This page is dedicated to the some of the more illustrious training partners I have shared many hours of enjoyment (and pain!) with on runs and 'efforts' throughout my 27 years as a runner.

Without the many regular 'training partners' and people to share runs with, my life as an athlete would have been much tougher and a lot less fun. Throughout my running career I was lucky enough to meet and train with many great runners, of which there are far too many to mention individually. Just the mention of certain training mates names evoke images and memories that remind me of the years of fun (and sometimes pain!!) that they all gave to me. Here is a resume of just a few of the more memorable and also 'high achieving' training partners and friends I have met throughout my life as an athlete, along with a 'sprinkling' of their running career highlights...

Martyn Dowling: Martyn started running about a year after me, at about the same age as I had started as a twelve year old. Under the guidance of Terry Roberts initially and later Dave Skelcher, Martyn made rapid progress in the Boys U15 age group after a very respectable start to his young athletics career when finishing 13th in his first 'English Schools XC' in the Jnr Boys age group. Being a very small and 'slight' athlete, often competing against 'early developers' who were twice his size, we all knew he had a 'natural talent' for running, and would hopefully develop into a top athlete as he got stronger.

As a fourteen year old, Martyn improved his 3000m time to 9:29, often winning races by 'out-kicking' much bigger and stronger lads at the time. He would also give me grief in training every Tuesday and Thursday evening, when we would run to coach Dave's 'whistled' schedule with poor Martyn, (being the fastest in our group), having to keep time with the ever increasing pace of Dave's whistle blows. These tough repetitions certainly improved Martyn's pace, and by sixteen he was challenging the countries best 'Youth's' (U/17's) over the XC, and finished a close 2nd to future training partner, Steve Lloyd of 'Wolves & Bilston' in the Midlands XC. Not happy with the result, Martyn aimed for the Inter-Counties XC to try and gain revenge over his arch rival Llyod, but with Llyod out injured, the 'showdown' between the two young 'midland marvals' never materialised. Martyn eventually wound up in 8th place in the 'Inter-Counties' after taking the 'Warwickshire' title, which was still a respectable performance, but one he was not happy at all with, as he had gone into the race full of confidence and with much higher aspirations.

Above: Me and Mart racing it out in an 'Area Schools representative XC' as 14/15 year olds, and Right: Martyn taking the 1991 'Warks Youths XC' title.

Throughout the season, we would often cycle the 8 miles round trip to and from each others houses to embark upon either a 'steady' run, which was never very steady!, or a tough 'speed session' or 'Fartlek' where Martyn would usually drag the guts out of me, and doubly so when the terrain moved onto anything a little 'softer' than tarmac. Many of the runs were done around the quiet country lanes over 'Barr Beacon', where it was not until recently that we both admited to 'holding our breath' for quiet periods where there was no traffic noise so that one couldn't hear the other breathing heavily!! If only we had knew at the time!!

And so the 1991 season drew to almost an end, with only the 'National XC' left, but unfortunately Martyn picked up an injury which ruled him out of another opportunity to beat 'Lloydy'. On reflection, the 'shaven haired' young 'W&B' athlete would have been tough to beat as he sprinted to the silver medal in the 'Youth's National', only denied victory by the tall and powerfull Terry Mackin of 'Old Gaytonians' by a mere couple of seconds. Martyn, no doubt would have been there or thereabouts in the thick of things sprinting down that home straight, ''givin it some!''

Below: Martyn anchoring our Junior team home safely for 'Gold' in the 1992 'National Jnr XC relays' at Mansfield, holding off Sale Harriers 'sub 4' minute miler Ciaran Murphy, therefore gaining revenge over the Manchester giants from the 'National Jnr XC from a few weeks earlier.

The following season saw many of the Wolves & Bilston lads move over to join Birchfield after a 'political disbute', thus boosting our squad of already many strong athletes. Myself and Martyn joined ranks with the 'W&B' boys, embarking on our first ventures into 'long Sunday runs', which coach Ian Stewart was extremely fond of, along with his athletes who were obviously already well accustomed to! Martyn carried on his upward progression with good runs in his first year in the Birmingham Leagues, with a best position of 17th which was not bad as a 17 year old. He backed up such performances in the 1992 'World XC Junior Trials' where he placed 12th as a 'bottom age' junior, making him one of the first 'younger' finishers in the race, thus giving more hope for future success and maybe World XC selection if things similarly progressed over the next 12 months. Unfortunately, the next few months didn't go to plan, and with injuries taking over, ending with the surgeons knife to fix ruptured ankle ligaments sustained in a XC race, Martyn struggled to get back to his best. With the demands of University and aspirations of a good career, Martyn tackled this new task with the same 'gusto' as he had with his athletics, which ultimately paid off when forging a good career for himself.

The gut wrenching feelings young Martyn put me through on many shared training runs we would do from each others houses, now only a distant memory...but it would be great one day to see him make a 'comeback' and use that talent once again, although I may not volunteer to be his training partner if he got anywhere near fit again!!

Below: Junior 'ECCU' Gold and Silver medals, which Myself, Martyn, Tim (Werrett) & Karl (Keska) won in the National XC relays and National XC Junior races in 1992...

 

Tim Werrett: Tim first started training down at Birchfield Harriers as a fifteen year old, where he caught the eye of several of my young training pals at the time, as we all quizzed each other ''who's that?'' as he ran endless laps around the track at Alexander Stadium all alone. We all knew the runners from 'rival' groups down at the Birchfield club, but none of us knew who this young 'mystical' athlete was, or where he had come from and more importantly, how good he was! He certainly looked the part, bouncing down the home straight completing yet another circuit of the 400m Tartan track with metronomic efficiency.

We soon introduced ourselves to Tim, and found out a little of his background, where he was already a member of a small local club in Walsall ('Walsall Forrest' Road Runners), and was actually on the 'comeback' trail after being involved in a serious accident whilst he had been out running the previous year. Tim had been knocked over by a car, badly damaging his ankle and foot with the surgeon giving him the terrible news that he may never run again. This is where the 'Werrett' determination first kicked in, and low and behold, within months of the accident, Tim was back on his feet again ready to take off where he had left off before the accident. 

Myself and Martyn (Dowling) would regularly meet with Tim for training, with Tim always the more 'adventurous' trainer, often leading us across new terrain much to the disgust of Martyn who liked to see where he was putting his feet! Tim regularly competed over 10k for his small club running around 37 minutes as a fourteen year old, and then later progressed upon joining Birchfield, under the guidance of Team Manager Maurice Millington into an extremely strong Junior athlete. Tim gained wins in the West Midlands Schools Championships XC taking him into the English Schools with potentially a position near to the front end of the field, which he obtained with a fine finish of 14th, beating many top young athletes. Tim was not only excelling over the mud, but also showed considerable ability on the track, where he collected a Midland Junior 5000m title running away from Nigel Stirk, (the now talented Tipton Stalwart), and also made English Schools 3000m finals running 8:39 for 7th amongst top junior (and future senior) names such as Steffan White, Keith Cullen and Spencer Barden. After good finishes in Birmingham League races, and a 19th in the Junior National XC, along with a 14':46'' 3 mile 'short leg' relay split at Sutton Park, Tim's senior career was set to be even stronger.

Above: From Left to right, me, Karl Keska, Tim and Martyn Dowling after lifting the 'National XC Jnr title' in 1992 at Mansfield. It was a great day for us as Myself, Tim and Martyn had all been best of mates since meeting at Birchfield Harriers, and with Keska joining our squad that season from local club 'W&B' our team had been strengthened even more!!

Initially, Tim continued to improve under the guidance of new coach Keith Holt, but then as many young senior athletes do, struggled with many injuries and illnesses that halted his once rapid progress. His first years as a senior were blighted by many misfortunes, where he even had to go 'under the knife' in 1996 to try and finally sort out a debilitating knee tendon injury that had curtailed his career and left it demoralisingly spiraling in the wrong direction. But Tim, being the strong and dedicated athlete that he is never gave up, and in 2002 after many years in the 'wilderness' came back with a big bang, showing once again the talent we had all witnessed as younger athletes. Now a fully fledged member of 'Mercia Fell Runners', Tim had new aspirations of becoming a champion fell runner, after finding that his injury problems were less serious the more he partook in 'off road' running. And so this is where his running career took off again from where it had left off before all of the problems had cruelly stalled it's progress.

Tim's initial ventures into fell running were fairly modest, but at the same time, his injury woes were diminishing and he was beginning to see 'a light at the end of the tunnel' so to speak, and with a best of 25th in the 'English Champs' counter at the 'Long Mynd Valleys', they were 'encouraging' if not startling. Then came the season of 2002, and Tim hit the first 'Championship' race hard at 'The half Tour of Pendle', where he shot back to top form claiming his first 'top 10' result, thrusting him back to where we all knew he should be! From that point, Tim's career was again, at long last back on track and he followed this result up with many consistent performances in top level fell races throughout the next few season's, with bests of 4th in 'English Champs' races at 'Shelf Moor' and the 'Kentmere Horseshoe' proving he was now consistently amongst the leading exponents in British fell Running. This consistency throughout each season was rewarded when he placed highly in several 'British & English' Fell Running Championships overall seasons with a best of 6th in the 2006 'British Champs'. This magnificent result backed up equally impressive 'English champs' overall season results of 8th(2003), 10th(2004), 8th(2006) along with a 7th later in 2008 for a fine 'collection' of top 10 results. Tim's achievements were also recognised with double selection for 'England' which he gained first for the annual International 'Snowdon' mountain race where he performed strongly for the team to finish high up the field after 72 minutes of 'gruelling effort' up and down Wales's highest peak. His second England vest came in the Knockdu International in Northern Ireland, run over a 5 Mile steep grassy course where he again teamed up with top fellow England Internationals to take on the might of the best Welsh, Scottish and Irish Fell runners..

Above: Tim 'flying' through the Long Mynd terrain in the 'Ragleth Fell race' in 2006, and Below: showing great descending skills absorbing whatever the shropshire slopes throw at him!! More of Brian Smith's great running shots can be found at www.westmidlandsrunningscene.co.uk

Tim's ability was not only limited to competing for his beloved 'Mercia' team, but he also ventured into team management, where he was instrumental in organising teams for Championship races and generally spreading his enthusiasm for the sport amongst friends, which one of those eventually turned out to be me! After a few runs with Tim out in the Welsh hills, one of which particularly sticks in my mind, was when he took me up a seemingly never ending 'grassy' and 'tussocky' ascent near capel Curig in Snowdonia. I remember thinking ''what are we doing!?!'', this isn't running! as we stumbled our way up, hands fixed firmly on knees, doubled over sweating proffusely in an almighty effort to reach the seemingly 'ever heightening' mountain summit. Little did I realise that a few years on I would also be 'hooked' on 'stumbling up endless grassy ascents'!! Ahh, the joys of fell running, it's o.k for the 'demon descenders', they get all the fun!! Yes, I had finally given in to Tim's persuasive ways and joined him as a fell runner at 'Mercia', where it had opened up a whole new and much more interesting niche of athletics to me. We both went on to collect medals in relay championships for the club, and team medals for overall seasons, with Tim also achieving several 'top 10' overall placings in British and English championship seasons as mentioned above, where points are scored throughout the season to determine your final position nationally. Tim also paired up with World Long-distance mountain running Silver medalist, Saloman sponsored Tom Owens to post the second fastest split on their leg in the National Fell Relays. He also ran to a great 20th place himself in the World Long Distance mountain running championships held over the gruelling 24 mile/4500ft Three Peaks Fell race route up in the Yorkshire Dales. These results proved Tim's decision to concentrate on fell running had not only been a brave one but a justified one, and one that had also actually helped his XC strength and speed as he proved when venturing back into XC racing with great results of 12th, and then 11th the following season in the 'Midlands' X and a best of 6th in Birmingham League races. 

Now into his 40th year having acquired 'vetaran' status at the end of 2011, Tim is still competing regularly in fell races and surely a fully fit Tim Werrett would still be capable of again taking on the countries leading fell runners and putting his name back near the forefront of 'championship' fell racing once again...

 

Mike Shevyn: Mike was one of the 'Wolves and Bilston' lads who had come over to Birchfield in the early 'nineties' while being coached by Ian Stewart. Mike was an extremely talented runner who had excelled throughout the 'Youths' and 'Junior' age groups for firstly his club of 'Leighton Buzzard A.C' and then upon moving to the Midlands, his Wolverhampton club based at 'Aldersley Stadium', 'Wolves & Bilston A.C'

Mike had taken the 'Eastern Youths XC' title in 1989, earning him a write up in 'Athletics Weekly's' 'one to watch' section, which had been entitled ''Slick Shevyn''. His season continued to improve where he went on to record good runs in the Inter-Counties and National XC's with 9th placings in both races. Moving into the Junior ranks he collected silver in the AAA's 3000m on the track, after displaying his trademark 'blistering' finish which saw him bare down on the leaders with a 55 second final circuit to catch all but winner, Rob Kettle and miss out on gold by a mere 1,100th of a second! His strength was applied to the 'XC' well with good results in Birmingham Leagues, in particular a fine 12th place finish at Coventry's Coundon Park taking many notable senior scalps in the process. He also backed this up with a fine 3rd in the Midlands Junior XC at Wollaton Hall. Perhap's his best result had come earlier, as a 'first year' junior when he finished 9th in the 'World Cross trial' race beating many older athletes in doing so. Mike, would always insist he had finished 10th in that race, which must have been the one and only time 'Shevo' could have been labelled modest!! Alway's being one to confidently predict how well he was going to run beforehand to his mates, with all of us usually just replying ''yeh, yeh Mike..In your dreams!!'' (especially when he predicted he was going to make the Olympics!!) Joking aside though, Shevo's talent was now taking him to some good senior results, where he improved under the guidance of coach Keith Holt to rise to a best placing of 2nd in Birmingham League races, earning him 'England' selection for a representative XC match where he placed 4th in a strong domestic line up. He also represented Birchfield well in the 12-Stage road relays, with bests of 14':04'' for the 'short leg' and 26':14'' for the 'Long stage' achieved in the Midland 12-Stage showing his ability over all surfaces.

Top Above: Birchfield's 1991 12-Stage team, with me centre (in dire need of a hair cut!!) and 'Shevo' on my left...and  right, Shev sprinting in to finish his first 'senior' Midlands XC at 'Blaise Castle', Bristol in 1992. Above left: Shevo on the tail of Tipton's 1994 Midland XC Champion Kevin Lamb in the 1996 National 6-Stage relays.

Below: Before the London Marathon 2000, L.to.R...Tommy Morris, Me, 'Coach'-Keith Holt, Former Army Boxing champion-Ken 'The Cole' and 'Shevo', all ready to give Keith bucket loads of abuse whilst running the marathon representing 'Aston Villa F.C'. All of the abuse worked wonders as he was the first 'football' finisher clocking a useful (for an old un!!)...2':49''

 

But perhaps Shevo's most notable and memorable performance came in,(or should I say after...) a pretty low key run in a British League match 1500m race, where Shev had taken 3rd place in 3:51. A pretty modest performance you may think, but it was what happened next that Shev seemed to consider the 'highlight' of his running career, an accolade he would regard well in excess of any other of his athletic achievements...A voice shouted ''Mike Shevyn, Mike Shevyn please report to the testing room'' over the tanoy, positioned down the back straight as Shevo pulled his tracksuit trousers over his spikes ready to warm down. His eyes 'lit up' and chest 'thrusted out' as he proudly pronounced to me...''Mikey, Mikey, take my bag back to the coach, and tell Dave (team manager) I've got to go for a DRUG TEST!!'' Yes, Shevo had finally 'made it' on the big stage in athletics, being summonsed for a drugs test, and with the 1500m being one of the final events, the whole team had to patiently wait for over an hour for a rather 'dehydrated' Shevo to return to the coach after struggling to produce his sample. He returned to a raptuous cheering reception from the rest of the team, all jeering ''it could only happen to you Mike, I hope there was nothing 'dodgey' on those sandwiches!!''

 

Karl Keska: Karl was another from the 'Stewart stable' that had joined Birchfield in the early 'Nineties', bringing a welcome boost to our club, where we had already built a sound foundation of Junior athletes coming through our ranks. The addition of athletes of the calibre of Karl and Mike (Shevyn) along with the younger emerging Darrius Burrows and talented Steve Lloyd, things were begining to look 'rosey' down at Birchfield, with the potential to 'clean up' in the team stakes throughout the junior ranks. 

Karl had always been a talented athlete who had not quite reached the potential people knew he had. Glimmers of this talent would often be shown, such as when he smashed a quality field in the 'Ironbridge 4.5' road race, where he beat top athletes such as Dave Long, Tony Milovsorov and Mark Flint in a fast 20':54''. This was achieved after a tough track session the previous evening, therefore indicating there could be much more to come with 'fresher legs'. 

After limited success as a junior, where his best result was probably a 2nd behind Ali O'connor in the Midlands Junior X-C, Karl earned a 'scholarship' to study at the famous'Oregon University' in the States, home of the late and legendary runner Steve Prefontaine. Keska quickly began to improve on the form he had already shown and by the end of his first year over in the U.S, he had improved his track 10k down to 29:10 along with a 'sub 14' Minute 5k showing things were going nicely overseas.

Over the next few seasons Karl kept improving little by little, and by 1999 he challenged the cream of European distance running whilst finishing 2nd in the 'European 10k Challenge' in a new p.b of 28:00 showing just how far he had come since embarking on his U.S adventure. This all boded well for 'Olympic' year the following season where Keska didn't disappoint cruising through his round in a fast 27:48 to make the final where he would be rubbing shoulders with no less than running legends Haile Gebreselasie and Paul Tergat! Keska ran a strong race, again improving his p.b down to 27:44 and finishing 'first European' in a great 8th place amongst the finest distance men on the planet. It was brilliant to watch someone I had trained with many times achieve such great things and was truely inspiring! Karl backed up runs of this quality with a 5000m p.b of 13':20, and more impressively a 13th place finish in the World XC where he took the 'scalps' of many notable African world class athletes in the process as well as recording several more 'sub 28:00' minute 10,000m performances throughout his star-spangled career.

Below: Keska taking the AAA's 5000m title beating John Brown and Keith Cullen in the process, and Above left: in 'European Champs 10,000m action' and right leading the AAA's 5000m being tracked by Cardiff's Andrea's Jones. Keska took AAA's titles at both 5 and 10,000m in his illustrious athletics career.

Right: Keska's career highlight where he finished 8th in the 2000 Sydney Olympic 10,000m final.

It had only been a few years previously that Karl had been part of our training group, where we had all trained together 4 times each week. Karl had always been a bit of a joker, and one run particularly stands out in my memory when his name is mentioned. After our 'gold' and 'silver' team performances in the 'National XC' and 'National XC relays' where our team had won several hundred pounds in prize money, the club had suggested that we spent the money on a 'training trip', where for some reason Rhyl was decided to be the venue for our caravaning adventure. Many of the group made the trip to the North wales seaside resort, where Birchfield had booked two large caravans for us to reside in for the week long trip. 

After a slight 'mishap' on the journey when 'Shevo' had spotted some female 'eye-candy' prompting him to shout ''Totty!!'', resulting in Darren, the lad driving at the time unfortunately smashing his bright red 'Nova SRi' straight into the car infront as we all 'gawped' at the now laughing and pointing group of girls. And so for poor Darren, things had not got off to a good start with a £600 repair estimate from the local Rhyl garage looming over his head for the rest of the week!

Our moods quickly brightened though, as we embarked on our first training run from the caravan site, which took our large group of runners out along the promenade and towards a large Woolworths' store sitting right on the corner of a large side road. As the group strode nearer the store, Keska surged off into the distance and disappeared into Woolies', only moments later reappering up the side street shouting ''pick n mix anyone''!?! Yes, he had cut through the 'corner store' scooping up an overflowing handful of 'large white chocolate mice' armed only with shorts, vest and a pair of muddy Nikes!! We all shared the chocolate 'bounty' for the next half mile, before the 'energy boost' took effect and yet again the boot went in as we sped back along the prom towards the vans for dinner. Having two caravans certainly came in handy to store the weeks washing up, which we left for the whole week festering while we all crowded into the one van!

Nowadys, Karl as far as I know still lives over in Oregon where I last heard he had taken up a role as 'Cheif Coach' to one of the High School Athletics teams in the area. Lets hope some of Keska's talent rubs off onto some of his lucky pupils and they manage to achieve just a fraction of what the 'Wolverhampton wonder' did in a great career.

 

Haggai Chepkwony: Although Haggai didn't train at Birchfield for long after first coming to Britain after studying in Hong Kong after growing up in Kenya, he left a lasting impression on myself and many of my fellow training partners, and gave us a few funny stories to tell too.

One of these was whilst out on a long Sunday run with the group in our local Sutton Park, which if you have ever run around will know it is a 'dog walkers paradise', with hundreds of dogs roaming around which is not always the best recipe as far as training goes. On this occasion though there were no problems as such with the dogs, but more with an 'over active imagination' as poor Haggai had spotted a potential large problem in the shape of a 'Great Dane'. With the dog bounding towards us still in the distance, Haggai suddenly came to an abrupt halt, almost turning as pale as I was!! and uttering the words ''Lion, LION, LI-ONN!!'' As we calmed Poor Haggai explaining the ''Lion'' was just a playful dog, and nothing to worry about, the rather large short blonde haired animal bounded up to Haggai and gave him a good 'slobbering' and carried on his playful way! ''Phew, I thought we were going to get eaten!!'' he said.

After a few months down with Birchfield, Haggai unfortunately moved over to Redditch and consequently joined Bromsgrove and Redditch A.C which he represented well in many Birmingham League races, along with his new county of 'Worcestershire' in the 'Inter-counties' XC where he achieved some useful results. With p.b's of 7':52'' and 13':38'' for 3 and 5k respectively, Haggai had plenty of talent which he then transferred into the 'Army' which he also represented with great success running some good half marathons around the 65 minute mark, as well as some more top level XC results nationally. More recently, Haggai took on the hefty challenge of attempting to beat many '4 legged athletes' in the annual 'Man V Horse' marathon. Although four legs proved to be better than two on this occasion, Haggai came out on top as far as 'human' competition was concerned, thus lifting the 'William Hill Trophy' and become Man V Horse Champion, adding to an already impressive C.V.


Above: Haggai (No.612) keeping good company at the sharp end of the 2003 inter-Counties XC Championships at Wollaton Hall, Nottingham with Chris Davies (496), Rob Birchall (80) who you will read more about next below, and Dave Norman (222) whilst representing his county of 'Worcestershire'.

 

Rob Birchall: Rob joined Birchfield after the 'nineties' super club, 'Omega' split up, along with several other ex-Omega men such as International runner Carl Udall. Rob was a brilliant athlete, consistantly at the forefront of top domestic X/C and road fields where he had several classy results in National and Inter-counties XC races earning him individual 'Bronze' medals in both events. Rob also represented Great Britain in the World X/Country  championships cementing his reputation as one of the countries leading X/C exponents.

Although I didn't get to train with Rob too often, it was always a good experience along with one that would drag the best out of me trying to hang on to his pace. One such session came when we were doing road reps of approx 4 minute efforts, where I actually found myself up with Rob, and actually infront of him on a couple of efforts! A few days later Rob raced to a glorious 'Bronze' medal in the 2000 National XC behind Glynn Tromans's victory, with me flailing a long way behind Rob. I knew I must have been in good shape having given Rob a run for his money in those reps, and it was not long after that I began to reap the benefits of that hard training and start to race much better in the spring of 2000. The confidence that being able to stay with a runner of Rob's calibre had rubbed off and I ran a p.b by 38 seconds in the 2000 National Road Relay showing that training with the best certainly helps! Rob often joined in with Keith Holt's 'Aqua-jogging' sessions that we often did in the seasons from 1999 to 2001, which I started in my recovery period after shin surgery initially. After many years as a top athlete, taking many titles including 4 Midland XC's, Rob has now taken a more relaxed approach to his running, but his name will live long in the memory of Birchfield Harriers history along with British athletics history.

Above: Rob in England' colours whilst racing in the competetive 'Reebok Challenge' XC series of the 'Nineties' and 2000's and right, in 'full flight' at the 12-stage.

 

 

Neil Appleby: Neil was one of the top athletes down at Birchfield when I was growing up in my teenage years as an athlete. I would sometimes go along to watch Senior races such as Birmingham League XC's and open road races where Neil would always be 'in the thick of things' forcing the pace upfront. As a teenager one such race I had gone over to watch was the 'Tipton 10' with my Dad, and as the runners lined up at the start I could spot a whole host of quality athletes, nervously flexing their limbs in anticipation of the fast downhill start. Darren Mead, Alan Jackson, Chris Sweeney, and Mark Burnhope were amongst the vast array of regular race winners to frequent the results pages of 'Athletics Weekly.' ''Blimey, I reckon Neil's going to have have his work cut out today" I nervously announced to Dad as the gun sounded, sending the large field of athletes, joggers and fun runners on their way over the 10 mile route around the heart of the 'Black Country'. As the runners sped round to complete their first lap, Neil was positioned amonst the leading protaganists, looking strong and fluent...but how long could he last with a pace on schedule for a finishing time of around 47 minutes? Fifteen minutes later the answer was 'at the very least 6 miles' as Neil strode purposefully at the head of the field now forcing the pace, his stride in synchronisation with the screams of fellow Birchfield runner Eddie Cockayne, who was pedalling furiously to keep up on his bike screaming ''Go Neil!!'' As the race clocked ticked over from 44 to 45:00, the crowd now getting increasingly excited in anticipation waited for the arrival of the lead athletes...but who would it be? 46:00, 47:00...''And here's the leader, Birchfield's (yes Birchfields!!) Neil Appleby, Ooh he's well away and it's going to be a quick one'' the comentator announced over the loud speaker as Neil sprinted, legs 'flaying', arms pumping in true Appleby style towards the finish line which was crowded with awe inspired on-lookers as Neil crossed the line in a magnificent 47:45 to win the 'Tipton 10' and take some rather impressive 'scalps' in the process.

This race had elevated Neil to the forefront of British road racing, and proved the talent he had showed as a promising junior by running 13:52 for 5k was now beginning to flourish once more. With other bests of 25:39 for the 5.44 miles Sutton Park 'Long leg' and many high Birmingham League placings along with a best of 15th in the 'National XC', Neil was amongst the best over every surface which he demonstrated with upmost regularity.

Above right: Appleby on relay duty for Birchfield at Sutton Park & Below: sprinting for the line in the 1991 Midlands XC, being watched by 'interested' spectators...L.to.R. Ian Stewart, Keska (wearing a tea cosy!!) and 'Shevo'

Neil was one of the Senior athletes I was lucky enough to train with regularly whilst coming up through the junior ranks, mainly just on steady runs on Sunday mornings to start with, where Neil would just cruise along with the large group of 30-40 runners rarely demonstrating his true ability which would only be shown on race day. As a young 17 or 18 year old eager to get the 'scalp' of such a superb runner, I would often 'test' the senior runners, 'or so I thought I was' even if it was only in training!! My old diaries are full of ''beat Neil today'' on the Sunday 10 miler, as I surged and sprinted 'hell for leather' in a desperate flat out effort to edge the 'effortless' Appleby back to the finish 'at the big tree' positioned at the end of our regular Sutton Park loop. As I put the boot in, I would often hear the distant words ''there goes the White Kenyan'' (Neil had a nick-name for everyone) as he remarked on my immature training antics, typical of a teenage tearaway eager to learn his trade in the athletics world, sometimes a little too eagerly though!! As I surged toward the finish line, He must have thought 'what a looney, always leaving it in training!!' as come race day each following weekend, I would rarely be within 30 seconds per mile of Appleby's ferocious pace. As I matured over the next couple of seasons, I quickly learnt that it was not what you do in training against your peers, but more what happens on a Saturday afternoon that's more important. Without the help of such Athletes to learn and look up to, I know for sure the motivation and effort to go out each day and train to the same degree would have been made all the more harder, as running with these lads was always such a buzz!!

Unfortunately, Neil was yet another athlete who finally succombed to injury when a persistent foot problem flaired up whilst in training for his debut marathon. The injury cut his career short meaning a marathon time was never achieved, but no doubt if he had been given the chance, Neil's time would have been a quick one to match the rest of his marks. Nowadays, the 'Appleby talent' has been transferred to two wheels where Neil can be seen ripping up the roads in 10 and 25 mile TT's for his Cycling club in Sutton Coldfield.

 

Philemon Hanneck: The image of a world class distance runner usually conjures up a lean, sinuey and muscular picture, of a bounding figure gracefully moving over any surface at speed whilst embarking upon the harshest and most punishing, gruelling training schedules imaginable. All of the aforementioned descriptives would be perfect for my next 'training accomplice', who was a champion Zimbabwean athlete, bursting with talent and who regularly crusified himself in training, or so you would believe...The best athletes you would imagine to be tough as nails, able to endure whatever is thrown at them and being able to deal better than most with the harshest extremities of temperatures. It was therefore, to our complete shock, whilst only a quarter of the way through our set track session of 16x400 on a 'balmy 70 degrees C' evening that we would hear the words ''Too cold, Too cold, far too cold!!''

It was the final Tuesday night before the forthcoming AAA's championships, which were held annually at our club track, the Alexander Stadium, and we had been joined by one of the star oversea's athletes who was looking for a last minute workout before embarking on the weekends 5000m race which had attracted the usual 'stellar' field of top athletes. The dark, shiney skinned athlete now 'chomping at the bit' to blast out a few 400's with us was Zimbabwean champion runner, Philemon Hanneck. He looked every inch the athlete he was, and with times of 13':14'' for 5000m and 28':02'' for 10K on the road, our session was about to be made pretty interesting to say the least. As the group 'eased' into the first rep with a schedule of 62-64 seconds, Philemon was having none of this 'jogging' around, and completed his first circuit in 55, and as we crossed the line several seconds later, looked ominously ready to go again without any recovery! The following 2 reps followed an alarmingly similar pattern, with Philemon ready to go far too early as the rest of us 'mere mortals' took advantage of every last mili-second available before our coach would shout ''ok lads'' indicating out recovery 'minute' was almost up. As we flew down the back straight into the 4th effort, Philemon for the first time seemed to 'falter', and then recover to speed away, only to slow a little towards the line. He suddenly looked vulnerable, and his three previous 55's had slowed to a 58' as he jogged through the line. He seemed to be uttering something under his breath, then turned to our group idicating he was a little chilly by flapping his arms around, and shouting ''Too Cold, Too Cold''. He then quickly disappeared retreating back to the 'warmth' of the changing room. That was Philemon's session over, a poultry 4x400m session only a quarter way complete, blowing away any pre misconceptions we had about the toughness it takes to become 'world class'!! We couldn't believe it, how could he be so good if he regularly cut sessions short? None of us would think about quitting part way through a session, so it was unbelievable to us that a World class runner would 'bottle' a session. Perhaps he never intended on doing the full 16 efforts, and was just after a 'good blow out' running a few 55's...who know's. One thing's for certain, whatever training he did it certainly worked (a lot better than the training I was doing!!) That was the one and only time Philemon joined us for training, and despite his dislike of the cold went on to achieve some great results proving he was a superb athlete, proving it was perhaps acceptable to 'bottle' things every now and then!!  Noteably, Philemon raced to a magnificent 'silver' medal behind Rob Denmark in the 1994 Commonwealth Games 5000m, where the temperature was obviously a little milder!! Things were never dull down at Birchfield, with somebody new in the area regularly dropping in to train, and  keep us all on our toes with Philemon doing just that on that warm (or maybe just a little bit chilly) summer evening!!

Above left: Philemon Hanneck (No.540) storming to a fine 2nd place in the 1994 Commonwealth 5000m behind England's Rob Denmark & right: celebrating his Commonwealth 'Silver' medal in the 1994 games, along with winner Rob Denmark and 'Bronze' medalist John Nuttall.

 

Paula Radcliffe: The most 'illustrious' athlete I have ever had the privilege to share a training run with must be World Marathon record holder Paula Radcliffe. Whilst enjoying my first 'altitude training stint' in France's famous high altitude training venue of Font Romeu along with 3 freind's in May 2001, our trip was made all the better after bumping into Paula. As we stretched outside the front of our block of appartment's, who should run toward's us and stop for a chat than the great champion runner herself! She invited us to join her for a few runs where she offered to show us the trails and famous 7000ft 'plateu' where she carried out much of her training. We agreed to meet at 10am the following morning for a 50 minutes 'tempo' effort which Paula had pencilled in her training schedule. We were all excited about the prospect of training with such a great athlete, with non of us thinking about how we should be 'easing' into our altitude training with some gentle running over the first week.

After breakfast the following morning, 10 O'clock soon came round, and bang on the dot Paula came into view bouncing down the road towards us. We began the run up a gradual incline which led us to the 'plateu' which Paula had made famous with her legendary training runs around the high altitude flat-lands of Font Romeu. The large flat expanse of grassland was surrounded by breath-taking views of the mountainous Pyranee's landscape. I was begininng to enjoy the gentle pace of the run, and had been lulled into a false sence of security with all of our group still running together enjoying the company of the recently crowned new World X/C champion! Then, as our watched ticked over to ten minutes - BANG!! it was as though the starting gun of the Olympic final had fired and Paula was off in a cloud of dust! I picked up the pace to rejoin her side, but the rest of our group were now well off the back trailing the fast pace the future 2:15 marathoner was setting. ''That was the 10 minute warm up, now it's 50 minutes tempo'' she instructed. I must admit the sudden injection of pace had taken me a little by surprise, but I was relieved to see Paula's head was now 'nodding' in her usual style, which at least indicated she was trying! At a couple of points, Gary, Paula's husband and coach raced across urgeing her to ease off the gas a little, which I must admit I was relieved about, but Paula was having non of it, just replying ''I'm O.K, I feel fine''!! Finally, after completing a fair few laps of Paula's 'plateu' the 50 minutes was up and we eased down for the final 10 minutes to a much more sedate and enjoyable pace. We could now chat as we ran at 'conversation pace' and agreed to meet for further runs, which I secretly hoped would not be carried out at quite such a brutal pace!

Paula pictured above on her way to the 2001 World XC title, which was only weeks before we met her in Font Romeu.

Many of the other runs I.m glad to say were carried out at a slightly gentler pace, whilst never being 'slow' with paula showing us many of her favourite routes, and telling us how she planned to embark upon marathon training next year (2002). One of her regular runs included a long uphill drag which she admitted that she had never been able to run all of the way up. Having found out that we were mountain runners, she offered to show us the hill which was half way through a long 16 mile run that she did. Once again, the initial pace had been pretty fast with our group splintering, with only me hanging on to Paula at the sharp end! As the climb came into view she pointed to the route up it to me. This is where I hoped to come into my own, and I said to Paula, ''we're going to run up it the whole way today''. Paula joked that it was impossible, but after reaching the point where she usually stopped for a breather, in typical gutsy Radcliffe fashion, the world champion athlete dug deep into her reserves and bounded up the climb like a gazelle. I said she'd have to take up mountain running when she retired from the road and track, to which she replied still breathing heavily ''no way, how come your hardly breathing?'' I was trying to impress her by furiously trying to control my heavy breathing, giving the impression I was feeling easy!! It must have worked ha ha!!

Although our training was made all the harder by Paula's presence, it was also made all the more enjoyable over our two and a half week stay in Font Romeu. Sharing some great runs with such a great athlete and person was a truely brilliant experience and also a true privilege and one I will remember and cherish as one of the highlights of my running career. It was great when I returned to work to tell everyone who I had been training with. I still don't think any of them believe me to this day!!

 

And so these were just a few of the highlights of some of my many running friends and 'occasional training partners' careers who I met over the years. There were many more along the way, including many international runners just from our club alone. Club runs would be amassed with an array of quick men and women with p.b's most could only ever dream about achieving. I feel extremely privileged to have been part of such a great set up, and to have trained with such a great bunch...I hope you've all enjoyed reading about them!!