Thursday, 23 July 2009

1:39 man

It is almost thirty years since the Englishman, Sebastian Coe, first ran under 1:42 for the 800 metres; only two other men, the Kenyan born Dane, Wilson Kipketer (1997) and the Brazilian, Joaquim Cruz (1984), have equalled the feat.

Coe’s world record of 1:41.73 set in 1981 lasted sixteen years before Kipketer first equalled and then eclipsed it in 1997. His time of 1:41.11, set at an IAAF Grand Prix meeting in Köln still stands twelve years on. The question is why has such fast running been at a premium in all that time?

Coe, Kipketer and Cruz came to their destinies from different backgrounds. Coe was born in London but reared and nurtured to greatness, by his father-coach Peter, in the northern steel city of Sheffield. His Olympic achievements are legendary. Kipketer, who was just ten when Coe set his second world record, was born in the Nandi Hills on the edge of the Great Rift Valley, birthplace of many great Kenyan runners. In 1990, to better his athletics career, he moved to Copenhagen where he met his first personal coach, the Pole Slanomir Novak. Cruz, son of a steel worker, was born near Brasilia, showed promise as a youngster, went to the legendary University of Oregon and won Olympic gold in 1984. That year he ran 1:41.77.

Physiological ultimates in athletic performance have been grist to the mill of much statistical discussion since the dawn of modern athletics. When, in 1886, Walter George ran 2:01.8 for the first half of his 4:12.8 mile there was speculation about the possibility of a 4 minute mile but it was often dismissed as being physically impossible. It took a while but the feat finally arrived 68 years later.

A New Zealand statistician, Hugh Morton, once forecast that 1:42 for 800m would be broken in 1984 and that sub-1:40 would be achieved in 2020. He projected an ultimate performance of 1:33.0!

But can we be so certain that sub-1:40 will ever be achieved? Not only have there been very long gaps between recent world records but the pace of 800 metre running appears to be slowing. Three runners eclipsed 1:43 in the 80’s and eight in the 90’s. Another eight have achieved that feat since 2000 but only two since 2003.
How will a sub-1:40 world record be run? What clues do we have as to the make-up of the man who will achieve it? Is our persistence in considering the 800 metres a purely middle-distance event, inexorably tied to the 1500 metres, thwarting progress?
If it was to be run at even pace it would require two laps of 49.99. But we know of course that such even pace is probably not an option. The vast majority of world records have been set with a faster first lap; only two, by the Americans Jim Ryun in 1966 (880y) and Dave Wottle in 1972 were achieved with a negative split.

Why is this? From Professor A V Hill onwards physiologists have stressed that the fastest times will be set by running at even pace and may well explain why most records have been set in paced record attempts (but not why the prospective record breaker always asks for a faster opening lap). However, in competitive races, as the great American authority Kenneth Doherty pointed out, runners are never obliging enough to allow an even-pace exponent a clear run to the finish! Thus, post-war, only two men’s 800 records have been set in Olympic competition.

Five of the runs below 1:42 (including the last four men’s world records) have seen sub-50 opening laps, the fastest being by Kipketer in his second world record run in Zürich with 48.3. Undoubtedly future world records will require such a pace and 1:39 man will have to consider carefully the speed at which he races the opening lap: too slow - no immortality; too fast - utter disaster. Precise and unerring pace judgement will be a vital characteristic of our barrier breaker.

Now we’re into the realm of what Tim Noakes in his great book Lore of Running calls the “physiology of oxygen transport.” Up until now the consensus has been that 800 metre running is very roughly one-third anaerobic to two-thirds aerobic but as we approach the era of 1:39 man it seems to me that a more equal ratio might apply, as in the 400 metres.

Adopting more of a 400 metre approach to the 800 might well be required if runners are to overcome the 1.12 seconds that separate the present world record from the 1:40 barrier. Depending upon the individual the opening lap will be between 48 and 49 seconds, which will most certainly mean that the runner will need a sub-46.0 secs performance to his name. Kipketer’s best for 400m is 46.85; Coe’s split of 45.5 in a relay leg at the European Cup of 1979 was the fastest of the team but it is a sobering thought that, as I write, only eighteen European one lap specialists have bettered 46 seconds in 2009.

Split Differentials In 5 Fastest 800m Runs
NameRecord400m SplitsDifferentials

Top international 400/800 metre runners have been thin on the ground down the decades. The greatest male exponent in history is the Cuban, Alberto Juantorena, the double Olympic champion of 1976. In 1997 he set a world 800 metre record of 1:43.44 in Rieti, Italy; his splits were 51.4/52.0 (0.6), almost even pace. In winning gold in Montreal he set his fastest 400 metre time of 44.26 with estimated splits of 21.8/22.46 (0.66).

In 1985 Juantorena admitted to an audience at the Athletics Congress of the USA that he did not know why his Polish coach, Sigmund Zabiezowskay, introduced “the necessary means to also run the 800 metres”. Clearly the fact that injuries the Cuban suffered in 1974 which needed surgery both in that year and early 1975 required changes in training emphasis. What the Pole did was introduce more of a mix of 800 metres and 400 metres training. This saw, for instance, an increase in volume both at runs over 1000 metres and 200 metres with the necessary adjustments to times.

Very few top 400 metre runners have converted successfully to 800 metres, (though Billy Konchellah, World champion 1991 who ran 45.38 and Paul Ereng, Olympic champion 1992 who ran 45.6 are obvious exceptions) and this maybe is the reason why the world record currently appears so unassailable. Peter Coe always stressed that the training that he promulgated was strictly for Seb but the underlying principles are for everyone and will apply even more so in the future.

“The speed of an 800 metre runner,” Peter said, “has to be equivalent to a good 400 metre runner. It does not have to be world class but it must be close to national standards and I would suggest a 400m time of 46-46.5 seconds....It is repeatable fast 400 metre speed that can be called upon and more than once at any stage of the race and it must be sustainable speed.”

1:39 man will have followed the Coe dictum: “If speed is the goal, then never get too far from it.” He will also be mentally tough enough to believe that the feat is possible.

Until we shake off our 1500 metres mentality to the 800, the present world record will probably remain sacrosanct.

“Most runners,” Peter said, “come off high mileage and go to speed work. What I am suggesting is that there is more time spent in steady winter running than is necessary.

“If we accept that the world class 800/1500m man needs repeatable 400m sprinting speed then we must see that this training will provide the necessary strength to achieve it....I believe that it is rather late to start thinking about it when the training speeds up a bit in the spring”.

When I hear one of our 800 metre (or even 400 metre) runners on television trot out the mantra “I haven’t started my speed work yet” in the middle of July, I think of dear old Peter, on high, angry and frustrated and I half expect to see a bolt of lightning strike the centre of the arena.

For the world of two-lap running it’s time to move the event on, probably back to the future.

Progression of World Best performances and official IAAF records/Ed: Richard Hymans/ IAAF
Lore of Running/Tim Nokes MD/Leisure Press
The IAAF Symposium of Middle and Long Distance Events/IAAF -1983

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Trials and Tribulations

I watched the British World Championship Trials on television. It was a most depressing experience. It was doubly depressing because the television pundits seemed to be watching another, rose-tinted meeting entirely rather than the one that was appearing on my screen. Did Colin Jackson really say that Tyson Gay (9.77), Asafa Powell (9.88) and Usain Bolt (9.86) would now be looking over their shoulders because Simeon Williamson had clocked 10.05 into a 1.8mps wind? Sure it was a great run and sure it was worth a sub-10 clocking in more positive conditions but will they be as apprehensive of Williamson as they will be of the other four who have already achieved that clocking along with themselves? I think not and to give him his due neither does Simeon.

Every TV interview began with the words, “so, you’re off to Berlin,” as if it were some sort of prize holiday. Very sadly that will, in many instances, be the case.
It was a British league meeting masquerading as a World Championship Trial and the atmosphere appeared to match it. The competitors seemed to exude no sense of urgency; the spectators hardly warranted the epithet of a crowd. The weather didn’t help and neither did the extraordinary timetable.

The only podium contender on show on the form displayed in Birmingham was the ebullient Heptathlete Jessica Ellis. Christine Ohuruogu and Phillips Idowu both won their events but neither inspired confidence the latter confining himself to taking just one jump and shaking hands afterwards with fellow competitors. For someone who may have to be the first jumper to exceed 18 metres in eleven years to win gold in Berlin he seemed casually over-confident.

Ohuruogu lies 22nd on the 2009 world ranking list and though her trade mark is to come good swiftly at major championships you can be sure that Sanya Richards has at last learnt the lessons of Osaka and Beijing. The American has the four fastest times in the world this year, all below 50 seconds and she has seven performances faster than the Olympic champion’s current 2009 best of 51.14 secs.

Olympic silver medallist Germaine Mason duly won the high jump but was 7 centimetres short of the qualifying height. Currently the British high jumpers are 11 centimetres down on the world’s leading height.

In the men’s events most of the winning performances were first achieved (in the equivalent AAA championships) in the 70s whilst in the 10000 metres and long jump you have to go back a decade further. In the 5000 metres you have to return to another era entirely when the race equivalent was 3 miles to find that in 1957 Derek Ibbotson ran faster, in rain and on soft cinders, at the White City. Where was Brendan Foster with his usual pertinent trenchant comments on such dismal endurance performances?
It may be said of course that the middle-distance events at Birmingham were, because of a deterring wind, tactical. But these were the World Championship trials for God sake, where qualifying times had to be achieved.

The women competitors showed a sense of urgency as if they knew what the meeting was supposed to be about. Reputations were made and reputations were dented but come August 23 there is little doubt that our women competitors will have continued their current ascendency over the men.

The TV commentaries were full of stories of athletes either currently injured or coming back from injury. With so many athletes absent the meeting was a litany of disaster and an indictment of a decade of sporting quangos’ control of our sport.
I also spent a day and a half at the English Schools Championships in Sheffield with England’s greatest young talent on show. There were some truly amazing performances but if history is any criteria these are young men and women whose names we shall not see in a few years time. Why? Because there seems to be no system to ensure that such talent continues to thrive in the sport or even to continue within it. The millions futilely spent on attempting to gain short term medal glory so beloved of UK Sport and our politicians would achieve much more if it was invested in the long-term future of the young stars on show in Sheffield and those who won so brilliantly at the recent World Youth Championships.

The two day Grand Prix meeting at London’s Crystal Palace may reverse this doomsday scenario and the sun will suddenly blaze down on our Berlin prospects. Our Beijing medallists may sweep into majestic form, there will be open top bus parades and everyone will be vindicated. I hope so but I’ll not hold my breath.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

No Throws

Britain’s Head Coach Charles van Commenee whilst satisfied with the UK overall performance of third at the inaugural European Team Championship in Portugal described our performances in the throws and women’s jumps as “appalling.” It is a familiar ancient refrain.
Seemingly, since time immemorial, such lamentations about Britain’s field events have been expressed. We have always been aware of our deficiencies. When Walter Knox, the first ever salaried Chief Coach, was appointed by the AAA in 1914 he decided to give his main attention to field events. Because of the First World War his tenure was very short lived and we had to wait for 34 years before a similar appointment was made. When he returned from the Berlin Olympics in 1936 the 400m silver medallist Godfrey Brown strongly criticised our field event performances and bitterly attacked the AAA for being so dilatory in tackling the problem.
When Geoffrey Dyson launched his coaching scheme in the late 1940s one of the express aims was to improve field events; when I (and others) launched a national league for clubs in 1969 it was in the hope that field event standards would improve. Neither has worked. After sixty years there is a woeful shortage of field event coaches and after forty years there are still pathetic field event performances overall in league events at all levels.
Every country has its traditional weak events and Britain is no exception but our continuing low standards in jumps and throws should surely by now have warranted an in-depth investigation? Is it, for instance, that ethnically we in Britain cannot match the size and power of the Slavic peoples? Or is it that when we can match them such men and women gravitate towards sports, such as rowing and rugby, that are either more lucrative or more satisfying or both, than athletics?
Since the introduction of lottery funding there has always been a strong gravitational pull towards the more successful running events, especially the sprints. Millions of pounds have been spent and wasted in a mostly elusive quest for gold. It is a world where the rich have got richer in terms of lottery support and the poor have got poorer. What UK Sport’s one-suit-fits-all lottery policy fails to recognise is that in throwing events, in particular, athletes mature more slowly than their sprint counterparts. Unfortunately over the past decade the ends of all this spending have not justified the means and field event athletes and the decreasing band of coaches have become disincentivised. What, they ask, is the point?
In the women’s high jump the current UK record of 1.95m was first set twenty-seven years ago. Since the introduction of lottery funding only one woman, Susan Moncrieff, has been selected once to compete at a global championship. In the 2009 England regional championships a total of 15 women competed in the three competitions. Only one exceeded 1.85m (first achieved by a British woman in 1971); four exceeded 1.75m (first achieved forty-five years ago). Six jumped 1.65m or lower (a height achieved by Dorothy Odam at the 1948 Olympics, jumping off loose cinders into a sandpit using a scissors technique). The questions are: are our best coaches technically capable of taking athletes beyond 1.95m and are they capable of recognising talent when they see it?
In the men’s Hammer only one thrower has represented Britain at a global championship since the introduction of World Class Performance in the late nineties. In the women’s triple jump and shot put no one has represented Britain (nor look like doing) since the retirements of Ashia Hansen and Judy Oakes.
Most of our field events, especially the throws, are dead in the water. Our top proponents receive scant, if any, support. Philippa Roles (who actually was selected for Beijing in the discus) had to drive a suburban train in order to support her lifestyle and do athletics.
This year UK Athletics have adopted the IAAF entry standards for Berlin. In two events, the women’s high jump and Hammer, the UK record would have to be broken to achieve the A standard. In the men’s Hammer only one UK athlete, Martin Girvan, has ever achieved the A standard (in 1984). The litany goes on.
In its introductory blurb about the World Youth Championships UKA says that it “aims to provide experience for aspiring under 18 athletes.” Unless you’re a jumper or thrower that is. Of a paltry total of 19 athletes in Sudtirol there are just one male jumper and two female throwers. It is difficult to understand why the federation instead of choosing the IAAF entry standard adopted much harsher selection standards for the World Youth Championships, only aiming to take those who could finish in the top eight. In other words it has adopted a policy that will surely disencentivise potentially promising young athletes (and their coaches) especially in the field events. The highest differential came in the men’s Hammer with a 14.2% difference between the UKA and IAAF standard, both the women’s and men’s javelin standards, however, run that close.
Even when our throwers (with obvious exceptions) get to a major championship they do not perform well. Leaving aside the excellent javelin exploits of Backley, Hill, Whitbread and Sanderson, the number of top eight finishers since 1948 in each of the other events can easily be counted on the fingers of one hand. We’ve all watched in despair as British throwers seemingly freeze in the circle and perform well below their season’s best in qualifying rounds. There is seemingly little or no mental preparation for the task in hand. A cosy league fixture one week and facing the world’s best the following is too daunting a task.
So how can UK Athletics attempt to end almost a century of mostly despairing field event performances? Here are a few ideas:
(1) It needs to follow the endurance example and be advised by those who have been steeped in jumping and throwing almost all of their lives. They already have the excellent Bob Weir in charge of the heavy throws, and he should be joined on a panel that will draft a future policy document by the likes of Steve Backley, Jonathan Edwards, Steve Smith, Judy Oakes, Fatima Whitbread, Tessa Sanderson, jumpers and throwers who have performed excellently at the highest level.
(2) It needs to publish details of all Level 3 and 4 coaches in the various field events and their locations so that barren areas in the country can be identified.
(3) It needs to launch a campaign within the sport to recruit jumps and throws coaches, targeting former internationals and looking urgently at the professionalization of coaching to make such an exercise worthwhile for those taking part.
(4) It needs to arrange Jumps and/or Throws internationals for seniors and juniors against other European countries.
(5) It needs to put together a programme of support for those identified as having the necessary potential to reach international standards.
(6) It needs to review the sizes of implements used by those in the junior age groups.
(7) It needs to tell the various senior and junior league organisers that their meetings will not be sanctioned unless qualifying standards in field events are instituted forthwith.
(8) It needs to encourage the setting up of specialist clubs, like the Hammer Circle, in all eight field events.
(9) It needs to insist that more field events are staged at our televised meetings.
(10) It needs to ensure that entry standards for the various championships are always those of the IAAF and EAA.
One thing we can all surely be agreed upon: it isn’t rocket science.