Running with panache

Any writer who describes an athlete as winning a race with “panache” deserves to sell a lot of books. Pat Butcher takes his experienced hand to the Steve Ovett and Sebastian Coe story in an outstanding retelling of a sustained period of excellence in British athletics in the Perfect Distance.

The late seventies and early eighties is a period that just makes it into my conscious memory. I have fuzzy memories of Sebastian Coe defending his Olympic 1500m title at Los Angeles in 1984, but at the time I had little appreciation of the significance of the feat. I can recall Steve Cram competing at the 1982 Brisbane Commonwealth Games, but I didn’t remember Steve Ovett demonstrating his extraordinary versatility in winning the 5000m at the 1986 Edinburgh Games. There’s a real smorgasbord of well written athletics history in the Perfect Distance and anyone younger than 40 who’s a fan of the sport will enjoy the book for this reason alone.

Butcher manages to build a sense of imminent drama into the big races of the period and the preparations and personalities of the leading middle distance runners of the day. I’m a student of athletics and enjoy digging into what makes athletes successful: coaching, technique, strength training, support networks and psychological make-up. You get a good taste of each of these in the book and it leaves you wanting more. The training methods used by Coe and Ovett should be scrutinised, not only were they successful then, breaking numerous world records, but the personal best times of Ovett and Coe are still highly competitive today and certainly good enough to be in the medals in major championship racing where nous, belief, instinct and competitive fire decide the issue. There’s plenty here to inspire today’s western athletes who sometimes lack confidence in competing at the highest levels – every so often we need to look back and relearn some lessons to capture the essence of success and bring it into the present day.

Sebastian Coe’s training is thoughtfully analysed and anyone who has read his father Peter Coe’s training books will get a sense of the genesis of his ideas.  Peter Coe’s methods are pretty close to genius in my opinion, clearly he was working with good raw material, but his focus on strength training and speed endurance is as relevant today as it was then.  Students of running technique should seek out footage of Sebastian Coe running as few would argue his ability to maintain his running form under pressure was second to none.

If I were involved in coaching elite athletes the Ovett & Coe story would be compulsory reading. While you’d be disqualified today for employing Steve Ovett’s tactics in winning the 1980 Olympic 800m gold medal you have to be stirred by how Ovett imposed himself physically and mentally on the race – look it up on YouTube as I did after reading about Butcher’s description. And you’ll probably be surprised just how good Coe and Ovett were over distance (especially Ovett) and under distance at 400m. It reinforces to me that working on the strength and technique needed to obtain and sustain pure speed is an essential ingredient to running faster at your pet distance. I thoroughly enjoyed the Perfect Distance and if you don’t find yourself finding a little extra in your next training session after reading then nothing can help you!

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