Thursday, March 31, 2016

Worse by training

Roger Black, the mid-distance British runner who was internationally successful in the 1980s and 1990s, is 50 years old today. He must keep a diary, or at least have kept a diary during his competitive years, for he quotes from one in an autobiography published in the year he retired from competitive athletics. As one might imagine, health and injuries, trainers and training often dominate the diary entries.

Black was born in Gosport, Hampshire, with a twin sister Julia, on 31 March 1966. He went to Portsmouth Grammar School, becoming head boy, and then to University of Southampton to study medicine (his father being a doctor). However, he left college after a few months to pursue a career in athletics. Aged 19, in 1985, he won the 400m European Junior Championships, and the following year, no longer a junior, he won gold medals at the Commonwealth Games and the European Championships for both the 400m individual race (breaking the British record in the process) and the 4x400m relay. Despite suffering injuries and illness over the next few seasons, he again won gold medals for both races at the 1990 European Championships.

At the 1991 World Championships, Black won silver for the individual 400m, and gold with the 4x400m relay team creating a new British and European record. Five years later, he also won a silver medal at the same distance, coming second only to Michael Johnson, and he won silver with the relay team at the 1997 World Championships (though more than a decade later this silver was upgraded to gold because an athlete in the winning US team admitted to drug use at the time). Subsequently, injuries and illness again hampered his form; and, after not being selected for the 1998 European Championships, he retired from competitive athletics.

Black has a daughter from his marriage, in 1999, to Elsa de Vassoigne, and has twin boys with his second wife Julia Burgess. He is often to be found presenting for the BBC, but also has made a career for himself as a motivational speaker. He says: ‘My standard speech is designed to engage the audience in the lessons learnt throughout my athletics career, which resulted in me achieving my dream of standing on the Olympic rostrum in Atlanta in 1996.’ Further information is available from his own website, Wikipedia or British Athletics.

In 1998, Andre Deutsch published How Long’s the Course? - My Autobiography written by Black with the help of Mike Rowbottom, athletics correspondent at the time for The Independent. In the book, Black refers to, and quotes from, a diary, though there are no more than a score of such references, and most are incorporated into the text.

Here is Black explaining an aspect of his training philosophy followed by a supporting extract from his diary.

‘The balance of training and rest is crucial in athletics, and the careers of too many athletes have been destroyed because they haven’t had the confidence to do nothing when it is necessary. The belief is, ‘I get better by training. No pain, no gain.’ What many people have found out is that you actually get worse by training because your body doesn’t get time to recover, so you never really run to the best of your ability. Jenks [David Jenkins] really believed he didn’t rest enough in his career. Steve Cram too has said the same thing to me. Here’s another diary entry [17 July 1986], ‘Jenks phoned me tonight and thinks I can win the Commonwealth Games if Clark is unable to handle the rounds. He says that I mustn’t train tomorrow, so I won’t. There’s so much he wants to tell me but he is unable to do so over the phone. He says I mustn’t do the opening ceremony.’ ’

And here are several more quotes from Black’s diary as found in his autobiography.

14 April 1989
‘Mike Smith cannot now become as big a part of me as he was before because he hasn’t stood by me. He will still be my coach, but not my controller. I must use the right formula of myself, Kriss, Mike Smith, Mike Whittingham and Joe Picken. I must do what I feel to be best for me, and I can no longer rely entirely on Mike Smith’s judgement - but I do need the group.

I hope Mike will be able to step back a little with me. Remember those who have stood by you, they are the only ones you need to involve. The rest mustn’t have the pleasure of association with your success.’

On 4 August 1989
‘Mike Whittingham has been working with me one-to-one since 18 June. His contribution has been invaluable. We work well together and I know I’m getting it right. Mike Smith could never relate to me like this because of the size of the group . . . A CT scan yesterday showed the bone in my foot has repaired.’

23 February 1994
‘I’ve moved on in leaps and bounds since October. My body still gives me problems but I can run with them. The left foot is much better due to the taping and the orthotics and the exercises.

My hip is still very sore but that’s life. In January I confronted the reality that my hip will never be 100 per cent and I have a choice. It can stop me running or I can run with it. Only the clock can tell me if I can get better.’

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