40. Running with Roger Black

roger-black-and-great-britain-4×400m-relay-team.jpgIt was marvellous to meet Steve Cram once, at the Buckingham Fountain in Chicago before the marathon.

Then, a few weeks ago at the school Christmas production, Roger Black sat down only two seats in front of me.

‘Excuse me, you don’t know me, but…’

No, it wasn’t going to work, so I sat there silently and tried to remember.

Summer 1986. Out of work, having just finished my postgraduate thesis, and I needed some motivation. I must have watched every moment of those European Championships in Germany, where Roger Black won the 400 m gold. Medals in the next six major championships, including two more golds at the Commonwealth Games that year. A second European championship in Split, four years later, and silver at the World Championships in Tokyo in 1991. And still, for all of that, many people probably remember him for finishing second to an unbeatable Michael Johnson in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, despite running 44.41 s in the final, faster even than in Stuttgart 10 years before.Second fastest man on the planet – that’s not a bad accolade. Or ‘Sex on legs‘, as a female friend of mine used to call him – maybe Roger might prefer that one.

For me, the best part of any championships in those years always came right at the end, with the relays, where Britain often had a chance for medals. In the 4 x 100 m we were often in with a shout, and in Christie we had an Olympic Champion, although it was hard to match the sheer depth of the Americans.

But in the 4 x 400 m, Britain always had a fantastic team. And it brought the best out of our runners. Phil Brown was no slouch at the distance, but he rarely seemed to make the individual finals. Watching him running the final leg in the relay, as I often did, it was a different story. He seemed unbeatable. The same was true of Kriss Akabusi – a 400 m hurdler for goodness’ sake. Yet there he was, tearing the heart out of the US team on the anchor leg, overtaking Antonio Pettigrew with 50 m left to take gold in the Tokyo World Championships. Roger Black had chosen to run the first leg there, so that the Americans would at least be in sight and under pressure on the final lap. It had worked, brilliantly.

Fifteen major championship medals – it’s an achievement almost unmatched by a British athlete, and in a career often dogged by injury. And Roger Black often trained – right here, on this track. It’s a thought that never fails to occupy me as I’m doing laps at the Spectrum Leisure Centre in Guildford.

Something to do with standing in the footsteps of champions, maybe of being a hopeless sports fanatic. I can remember similar thoughts on a visit to Montreal once, where I astonished my fellow tourists by putting down my rucksack to run a lap outside the Olympic stadium. This was just the warm-up track – not even the real thing, but I knew that Lasse Viren, Alberto Juantorena and Edwin Moses had run here too.

As for me, with a 400 m PB of 90 s, it takes just over twice as long to run a lap here as Michael Johnson’s 43.18 s. Maybe that’s about right, since my 4:05 marathon is almost double Paul Tergat’s 2:04 world best. It’s definitely not talent or performance which brings me to the track. Maybe you can’t, and shouldn’t, compare different events, or sports. But I doubt I’d be teeing it up again if I shot 130 around a British Open course to score twice as many as Tiger Woods – even if I do quite like the idea that my 75 in a match at Sandwich once might have made me a 2:24 marathon runner at golf.

If I’m no one-lap marvel, it’s certainly great to run here where Roger trained, and I do find that the discipline of the track helps. Sprint intervals are favourites for some people, but I prefer to run those on the road. Then there’s the Yasso, where you run 800 metre repetitions in the same number of minutes as you would take hours for a marathon. Building up to ten 800s, each in four minutes, will give you a four hour marathon. That’s the theory. But it’s a lot of running, especially when you have to make it up the hill afterwards.

My own, easier variant is to attempt four 2 minute laps in succession, and as I get fitter, build that up to eight. Two miles in sixteen minutes – that makes this a stiff tempo run for me. Two minutes’ rest, and then a single faster lap to celebrate survival before grinding home.

Winters are too long, and many times I’ve done this run in the dark, in the cold and in the rain. On just a few occasions, though, I’ve had the thrill of running when the floodlights have been turned on. I may be training alone, on a Sunday evening before News at Ten, but I can imagine I’m chasing Steve Ovett in the Oslo Dream Mile, or wearing down Peter Elliott in the World Cup finals in Athens. It never fails to inspire me.

So it’s a break from tradition when I find myself here on a Saturday afternoon, in the light. For almost the first time, too, there are other people here, since there’s a soccer match going on today. There are about 50 or so spectators, spilling onto the track, and they’re a bit bemused and stare for a while as I start gangling around the laps. But the novelty wears off, and they’re soon engrossed in the game again.

It’s hard to follow the match closely, but with five laps gone, the ref blows for a penalty. I crane my neck to watch as the centre forward takes an age to set, and then re-set, the ball on the spot. There’s so much time-wasting and poor sportsmanship in the modern game, and it wears off even here in Stoke Park. Eventually, I’m on the back straight on lap seven when the ball finally goes into the net behind me, but I hear the tell-tale cheers of a happy home crowd.

The circuits are going by well. In November and December I really struggled to finish four laps in 8 and a quarter minutes, but today I finish all eight, and just inside my 16 minute target. It’s 20 seconds a mile faster. Not much, but it’s a good day. The final whistle goes as I’m taking a breather, before I burn round my extra circuit in 1:39.

There’s still a long way to go in my training. The next month will be the longest, and there’s a twenty miler looming up ahead soon. In many ways, this time around I’ve felt that I’ve been struggling, and that it’s been more about the journey than the race ahead.

But now, running with Roger Black, I know at last that I’m getting ready to run a marathon.

Related articles:
64. Olympic laurels – Athens 2004
88. The Perfect Race – Sebastian Coe, Florence 1981
13. A winter night’s fartlek – Guildford town and track
54. Four minute mile
94. London Olympics 2012

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