Extraneous variables in a sportsman’s endeavours

By my reckoning it has been about a year since my last post…this is perhaps indicative of the year that I have had since Tomasin was born.

I hope to be able to write a little more over the coming months but even since I have stopped training (as most of you reading this will know I am now retired from athletics) I have still struggled to find the time to write – it seems I am always commuting, working or spending time with the family (which obviously is not a hardship by any means!).

This last 12 months has taught me that it is very difficult to try and perform in an unforgiving sport when you have a lot of extraneous variables in your life. It doesn’t just mean having the time to train but also the time to relax and recover properly.

Ultimately my Commonwealth Games and a lot of my sub-par performances in the past have stemmed from injuries – but if I trace back my career I can actually see that where I was without stresses of a bad job, bad commuting, or another non-sporting problem – I was usually performing much better.

Even this year – until Christmas 2013 I was working at UWE gym with a great opportunity to train during the day and not too stressful a time in the workplace either! Since then I have worked at Simplyhealth (medical insurance) which has been fine, but the commute has taken a lot of energy on top of the 7 hour office slog and family stuff. Therefore it is no real surpise that I held on to some sort of form indoors – winning the Midlands Champs despite having only 6 or so weeks of being able to run fast in training following my severe hip flexor injury. However, outdoors I never really hit top gear. There is another issue surrounding speed training which also made a big difference but I believe that the added fatigue of work and general life was what made the difference ultimately.

This is why funding or sponsorship at the right time can really make or break a ‘career.’ I mean this more as a general point as opposed to moaning that I have deserved more than I’ve had. If any athlete in any sport can exist in a situation whereby they can work part time with plenty of flexibility then they stand a much better chance of ‘making it.’ Often an argument that is made is that if an athlete wants it enough they will do everything they can and evenutally fulful their potential. Personally I disagree. If one athlete is spending half the year training in tropical conditions with no work worries and plenty of physio support, I don’t see how another athlete with similar ability can possibly keep up with that.

As a proud Guernseyman, I would advise any of the current crop of youngsters coming through the club to put everything into the sport at a young age – even university education is a hell of a step below a full-time job in terms of commitment – if you can get any sort of sponsorship before the end of university then you have a chance of making some headway in the sport. Depending on your level, I would also advocate taking part-time work for a period of time to establish what you can really achieve in sport before taking the big step into a “real job.”

For my own part, I was able to avoid full-time work until 2011 thanks to The Garenne Group’s support 2008-10. Although I have actually run faster in 2011 and 2012, I would pick out 2009 as the year in my athletics career in which I showed the most promise. I had started the season poorly as I had some personal stuff going on – but as soon as that was resolved my lifestyle was geared perfectly towards the Island Games that year and I duly turned up a notch on my performances. Strangely enough my PB in 2011 was also taken during a brief stint between jobs and my SB in 2012 was while I was working in a gym environment. Unfortunately, most gym-based roles are not reliable or well paid enough to support a family and I would not be able to look myself in the mirror in the morning if I put my athletics ahead of my fiancée and daughter. I think it is natural that athletes can often end up wondering “what if…” and I am no different. That said – to have such a happy, beautiful daughter when I am still quite young myself is something that I always wanted – and is something I wouldn’t swap for anything else, even if she has created big changes!

12th September 2013 – the date I found out what really matters

9pm 11th September we arrived at the hospital, and eventually the overrun staff at the RUH in Bath proclaimed that Suzi was indeed in “proper” labour. The next eight and a half hours would bring the most intense emotions of my life.

Obviously this blog will usually contain athletics or fitness related content. But the last six weeks have been consumed by one little bundle of joy. And one hour before her birth I realised that everything else pales into insignificance.

I can recall it clear as day, and I think I will remember 4am until 5:30am 12 Sept 2013 for the rest of my life. The midwife, Kathryn proclaimed at 4am that we will push in one hour. We, in this case meaning Suzi, obviously. I think I had done pretty well until this point, I had rubbed her back, held her hand, supported her as she had the epidural, said all the right things, etc. At 4:15am though, I started to struggle a bit…I said I fancied getting some air outside, so went to the front of the hospital. It was pretty mild outside and I stood in the misty air for a while, trying to take in what was happening. I remember really wanting to tell someone that we were going to have a baby shortly. But not many people would appreciate a message or call at that time of the morning. I knew my friend Matt was in Dubai…I checked the time zone on my phone. They were only 3 hours ahead or something. Not as much as I’d expected, so I texted my mum and dad in readiness for the morning when they woke up, and went back inside.

I got back to the delivery room and sat down coolly (or on the face of it) alongside Suzi. 10 minutes later I wasn’t feeling so good, I went to the vending machine and bought a full sugar Pepsi and a Twix. I figured I needed sugar or something as obviously I’d been up all night and not eaten.  The light-headedness improved and I got back to Suzi at 4:50ish, and we made small talk for 10 minutes – seems strange to have small-talk with your fiancée but that’s what it was like.

At 5am suddenly I had a massive rush of adrenaline. The midwife wasn’t quite ready so Suzi didn’t push until about 5:10. Those were the most adrenaline filled minutes of my life. It is ridiculous to be so nervous about something that I have absolutely no control over. But it was genuinely about 10 times worse than any race I’ve ever done…Commonwealths, UK Champs, anything. It is a good job I only had to sit down for the next half hour, because I genuinely couldn’t have stood up. I remember worrying about looking stupid if I was sick. I didn’t feel nauseous but I could have thrown up with the nerves, honestly.

Obviously the experience was quite a personal moment, but a blog is supposed to reflect thoughts and events of mine, and so I wanted to try and describe some aspects of the experience of being a dad-in-waiting during the birth. I’ve never felt so useless to be fair. When I saw her lying on Suzi’s chest at 5:28am, the feeling was literally indescribable. So I won’t even try. But if anything – or anyone – is going to motivate me to achieve my potential in this Commonwealth year, then it is that little baby girl, Tomasin Joan Druce.

Guernsey Athletics Rankings using IAAF Performance Table

I think it is in our nature to want to compare sporting performances, whether it is questioning whether Ronaldo is better than Messi, or whether Chris Hoy really is our greatest ever Olympian simply because he has the most gold medals. Specifically in athletics, it is easier than other sports to compare performances in an event – who crossed the line first was the best. But what about comparing across events? It is very difficult to do so but our best bet is the IAAF Scoring Tables of Athletics. The author says:

“The Scoring Tables of Athletics are based on exact statistical data and according to the following principles: The scores in the tables of different events cover equivalent performances. Therefore, the tables can be used to compare results achieved in different athletic events. The tables are progressive, which means that the same improvement of results at higher levels leads to a greater increase in the scores. For example, to improve from 8.30m to 8.60m in the Long Jump is obviously more difficult than to improve from 6.30m to 6.60m.

The IAAF Scoring Tables of Athletics can be used for multiple purposes, including:

• To determine the Result Score of a performance for the World Rankings;
• To evaluate the competitions;
• To establish the best athlete award in a specific competition;
• To produce national, club, school and other rankings;
• To use it in championships of clubs, etc.”

Below is a ranking of performances of current Guernsey track athletes, down to 850 points. Only an athlete’s best 2 events have been considered (as otherwise the higher ranked athletes flood the table with their third/fourth/fifth events), only championship distances were considered (i.e. not 300, 600, 3000, etc) and only track performances (aside from marathon) for distance events.

Dale Garland 400H 49.54 1147
Lee Merrien Marathon 2:13:41 1097
Lee Merrien 1500 3:40.79 1096
Tom Druce 400 46.37 1090
Dale Garland 400 46.68 1070
Kylie Robilliard 100H 13.68     1069
Kylie Robilliard 100 11.94 1022
Tom Druce 200 21.32 1021
Sarah Mercier 1500 4:27.01    998
Louise Perrio 5000 16:34.68     987
Nat Whitty 1500 4:29.28   982
Nat Whitty 800 2:10.06 981
Sarah Mercier 5000 16:53.71    953
Teresa Roberts 100 12.36    950
Katie Rowe 1500 4:34.92 941
Glenn Etherington 110H 14.76    936
Glenn Etherington 200 21.95 932
Louise Perrio 10000 36:11.55   928
Lee Garland 3000SC 9:17.54     923
Teresa Roberts 200 25.69 922
Emma Le Conte 400 59.13 897
Josh Allaway 200 22.25     891
Mike Batiste 800 1:55.14 890
Hywel Robinson 400 49.86 881
Mike Batiste 1500 3:58.25 875
Katie Rowe 1500 2:16.74 875
Josh Allaway 100 11.04 874
Sam Wallbridge 400H 55.66 870
Hannah Lesbirel 200 26.41 867
Cameron Chalmers 400 50.29 857
Emma Le Conte 200 26.57 855
Hannah Lesbirel 100 12.96 850

Although it would be foolish not to acknowledge that the table cannot be taken as gospel in terms of ranking performances, it is also worth noting that this system stems from decathlon and heptathlon scoring, which decides who wins medals at Olympics downwards. The IAAF have obviously put their name to it and they also use the table in their world rankings on www.all-athletics.com

Creating the Guernsey rankings was actually very interesting and using the scoring tables in this way can provoke much thought and cause for debate. I also personally think that it is important to recognise levels of performance on the island as sometimes some athletes do not receive the credit they deserve, and conversely sometimes the opposite can happen too.

The first thing that surprised me was that Dale was 50 points ahead of Mezza at the top. Most would have been able to predict that Dale, Mezza, Kylie and myself would fill the top six spots, but most would have predicted Mezza taking top spot. This is because he qualified for the 2012 Olympics and ran very credibly in London 2012 itself. So maybe Dale hasn’t got the credit he deserved for his 400 hurdles PB (though he has capitalised well on his 400 flat performances)…but why? Dale initially looked like he’d timed his hurdles career to perfection, as in 2007 he was no. 1 in the country with 49.79. However, since then many Brits have been running sub-49.5 race in, race out. The event has taken off, led by my former training partner Dai Greene. The marathon, however, is not a strong event in Britain at the moment (and rarely is on the men’s side) – an opportunity that Mezza has grabbed with both hands! So perhaps it is simply a case of comparisons with the rest of Britain.

This leads me on nicely to the subject of athletes being influenced by national or island comparative standards and perceptions. One point in the scoring table is such a miniscule amount that we could say that Mezza’s marathon and 1500 are essentially the same standard. But Britain and Europe are stronger in 1500 so Mezza was always going to step up to the longer distance – in his case he’d have taken his flat speed and longer endurance potential into account too – in short he has more potential for improvement over marathon than 1500.

But this can also happen down the list. Nat Whitty would probably classify herself as a straight 800 runner, as opposed to an 800/1500. But in fact she is one point better over 1500. In Guernsey we are stronger over women’s 1500 than 800, and because the 800 Commonwealth standard is lighter too, this reinforced the perception that her 800 was much stronger. That’s not to say she won’t push on over 800 in 2014 – but could be food for thought! Josh Allaway and Mike Batiste may also be surprised to learn that what they may think of as their second events score clearly higher on the table too.

All that said, why shouldn’t we as athletes target a “lighter” event in order to achieve honours? I believe we absolutely should. However, particularly in a smaller place like Guernsey I think there is a risk of athletes being pushed into events because of perceptions drawn from historical Guernsey performances. Sometimes it is worth casting an eye over a scoring table or even just the UK rankings.

I was also interested to see how close Sarah and Louise’s scores came to those of the top 3. It means that they are really knocking on the door of being competitive at national level. Hopefully they can both really push on in the coming months – I know that with Sarah being coached by Mezza she has every opportunity to do that.

A great sign for the future is the appearance of many of the youngsters further down the list, led by Teresa Roberts and Katie Rowe. The latter in particular looks an exciting prospect, and next season she is top year U17 and we’ll be looking for her to move up this list. All athletes develop at different rates but it is still nice to see where they stand in these overall rankings. People might not have realised, for example, that Hannah Lesbirel’s 200 puts her in the same ballpark as the likes of Josh Allaway, Mike Batiste and Sam Wallbridge.

This kind of information could be of great use to the GIAAC going forward, for example in terms of funding criteria and Commonwealth/Island Games standards. It can also help less experienced athletes quantify their achievements – not to mention giving athletics enthusiasts talking points for debate.

Guernsey Athletics has been off-track since Bermuda

I will give an insight into my experiences of the outdoor athletics season in due course, but first wanted to have a look at a situation at home. This was prompted after I’ve twice seen in recent weeks two promising young 400m runners run 51point at important races when they were both capable of running 49point. One of them did also manage an Island U17 record of 50.29 during that time too, which was unbelievable. Why? Because on 12th July, Guernsey’s only athletics track was closed for resurfacing for 10 weeks.

Now the finer details are difficult to come by. Culture & Leisure seemingly made arrangements for the work and sought the ok from the athletics club. This is second hand information that I have come by so I may be misinformed. But it is fair to assume that the decision was taken by Culture & Leisure (with influence from Guernsey FC??) and the blessing of the athletics club.

Even the work itself wasn’t made clear to the public, with BBC claiming a complete resurface and the Guernsey Press reporting a respray. As anyone might deduct, there is a big difference. I’m fairly sure that it is being largely sprayed, going by what I’ve been told, with a few sections needing additional work. It is very similar to work which I witnessed happening at Bath University over a 3 week period… maybe they paid more to get it done quickly? I don’t know.

I understand that they need the weather to do such work, but they don’t need it baking hot. Being largely dry is sufficient. What they did need to do which certainly didn’t happen is to prioritise the athletes. It is a football ground too but 12 months out from the Commonwealth Games, deep in the competition season, athletes deserve access to the track. Work could have been delayed by 4-6 weeks and still had a good chance of undertaking the work in good (enough) weather. And the island’s athletes could have continued to chase PBs and Commonwealth Games qualifying times.

The Island Games is a great event for local sportsmen and fans. How disappointing was it for the athletes to return from a great experience in Bermuda to the realisation that their seasons were effectively over in mid-July. Over here in the UK, athletics at every level from club to internationals continues all the way into September for those who wish to keep going.

I have always thought it very important to promote the idea to the kids that the Island Games is only the first step. Opening their eyes to higher standards in the UK at national and regional age group champs is ultimately of higher importance. So what sort of message have our young team got this year when they have returned from Bermuda, on a high from the experience, to be told that they don’t have a track to train on until winter training starts? It tells them that the Island Games is the pinacle and now that is done, they might as well turn their attention to next year. Maybe I’m over-analysing here, but it certainly is a genuine shame that inspired youngsters stepped off the plane to find their season had ended.

Some gamely continued to compete, and there were some exceptional efforts where PB’s were achieved, but in the main, things just fizzled out. In the sprints in particular, it is near on impossible to be in race shape training on grass – not to mention the possible injuries that attempting to run fast on grass can bring.

There was an interesting range of reactions from local athletes and coaches regarding the situation. Somebody said to me they believed it to be “perfect timing” presumably because the first week of the work coincided with the Island Games. Other people said that it was just one of those things and they’d “make the best of it.” And some were extremely frustrated and even blamed the GFC-craze for the situation. Obviously any GFC influence hasn’t been made public so it is purely speculation whether they asked for the work to be started pre-season.

Personally I am fortunate it did not affect me, but I am very keen for athletics to prosper on the island as much as possible. I believe that the situation manifested itself because of lack of insight and knowledge in general amongst the parties on the island. Culture & Leisure should never have thought that mid-July would have been a good time, and the athletics club should have asked for reconsideration of the timings. I am still surprised of the length of time for a standard job too.

Another demonstration of lack of local knowledge confounds the problem. The Guernsey Commonwealth Games Association have set a deadline of March 2014 for athletes to attain standards. With athletes losing two months of the tail end of the 2013 season, this has made it very difficult. Jersey’s athletes have until 4th June. Surely everyone knows athletics starts in May? April at an absolute push.

It’s a real shame for every athlete and coach that has been negatively affected, as it is decisions taken by people arguably less in the know than them who have created the problem. Unfortunately, particularly for sprinters and field eventers, at this moment it is a severe disadvantage being an athlete in Guernsey. I just hope the decision doesn’t cost an athlete his/her place at the Commonwealth Games 2014.Footes Lane, mid-work