ENGLISH TEAM MANAGEMENT LOOKING TO DUPLICATE EFFORT FROM KESWICK
The inaugural Commonwealth Mountain and Ultradistance Running Championships were quite the display of athletic talents. Athletes from around the commonwealth nations assembled in a picturesque town in northern England to compete with their fellow runners. The four-day championship brought some outstanding times, amazing performances and exceptional team dynamics.
During the mountain running presentations of the closing ceremonies, there was a theme that was distinctive. The English mountain runners had performed splendidly during the course of the championships. Although, individually they grabbed one gold medal but they swept the team golds, in both men and women divisions, in the Up-Only and Up- and Down- Mountain events.
The accomplishment in Keswick was very impressive. Recently, I had the opportunity to go retrace the championships and discuss mountain running with English Team Managers, Jackie Newton and Bashir Hussain. I further wanted to explore on the English team’s views about the upcoming championship in North Wales.
Newton and Hussain are no strangers in the region of competitive running. They have both been elite athletes and are well aware of what it takes to run at an international stage. I asked them on how they were finding life on the other side of the finish line. Newton, who finished competing competitively in 2002, alluded, “Like all good runners I have a huge amount of drive and energy and now that it’s not going into making myself fitter and faster I appreciate being able to dedicate it to supporting younger runners.” She added, “I get a great sense of satisfaction from seeing them achieve great results.”
Hussain supported Newton with his views. He shared, “It is usually a case of managing recovery and knowing which personality trait to focus on at the right time; a lot of nervous energy can easily be wasted and sometimes is.” Putting oneself in the athlete’s shoes does really make the difference for a coach. Hussain further restates, “Being on the other side you are juggling the emotions of athletes on the verge of their greatest performance ever while at the same time having to deal with athletes getting injured from over training too close to the event and running below par.”
English Team Managers Bashir Hussain and Jackie Newton
Having witnessed the atmosphere of mountain or “fell” running at first hand in Cumbria, I was electrified by the following of the sport in the region. I asked Newton on the state of mountain running in England and she explained, “Standards in the world are improving rapidly. We are in an exciting place at the moment as we have several potential world-class performers but they will only get there if they and their support team ‘keep their eye on the ball’.”
I was intrigued by the performance of the English mountain runners at the inaugural championships. I asked Hussain on why they were strong contenders in the mountain events. He shed some light on the subject, “England has a massive population and infrastructure so we clearly have a lot of runners to choose from. We lack some of the long hills for uphill training, but many of the specific training modalities can be modified to hit the mark.” Newton expanded further, “We have three key influences:
An amazing fell running heritage, Access to good training ground for mountain running and A fabulous club structure with top class coaches who encourage mountain runners to compete on cross-country, road and track as well as on the mountains.”
Newton, in her role with team management, has witnessed the progression of the athletes on a first-hand basis. She elucidated on the development, “We are seeing our athletes progressing nicely but it is important to realise that the curve rarely makes smooth, upward progress. It is important that athletes, coaches and team mangers understand long-term development and that it takes around 10 years to reach full potential.”
It is important to realize that persistence does pay off in the long run. Newton substantiates her statement with some examples of athletes, “Steve Vernon and James Walsh are making good, steady progress. They have both gone from outside the top 50 in the world pre-2007 to top 20 in 2008.” The same trend continues in the women’s field, “Victoria Wilkinson progressed from 20th to 13th between 2004 to 2008. Sarah Tunstall went from 17th to 4th in the World up and down race from 2006 to 2008.”
The responsibilities of athletes in today’s world extend past the track and gym workouts. These athletes are in school, have busy work lives and family obligations. Hussain commented on how he and his athletes prioritize their commitments, “Where school and university exams are concerned these come first and we, as team managers, encourage the athletes to take some down time from training to allow optimal performance in exams- after all they are just like another competition.” He further stated adding a practical phase to his philosophy, “Except winning comes in grades not medals!”
Hussain and Newton have not taken the top position in the management teams of the national mountain team by shear chance. Currently both are working with several veterans and rising stars of the sport. They have worked hard and continue to do so promoting the sport. Hussain has been coaching athletes for the better part of the last decade. I asked him on what philosophy he subscribes to in his coaching and he shared, “Coaching programs are very much individually tailored. Having said this, my philosophy is to make the most of what you do not have. So cross training and adapting what you have has to be done.”
Newton works with Puma as a performance running consultant, is the online editor of runbritain and a regional trainer for UKA Coach Education. These positions assist Newton in her role as team manager of the national team spotting new talents and she agrees, “Everyday I am talking to runners, coaches and race organisers and so I hear a lot of stuff ‘hot off the press’!” She adds, “As team manager for England I organise training camps for our up and coming athletes.”
Not taking the course of our discussion to the upcoming 2nd Commonwealth Mountain and Ultradistance Running championships in North Wales, I asked Hussain on the goals of the English national team. He did not shy away from his wish–list and replied, “We should make the podium in every event. We have the ability to win every event with the best athletes fully prepared.” He added, “Now we just need to keep such people motivated to perform and STAY injury free.”
I asked Newton on what kind of preparation the team will be doing for the championships. She explained, “We often join together with the Welsh team and use Bangor University for these camps. During these camps we make the most of the mountains in Snowdonia as well as the facilities at Bangor University so we’re pleased that the next Commonwealth’s are on familiar territory!”
The key objective of the Commonwealth Championships is to include a mountain and ultra event in the Commonwealth Games. Newton shared her views on the future entrance of the mountain event into the Games, “The Commonwealth Games and Mountain Running are an excellent fit.” She further added, “I don’t know when it will happen but I’m sure that Mountain Running will become a part of the Commonwealth Games in the future, after all the IAAF have given us a World Championship.” A hope all of us share and which can become a reality in the very near future.
Hussain touched on one aspect that he is looking forward to, in addition to seeing some good mountain running races, and that is the ultra runs in North Wales. He shared his views from witnessing the events together in Keswick, “Absolutely loved it as all the runners’ did. I do think there was much mutual respect and I expect many will try ultra running at some point of the party in their lives.” This feeling has been resonated by athletes and officials alike since the championships.
As we progress through the next few months towards the 2nd edition of the Commonwealth championships, all signs point to the fact that Hussain and Newton will work with their athletes to ensure that they mimic the effort from Keswick. However, athletes around the commonwealth countries know what to expect from the first championships and will challenge the English team standings as they ascend and descend down Snowdon Mountain. Needless to say it will be nothing short of exciting to see all the commonwealth athletes compete in the mountains of North Wales during the championships.
Media and Communication Officer
Commonwealth Association of Mountain and Ultradistance Running