Monday, June 3, 2013

Unsung heroes: Charlie Spedding

You might be forgiven for not knowing who Charlie Spedding is if you are not English or, for that matter British. By the same token, you might be forgiven for not knowing who holds the English record for the Marathon, unbroken for the last 28 years. You can probably guess that I am talking about the same person.

What is interesting about Charlie Spedding, as he recounts in his autobiography "From Last to First", is that his talent almost went by undiscovered. He was the typical bespectacled boy who came last in every race until one day he decided to try. From there on in it is a pretty remarkable story of how he found himself running on the shoulder of John Treacy in the last few meters of the 1984 Olympic Marathon in Los Angeles, where he won a bronze medal. This was to be first medal in the Marathon for England in 20 years and, so far, is the last one.

Although he concedes that natural talent is an important part of the equation, his message is basically that, if you put your mind to it, you can (and should) fulfill your potential. The book is well written and an enjoyable read but one of the chapters comes across as a bit of a rant. If you look at the British all-time rankings in the Marathon today, you can see his point: there has been a dearth of progress since his day and that is supposedly with all the advantages of modern training (and funding) that top athlete's have at their disposal. I think that this view is a little one dimensional because this ignores the improvements that British athletes have made in other disciplines such as cycling and rowing coupled with (and probably related to) the relatively recent emergence of African athletes as the dominating force in distance running.

His other rant is about the recent fad of "non-competitive sports days". I have to say I agree with him on this one. Real life is one big competition and so to try to hide this from kids seems to me a great cruelty. Better that they get their first taste of disappointment by coming 4th in the egg and spoon race aged 8½ than by being fired from their first job. It reminds me a bit of what a head teacher at my son's school told me at a parent's meeting: "We don't have any bullying at this school", to which I said that even if I could believe it were true, I wouldn't want my kids to go to a bully-free school because again, in real life, bullies are everywhere.

However, I felt that the rant went a little too far when he started to criticise "fun runners" and people who ran road races in "fancy dress" saying that it was shameful for their kids to see their parents doing something badly. I tend to subscribe to the idea of doing something as well as you can if you are going to do it, but even this is open to interpretation. Am I running my races as well as I possibly can? It is certainly true that, more than from the result itself, my satisfaction is derived from knowing that I have pushed myself to the limit. On the other hand, I can always ask myself the question - had I trained harder, longer or better, could I have done any better? In any case, you cannot do absolutely everything in life to the best of your abilities by definition - you could always do one thing better by sacrificing another. So it is a tradeoff and those "fun runners" have their priorities elsewhere. At least they are doing some exercise which is definitely more healthy than doing none at all and arguably more healthy than the training regime Spedding subjected himself to (his accounts of the operations he had done to his Achilles tendons are gruesome). I would go on futher to say that those fun-runners might just make running seem more accessable to the bespectacled little boys who are currently coming in last at their school, than the elite runners who must seem completely out of their reach.

It does still beg the question why the strength in depth of talent at road races is not what it used to be. These days it seems like a sub 30 minute 10K time will give you a pretty good shot at a podium place; in many of the races Spedding competed in, you wouldn't even have finished in the top 10.

I would be interested to know what Spedding thinks of the whole mimimalist running shoe movement. As someone whose running career started before the Nike revolution and who even worked for Nike as a representative, I expect he would find it baffling. I think the jury is still out as to whether standard running shoes are better or worse for Achilles injures amongst elite runners who presumably have good running technique and are covering hundreds of kilometers a week. I can only speak from my experiment of one: my Achilles tendons have never been stronger than since I made the switch.

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