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Neil Featherby: What has happened to our domestic running scene since the 1980s?

PUBLISHED: 14:50 28 September 2017

Where have all our top marathon runners gone? Picture: Archant

Where have all our top marathon runners gone? Picture: Archant

Autumn has always been a favourite time for me when it comes to running.

However, it was also one of those times when I used to think about getting in one more good quality marathon.

What with Mark’s Nottingham marathon last weekend, one which I know he is so pleased to have got under his belt, it also reminded me that it is 31 years ago since I set my personal best of 2:17:35 in the Berlin Marathon.

With this in mind and on the back of a number of conversations about the current state of the UK men’s marathon scene, particularly after so many good African performances this year, it brings me on to the same old question of the last few years as to why we once had such an abundance of high quality marathon runners.

More people than ever are running and at the sharp end the elite are most certainly running quicker, but the numbers in terms of depth have most certainly fallen away during the last few years. We now have so much more knowledge and technology too. Be it in sports science and physiology, better equipment to train and race in, nutritional products to help us survive long distance races by way of fluid and energy replacement – yet the times still don’t compare to yesteryear.

In 1983, there were 102 sub-2:20 marathon runners in the UK, whereas we have only produced 103 sub-2:20 times during the last eight years. Steve Jones still leads the way in the UK rankings with his 2:07 from 1985 and within the all-time UK top 20, nine of the best times were produced during the 1980s, with only two during the last 10 years.

Why is this? With all the advancements since those heady days of the 80s, surely we should have more guys out there producing times at least equal to back then.

The opinion of many experts is that athletes don’t train as hard these days. However, if you look at some of our current top athletes, they most certainly do. As each decade goes by, lifestyle changes and that is the only reason I can put my finger on. There are far more distractions nowadays and I am pretty sure we are all under more pressure when it comes to expectations outside of what I suppose you have to say is a “hobby” of sorts. Certainly a hobby for the seasoned club runner.

It was perhaps far easier for club runners to bang out 100 miles a week three of four decades ago whereas nowadays, everything is on the go 24/7.

We could also say we are a lot softer now with far more home comforts and point to the Africans who have to do everything on foot from an early age. We can also say our children are driven everywhere and spend more time in front of computers and games, but there are still plenty of youngsters out there running, be it at junior Parkruns or indeed with their local running clubs.

They, like their parents, are also under more pressure to meet expectations with their grades at school to get that university place or settle into a career upon leaving education.

Whatever it is will continue to be debated, but for those who perhaps haven’t quite been blessed with the speed and talent of a track star, if they want to really apply themselves to training for a marathon, then there are opportunities out there to achieve success as the likes of the current UK number one Callum Hawkins is most certainly proving.

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