to all involved and a pleasure to work on,” he explains. “It’s free to the public and has opened athletics up to a new audience of fans. We’re looking at so many more areas to take it to the people – London and going international would be fantastic to expand on our success and excite more people with Great CityGames brand.

It’s an unusual concept, more of an entertaining show with the music and is choreographed to a minute-by-minute schedule which I put together - and with the BBC behind it, we could take it globally. It’s like getting to an Olympic final, it feels similar to being on the start-line, it’s the same fantastic feeling.”

Graffin meanwhile, joined the team 18-months ago from Reebok and more recently, a sports management company and is based in London where the 32-year-old shares his work across Nova’s portfolio of events:

“I’ll work closely with the operations team to deliver the event infrastructure and run the event on the day, but I’ll also work with marketing and communications to help craft our message for any specific event,” the 2003 British 5,000m champion reveals.

“This is important as ultimately we have to be consumer focused. I’ll also work with Andy and Pete and I’m also responsible for new business.”

Graffin hung up his spikes in 2004 after making the 1500m semi-finals of the 2000 Olympics and praises the team ethos which evidently makes Nova tick:

“The team attitude at Nova is one of our biggest assets – you couldn’t find a better group of people to work with,” he explains.

“The Great Run Series are among the best mass participation running events in the world. Our Great CityGames are innovative and have a chance to break new ground with this event - the feedback we get from the elite athletes is fantastic. And then our Great Swim series are something altogether different – again these are a real step forward in the world of swimming and mass participation events.”

Having placed third and seventh, respectively in the 2004 Bupa Great Dublin and Manchester runs, Graffin indeed – just like his trio of running colleagues - knows what excites an elite athlete.

“Some have referred to the CityGames as athletics’ version of Twenty20 cricket, highlighting the fact that it is fast-paced and exciting, yet retains the credibility of the traditional sport.”

For these four athletics-mad men, tradition sums up their involvement to a tee– as the well-known saying goes, ‘once a runner, always a runner’ and also in their case, creating a runner’s dream, too.

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