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Running column: Can our running clubs harness Norfolk’s top runners?

PUBLISHED: 06:00 23 November 2018 | UPDATED: 17:39 23 November 2018

The City of Norwich Athletic Club dominated the Trowse 10K last month. Picture: Sonya Duncan

The City of Norwich Athletic Club dominated the Trowse 10K last month. Picture: Sonya Duncan

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Run Anglia editor Mark Armstrong discusses why competitive running standards appear to be in decline

There they were, a vision of red and yellow, arm in arm, with huge smiles on their faces.

Ben Spratling, Piers Arnold and James Senior had locked out the podium at the Trowse 10K – the last event of the Sportlink Grand Prix series this year. The female trio of Mabel Beckett, Leanne Finch and Emma Risbey had done exactly the same.

The City of Norwich Athletic Club (CONAC) group were in a class of their own and it got me thinking… if you really want to take your running to the highest level, is CONAC the only place to go in Norfolk?

I suppose for many it comes down to what you want out of running.

For the majority, it’s the social aspect of being in a running club. Yes, they want to get a few miles in but then it’s all about what you do afterwards – coffee, cake and a good chat (I’m a huge fan of all three).

Club nights out, pool sessions, coffee mornings – for some clubs it’s all about the community feeling and running is only part of why they’re there.

The main reason is to feel like you belong, finding like-minded individuals that share your interests.

MORE: Love running? Join the Run Anglia Facebook group here

But then there is the other end of the spectrum – the competitive runner. Are his or her needs serviced adequately in Norfolk and beyond?

Can they even get a place in a race? A lot of races are sold out within hours of places being released leaving a lot of runners (both competitive and non-competitive) disappointed.

You have to wonder if the only reason Trowse 10K was such a high calibre race was because organising club CONAC could keep some places back for their members.

The best way for a runner to progress is to race and get as much experience in as possible (alongside a structured training program obviously) but this isn’t always happening.

A good 10K runner in the eighties was regarded as being able to run under 35 minutes and there were many that could do that in Norfolk alone. Nowadays that is beyond all but a very, very small percentage in this region.

How can we raise the standards of running in Norfolk? Does it even matter?

I feel able to take part in this debate because I think that I sit somewhere in the middle. It’s not all about parkruns and parties but by the same token I want to have a bit of fun with my running as well.

We’re lucky to have some fantastic running clubs in the area but can they all cope with athletes at the sharp end?

Outside of Norwich, clubs like Ryston Runners, West Norfolk AC, Thetford AC, Great Yarmouth & District and North Norfolk Harriers have some excellent youth sections but it seems that any athlete that shows any promise will inevitably end up at CONAC. They have several high quality coaches in a system covering various age groups to pass them on as they progress and it’s natural that the cream of young Norfolk runners gravitate to them. More recently, Tim and Pauline Ash, were asked by North Norfolk District Council to help develop young runners and the North Norfolk Harriers was set up for juniors.

MORE: How children can make you a better runner

I spoke to them earlier this year and they are doing a superb job developing the younger generation, but if you really want to kick on with your running, beyond the junior phase, can that seriously be done outside of CONAC? At the same time do you need to leave the Norfolk bubble to really take your running to the next level?

Bure Valley Harriers, Wymondham AC, Norfolk Gazelles, Dereham AC – all have athletes that compete at a really good level – but that ‘good level’ isn’t as high as it used to be.

If you look at the results from the City of Norwich Half Marathon this is borne out. The times have gradually got slower over the years – Dennis Fowles and Sarah Rowell ran 65:11 and 72:57 respectively in 1985 with the first Norfolk athlete finishing fourth in 66:03. This year Ash Harrell and Mabel Beckett were the winners in 69:54 and 81:19 respectively. There has been several changes of courses since that first ever race which is arguably still regarded as the toughest one of them all, but you can’t seriously say that accounts for such a slow down.

I’m not denigrating either of Ash’s or Mabel’s achievements – they’re among the best athletes in Norfolk and by all accounts are going to continue to improve greatly, but no-one can dispute their winning times for the half marathon were slower than the runners of 30 years ago. Even more noticeable is how the times differ so much with regards to the top 50 of 1985 and 2018.

Nick Earl’s development has certainly gone up a notch since moving to Melbourne, Australia, and his 2-18:56 earlier this year certainly made a few people sit up and take notice. Looking at his splits, he ran the second half slower than the first, which suggests if he can pace it a little better then he might be able to shave a bit more time off. (Listen to me talking about pace… at least I know what’s good in theory, I just can’t carry it out myself…)

Then of course you have got Dani Nimmock, who has had a stellar 2018, winning the Greater Manchester Marathon in April and representing England at the Frankfurt marathon recently. When she left the Norfolk goldfish bowl to move to Buckhurst Hill as part of her job with the London Marathon, her running career has kicked on. You also feel there is more to come from the Dereham 28-year-old in 2019.

I love that these two athletes are flying the flag for Norfolk but isn’t it a shame that they have had to leave the county for their running careers to really thrive?

The sport of running has become so inclusive that it has perhaps neglected the competitive side of things.

Perhaps it’s time clubs ensured they complimented the fantastic work they do with the middle of the pack runner (like myself) and put some resources towards the sharper end of things.

Let me know what you think in the Run Anglia Facebook group or drop me an email at mark.armstrong@archant.co.uk

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