Jonathan Brown Interview (part 1)

August 4, 2011 1

© Copyright – 2008 – Athletics Illustrated

Should you be fortunate enough to walk onto the track and witness, up-close, a 27:18 10,000 metre runner, put out ten near-perfect and even 1km repeats off of 60” rest (not sure how fast 2:40?) you may want to pay attention. Sure he will make it look easy, as he runs just as smooth-like in the first repeat as he manages during the tenth, appearing to coast, that is until he grabs his knees after; yes the talented work hard too.

One day I was on the local track running a few mile repeats. Also on the track were a dozen or so 20-year-olds who appeared to have as much business being on a track as Jon Brown does wearing skates on the ice. They were top-level prospects for the NHL. They all stopped to watch the world-class action.

Since his international career began to wind down, he started coaching other athletes.  His website is called Run by Common Sense.

CK: In 2005 during a Runner’s World Magazine interview with Peter Gambaccini you said in reference to your London Marathon personal best of 2:09:31, “I still don’t think it’s a personal best I should be jumping up and down about. It’s not something I’m particularly proud of. I should have run a lot quicker in the past.”

How fast are we talking?

JB: I think low 2:08 or maybe high 2:07 wouldn’t have been unreasonable for me. The time just after Sydney Olympics should have been my prime marathon years, but I was struggling through a groin problem then that was only corrected by surgery in 2003. It’s a little frustrating, but I don’t lose any sleep over it.

I know hitting a perfect race is so rare – I feel lucky that I achieved a decent 10,000m track personal best. I regret not having a better Pb over 5000m more than the marathon; I ran 13:19 but I feel I should have run much quicker. It’s making the most of the opportunities you are given; I ran under 13:25 many times, but I just never managed to hit the right race at the right moment. I guess 13:19 isn’t too shabby though!

CK: I’d say!

Looking back on your negative splits from both Olympic Marathon (Athens and Sydney) are you satisfied with the way the races played out, could you have taken bronze with a slightly faster first half?

JB: No I don’t think quicker first half’s would have aided my medal chances. In an Olympic marathon it’s all about racing not time trialing, so it usually comes down to running negative splits. Obviously the main feature of Athens was the uphill between 15 and 30km, so the last half was always going to be quicker. In Athens the field made the mistake of just letting de Lima get too far ahead, which in hindsight was stupid because we new he was going to be well suited to the Athens course. In both Olympics, 3 better guys beat me on the day, simple as that.

CK: In that same interview you said that the IAAF have squeezed the calendar a bit too much. It seems you were referring to the Commonwealth Games Marathon being more of a developmental meet now and not as important as it used to be.

Do you get the sense that the IAAF are dampening the importance of other international competitions. If so, what do you think is the purpose behind doing that.

JB: It seems to me that athletics is struggling in Europe and the IAAF are unsure about what the future will be for the sport.

Television audience figures are not what they used to be and the domination of Africans in the middle and long distance is now so overwhelming that you can hardly find a non-African in those events at the Grand Prix level.

I think the commercial appeal of the sport is at the lowest point it’s been at for many years. This is partly a result of the never-ending doping scandals also.

The best competitions to watch are still the championships and events where athletes are representing their countries; I think the appeal of these is their diversity of competing nationalities and the unpredictability of the competition. I’m all for the banning of rabbits and the promotion of racing not obsessed with setting world records. There’s a time and place for record attempts, but I think people love most of all to watch just good racing.

The global nature of athletics and its composition of individual athletes make it an unusual commodity. Once upon a time Europeans and North Americans dominated the sport, but now it’s dominated in many events by athletes from third world countries where there is no commercial market for the sport to sell itself to. That must be a unique situation in sports I think, and a very precarious one.

CK: In regards to UK Athletics, when you say they were unprofessional and certainly more unprofessional than previous UK Athletics staff including the uncommunicative High Performance Director, Dave Collins. How did the lack of professionalism manifest itself (outside the lack of communication).

JB: Certainly the lack of communication was a big issue for me as it was for other UK athletes. I felt the endurance technical director basically neglected his job duties in order to pursue other interests; it later turned out this was one of the young female athletes under his supervision. Probably in part the problem is that I operate by high standards and make sure I’m always thorough in my preparations. There’s no excuse for official coaches neglecting their positions due to basic indifference or laziness and this I found to be an increasing problem after 2004.

CK: Which self interests are you referring to?

JB: Dirty old coach preying on vulnerable young female athlete – familiar story.

CK’s note: Daily Telegraph: Collins at the helm of a very shaky ship

CK: Switching gears, a few times you have mentioned many runners don’t run easy enough during their easy days. I notice on your warm down, after a race, you move achingly slow. Is this something that took you a while to learn and adapt to?

JB: That’s funny; I’ve never thought about that before. I suppose my various habits have been partly learned and partly just developed naturally over time. There’s nothing unusual about it I think; most top guys have very slow warm-ups and warm-downs. One sure giveaway of an athlete who lacks confidence is when you see someone warming up at a fast pace. After a hard race or workout the last thing I want to do is warm down, but I know it’s important so I do it. It doesn’t matter about speed as all you are doing is performing a muscle flushing function.

When I was young I would observe all the top guys to see what their pre-race habits were, how they warmed up/ what they ate etc; being able to observe world class runners when you are young is just a priceless experience I think.

CK: In England you grew up in an era where the British had all sorts of top-level runners. It was some sort of golden era. Did you receive any level of grassroots support/involvement when you were a kid.

JB: I had lots of support from my schoolteachers and club coaches. The club I ran for when I was a kid was Halamshire Harriers in Sheffield; Seb Coe was also a member at the same time. It was a mainly a middle/long distance club with numerous training groups for kids catering for all abilities; basically every town had at least one such club in those days. The coaching wasn’t technical; we would do 2 quality workouts a week, maybe a race and the weekly long run in the hills. Kids are naturally competitive amongst each other so it’s not as if the coaches needed to encourage us much. Coaching in those days took a very natural approach to running which seems to be missing now.

CK: The sporting world is rife with stories of businesses, governing bodies of sport, teams and even fans giving up on an athlete, only to see the athlete come back and prove them wrong with great performances. Perhaps it is the fuel one needs, to not only go out on top or at their best, but to prove some people wrong. You don’t really have anything to prove however, will this scenario motivate you in your training. I mean someone at UKA must think you are already grazing in the pasture.

JB: Before the last Olympics UKA had already given up on me so it was satisfying to prove some people wrong. I think its part of an athlete’s lot to be constantly at odds with their federation; I certainly felt that way when people like Andy Norman and Dave Bedford managed the sport in the UK.

When I was younger selection for national teams or trips abroad usually wasn’t based on performance, but on who coached you and where you lived.  Things like that really bothered me a lot and certainly gave me added motivation. One of the best things that happened to me was when I started working with the late Kim McDonald, my former manager. I realized then, for the most part, I didn’t need the federation at all. Kim had a huge influence on many great runners and his no-nonsense pragmatic approach was really appealing to me.

CK: The internet has developed into this grotesquely, mammoth cache of information. It seems the more freely information is spread, the less accurate much of it becomes. That and every snake oil salesman starts selling whatever people want to hear.

You have entered into the realm of coaching. The name of your coaching business is Run By Common Sense. Now that’s a name to conjure with. With the plethora of training information available over the net, did you come by this name to cut through some of the BS that prevails.

JB: I know what you mean regarding the problems the Internet has created. Throughout my career the main principle George Gandy and myself worked by is just plain common sense, which happens we found out to be pretty uncommon. Its one thing to be technically knowledgeable but to actually put into practice a functional training program is totally different. Successful coaching basically boils down to good judgment and experience; common sense gives the coach and athlete clear training boundaries and consistent methods. I often see running magazines and coaching books overly complicating training and confusing runners, which is totally unnecessary. Then you have the various Internet forums where every well meaning armchair coach can offer all kinds of wacky wisdom.

The fact is many runners have no clue what they are trying to achieve with their training, which leaves them very vulnerable to suggestion. Successful training doesn’t need to be complicated, but it does need to be sensible and within the individual’s current ability range. Steady progress is the key!

My aim as a coach is to give runners a solid understanding of themselves as runners, where they learn common sense training principles and habits that will give them the ability to function independent of me.  The best qualities I have as an athlete are my own self-awareness and sensible training habits.

CK: Has George Gandy imparted as much with you.

JB: Absolutely. George and I think very much alike and have the same way of formulating training plans. Even though George is from an academic background, he knows the art of good coaching is finding the right balance of ingredients in a training program. What absolutely needs to be done, what ideally needs to be done and what would be nice in an ideal world. Getting the athlete organized in a way they can operate confidently by them selves is one of the cornerstones of George’s philosophy. A coach shouldn’t have the athlete dependent on them all the time.

CK: What level of runner are you accepting with your online coaching service.

JB: Ability level isn’t important to me – they could be 30′ 10 km runners or 60′; what is most important to me is their attitude. If they show a genuine commitment to improvement then I’ll help them.  I don’t judge someone on how quick they can run; a willingness to learn and a positive attitude is good enough for me.

CK: It seems that the athletes (runners) who have the most enduring careers seem to have run the most miles early in life. They also seem to have loved running for the sake of running first and foremost. Hence they develop not only a love for the ritual (being creatures of habit and comfort zones), but they develop a large aerobic base, which they can revitalize quickly after some time off.

Training an elite athlete is one thing, they come pre-ordered with some level of talent, interest in the sport and of course the knowledge of what level of work it takes to become elite.  How does a coach, coach someone new to running a lot of miles for a long time, to build up that base.

JB: I agree the runners who have the longer careers are the ones who basically enjoy the joy of running – usually trail running. Coaching someone not used to running a decent amount of volume can be difficult if they are coming from a program more quality based as they are always chomping at the bit to run fast in the base period.

Having patience is a quality essential for every runner serious about progressing; the base phase of training can be monotonous so it’s up to the coach to give the athletes short term goals which break up this monotony. This might be working hard on general conditioning or a steady progression of their weekly long run distance. Getting athletes to train hard is usually easy; it’s getting them to hold back that is the more difficult part. It’s important for the coach to have the novice athlete believe in the annual process and not just think in the short term.

CK: My favorite new question since the World Cross Country Championships in Scotland this year: Seb Coe (Sebastion Coe) and Deek (Robert De Castella) have both been quoted as saying that the lack of depth in cross country by Europeans and North Americans is an indication of why there is a lack of depth in international athletics from these areas.

Do you agree and how important is cross-country running and racing to you.

JB: I’m always wary when I hear ex-athletes comment on the current state of athletics, as their memories of ‘what they used to do’ often isn’t very accurate. The situation with non-African performance at the World Cross is worrying, but I think it’s just another symptom of a problem rather than a cause.

For me running cross-country was as important as running on the track in the summer. I would prepare specifically to run well for the World Cross knowing full well if I wasn’t in top shape it wasn’t worth even running. I think most guys of my generation and older, saw it the same way. Of course there were great track runners who never ran it because they didn’t have any interest in it.

I wanted to test myself against the best guys from Kenya and Ethiopia so it was a great opportunity. I think the European Cross Championships has given the Europeans somewhere to hide now; many prepare just for the Europeans and then pass on the World Cross. This is totally opposite to the original idea behind the European Cross. When there was just the World Cross the best Europeans just couldn’t escape from running it as its importance was just too high, but with the introduction of the Europeans there is an option to escape from the reality of the World Cross. The last time I ran the World Cross was 4 years ago and that was after missing the events for 5 years; I did notice changes to the event like the lack of non-Africans at the front end, even though I don’t think the quality of the race is much different to 10-15 years ago. If you are within a minute of the winner you’ll still make top 15-ish.

CK: So is the solution to kill the Euros?

JB: Maybe the solution is to get rid of the European cross-country or maybe having it every other year. The World Cross is a great event and one day I’d like to see it come to Victoria; I think the IAAF need to do more to promote the event and work together with the bigger European races to recreate the magic of cross country.

CK: Victoria has a pretty good network of trails. I haven’t run all that much in other cities. How does Victoria rank with other places you have lived.

JB: In terms of urban running Victoria is pretty hard to beat; the combination of connecting trail systems and large open space parks gives unlimited options for running and cycling around town. Where I live it’s just crazy how good the running is; for me it’s really important to be able to enjoy my surroundings when I’m running lots of mileage. The variety of different types of surfaces and terrain always keeps my enjoyment for running fresh. At the moment I’m really enjoying running on single-track bush trails with my Lurcher called Luna. In other places I’ve lived often you’re confined to large parks like in London or forests like in Germany. In Victoria I suppose we have the best of everything.

CK: The below times are all world-class performances. I am guessing here these personal bests are not linearly equivalent sort of speak. I think your 27:18 out-ranks the others. Is this so? It is still the European 10, 000m record.

1500m – 3:40

3km – 7:45

5km – 13:19

10km – 27:18

15km – 42:39

Half marathon – 61:49

Marathon – 2:09:32

JB: My 27:18 10km was never a European record, just a UK record. I think I’m somewhere like sixth on the European all-time list, just behind Carlos Lopes. The most impressive part of that performance though was that I ran the last 5km in 13:30, which just goes to show how much more inferior my 5km pb is; for sure my 10km best is statistically my best performance.

My 15km road best is pretty good too I think; I also ran 42:41 on the same course down in Tampa. The best half marathon I ran was probably in Victoria in 2002; 62:30 by myself on an undulating course, having to dodge my way through thousands of other runners. Sometimes your best races aren’t always your quickest.

CK: I remember the half in Victoria where you were like Moses parting the sea, I can’t imagine how stressful that must have been as a runner and as a lead vehicle driver honking for people to move it. It was indeed a great race. It seems you negative split many great performances, is this always the intention or do you ever just race individuals however hard the pace may go.

JB: I think people always run their best performances when they negative split, or at least match their first half effort. When I used to run 5km on the track almost every Grand Prix I would be in over my head running way too fast for the first mile, just trying to hang onto the pack. Inevitably I would pay the price in the closing stages; if an athlete is still strong in the closing laps so much time can be taken off right then. I always seem to run my best when I’m driven by the competition of other people; I suppose it’s important to find the correct level of competition suitable for your ability.

CK: When you were running (perhaps you are again) your 110, to I believe (correct me if I am wrong) 140 mpw, when did the mileage start to drop towards an important race. For instance did you keep mileage high over months as you added in quality.

Can we see a sample base week from your marathon training?

JB: My mileage varied quite a bit depending on what I was training for at the time. For cross-country and track I wouldn’t go above 110 too often. For marathon it would be 115-140, although I went higher on occasion. I would certainly have periods where I wouldn’t do any quality, just steady running twice a day. Once the mileage was up to the level I’m happy with and I’m coping easily with it, I would then work on my threshold running; one good workout each week is all, just running for time. Only in the specific training phase would I add another quality workout – either a 5km type thing or a marathon tempo, depending on what I was training for. My routine was all about bringing each training component together at the right time for me.

Mon: am– 16km /pm – 10km

Tue: am– 6 x 5’ (1’) / pm – 10km

Wed: am– 25km

Thu: am– 16km pm – 10km

Fri: am- 30-40’ hills pm – 10km

Sat: am- 16km /pm – rest

Sun: am – 30km /pm – rest

CK: You are pretty mellow guy. Ever have cathartic moments watching Monty Python or something like that, any favorite cultural things you enjoy that readers may not know.

JB: My routine now to large extent revolves around my family. At the moment I enjoy building dry stone walls for relaxation – It’s kind of like doing a 3 dimensional jigsaw and can be pretty artistic.

CK: A sponsor of your coaching service, we referred to earlier, ‘Run by Common Sense’ is ‘Greyhound Pets’. Their mission is to place retired racing Greyhounds into good homes, seems like a wholesome project. Do you feel a sense of satirical irony in what they do, with all this false talk of your retiring already.

JB: That is too funny, I never even thought about it like that! Yes, I like the irony of it. I put the link up to Greyhound Pets Inc. because we adopted a greyhound last year from the organization; unfortunately the adoption didn’t work out as the dog had issues regarding our youngest child and other dogs.

They have very difficult lives as racers and sometimes a few dogs need longer to adapt to the ‘normal’ world than others. Greyhounds are amazing in every way though, and we plan to try adopting another soon; the dogs are true athletes – when they aren’t running (which is 99.9% of the day) they will be on the couch sleeping – super lazy. Having a dog hammering around the back yard at 40 miles per hour though is an amazing sight! Right now we have a short coated Lurcher (Greyhound/Deerhound/Whippet mix) and she just loves running with me.

CK: You have joined the Royal Victoria Marathon board. Bob Reid in the Press Release indicated that perhaps you will attract runners who can take the current course records of 2:16 and 2:42.

What level of runner do you think you can attract to this event.

JB: Realistically our goal is to attract up to half a dozen athletes at around the 2:16-2:20 range for men and 2:40 for women. Currently I don’t think there enough opportunities for guys at this level to feel like they feature at big events.  I think athletes always perform their best when they are in a competitive situation with the chance of victory; too often guys at this level get lost in big races as the pace is just too big a leap for them. The RVM is a good course and I believe an ideal event for the development of Canadian and American marathoners. Athletes at this level don’t expect to be coming away from events like the RVM with big pay checks; they are just trying to make progress to that next level. My involvement gives the race a bit more technical credibility in how we provide this elite running opportunity. The RVM is going through an exciting growth period at the moment which will hopefully help advance Canadian marathon performances.

CK: I understand you are going to continue with competitive marathon running and have your sites possibly on the World Track and Field Championships. Is this unfinished business, because going out with an injury is no way to cap a great career. Or is it the notion that you still have a few 2:0X left in your legs.

JB: My plan was to compete in 4 Olympic Games then retire, but that isn’t going to happen now. I’ve never run a World Championship marathon so yes maybe that is an option for me. My relationship with the marathon has always been difficult; it’s proved to be my most successful event, but I can’t say I enjoy it. Maybe competing in the World Cross and doing the European cross season one last time holds more appeal for me.

 

 

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