Monday, 10 January 2011

Working Through the Miles


Five dedicated athletes explain to NICOLA BAMFORD how they juggle their run-work balance.

Whilst the majority of the nation is gripped in arctic chaos, causing many to neglect their jobs in favour of home comforts, thousands of determined runners refuse to slack on their daily grind and here, five of such provide an insight into how they cope with the demands of working for a living as well as towards international success...

Stuart Stokes: 3,000m steeplechaser, full-time PE teacher and father of one –

For 34-year-old Stokes, life is hectic and planned out to the minute but he would not have it any other way.

Combining training twice a day with the pressures of teaching secondary school children then coming home to his two-year-old son, Stokes is the epitome of dedication like all of our profiled athletes – a trait which reaped the rewards this season, as he made his third Commonwealth appearance, placing an admirable fifth for England in Delhi in his specialist event, the 3,000m steeplechase.

A self-confessed obsessive-compulsive athlete, the Sale Harrier is used to leaping barriers both on and off the track, each with great success, too.

After taking the English steeplechase crown this summer, Stokes began working at Holy Cross High School in Chorley as a PE teacher and a month later, his students were gathered for a special assembly to watch their role model battle it out in India.

“I’m very fortunate that school support my running and it wasn’t a problem having time off to go out to Delhi,” Stokes explained.

“It is incredibly hard - working, training and entertaining my son when I arrive home each day but I’m very, very focused and I don’t waste a single minute of any day.”

Defying the belief by some that athletes must train full-time in order to taste international success, Stokes rises at 4:30am each morning to run between thirteen and twenty miles before working a nine-hour day ahead of a gym session.

“My wife, son and I have dinner together, then its bath and bed for about 8:30pm. How dull does that sound?!” Stokes, whose wife also teaches at the same school, revealed.

“As a family, we have a lot of fun and support each other, which are massively important.”

The self-coached runner uses the ‘no stone unturned’ approach when it comes to his beloved sport and is content at having created a secure future for his young family away from the life of constant funding and sponsorship-chasing he lived as an full-time athlete.

“I think it’s great if you are fortunate enough to be a full-time athlete but I don’t think nearly enough British athletes understand how lucky they are and don’t take their opportunities by training hard enough when they are full time,” Stokes explained frankly.

Indeed, no one can accuse Stokes, who lies twelfth on the British all-time lists with 8:23.66, as lazy being with neither his training nor his lifestyle.

“I sleep well, have a clean diet, take the correct supplements and have an equally supportive wife and family,” he revealed.

“Ultimately, it comes down to how bad you want something. You only have to read about Lance Armstrong to know how much you can actually fit into a day as long as you are smart about things.

I get the most out of every day, I keep learning about myself and my event. I stay as healthy as possible and hopefully this will put me in a position to challenge for a 2012 (London Olympic) place.”

Freya Murray: Distance runner and part-time Graduate Structural Engineer –

Having broken through onto the international scene in the past couple of seasons, 27-year-old Murray has experienced glimpses of top sporting success whilst working 25-hour weeks as a Graduate Structural Engineer in Newcastle.

The Chester-le-Street runner – who is currently returning from injury, forcing her to miss this weekend’s European cross-country championships in Portugal, the event she placed ninth in last year - began her role at Cundall, a multi-discipline engineering consultancy in 2006 and does most of her training to and from her work-place:

“This includes sessions as well as runs of varying intensity and my weekly mileage probably averages out around 80-90 per week,” Murray explains.

The Edinburgh-born athlete, who registered fine lifetime bests for 5,000m (15:26.5), 10,000m (32:23.44) and 10-miles (52:27) this year – the latter which positions her as sixth on the British all-time lists – also cycles to Gateshead most mornings before running, doing a strength and conditioning session then cycling again to begin her working day.

“I usually get up pretty early and do my harder training session in the morning before work, for example on a Tuesday I start my session at 7am (which took a bit of getting used to), “ Murray revealed.

“Then I tend to work from about 10.30am to 4pm but this is flexible depending on my training and workload. In basic terms, I help design the structural support for buildings - this involves a lot of calculations, computer modelling, sketching, attending meetings and site visits.”

Her employers have indeed showed a flexible approach towards the UK 5,000m champion’s sporting ambitions as Murray has enjoyed three bouts of training with her coach Steve Jones in Boulder, Colarado in the past two years as well as attending Delhi to place fifth and seventh in the 10,000m and 5,000m respectively.

“Cundall have been very supportive about giving me time off and I've also been able to take additional leave for important races,” Murray explained.

“This season has been one of ups and downs for me, but generally I'm happy with the progress I'm making. I feel like I've developed a lot over the last 18-months and I'm hoping to continue that improvement, as I do not feel I did myself justice in India.”

Funded by Scottish Athletics, SportScotland and the Scottish Women’s Road Running and Cross-Country Commission, Murray additionally receives sponsorship from Adidas, such is her athletic potential.

Having such extensive support ensures the 2012 hopeful can remain in part-time employment and focus on improving on her 37th position from the last World cross-country championships – the forthcoming event in March which is her main goal of the winter.

“As long as I want to continue to develop in my running, I will find it difficult to progress my career as quickly as other graduates but there's plenty time to be an engineer,” Murray revealed.

“I don't want to get to fifty and then wish I had put more into my running when I had the opportunity.

There are good days and bad days, I think it’s good to have different things to focus on outside of running, but it can be difficult to find time to do everything - you just have to be very organised, determined and not mind getting up early!”

Andi Jones: Distance runner, Head of Design and Technology and father of one –

Another whose days are filled from start to finish is marathon-specialist Jones, who heads the Design and Technology faculty at Falinge Park High School in Rochdale after ten years in teaching.

The 32-year-old Salford Harrier - who ran 2:15.20 to finish first Brit in the 2009 London marathon - like Stokes, works nine-hour days around double-day training and going home to a young family.

“I really do love my job and enjoy every minute of it. Even when things are tough, work is and things don’t go to plan, I really enjoy it,” Jones explained.

“The kids are excellent most of the time and a great pleasure to work with. Some days I can teach for five hours, other days two but when I’m not teaching, I am doing planning, preparing resources for the students or doing other work linked to being head of faculty.”

With aspirations to progress into a head-teacher role one day, Jones is well-aware of the commitment he must give to life outside his training. Fortunately, his partner Donna is an 800m runner with Sale Harriers so she understands his dedication to putting in the miles away from work.

“I do believe that if you balance your life out and consider everything you do, you can make it to a high level while having a full time job,” Jones revealed.

“ I often get the impression that some people at the top in the running world and I mean team officials, national coaches etc do not take me seriously, as I have a full-time job and therefore do not have the option of going to the altitude training camps they have set up.”

Whilst Jones – tenth and second Brit in this year’s London marathon – does not have the luxury to head off to Kenya or the Pyrenees, he was fortunate enough to be granted time off work to attend the European championships in Barcelona this summer and the Commonwealth Games more recently.

“My aim this year was to make both marathon teams and I achieved this but unfortunately, the races at both these championships didn’t go as planned and I suffered in the heat with hydration problems in Spain and with an injury in India,” Jones explained.

“This put a real downer on the year but I am aiming to be fit and raring to make amends for these poor races at the Edinburgh XC and the Northern XC in January. My coach (Bob Merrell) and I are yet to discuss whether to aim for a spring or autumn marathon.”

Training each weekday morning at 5am on the edge of the Pennine Moors, Jones typically runs around 110-miles per week and luckily escaped a surprise Ofsted inspection whilst preparing for Delhi out in Doha.

“My Headteacher, Mr. Robin Lonsdale is very supportive of my running. The whole school is supportive from the governors to the colleagues I work with everyday,” Jones revealed.

“Most of the students often stop and ask me about my running. I like to try and use my participation in sport to help encourage them to try sport whether it is in running and athletics or any sport. I try to instil in them the benefits of living a healthy active lifestyle.”

Sponsored by Asics and Assist Management, Jones intends to make more championship squads before his work becomes his sole focus so he can “one day look back and say to myself that I gave the best I could.

I can’t tell my students to give their best to everything they do if I don’t do the

Rebecca Robinson: Distance runner, Registrar in Sports & Exercise Medicine and MA student –

Having made her Team GB marathon debut this summer in Barcelona, where she finished a respectable 24th, Kendal AC’s Robinson successfully juggles full-time work as a medical registrar with part-time Master’s education and marathon training.

The 28-year-old is based in Sheffield and regularly travels to Nottingham and Leeds for her studies and mostly trains alone in her quest for athletic perfection.

Evidently a strong academic, Robinson used to work 80-hour weeks as a junior doctor but has since found an easier work-life balance in order to progress in her running endeavours:

“My hours have been a little more 'normal' (off late) but I'm doing a Masters in sports medicine, so it's busy as usual,” Robinson explained.

Her average day would include a morning run before an 8-hour day then a second bout of training, but some days will alternate with university seminars and meetings across the north-west, with a sports clinic, meeting or conference thrown in too for good measure.

“I've less on-call commitments during the weekends and evenings so a long run or a race is easier to fit in,” Robinson revealed.

“My employers are very supportive; it helps they're involved with athletes, too; because mostly as a junior doctor the pressure of work came first, as I learnt trying to prepare for Barcelona.

My role is actually a lot to do with trying to improve the health of people with chronic illness like heart disease, through exercise.

And of course, many can't aspire to run or become athletes, so it's challenging but inspiring. I will become involved with athletics clinics over the next year, too.”

Having registered personal bests of 54:52 (10-miles) and 2:37.14 when placing fourth Brit in the London marathon back in the spring on her debut, Robinson – who was recently fourth Briton in the Great North Run – enjoyed her 2010 campaign amidst adversity:

“Competing in a European championship was a dream-come-true and so inspiring,” Robinson explained.

“In terms of training, it's been tougher than I thought getting back from two marathons, but races have been going better through the autumn and I'm enjoying it.

It's been bittersweet though, as two great friends who believed in me much more than I did - coach Norman Matthews and my aunt, Julie, passed away this autumn.

Physically it's been a tough year, as the marathon will always find your weakest links, but nothing compared to how much I've enjoyed the experiences and want to keep building on them now.”

Questioned on whether she felt it necessary to become a full-time athlete in order to ‘make it to the top’, Robinson revealed:

“I think it's different for each athlete. On one hand, modern athletics is a serious career-demanding application. I think it just depends on trying to full-fill your potential and balancing everything else in life.

I definitely want to work in medicine long term, but would rather see how far I can go with athletics while I can, as it is time-limited - although with the marathon, hopefully I've some years to develop yet!”

Luke Gunn: 3,000m steeplechaser, Sports Scholarships Manager at the University of Birmingham and West Midlands Regional Hub Manager for TASS –

Birmingham-based Gunn spent six years studying at Florida State University and at the same institution he works at now as Sports Scholarships Manager and TASS
Regional Hub Manager and the 25-year-old enjoys balancing his full-time joint role with around 90-miles per week of training.

The Derby AC 3,000m steeplechaser usually runs at 7am each morning before sessions
of yoga or circuits in between his working day and evening sessions.

“I am still learning to balance the work-load to its maximal efficiency, but I would say on the whole I have found a sustainable balance of the training-work load,” Gunn revealed.

“There are of course times when one of the two must take priority over the other, but as long as these are planned for well in advance - neither need suffer.”

Guided by Bud Baldaro at the university, Gunn enjoyed a mainly positive 2010 campaign, with a 3:42.1 1500m lifetime best, fourth and eighth-place finishes in two IAAF Diamond League appearances and claimed the UK steeplechase title.

However, the 8:28.48 ‘chaser was left disappointed when failing to make the squad for Barcelona and placing only seventh in Delhi:

“My season was on the whole satisfactory but in raw honesty, I was hoping for more and feel that with a little more fortune in my early races - I could have seriously revised my best for the chase and gained selection for the European’s,” Gunn explained.

“I was fortunate enough to attend my second Commonwealth Games, which I ran aggressively taking on the Kenyans, to my detriment in the end but most importantly, it was the first time I was unafraid to run with them - and I will take that sentiment with me through this winter and beyond to raise my game once more.”

Instead of training full-time in the sun with a team of sponsors behind him like most championship performers, Gunn, like the four aforementioned runners, will be working hard this winter around a demanding career away from the sport.

“I do enjoy the career I have, where I feel I can pass on my experiences to very talented individuals with every chance of turning into senior internationals, whilst having a near ideal set-up to train full time,” Gunn revealed.

“We monitor and mentor each of the 40 athletes on as many as fifteen contact hours a week and I am also heavily involved in recruitment, admissions, coaching, promotions and raising sponsorship at the university.

The hours are very flexible, which I use to the full advantage of my training and my employers have been more than accommodating with training, international competition and even bouts of altitude training. I do still work some long unsociable hours, but only when I deem it necessary and plan my training accordingly.”

With the focus on laying down a strong endurance base for the summer track season,
Gunn still aims to compete in the National and Inter-County cross-country events this winter after placing an encouraging tenth and eighth, respectively earlier this year.

He too, strongly believes that athletes need not shy from employment in order to reach a world-class standard:

“I think it is certainly easier to achieve success without other distractions or time commitments, but I cannot see why it would make it impossible,” Gunn explained.

“I want to work towards becoming the best European at my event and essentially, I want to walk away from the sport knowing I got everything I could out of my body.

I am not in a position to gain funding or sponsorship, which would enable me to train full time, so I sought out a system that made me self sufficient whilst giving me enough freedom to train.”

Further proof that if an athlete wants success badly enough, they can still enjoy a rewarding career to pay the bills.

No comments: