jueves, 16 de febrero de 2012

Aldershot Girls: are London Olympics coming Too Soon?

Esther Chemutai and Charlotte Purdue running in foggy Antrim in 2011
Photo: Mark Shearman
               Both Sebastian Coe and Steve Cram have complained lately British milers do not enjoy anymore competing through cross country trails during the winter season. In the 80s every distance runner used to do it, apart from the popularity of the speciality back then, as a basic preparation to gain in endurance and strength for his summer track campaign. For both legends of track and field this current lack of interest in cross country inside the UK is one of the secrets of the long crisis the nation is living in middle distance running. No current British athlete can be compared to Coe, Cram and Ovett; not even to Elliott, McKean or Williamson. Baddeley has fallen short of the expectations, Michael Rimmer is not consistent enough and Osagie is still on the making. Yet nowadays there are different times and even the World Cross Country championships are not going to be held this year for the first time since World War II. There is still the consolation of Mo Farah, who, by the way, was born in Somalia and whose amazing breakthrough came as he left the UK to join Alberto Salazar’s stable in Oregon. Still a British world champion at the 5000m, in a moment 80% of the kids of the country who are involved in track and field when they are 12 years old have given up the sport when they reach their twenties. Why keep it up if there is not a chance of getting close to the East Africans? Is it not the argument used by high school wonder in the USA Lukas Verzbikas when he decided to switch to triathlon? In Great Britain there is also now a never seen before passion for cycling, which has brought to the victory of Cavendish at the world championship.  
            But this is a man’s world. We have not thought about British female yet. And if there is no worthy heir in the country of past running legends among the men field, we can not say the same about the women’s. Not going very far away in time Jennifer Meadows won a bronze medal at the 800m at Berlin World Championships and Hannah England struck silver at the 1500m in Daegu. However role models are closer in time: Dame Kelly Holmes obtained her sensational double only two Olympic Games ago and Paula Radcliffe, whose world record in the marathon stands out of reach even for Kenyan and Ethiopian athletes, is still training hard to win at last a well-deserved Olympic medal, along with the younger generation. And, apart from some track and field drug addicts, has anybody really realised about the outstanding performances British teen girls are accomplishing in the last couple of seasons in Cross Country? Do not fear these youngsters the hardness of this kind of competition and the terrific East Africans? Listen to the words of the veteran of the group, three time European junior cross champion Stephanie Twell:  “Cross Country gives me strength of character because it is tough when you are racing in the mud, in the hills and in horrible weather. I think it gives you a sense of what being a real runner is all about; you are outdoors and you are facing adversities, both physical and mental. Plus the over-distance training you need for cross-country complements track events.” (1) It looks like these kids are really old-school in their approaching to athletics. And this revalorisation of Cross Country is common among her mates, even the youngest ones as Emelia Gorecka: “The course at Stanmer Park in Brighton was incredible! I can only describe it as a true cross country course – it had hills, mud, woodland, small paths and huge fields… a really enjoyable course to run on.” (2)    

Emelia Gorecka, the European junior champion

               Great Britain won all three female team titles at last European Cross country championship in Velenje and two of the individual races, thanks to Emma Pallant in under-23 category and Gorecka in juniors. It was just the continuation of a streak which started with the upset of a 16-year-old Steph Twell in 2006. Thanks to the Colchester girl, Charlotte Purdue and Emelia Gorecka, the Brits have grabbed five out of the last six junior titles, including a stunning sweep of the first six places in the 2008 edition, when Steph completed her hat trick. (3) Some of the United Kingdom Cross Country standouts are older as Hattie Dean, Freya Murray and Gemma Steel, who has been the senior leading Brit this winter, third in Velenje and second in Edinburgh and Antrim, only inferior among Europeans to the amazing Irish Fionnuala Britton, winner in all those three races. Nevertheless the most interesting athletes of the country are quite young and precocious runners: Twell won gold at the championships at 16; Purdue snatched bronze at 16, silver at 17 and eventually gold at 19; Gorecka, who had won 15 consecutive cross country races in 2008, obtained bronze two years afterwards at the European Champs, being 16 years old and gold at 17. Only Emma Pallant seems to be performing right within the parameters of her age.  Besides, Purdue became the youngest winner of the senior national trials in 20 years, and went on to cross the line at Punta Umbría World championship as the first European in place 14th. On the other hand, Gorecka, was the youngest contender at the junior race at the precedent edition in Bydgoszcz, finishing a creditable 23rd, which she improved to 15th in Punta Umbría. Twell, Purdue, Pallant and Gorecka belong all four of them to the same athletic club, Aldershot Farnham and District AC and train together under the supervision of acclaimed coach Mick Woods.
            Woods, a 63-year-old former marathoner from Ireland, has also an outstanding résumé. The mentor of the new generation of British female athletes has been coaching since 1986. Until 1993 he was also working as a full-time telecom engineer but decided to concentrate in his track and field profession once she got a job at St. Mary’s High Performance Centre at Twickenham University College, the main base of Aldershot club and the place where Charlotte is studying History. Mick Woods has coached at least one athlete in every World Championship since 1996. At the last one in Punta Umbría, 8 representatives out of 24 belonged to Aldershot. (4) Furthermore, three of his charges won in consecutive editions the British Rising Athlete of the Year award: Stephanie Twell in 2008, Charlotte Purdue in 2009 and Emelia Gorecka in 2010. Sprinter Jodie Williams eventually broke the streak in 2011, when no wonder Mick Woods was named Mentor of the year by the same prestigious magazine, Runner’s World. (5) 

Mick Woods and outstanding pupil Stephanie Twell
             And what is the secret behind that stunning success of those young girls, of that single coach? Some has compared this athletic club with the one Kiyoshi Nakamura, the coach of Toshihiko Seko and Douglas Wakihurii, used to have. (6) It is a question of total loyalty, blind trust in Woods’ methods. Charlotte Purdue arrived to the club being 11, when she was spotted by Woods in a school race and Emma Pallant has been there as long as her mate. Steph Twell joined Aldershot even younger, when she was 9. The simple reason was she was living 600 metres from the track and her father was involved in the club. However nowadays she would never quit her coach. The prove is she was adamant in her decision of sticking with him in a moment it seemed St. Mary’s was going to be excluded from the high performance centres chosen to prepare British endurance athletes for London Olympics and she was asked to relocate to Loughborough with another coach. (7) Purdue and Pallant share her mate’s faith towards their lifelong trainer. Other athletes as Emelia Gorecka and Georgia Peel came later in their careers from other clubs but they are as enthusiastic about Aldershot. Gorecka states running is her relaxation time from studies, thanks to the extraordinary atmosphere created in training by her fellow athletes and Woods, which help her to stay at any time calmed and focused . Her Aldershot mates are also her best friends out of the track. (8) 
              Aldershot will never be a running elite-building factory. Mick Woods’s personality will never be up for that. For the successful coach the more pupils the better, especially when the sport drop rate is so high. And he does not necessarily recruit the most talented youngster. Purdue finished 16th at the race she was spotted by Mick, just at time because she did not expect to keep further her running career. "She was not an athlete with perfect movement. She had little leg lift and was very much a heel striker, but what I saw was someone who could have an engine - endurance - and that has always been Charlotte's success.” (5) What Woods praises in a trainee is commitment and perseverance, the willpower to keep going even in adverse circumstances, when results are not coming or injuries weaken confidence. In his privileged bunch there is no room for egos either. He places team over individual results, in a modus operandi similar to a pyramid, in which role models as Twell, Purdue (the top), inspire those around them (the base), creating the ethos inside the group. Then the target is to channel the base towards the top. (5) These amazing girls have also been a souce of inspiration for their male counterparts, who have raise their standards, as Jonathan Hay, stunning runner-up in the race of the Olympic champions last month in Edinburgh. Besides, working together, athletes with different skills or capacities support each other, as for example Emelia Gorecka contributes to Georgia Peel’s endurance improvement, benefiting at the same time from the superior speed of her mate. It helps engender the commitment and work ethic; this builds on the club’s success and, in turn, the athletes’ individual goals and performances.  

Georgia Peel, the trackster of the group... or maybe...?

           There is always room for making friends and laughs but work have to be done. And it is quite tough. Mick Woods is someone who believes high volume is the base for subsequent quality work, as Lydiard or the same Nakamura. It is something many of the current coaches, who prefer shorter staff, have neglected, according to Woods’ opinion. And yes! Cross country in the winter is the best way to start the year. Even teen Georgia Peel whose longest event during the track season will be the 1500m, log the miles and competes happily through the mud, forest hills and the snow to acquire endurance and toughness for her summer races. And eventually, intensity is also required in training. If you want to be fast in championships you first need to be fast during your workouts. 
             In the last two winters some of the Aldershot standouts have also had the opportunity of training in altitude in Iten, Kenya, enjoying the facilities of Lornah Kiplagat’s training centre. One year ago, Twell and Pallant made the trip, along with other British athletes, and recently Steph repeated the experience with Charlie. Mick Woods could stay with them most of the time, getting fit following them riding a bike. (9) For natural runners like them it was an ambivalent journey. Emma was elated of her stage in Kenya and came back with positive feelings about everything from the food to the landscape. (10) Purdue was not as relaxed in Iten. She praised the work of the Kenyan staff at Lornah’s but the shower was “shit” and the gym was too crowded and noisy. Specially she did not get to adapt to the muddy and rocky trails and had to return home with a hurting knee. (11) Both expeditions were unlucky with climatic conditions. The first time it was too dry and too much dust was in the air. The second time the weather was unexpectedly rainy and it made difficult running. Anyway, injuries had been an obstacle too much frequently in the way of Mick Woods’ disciples, often as consequence of the highly demanding Aldershot’s workouts. Pallant faced retirement after a knee operation in 2009 and ongoing struggles in following seasons. Purdue did not race in six months in 2011 because of a stress fracture of the knee. Finally, Twell broke her ankle in five pieces in a Cross in Brussels one year ago and has been back only recently. The courageous athlete was prevented against running cross country again but she took the risk and achieved a praiseworthy fourth place in Velenje.          

             Fortunately all these amazing runners have currently left all their injuries behind and are training at full power for London Olympic Games. Yet it had been nice if their beloved specialty, Cross Country, would have been included in the Olympic programme. Lacking it, they will have to concentrate their efforts for the track. To date, the only Aldershot athlete whose performances on the stadium match the ones on the fields is Steph Twell, who won the final at the World Junior championships in 2008, in a race Emma Pallant struck bronze. (12) That victory over Kenyans and Ethiopians, notably over Kalkidan Gezahegne, current world indoor champion and 4th placer outdoors in Daegu, was a huge boost of confidence for Steph, who also made her Olympic debut in Beijing that same year. Afterwards she has improved her marks to 4:02.54 at the 1500m and 14:54.08 at the 5000m, alternating up and downs in major championships. In her reappearance year after a whole season cut down by her broken ankle, she is entering the turning point of her career. Almost 23 by the Games, she will have to prove herself she can now face anybody. It will be an excellent opportunity for her in an event quite open and besides cheered by her own public. Look at also for Emma Pallant, for years at the shadow of giants Twell and Purdue, who eventually won her first international title in Velenje and can be in the year of her breakthrough.
            Charlotte Purdue proved she was born for tough cross country challenges, ever since she sensationally endured extreme heat and humidity in Mombasa in 2007, to end up the first not-African in the junior contest at age 15.  Lately we have seen her also successfully mastering the roads, as at last Bupa Edinburgh Great Run, where only one of the best, Lucy Wangui, could beat her. Charlie has entered next New York City half-marathon and her future may well be at the longest of the Olympic events. Twell is on the way of becoming the new Kelly Holmes, while Purdue might be a worthy heir of Paula Radcliffe… but for Rio de Janeiro in four years time. Meanwhile, she would try to qualify for the 10.000m for London, but her far-from-economic style of running does not seem to fit the track. For another pure cross country runner, Emelia Gorecka, these Games come too soon but if Jordan Hasay has focused all her season for the Olympic US trials, why should not try such extraordinary youngster as Emelia. Her teen companion Georgia Peel, who like Pallant (13) attended the “On Camp with Kelly” mentoring project for promising middle distance runners, would like to give joy to Dame Holmes qualifying for the host Games at the 1500m. (14) Winner at her first international outing, the World School Games in Doha in 2009, where we also discovered Gorecka, Georgia suffered later two successive setbacks at the Youth Olympic Games and Youth World championships, returning home without a medal. (15) Now she will be up for revenge. Too much too soon, but when there is so much talent and athletic passion you never know.         
Emma Pallant at her training stage in altitude in Iten, Kenya, in February 2011

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