Running guru can help get Irish athletics back on track

The appointment of Chris Jones as National Endurance Coach is to be welcomed


I have never met Gerry Duffy, and probably wouldn’t recognise him if he ran right by me while feasting on a Thai curry and salad, chicken and garlic with mushroom and wheat free pasta, lots and lots of chocolate, two Mars bars, a Snickers and a few bags of M&Ms, and four cans of Coke.

Fear not for his bowels: Duffy wouldn’t normally consume this amount of food while running, but only occasionally, such as during the 2011 “Deca”, a horribly painful feast of endurance now proudly chronicled in his new book, Tick, Tock, Ten . There’s a handy hint in that title, for those oblivious to such deeds, as the “Deca” means completing 10 Ironman Triathlons – as in the full 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile cycle, and 26.2-mile run – over 10 consecutive days. Oh mercy!

Someone kindly delivered a copy of Tick, Tock, Ten to my desk this week, and I got about halfway through, late into Wednesday night, before falling fast asleep, for 10 hours straight. This is partly explained by the ultra fatigue brought on by simply reading about Duffy’s ordeal: “My right foot must have felt its work was done because it was stuck to the ground,” is how he describes the feeling after just day three. “Its weight felt as heavy as a ship’s anchor. I tried to send a message from my brain to my leg muscles but it fell on deaf ears.”

Without spoiling the end, Duffy eventually makes it – complete with several souvenirs, including chronic cellulitis, a stress fracture in his right leg, and, amazingly, an extra two pounds in body weight. There are no prizes in the “Deca”, and yet for Duffy, as readers of his first book Who Dares, Runs already know, the achievement is somehow magnified given he once smoked 30 cigarettes a day, with a beer belly to fold his arms on while watching sport on television.

There are parts of Tick, Tock, Ten where Duffy moves towards that phantom-like figure sometimes known as the running guru, articulating that deep appreciation for what it means to truly test the limits of our physical and mental being. If completing 10 Ironman Triathlons over 10 consecutive days is your thing then he is the man to inch you along, every step of the way.

Zealous extreme
The only danger with the modern running guru, at least compared to the traditional one, is that anyone seems capable of applying, and increasingly they do. There are no exact qualifications, such are the intangible qualities sometimes necessary to bring out the best in ourselves, and yet the true guru typically deals in the zealous extreme, preferably hurling praise and insult in equal measure.

“You might think you can run faster than me,” Percy Cerutty, Australia’s original of the species, would snarl at his pupil Herb Elliott, “but you’ll never run harder than me.”

What set Cerutty apart wasn’t just his eccentricity, or charisma, but his utter brashness that demanded attention, when most other running gurus would walk away in solemn satisfaction.

“The runner’s greatest asset, apart from essential fitness of body, is a cool and calculating brain allied to confidence and courage,” Franz Stampfl told Roger Bannister, 59 years ago this Monday, before slipping quietly away for the train back to London, leaving Bannister to make history on the old Iffley Road track.

This is the sort calm mentoring favoured by our own Brother Colm O’Connell, who chose to watch his latest Kenyan pupil David Rudisha from high in the Great Rift Valley, rather than trackside in London’s Olympic Stadium. “You can’t make chicken soup out of chicken shit,” as Arthur Lydiard liked to say, knowing full well that champions are made long before they step into the arena.

World beaters
I grew up on tales of another of the original running gurus, Mihaly Igloi, a man of reportedly few words, and the kind not easily forgotten. Igloi didn’t speak much English anyway: born in Hungary, he’d trained with coaches in Germany, Finland and Sweden before fleeing to America in 1956, after the Hungarian Revolution, where he soon turned several distance runners into world-beaters.

“In every part of history there’s a personality that takes over, and Igloi was an undeniable force of personality,” said one of his pupils, Bob Schul, won the Olympic 5,000m in Tokyo in 1964.

Igloi, to me, still represents the essence of the running guru, because his quest for attainable perfection was directed at the running track, a certain breed of distance runner, and not the ones thinking about doing 10 Ironman Triathlons in 10 days.

There is a sense the sport is somehow drifting away from that, and it’s not about the faster, higher, stronger anymore, when the longer is just as good. The man charged with getting that back on track is Chris Jones, who is about to take up possibly the most important position in Irish athletics, that of National Endurance Coach.

Jones comes with an interesting Welsh background, starting out over 30 years ago as a private coach in the Royal Navy, with a range of hobbies that includes playing the French horn, while better known here in recent years as performance director with Triathlon Ireland, and coach to Fionnuala Britton. It’s not the first time we’ve had a National Endurance Coach, but it was crucial that this time we got a running guru, and I can’t think of anyone better qualified.

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