Neil Featherby: Fighting talk ... or mind games?

Are you ready... or have you talked yourself out of it by the start? Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

Are you ready... or have you talked yourself out of it by the start? Picture: DENISE BRADLEY - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2019

Whilst my column last week mentioned my thoughts in respect of the similarities between boxers and marathon runners, one thing which did strike me being so very different between the two was their pre-race/fight talk.

When it comes to boxing you will always hear the fighters say they are in their best shape ever.

However, for many (needless to say not all) a runner, and I include myself in this in past years, more often than not just prior to the moment of truth and after weeks of hard training, they will regularly refer to the niggles they might be carrying or of course every athlete's worst nightmare, the dreaded sore throat and cold.

At the same time for some, the emphasis can also change from what was hoped to be a PB to now just going to take this one easy and really going for it next time.

Hearing these type of comments so many times last week prior to the City of Norwich Half Marathon and Manchester Marathon, I had a comical vision of two boxers after the final weigh-in during their head to face-off expressing themselves in the same way as that of the runner: 'To be honest, I haven't been feeling too good this week and think I am going down with a cold' only for his opponent to say in the usual boxers animated intent, 'that's okay – I've been struggling with my hamstring, so if it's okay with you, I'm going to take it easy as I don't want to make it worse.'

I know this all sounds daft, but I have only ever seen on one occasion a fighter saying he has a cold and was not feeling good at a weigh-in. As it happens this boxer did pull out, which was a huge shame for one of Norwich's most charismatic boxers, Earl Ling, as this was meant to be a bout for a British Masters title which I am sure Earl would have won.

Yes, boxers pull out through injury during training preparations, but when it comes to fighting talk, they always suggest they are in the best shape of their lives and can't wait to box. Having been involved in a number of professional bouts a few years ago, I know for a fact there were many occasions when a boxer was not in the best shape of their lives, but they would never say it. There had been times when I wish they had, but I think it may have been more of a case of 'the show must go on'. However, that is another story.

So amongst my mocking and winding up a few people after hearing for the umpteenth time last week that someone was suffering with a cold or not feeling good, I came up with this analogy with regards the difference of a boxer's pre-fight talk versus that of the runner and of course I wondered why this was so. However, it did come back to bite me on the backside.

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Craig Bowen Jones, who I have been working with for three years, had been all fired up for the Manchester Marathon and as far as I was concerned he was about to notch up his fifth sub-three-hour marathon since working together, only for him to then inform me just days prior to last Sunday's race that he really was feeling rough with a raging sore throat. My immediate thoughts were it was nothing more than the usual pre-race nerves, where every little niggle is an injury or a tickle in the throat means you are going down with a heavy cold. So I told him I was sure it would pass.

We usually have a good chat the day before a big race, but all I got was a text message saying he was in Manchester, but still felt rough. I replied telling him what I thought, but heard no more and assumed I may have expressed my opinions a little too strongly and had upset him. Then at 6am on Sunday morning I received another message saying he was feeling really bad. I know Craig well enough to know that when it comes down to it, he gives his all in everything he does and whilst I know he thinks very deeply about things, I also know that he would not have sent me such a message just a couple of hours before what was meant to be the culmination of several weeks of intense training.

I immediately called him and whilst I could hear the emotion in his voice, it was also very clear he did indeed have a full-on cold, which had hit his chest. At that point there really was nothing further to talk about other than me telling him that he was not to run.

Yes, I know he had put so much effort into his training, but that was just too bad. It was obvious he also had a bit of a temperature too, so running a marathon, which at its best would have resulted in a finishing time well below his capabilities, there was also every chance he would also make his condition far worse with potential longer-term effects.

To say it made me feel uncomfortable about some of the mocking I had been doing leading up to Sunday was perhaps another lesson learnt, but when all is said and done, a person's health always comes first especially having seen on several occasions the implications of runners trying to push themselves to their limits in marathons when perhaps they should not have.

Just a couple of miles up the road was Mark Armstrong, who was also getting ready to toe the Manchester start line – Mark had told me earlier in the week he had also been suffering the effects of a cold coming on. Needless to say, I also put this down to pre-event anxiety, knowing just how much effort he had put into wanting to produce a great performance.

However, and unknown to me, he had what can only be described as a bit of a nightmare 24 hours with regards to his journey up to Manchester followed by his wife Alison going down with food poisoning. Mark still ran and whilst I know he was not in the best frame of mind which led to further negative thoughts as the race progressed, he did finish in what was a personal best, knocking 33 minutes off his previous time. Whilst I know he feels he should have done better, I am still happy for him and am confident that he will achieve many more PBs at all distances this year..

Mark and Craig felt they had let others down – I assured them both they certainly had not let me down or indeed anyone else. It is this fear which perhaps causes some of the negative talk before races. I do get it, as we all want to do well, for ourselves and others.

At the same time we really should not let it pressure us to the point where it can also spoil the enjoyment of what it really is all about. For the serious elite athlete, focus without distractions is of paramount importance, but for us mere mortals, there really are times when we need to put things into perspective and know when to back off.

It can be a delicate balancing act, that's for sure, particularly when it comes to making decisions such as with Craig. When all is said and done, one's health is far more important, irrespective of whether you are a boxer or runner and however much work has gone in to the preparations along the way. Live to fight another day is always best as far as I am concerned.

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