Neil Featherby: There’s a buzz around CoNAC and its athletes that’s putting Norfolk on the map

Nick Earl has made excellent progress as a marathon runner in recent years. Picture: Archant

Nick Earl has made excellent progress as a marathon runner in recent years. Picture: Archant - Credit: Archant © 2012

I make no apologies for writing about marathon running again this week particularly on the back of Nick Earl's superb 2:14:38 performance in the Lake Biwa Marathon in Japan last Sunday.

The standard was so high that the first 49 athletes all amazingly broke the 2 hours 20 min barrier.

For many years us older athletes continually harped on about the good old days saying how we trained much harder and raced much faster back in the day. For several years I have to say I was in full agreement, particularly when it came to marathons and road race times. However, more recently it seems that things are on the way up again.

There are more people than ever running for sure, but also standards at good club level seem to be going up again and very much so here in Norfolk. Whilst not every club runner out there is following the 100 miles a week routine of old or indeed training for a marathon, for those with designs on achieving high standards, they are definitely realising the benefits of some high mileage weeks with perhaps a slightly more scientific approach.

MORE: Love running? Join the Run Anglia Facebook group hereBack in the 1980s there was an abundance of UK-based athletes breaking the 2 hour 20 min barrier, peaking at 102 in 1983. Then for some reason during the late 1990s it all went a little barren and so much so that by 2007 the UK could only boast five sub 2:20 marathon runners for that year.

However, let's talk about Nick for a bit. I remember just a few years ago when it was quite obvious that whilst he was a very good club athlete (CONAC) and road runner, at the same time I think it is fair to say there were also several other local runners who were of equal standard or indeed just a little quicker. One thing which did stand out to me though was that he did have a very good racing brain.

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After he moved out to Australia, news soon started filtering back that he was producing some very fast track times for which it was also obvious that he was on the brink of producing some very special race times particularly once he stepped back on to the roads. Two sub 2:20 marathons during the last six months and three Run Norwich 10k victories prove that.

Developing endurance is so very important when it comes to running 26.2 miles, but for those who want to run as fast as they can over the marathon distance, then speed over those much shorter distances is also key to making what is basically your cruise speed for the longer distances feel relatively comfortable.

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Having seen some of the times which Nick has run in Australia on the track and roads for 5k and 10k fits in perfectly with his marathon performances.

Dani Nimmock, another CONAC athlete who is currently having success at the marathon, has also recently said that she intends spending much of this year working on her speed over the shorter distances before stepping back up again in the Autumn.

Nevertheless, there is also more to it than just getting that right especially when you look to this latest surge in quality race performances from not only Nick, but closer to home here in Norwich particularly from his club mates such as Dani and of course Ash Harrell, who is also shaping up for a very quick marathon next month. As far as I am aware they don't train together especially with Nick being in Australia, but there is most certainly a buzz which seems to be centred around what is going on at their club just right now. Apart from these guys there is an abundance of talent within the club naming the likes of Iona Lake and Logan Smith for starters.

Whilst CONAC have for years produced lots of potential international athletes, just right now there seem to be something a little extra special.

MORE: Plan your 2019 race diary hereThe coaching system which they have in place is most certainly very professional and goes right through the club from the juniors to the seniors. The success which they are currently having on the track, country and roads (men & women) is most certainly testament to the fact that they must be doing something right.

However, and whilst structure and systems are so very important, I am also a huge believer in the saying that success breeds success.

When I worked in boxing I used to regularly hear people say 'is it the trainer who makes the fighter or the fighter who makes the trainer?' This can equally be said in athletics too i.e. the coach or club who makes the athlete or of course vice versa. The truth is, it is both. You have to have a great combined working relationship if you want to succeed. The coach and club provides the knowledge and structure and of course an environment which has a huge buzz whilst the athletes all bounce off each other with their high levels of energy and combined motivation to succeed.

Now before I am accused of promoting CONAC, I really must make it clear that my allegiance is 100 percent to Norfolk Athletics and not any one club, hence why my business supporting the GP Series and many other open club races within the county.

All our clubs are very special with lots of super people running them. I used to compete first claim for Norfolk Olympiads and then Norfolk Gazelles and if I had to say I have slightly closer links to any one club just right now, then I suppose I would have to say it is with BVH what with Dave and Brenda Hutcheon being close friends of mine for over 35 years.

The point I am making is that when positivity is all around us then it rubs off on each other. Whilst I am so very impressed with the work they are doing in Norwich, it doesn't mean that others cannot or are not already doing the same. If anything CONAC's success should also inspire and motivate others around the county to show just exactly what they can do too.

Barriers are set to be broken for which the likes of Nick and Co. have proved that success at the highest level is not just for those who many just see as being blessed with an abundance of natural talent.

If you have the belief and most certainly the want and dogged determination, then who knows what is possible?

What is sure, is that you will only find out if you are brave enough to raise the bar just that bit higher and go for it in the first place irrespective of the colour of your club vest.

So as to finish off my column this week, whilst having just spoken about being brave enough and raising the bar, etc, despite being of very average ability, I think it is fair to say I was brave enough to have a go just to see how far I could stretch myself.

My top 10 marathon performances all averaged 2:20:50 with my quickest being 2:17. I was also lucky enough to have travelled the world due to being prepared to put myself out there.

However, and needless to say this did also come at a cost in as much as I sacrificed many things during my 20s and early 30s for which I relied upon the support given to me from those closest and those who were prepared to put up with my tunnel vision.

With this in mind I have to say a special thank you to my mum who sadly passed away last week. She didn't see me compete too often, but she was there for what was one of my most pleasing marathon victories at Leicester in 1984 and of course all of my four wins in the Norfolk Marathon.

She was always there when I put my hand out for financial support and indeed to help meet my demands for excessive amounts of food what with the number of calories I consumed each day.

Therefore, I would also like to use space in this column to thank the overwhelming number of people from far and wide who have sent me messages during the last week. Always remembering the good times, that's for sure.

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