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In 1984 I finished second in a race won by Ireland’s John Treacy. I was so far back that the Times’ headline was “Treacy Wins By A Mile.”

In 1984, Charlie Spedding finished a race one place behind Treacy. He was quite a bit closer. Two seconds. The race was the Olympic Marathon in 1984, a race won by Carlos Lopes of Portugal. Both Lopes and Treacy had the pedigree, each having won the World Cross-Country Championships twice. Spedding’s finish was a surprise.

He has written an autobiography, and however unknown he was to me before, his Los Angeles finish remains stunning. But the book, “From Last To First,” goes well beyond I Trained/I Raced. It has a core lesson from which all serious runners can learn.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Because, you see, Spedding is perhaps the greatest Jekyll/Hyde runner of recent years. He was a self-described mediocrity in most of his races (well, among the elite), particularly on the track where he always lacked closing speed. His history of racing on the track, on the roads, and in cross-country is good but not great. And he’d be the first to admit it. (In his first race, in school in Durham, outside of Newcastle, he was given a head-start because he was short and still ended up last. Hence the title.)

Spedding Houston

Houston 1984. Spedding on the Right

Bedeviled by injury, especially in his left Achilles tendon (early on he came within seconds of dying when he had an allergic reaction to an anesthetic while being prepped for surgery on that tendon), how did he win a bronze medal in Los Angeles? How did he get, and still hold, the English best in the Marathon? How, after barely making the British team after injury and dismal result after dismal result did he end up sixth, and the first Brit, in the Seoul Marathon?

The core of the book, and what makes it more than I Trained/I Raced, is Spedding’s ability to peak. The flip-side to this was his relative inability to be competitive in other races. He spent a chunk of time in the U.S., chiefly in the Boston area, and appeared at some of the top races of the time, Peachtree, Gasparrilla, Falmouth, always running well but not great.

Yet his career included the following:

  • Third in the TAC 10,000 in 1981, behind Salazar and Duncan McDonald
  • England’s Amateur Athletics Association (AAA) 10,000 Champion in 1983
  • 1st, Houston Marathon, 1984, debut in 2:11:54 (his first, won by a hair)
  • 1st, London Marathon, 1984 in 2:09:57 (to make the Olympic team he had to be the first Brit, which he obviously was)
  • 3rd, LA Olympic Marathon, 1984, 2:09:58
  • 2nd, London Marathon, 1985, 2:08:33 (setting the still-standing English best, to Steve Jones)
  • 6th, Seoul Olympic Marathon, 1988, 2:12:19

What This Book Is Really About

The gold is Chapter 6, “The Beer Drinker’s Guide to Sports Psychology.” He describes sitting in a pub in Newcastle after missing a train to his home in Durham with a pint, a notebook, and a pencil.

      The obvious question popped into my head. What precisely did I mean by successful? I knew that I wanted to be successful, but I was shocked to realise that I had never really defined it. I thought about times, victories, medals and championships, but struggled to identify a performance that I could call a success because I didn’t know what I was capable of achieving. Everything I thought of was an unknown; it might be too ambitious, it might not. I didn’t want to define success as something I may not be able to do. I decided that success was becoming the best I could be, whatever that was. I wanted to get better and better until I couldn’t improve any more.

I wrote on my pad, “Success is measured by how much I fulfill the talent I was born with.”

This sounds a bit mumbo-jumboish. But while sitting in that pub, he comes up with three questions he will repeat to himself again and again:

  • What do I want?
  • Why do I want it?
  • How much do I want it?

It is this process that, he says, allowed him to mentally peak for certain events. He needed to run a solid first marathon, and he did that in Houston. He needed to be the top Brit in London 1984, and he won the thing. He needed to race as well as he could possibly race, and he did that in Los Angeles and in Seoul. His explanations for his poorer performances don’t sound like sour grapes. They reinforce his view of himself as an athlete, making clear to him that for him to excel he must have decided that it is a race in which it is worth excelling. As he later puts it, “The training has to be done, but I think you have to make a good race happen, and to do that you have to prepare your mind.”

Again, it sounds new-agey, but it proves itself with his performance.

There is another psychological trick he had. “Perfect.” He recoils at the (common) use of “hard” to describe races and workouts. He says he knew Deke was no threat in Seoul because early on when Deke asked what the 3 mile split was. “I told him we were doing about 2:09 pace, to which he replied, ‘In this heat — we are all going to die!'” That was not the mind-set early in a marathon.

Training should be well-conceived and properly-executed. Each run has a purpose. No more, no less. Workouts are to be done at the appropriate pace, no faster. This, of course, is a hallmark of much of the training literature, “Daniels’ Running Formula” comes immediately to mind, but if you characterize runs not as “hard” or “easy” but as “perfect” in the context of the overall training plan the pain of those 1200 intervals just might not be as difficult as it might otherwise be.

As to specific training, he includes as an appendix all of his training between the London and Olympic Marathons in 1984. More broadly, he advocates lots of race-pace workouts, especially for the marathon and especially mixing things up, e.g., five minutes on/five minutes off. And he’s keen on doing 15 milers at a “brisk pace.”

Finishing Up

Seoul was the last marathon Spedding would finish. Dave Bedford, newly installed as the race director of London, offered him a princely sum as an appearance fee for the 1989 race, which Spedding agreed to take, but injury forced him to withdraw a week ahead of time. Instead of going part-way and DNFing, he was straight with Bedford, and he ended up getting a quarter of the fee. He got a large appearance fee for the Beijing Marathon later that year, but events in Tiananmen Square led him to back out (and surrender the fee). He withdrew from London 1990, and started the Fukuoka Marathon in December, but was forced to drop out at 12 with a pulled calf muscle. Thirty-eight at the time, he retired. Somewhat wistfully, he notes that he made a bargain in Seoul — when he was “running on empty” and thinking of nothing except moving one yard at a time — that it would be his last marathon if he could only hold on to sixth. And he did. And it was.

He has some criticism for the current state of Britain’s distance running (about which he’s gotten some publicity in the UK), which can have some resonance in the US. His additional insight: when he was a kid growing up in northern England, road races were competitive, “serious sport for competitive runners.” Now they’ve been “high-jacked by charities and over-weight joggers.” Thus running has turned from something teens would consider of interest “to something they would dread. What teenager would long to do the same activity that their mother and father do badly?”

Spedding makes no attempt to delve into his personal life except as is absolutely necessary. That he got married comes literally out of the blue with the following from page 153, “Life goes on and a week later I was getting married.” She remains unnamed and is not mentioned again until she and Spedding share a house near Boston in preparation for Seoul.

I’ve long thought Kenny Moore’s “The Long Blue Line: A Rerun,” first published in Sports Illustrated and Chapter 1 of his “Best Efforts,” in which he intertwines the events of the 1972 Munich Olympics with his own experience in the Marathon of those Games — he finished fourth — was the epitome of an elite race report. But Chapter 1 of “from last to first,” “Los Angeles,” compares quite favorably to it, as does the chapter on Seoul.

Finally, in my review of “Born to Run,” I noted that I had a core problem with the implied superiority of the characters (although I was chided by someone who said I had completely missed the point and that the theme of that book was that ordinary people could do extraordinary things, which I in turn think missed the point). For those who feel, as I do and as Spedding writes, that “Success is measured by how much I fulfill the talent I was born with,” and who labor long and hard to develop that talent, this book reveals Spedding not as someone superior but as someone who was fast and smart and focused. And with whom you’d like to go for a run.

An interview with Brad Hudson (author, with the ubiquitous Matt Fitzgerald, of “Run Faster“) was promoted on LetsRun, from a site, RML (roads, mills, laps), that I’d never heard of but bears investigating.

It’s a good read, and emphasizes the importance/need for high mileage at the elite level, something perhaps lacking in in the 90s.

    I think a lot of people are focused on speed and plyometrics. But the quickest way for U.S. athletes to get good is that they have to run a lot. They have to run aerobically at high intensity and have quite a lot of accumulated mileage. That is the only way we are going to catch up to the Africans, because they are so far ahead of us. So it’s got to be large volume, but not just that; it has to be long, hard stuff that raises threshold. Look, it’s no secret that in the fall Teg runs 140-mile weeks. So you can say that I am a huge proponent of developing that aerobic system. We are behind everyone in the world. Most American runners, a lot of the naturally fast guys don’t realize how aerobically fit they have to be. Look at Kenenisa Bekele, he runs 11.6 seconds for his last 100m in the final, but you have to understand he runs 150 miles a week as well. You have to have everything. For 18 months, Dathan did no speed work — zero — other than some drills and strides. He couldn’t do it because of a calf problem. I thought he was in 27:25 shape before the marathon — maybe even better. And that’s with zero speed. I think speed is so overrated. Yeah you need it at the end, yeah you got to sharpen up. I watch all these people periodize and they are so far behind on their aerobics that it never works., because they don’t have a base to bring it in. You don’t periodize as much, because we are behind aerobically. A younger athlete is so much better off working on higher threshold in order to get that good base underneath them.

Few of us are in the realm in which 120, 130, 140 mile weeks are possible, and one wonders about the marginal benefit of trying to get there. For us, then, the issue is what the over/under figure is, where can we get the maximum benefit for the least risk. And is there a point below which one dare not go if one plans to race a marathon? As I’ve noted, I think there is.

I have one caveat, however. I’ve been reading “From First to Last” by Charlie Spedding. One of his insights is runners’ over-reliance on the word “hard.” He prefers the word “perfect” to describe training. I will get into this when I discuss the book, but it bears noting that we should try to get away from describing work-outs as hard or easy but as part of an overall plan and psychologically at least this may help in getting through the hard ones.


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