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Posts Tagged ‘Len Cullen’

There are not too many people who have had a significant influence on my running career and my approach to training.

Perhaps I should rephrase that, there have actually been many; in books I’ve read, articles I’ve pored over, biographies, interviews and so on. But there has been a bigger influence from people I have actually met, and in that respect there have been only two.

The first was my university coach, Dudley Hulbert. When I started running, under Dudley’s tutelage, I knew very little and he effectively provided me with an understanding of the key ingredients in a basic training program. His systems worked and were scalable. That was a long time ago now; it has been over fifteen years since I last saw him. Last year I learnt that Dudley had sadly passed away. RIP Dudley.

But the focus of this article is on the second person who ended up having a large effect on how I train and more importantly led me to understand what is actually required to train and race properly. That man was Len Cullen. Len sadly passed away in January this year, and I have been inspired to record my thoughts and views on Len, in the short time I knew him.

I first met Len, and his son Johnny, after a track meeting in the early part of the 2008 track season. It was my first 5000m race since running the London Marathon a month earlier. I had not run well in London (stomach bug – another story) and was looking at the 5k as a chance to get going again. I ran 16:54 which I was happy with, pleased to be under 17 minutes and felt like I was going somewhere again. As I jogged around the outside lane of the track after my race, I bumped into Johnny and his dad at the 200m mark. Johnny ran for the same club as me (Rowheath as we were known back then) and had run the 800m or 1500m that day. They were very encouraging about my race and we chatted for a while. They went on to ask whether I would be interested in running with Johnny on a Saturday morning at the now legendary Cofton Park. I was keen at the time, but did subsequently wonder whether I was getting in over my head and would not be able to do the sessions. Nonetheless I was committed to attending the first one at least.

That first Cofton session is one I will never forget. I had run hill sessions many times over the years. I had cut my teeth on the famous Johannesburg hill called Sweethoogte, frequented by many a top SA distance runner. So I thought I knew what running hills involved. Cofton Park, and particularly the bench-to-bench long hill repeat, took that knowledge, laughed in its face, tossed it to one side and proceeded to slap me in the face viciously, repeatedly and without warning. So unprepared was I for the intensity of that session, that it broke me almost instantly. I think I managed a second repeat, but it had degenerated into a shuffle by then. Johnny would finish the session on his hands and knees, which came to be his modus operandi to close off any Cofton session. Whilst we were flailing about, Len would position himself somewhere near the midway point of the effort and would shout encouragement or advice and instruction as we motored past.

So that session shattered me and I went home a broken man. But a funny thing happened over the next day or two, I started thinking more and more about the session. It got under my skin. I was determined to go back and run it properly. Now that I knew how much it would hurt, I would be better prepared to withstand the hurt when it hit, and it hit suddenly. So, unsurprisingly, I returned. Underneath all of this was the knowledge that this session was absolutely unparalleled in its potential to bring you on in fitness, strength and speed.

Those Saturday mornings became a regular occurrence. The make-up of each session would vary slightly, but the overall philosophy was unchanged. Len was a man who cut through the reams of mediocre shit that permeates the training programs to be found in abundance in current running paraphernalia. First things first, Len believed in running hard. When it was time to hit a hard effort, you hit it hard. Don’t sandbag, don’t save yourself for the rest of the session, don’t worry about even splits or negative splits or any other kind of goddamn splits. Just run the fucking thing hard. I recollect one morning I was feeling a bit tender and on the first effort I tried to sit off the pace just ever so slightly, sure that no-one would notice, and I wouldn’t have to bury myself straight out of the blocks. As we jogged around to the starting point for number two, Len caught up with me and said, “Look, there’s no point in running these efforts like that. Within yourself. You may as well do a steady 45 minutes for that. Run the next one hard. I don’t care what the rest of your efforts look like and you should pay no attention to your watch. Don’t worry about the rest of the session. Just get back onto it now and run hard”. It was a wake-up call. No-one had really observed my training that closely and certainly it would have taken a keen eye to tell I wasn’t quite giving it as much as I should. I realised this was a man you couldn’t fool. Lesson learned. I went out hard and honest on number two. Unsurprisingly, the rest of the session fell away awfully. But Len was pleased. He had identified my innate tendency to protect myself by running slower than I needed to and finishing strong. He knew I didn’t need coaching with that, what I needed was someone to spur me on and to tell me it didn’t matter if my splits got slower and slower on each one. That was what was needed and that’s what he did. Those hill sessions on a Saturday morning, with Johnny and I sucking oxygen in through our eyeballs, our legs literally screaming nonstop before collapsing in protest, and Len masterminding it all from his various vantage points, those sessions are the best I have ever run.

Before too long, the Saturday hill sessions were coupled with Tuesday night track sessions. Many of Len’s philosophies came through in the same way. Don’t concern yourself with volume, don’t attempt sessions that look brag-worthy on paper or that will bulk up your training diary with impressive numbers. Do what you need to do. Do it honestly and do it fast. Don’t chase the speed, run hard and let the speed come to you. Because it will. This is what Len believed, and this is what I soon learned to be the truth. Typical Tuesday stuff would be 8 x 400m off a 200 jog. Sounds simple. Once again, with the years of track training behind me, I would look at these and think, ok that’s not much at all. But sure enough, by the second repeat I was literally panicking about being able to finish at all. Again, Len would take me to one side and go, “Look I don’t really care whether you do all 8 or not. The point of this session is the pace. If you can only manage two at the required pace, then do two, and let’s cut the third one back to a 200m effort and run that at the same pace. Maybe we’ll go back up to 400 for the next one, maybe not. We’ll see how it goes. Don’t put pressure on yourself to complete the whole thing because that’s not the point. That’s a different kind of session for a different time. When we get there I’ll tell you”.

These words of pure gold wisdom were completely new to me and went against a lot of the clutter I had accumulated in my head over years of completing what I thought were impressive sessions. Len believed that you when went to the track for a track session, you went there to run a very specific pace. Let’s say that pace was 66 seconds per 400m. When that got too much, you cut to 200,  or to 300, or to whatever was needed to run that pace. Even the recoveries were up for grabs. He believed you didn’t need to race around between efforts when you were there to run fast. Sure you don’t take 10 minutes, but don’t kill yourself to run a particular rest time. Len believed that you got the speed in place first and foremost. Once you had 66 second 400m’s down pat, you could look at reducing recovery, or increasing quantity and so on. Some days we would run 4 x 600m and some days it would be 3 x 800m or 3 x 1000m. It looks so harmless, but I have learned that those sessions, when you do them correctly will fuck you up while simultaneously bringing you on in leaps and bounds.

Len taught me all of that. And all through it he took a genuine interest in my running career. Always curious as to what my race plans were, and usually pulling his hair out when they invariably involved marathons. “Skip the marathon this year” he would say. “Give me 18 months with you, and I guarantee you will run 2:40. And after that, who knows where you’ll go”. I don’t have many regrets in running, but if I do have any, one would be not taking him up on his offer.

I hurt my foot in early 2009, slipping on some frozen Sutton Park mud on a god-awful cold frozen morning in February. I couldn’t run on it for a  few weeks. Len, also a qualified physio, sat down with me one Saturday morning at Cofton, while Johnny banged out a couple of bench-to-benches. Len sat with me, and took a look at my foot. He diagnosed it and applied cross-friction on it, more than once.  And not once did he me charge for it. It was the only injury I’ve ever had physio on.

Empirical evidence, and that is: my personal experience, Johnny’s experience, excerpts from numerous successful runners back in the day, have shown that Len was right on the money. In 2008 I ran times that today I can only just better; and that is with another three years of solid training banked and now on nearly twice the weekly mileage I did then.

Len, you will be missed. Your insights, advice and approach to training will be with me forever and forever influence the way I train.

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