James has just left school and has taken a year out to train as an athlete. He is just under six-foot and walks with the precise, athletic steps of a leopard. He sat quietly as we talked, his whole body coiled. He talked about running and his personal life with real candour.
So when would you like to go from? When the routine starts? OK.
A few days before a race, I’ll take it really easy at training. Two days before the race, I will do my full warm up. That’s two miles, drills and then a few strides. That’s it. That’s all I do. The day before a race is a complete rest day.
You get called to your race five minutes before it starts. Before I go into the call room, I’ll usually have something to chew on, like an energy bar, a chocolate bar, something like that. Just something small to chew, so I don’t have to talk to anyone. Once I’m in the call room though, I like to chat. You need to focus before a race, but once you’re called in you might as well have a chat. People in there are just like me. I don’t really see them as enemies, or competitors, they are just other people who are there to do the same thing that you’re doing.
Then you’re on the track.
On the start line, I’m looking at the ground. My heartbeat is quite hard so my eyes pulsate. I’m looking at the ground. I am not thinking about anything at all. My eyes are pulsating. I’m just waiting. I look at the ground. If you start thinking you might not hear the gun go off. I’m just waiting; anticipating. It’s weird. Not a single thought goes through my head at the start of a race.
When the gun goes off, you’ll have a pace that you’ll have done loads in training and you’ll take off at that pace. I have a song for me that is the right beat for that pace. It’s a massive mash up of rap verses from the early 2000’s. It’s got this really aggressive beat and I love it. That gives me the right pace for a 58 second 400 metres and I feel absolutely fine for every single metre.
As you go through on the outdoor track that will be the bell for the second lap. The third 200 metres is painful. You feel everything start to hurt a little bit. It feels like your muscles are gently just expanding. That happens all the way around the back until you hit 200 metres to go and then you’re sprinting. That last 200 metres, you just don’t remember. You haven’t increased your pace but you feel like you’re going twice as fast as when you set off. It’s a mad dash to the line.
That’s for an evenly paced race. In a championship, it’s a different story. In a championship, I like to sprint finish.
In an evenly paced race I’m hurting a little bit the whole way round but with a sprint finish you have that anticipation. You don’t really hurt because you’re going at a slower pace and you know that there’s so much more to come. Mentally, you’re not hurting at all.
I prefer racing. It’s exhilarating. It’s a real mental game. Everyone’s looking around like something out of a film. There’s usually three or four people at the front trying to move up and every hundred metres or so, one will drop off the back of that group. You’ve got to make sure that you don’t let the front group get too far away. So you’re jumping and leapfrogging everyone who drops off the group. Then you hit the back straight and you’re all staring at each other thinking who’s going to go first.
I like to sit and wait. Part of the reason for that is that in races, when people are clumped up, especially on the track there’s a lot of bumping and barging. That’s the sort of thing I like to avoid, so I stay at the back.
I don’t look up who I’m racing against, but my dad does. That’s just how it is.
This summer will be national championships. If you win and perform well throughout the year, you can get picked for international events. I don’t know what the international event is this year, I just know that if I perform well there’s so many opportunities. There’s no specific barrier for times but if I run a fantastic time, I could potentially get sponsorship or a kit drop.
A kit drop is not an official sponsorship deal. Instead, a box gets dropped off at your house with about a grand’s worth of shoes and kit and that will get you through an entire year on its own. It’s worth its weight in gold. If you do a good enough time then you get given a kit drop. So that is one thing that I’m working towards this year.
Competitions-wise I’m preparing for Nationals and the Inter-County Championships. They’re the main goals for the season: get a really good time and do well at Nationals.
Last year, my 1500 time didn’t improve at all, it got slower. But whenever I don’t reach my goals, I just start looking back to see why. So last year, two years ago in fact, I got iron deficiency quite badly. I couldn’t run for three months. Well, I could but I’d just pass out. I found that out in the middle of a race. I went out too hard and then couldn’t finish. My legs didn’t work and that was like a bit of a wake up call.
I was running cross-country and I collapsed. It was very wet and very muddy. The race organisers had a little van, an ambulance kind of thing and they picked me up, so I felt fine but I wasn’t right. Afterwards, I was tired all the time. I remember, one day I walked up the stairs at school and I felt exhausted. You know, how some days you walk up the stairs and you’re tired? This was another level. I was holding on to the rail thinking what the hell is wrong with me?!
That was when I decided to go to the doctors. I went to all sorts of hospitals to find out what was wrong. They thought it was a heart problem and I went to Great Ormond Street hospital. I guess I would have been 15, 16 at that point. It was pretty scary. I thought it was going to be something a lot worse but I had a blood test and it was basically just low iron and ferritin levels.
Ferritin affects the way that you load and unload oxygen in your red blood cells. It’s important for runners who need much more ferritin in their blood than normal. It didn’t come up as a red flag at the doctors because my ferritin levels were low but still within the normal range on their charts.
When I go to training, I thrash it. I work hard. The times, I’ve got, you can’t get to without training hard. I will add strength training in at some point. I only used to run four times a week. I didn’t do a long run on Sundays, didn’t run on Mondays so I had three rest days a week. Now, I have one rest day a week and I train six days a week. I’m doing three short sessions a week and three long runs.
A short session can be quite a range of things. If it is a short sprint session on the track, and can be anywhere between twenty 200m repetitions, and because it’s quite short work, that will mean short recovery between each race as well. Or it can be ten 400m sprints, something like that.
Usually at this time of year we’re trying to get a bit of volume going and in the summer we might be doing something completely different. It’s real sprinting in the summer and in the winter it’s trying to get miles in and vary it up so that training doesn’t get boring.
I train with a group if I can. Long runs at home that’s just me. I don’t mind that, but in a session you need to feel challenged. I get so much more out of myself when I train with other people. This year, I started training with a university team and there are a ton of people better than me, but I try to latch on to them and just hang on to the back. Each session I’ve been able to hang on for a little bit longer. If you’re the best person in your group, you don’t improve at all.
I don’t think I’m scared of training not working. Everyone knows that if you train hard you will get better. I just try and make myself feel confident however I can.
The way I deal with negativity is similar to how you would approach mental health issues. That’s helped me realize that if you feel like shit one day that could be because you haven’t eaten enough, because you haven’t gotten enough sleep, or because you haven’t drunk enough. If you feel rubbish, it’s not necessarily because there’s something wrong with you. It might just be that your body is trying to say ‘give me some water and go to bed an hour earlier’.
At the moment I am running just to see how good I can be. I sometimes feel like I run because of the amount of effort that I’ve put into it. It always feels like I’ve put too much into it to quit. I’m past the point of stopping now. If my performances start tailing over the next few years, maybe I’ll stop but I’ll always go for a jog. It’s just whether I will keep competing at performance level.
That could change, but at the moment I’m aiming to get good times and compete. I know I’m a very competitive person. That’s probably not always a good thing, but I think that’s why I kept running. I’ve got that dogged ‘I’m not going to lose’ mentality. I know that other people that I race against will be getting up in the morning; so if I don’t I’m screwed basically. That’s why I get up in the morning. To run. Part of it’s living in fear I guess.
I did used to fear losing but I did a bit of sports psychology with a guy called Richard and that switched my mentality from being scared of losing to wanting to win. You see how you can view things in different ways. He taught me that most people go into a race saying that they want to run a particular time or finish in a particular place. That’s not good for you.
Instead, Richard taught me to set three goals. My first goal is always to get to each event fit and healthy, have a good warm up and eat well before. Second, I try to feel comfortable for at least the first half of the race and know that my training’s paid off. That second goal will be a process that I can focus on during a race. My third goal will be a performance goal so running a particular time, or coming in a particular place.
Tiered goals that’s called and it’s massive. When you’re setting yourself goals, your low goal should be one that you know you can do. It doesn’t have to be rubbish, it just has to be a goal that you know you’ve got. Your second goal should be something you think you can do and your third goal is an ambition. You don’t know if you can do it or not but you’re going to bloody try!
Having these goals meant I always came away from a competition with one of my goals met, even if I didn’t win and that’s something you can be happy about. If you get to the event well trained, well fed and not feeling any niggles or injuries then you’ve done the right preparation for the race and even if everything goes tits up for those two hours at the event then that’s fine.
Really, it’s about the process of going from the start of your winter training all the way through to your race season wherever that may be.
You can also use tiered goals for other things. Because of running I’ve learnt how to remove distractions. When I was revising for A levels, I set a ton of goals. I had goals every week, I had monthly goals and I had an end goal. I ended up meeting all of them. Before my exams, I stopped training for two months. I deleted every single game off my computer for three months and I think I clocked over a couple of hundred hours of my phone being completely off. So I removed the three main distractions from my life and focused on my goals. That helped me get what I wanted.
You can apply everything in sport to your general life, which is really cool. Even big banks and businesses are hiring people who did sport competitively, because they know that people who run know how to set goals and pursue targets. You’d be kind of stupid not to apply what you learnt from running to everyday life.
When I get to the big challenges of adulthood, hopefully I’ll know how to deal with anything that comes my way. We’ll find out. I’ve got a kind of general plan. I don’t know what I’m going to do when I’m older but I don’t mind that. I know the processes that you need to doggedly pursue something. So I’m just focusing on what I’m doing right now. That’s quite a big deal.
My family are quite involved in my running. It’s affected their lives a lot. Before I could drive Mum and Dad had to get me to training three times a week. I’ve got two siblings so that’s quite a big commitment. That’s two-and-a-half hours three times a week. It’s lot of time.
There’s a million things I would like to say about running. The main one would be, if you need to take a break, just take one. A lot of runners go through years of training without meeting their goals or being injured and they feel really guilty about it. So if you’re hating it, just take a break.
I think some people get fed up with things and keep doing them. For me, if you want to do something, just do it. If you want to take a break, do that and then maybe you’ll want to come back. That’s the main thing.
The other one is that no one’s normal. That was one of the best things that Richard ever told me. There’s no such thing as normal. Everyone’s a little messed up in some way. You don’t have to be OK all the time. You don’t have to feel good every session and you don’t have to be like everyone else.
© Copyright Arthur Knaggs 2019