A Losing Battle?

By David Chalfen

David offers some hard facts relating to why British distance runners struggle to keep up with the Africans

In February 2001 I stayed in Kericho, Kenya, for two weeks. We met a skinny, not very well developed 17-year-old being managed at the time by my British friend with whom I arranged my trip. This lad had recently placed sixth in his regional junior cross-country championships and was in Nairobi for the Kenyan national championships - word was that he might scrape into the national squad of about 12 from whom the team for the IAAF World Championships would be selected some three weeks later. He placed fifth in the nationals and booked his place to the worlds where he placed fourth, interestingly sandwiched between two American juniors, Dathan Ritzenheim and Matt Tegenkamp. Later, the next mention I saw of this runner, Nicholas Kemboi, I was amazed to see he had nearly beaten Haile Gebrselassie at the height his track prowess, and clocked a 10,000m time of 26:30.03, which to this day ranks him fourth on the all-time list, headed only by the legendary trio of Kenenisa Bekele, Gebrselassie and Paul Tergat. Does this sort of progress sound familiar to any British readers? No?

That's because it's not, as it represents a 10,000m time more than half a lap, or about seven seconds per mile, quicker than any athlete not born at altitude has ever matched and he did so by improving by maybe two-and-a-half minutes over two-and-a-half years (I'm guessing fifth in a Kenyan regional under-20 cross-country championships is worth about 29 minutes for a track 10km). Both the achievement in itself and the staggering rate of progression toward it are off the scale of what any British athlete, or indeed anyone on the planet not raised at altitude has ever got near. Kemboi is just an extreme example of several other cases I've witnessed. If the IAAF had an all-time half-marathon list of runners sleeping in my spare bedroom (Lamine, drop me an e-mail and we'll sort this), seventh place would be 62:22. They are all Kenyans, too, although we always keep a change of linen and some chilled Evian in case Jon Brown drops by unannounced. Talking to these guys about their training, and speaking to some of their elder and more experienced compatriots at races overseas, I believe there are guys running 61-62 minutes for the half-marathon who are underachieving by not covering all the relevant bases in the meticulous way that the likes of, say, Paula Radcliffe, Mara Yamauchi, Ryan Hall and Juan Carlos de la Ossa do.

Some statistics

Regular readers of IAAF all-time lists (come on guys, it’s not just me is it?) will notice that the stats in the table below are near as dammit the fastest times that athletes not born in Africa have ever run. One of the conclusions that can be drawn from this are: Jon Brown, Steve Jones and Eamonn Martin were really actually quite good!


Birth place/Altitude

Ryan Hall (USA) Big Bear lake – 2200m 2:06:15 marathon
Victor Rothlin (SWI) Kerns – 650m and rising all around 2:07:23 marathon
Juan Carlos de la Ossa (ESP) Cuenca – 900m 27:27 10,000m
Fabian Roncero (ESP) Madrid – 600m 27:14 10,000m/2:07:23 marathon
Chema Martinez (ESP) Soria 1000m 27:29 10,000m/2:08:09 marathon
Martin Fiz (ESP) Vitoria 550m 2:08:02 marathon (world champ)
Dieter Baumann (GER) Blaubeuren 550m 12:54.7 5000m and 1992 Olympic champ

It’s highly coincidental that in nations where most people live at or near sea level, the guys that have taken the national long distance records to new levels don’t. Of course, all these guys trained ferociously hard for many years in supportive set ups, it’s not a soft touch for them by any stretch. I recall Brown, who is as experienced as anyone can be on what is achievable and what isn’t, went on record that the regions of low 12:50s/low 27 minutes were about as fast as he could envisage sea level athletes ever running, and about a decade later there’s no evidence that he was underestimating the limits achievable ‘clean’.

Was not the scientific basis for this actually explained, to little response, in AW recently with a summary of the research by Jeronimo Bravo in Madrid regarding the unprecedented high running economy of Zersenay Tadese? His running economy was about 10 per cent better than elite Kenyans tested on a similar basis, and about 20 per cent better than the very best Spanish athletes (I believe Martinez, de la Ossa and Rios (27:22 10k/2:07:42 marathon) who are all Madrid-based, were the Spanish benchmarks).

As I understand endurance physiology, the four fundamental predictors of endurance performance are V02 max, lactate tolerance; lactate threshold and running economy, and that as the distance increases the relative significance of running economy and lactate threshold increases while that of lactate tolerance decreases. This, surely, is the science behind why at 1500m and, most notably, 800m, the Rift Valley and Atlas mountain runners are not especially dominant, while at longer distances the gap is vast and growing. As almost scary illustrations of how the world of the former UK long distance greats has moved on, there are more than 220 5000m performances faster than Dave Moorcroft’s legendary UK record of 13:00.41, and that single run aside, more than 400 performances better than any other UK-born runner has ever achieved at 5000m. We can talk about self-belief and all the other oft-quoted rationales for why things ain’t what they used to be, but in terms of real, world-class male long distance running in 2008, we’ve arguably never yet produced such an athlete.

So what?

Living on a mountain during one’s formative years aside, we can consider some of the fairly soft targets for our current woes:

Lack of good coaches?

To name just a few old hands, Bud Baldaro, Alan Storey, Lindsay Dunn, Dave Sunderland, Norman Poole and John Anderson were all around and active in the golden years of the late Seventies to early Nineties and over time the trend would surely be that they gain knowledge and experience so I don’t think there’s a lack of know-how. They are also extremely helpful in helping to share their wisdom with developing coaches. Plus of course the internet has opened up vast amounts of relevant technical detail from across the world so surely the knowledge is there.

Poor UKA coach education?

Having now completed all the formal taught modules of the new UKA Coach Education from Levels 1 to 4, I can broadly categorise that the ‘how’ of coaching has accounted for two thirds of the course time, and the 'what’ for one third. Most coaches seem to agree that this proportion is probably the wrong way round, but coach education is far, far more than just turning up for mandatory courses and if we fancy ourselves as proactive self-motivating coaches we can of course identify and develop where we think our gaps are. Suffice to say when I get a chance to chat with Bud I don’t ask him if I can practice my 'open question’ technique.

Runners don’t do enough mileage?

I don't know chapter and verse on this and no one would deny that the number of senior men running 80/100 miles per week is a lot less than it used to be. But there are still guys regularly doing this sort of volume. I read it on eightlane.org so it must be true. The illustrious coaches described above don't have any qualms about suitably experienced and robust athletes taking on this sort of volume if they have the commitment, nor, it follows, should those coaches seeking to continue following these guys'best practice, so the work ethic hasn't been totally lost. My guess is that many athletes working along these lines simply don't have the same innate talent as the high achievers and/or are very late converts to the sport so may lack initial conditioning and may thus not be able to sustain these volumes longer term. I do think the mythical significance of 100 miles per week has been overstated and over simplified. Firstly, there's a big difference between 'up to 100mpw' (which is usually meant by experienced coaches) and 'averaging 100 mpw'. If anyone is aware of European endurance systems having a similar obsession with 161km per week, I'd be surprised – the figure in Spain, Italy or Portugal has no special resonance.

European runners don't train as hard as 'the Africans'?

I wonder, from what I've seen published of the training and lifestyles of some of the very best Europeans, they are training right on the edge of what is sustainable, and are monitored to ensure that this stays the case. The idea that 'the Africans' train to some pan-continental formula of volume and intensity is nonsense. There are some coaches who work with both African and non-African elite and they bring the same technical knowledge and coaching 'philosophy' to both groups, and I really doubt that they specifically pick out the non-Africans for softer sessions. If this point was a clincher it would also imply that European elite women, who are not yet fully confined to World Division Two in long distances, were all training with an intensity somehow lacking in their male counterparts which is highly unlikely.

Runners today don't have the same hunger?

I don't claim any expertise on elite athlete psychology but from an informed layman's view of how the changing reality must impact on what sort of targets are realistic, going back to say the late Seventies, if you assessed that if you went to the Olympics in about 27:40 10,000m shape you might return as Olympic champion. Then motivation-wise you are possibly in a different place from knowing that the self same performance might see you lapped as a tail-ender. And the media would ignore you. And you'd possibly have bankrupted yourself about as fast as the guys in the leading places would have secured their and their families' future by their achievements.

Finally ...

I realise my comments suggest that in the UK we are now paradoxically a disadvantaged nation in events where we used to be among the world leaders, but that was before the most privileged endurance nations in the world came out to play.