Vanishing breed

Apart from Mo Farah, what’s happened to the British men’s challenge in London?

Eamonn Martin wins 1993 London Marathon (Mark Shearman)

Twenty years after Eamonn Martin became the last British man to win the London Marathon, the country that stages the great race is still waiting for a home-grown winner to succeed him. Worse than that, it’d be good to see a British man finish within even a mile of the winner.

Sunday’s Virgin London Marathon was won by Tsegaye Kebede of Ethiopia in 2:06:04, while the first Brit home was more than 10 minutes behind. Derek Hawkins of Kilbarchan was the No.1 domestic runner with 2:16:50, followed by John Gilbert of Kent AC (2:17:43) and Phil Wicks of Belgrave Harriers (2:19:07).

This blog is in no way critical of those runners. They are the best British male runners in the 2013 race and should be applauded.

No, instead the criticism should be directed toward the runners who did not put their neck on the line, the athletes who have marathon potential but are failing to reach it, plus the coaching fraternity who have collectively failed over the past two decades to nurture a British-born male marathon winner.

Even Hawkins was mildly embarrassed to be first Brit home with a time that was about four minutes slower than he hoped for. It was also only his second marathon, with his debut having come in Frankfurt in October.

Back then, he clocked 2:14:04 and he said on Sunday: “What I felt at 12 miles here in London was the same as I felt at 40km in Frankfurt. It was just a bad day. A strange race. I never felt very good.”

The No.1 British hope Scott Overall also had a bad day when he pulled out at 25km. The Blackheath & Bromley athlete, who had enjoyed such a promising breakthrough in Berlin in 2011 when he clocked 2:10:55 to qualify for the Olympics, suffered an IT band injury a month before London, missed two weeks’ training and made a late gamble to race – a gamble that with hindsight did not pay off.

So Overall was scuppered by bad luck, but if there had been a greater volume of British contenders in the field then there would be more chance of success. It is, as they say, a numbers game.

Individual fortunes in the 2013 race aside, it is simply poor for the top British man in London to run more than a minute-and-a-half slower than the women’s world record. Indeed, Paula Radcliffe would have been the No.1 British athlete – male or female – if she had replicated her historic 2:15:25 from 2003 on Sunday.

While world standards have moved on, British (and indeed European) standards have gone backwards. Martin’s winning time from 1993 was 2:10:50 – exactly six minutes quicker than the top Brit in 2013. And prior to London 1993, Martin didn’t even have a shoe sponsor as he was considered too old and he wasn’t the No.1 British contender either.

Below Martin, there were seemingly an endless number of Britons who ran in the 2:13-2:16 range but didn’t even get a look in when it came to international selection. Athletics Weekly’s coaching editor, David Lowes, is one of the many. As he wrote in this blog this week, he clocked 2:15 back in the 1980s and at the time he didn’t think it was very good at all, such were the standards.

Indeed, Jon Brown – who was fourth in the Olympic marathon in 2000 and 2004 – tweeted on Sunday: “Marathon performances don’t fall out of the sky; questions need to be asked about long term strategy for UK endurance.”

Looking back, Martin was not alone either. Others Brits to win London in its early days in the 1980s included Hugh Jones, Mike Gratton, Charlie Spedding, Steve Jones and Allister Hutton.

So where did it all go wrong? There is no doubt that “cultural” factors are huge. The British working-class men who rolled up their sleeves and put in the hard yards minus the distractions that we have today have been gradually replaced by African athletes desperate to escape poverty and who are now far more likely to compete in races like London due to improved transport and global communications.

To demonstrate their will to win, for example, the 2013 champion Kebede used to run 6km after school to gather firewood for a dollar a day in order to make ends meet. In comparison, British youngsters are ferried to school in cars by parents who are then too worried to let them run out in the streets and play. Meanwhile the amount of sport and PE they do seems to shrink every generation. Throw in the fast food and computer games culture and number of alternative pursuits and pastimes and it is a formula of failure when it comes to marathon running.

Rather than give up, though, perhaps there is more the sport can do in order to turn things around. Altitude and group training, which has been introduced more in recent years and is in fact funded by the London Marathon itself, definitely helps. Although this winter it became apparent that maybe too much emphasis is given to it and athletes should punctuate it with harder and regular racing.

Cross country undoubtedly has its benefits too and is becoming a lost art. The UK Cross Challenge circuit, English National and World Cross Country Championships were bereft of many top British male runners this recent winter. On this point, it’s worth remembering that Martin placed 34th in the World Cross just one month before winning the London Marathon in 1993.

Then, in the London Marathon on race day, there are too many cases of British contenders who have to endure most of the 26.2 miles alone. Linked to this, BBC would help generate more excitement and a sense of achievement if they actually showed some of the 2:14-2:30 brigade.

On the good side, there is Farah’s tilt at the London Marathon title in 2014 to look forward to. The anticipation ahead of the event will be immense, but British athletics should not let it mask the wider problem of how few Britons, if any, are following in Farah’s footsteps.

4 Responses to “Vanishing breed”

  1. Alan Glaum says:

    One other answer to "where were the British men?" is the San Diego Triathlon.
    I suspect before Triathlon became an option, both Alistair Brownlee and Adam Bowden would have been looking at London. And who can blame them for going to sport where they seem to have more chance of winning?

  2. Toni Reavis says:

    Jason,

    Be heartened. We Yanks went through a similar period in the 1990s, only qualifying one man and one woman for the 2000 Olympic Marathon. But an industry group Running USA was founded to support the Mammoth Track Club in California where Meb Keflizighi and Deena Kastor were trained to silver and bronze medals in Athens 2004. The legacy of British distance running is too rich to simply throw in the towel. Somebody, or a group, has to rise up and declare the resurrection of British long distance success as their primary goal. It won't be easy, but it can be done. Former Mammoth coach Terrence Mahon is now over in England working to improve the status quo. But it's a matter of money and focus. Clubs are what brought British and US running to their highest levels. Those training groups are what's needed now. Good luck.

  3. Gabrielle Collison says:

    I wrote a news item/blog on this very subject last week (it is a pet subject of mine). I looked into the decline of standards from the '80s to the '90s in 1999. I found various factors that made for great marathoners in the '80s. I am not sure we can replicate all of them again. If anyone is interested in some of my conclusions, take a look here: http://bit.ly/YWCgxt

  4. steve crocker says:

    it's true Alan. The running hunger of the east Africans can be offset by the offering of "triathlon" which calls for elite status swimming and cycling. Whatever advantages the very slight Africans have (both cultural and physical) in endurance running will, I'd wager, not transfer to swimming.

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