A email conversation with Tim Benjamin: 'I had got sick of people telling me I wasn't running fast enough'

The routine injection that left me hospitalised, going for gold in a Welsh vest, the lowdown on Mark Lewis-Francis, the benefits of magic socks and Jaffa Cakes
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The Independent Online

All 400-metre runners say theirs is the toughest event going. Why? Because we're all lazy sprinters at heart, we just couldn't make it over 100m! I wouldn't like to tell Paula Radcliffe that my event is tougher than hers!

Did you feel bad about dropping out of university, especially as your dad's a professor? After that question, I do now! In all seriousness, for me it was not an option because to be the very best at what I do you've got to give it 100 per cent; that means absolute commitment in training and lifestyle. University partying didn't quite support it! I'd like to go back and finish my education one day.

Talking about athletes who chose sport over their degree, Roger Black [who gave up a place to read medicine at Southampton University] has been helping advise you over the last year. What's the most useful advice you've had from him, and how similar or different do you feel you are? The main thing is all the mental preparation he helps me with, because when I met him I wasn't as confident in my abilities as he and my coach Tony Lester were. And as for uni drop-outs, Roger's done pretty well for himself without a degree. We have a lot in common. We come from a similar background - Roger's dad was a doctor - and we've suffered from a lot of injuries. Roger has been there and done it, and we talk about once a fortnight. He can discuss so many aspects with me.

Do you dream about running? If not, what do you dream about? My fiancée, of course!

Have you spotted any sign of human weakness in the American athlete Michael Johnson, ever? And do you think anyone is going to beat the world record of 43.18sec that he set back in 1999 any time soon? None, the guy is a legend. I think his only human traits arose when he had food poisoning in the early '90s at the World Championships. He is an absolute inspiration to me; his training and race execution were as near perfect as possible. As for the world record, I'd like to one day break 44sec, but getting close to 43 flat is almost superhuman!

Has anyone ever remarked upon the Paula Radcliffe-style stockings you have to wear for your circulation while running? Yeah, they've caused a few laughs, asking if I was going to stop at 200m to have a wee! The only time I forgot to wear them was on a warm down after training and I noticed my calves tighten instantly, I rolled up my trousers and saw that I hadn't pulled up my magic socks!

What music do you listen to before you compete? Is it obligatory for all athletes to own i-Pods? I've got an MP3, similar to an i-Pod. I listen to hip-hop, it helps take my mind of the enormity of the task ahead.

Have you bumped into Mark Lewis-Francis yet now he has joined your training group in Windsor? How do you think he's going to get along next season? Yeah, of course, we're close friends and have been since our junior days together. I've been showing him around the area and he seems to be enjoying the challenge. We even walk our dogs together (Jada and Patch). As for next season I think he's going to be outstanding and will build on his collection of medals!

More to the point, how are you going to get along next season? You said after the Ivo Van Damme meeting in Brussels two months ago that you could win the Commonwealth title at the Melbourne Games in March - do you stick by that now you've been named in Wales's team for the Games? The European Champs remain my main target for 2006 but, of course, I will be taking the Commonwealths very seriously. The competition will be tough with world bronze medallist Tyler Christopher of Canada, Chris Brown from the Bahamas and the Jamaican guys. However, if I stay healthy over the winter I'm confident of going for gold in my Welsh vest.

You got a bit aerated after breaking 45 seconds for the first time at Crystal Palace three months ago. Why? I had got sick of people telling me that I wasn't running fast enough. The last three to four years have been wrecked by injuries and I've still managed to be the British No 1. I've wanted to burst sometimes, because these people don't know the hell I've been through. I didn't train this year between January and May, but I ran 45.11sec in my first race of the season, only a couple of weeks after I had got into my running spikes, and now I have run under 45 seconds several times. You can imagine the confidence that gives me.

You spent most of last April on your back after a spinal injection went wrong. Has the experience left any lasting marks on you, for good or ill? And how are you about needles these days? I am pleased with the way I performed off minimal training, which underlines my ability. I will never have another spinal injection and was just looking for a quick fix for a niggling injury. I'm not too bothered by needles - I've had so many I feel like a human pin cushion!!

You jest, but things were grim after the injection went wrong, weren't they? Yeah. The fluid leaking from my spinal column altered the balance of fluid surrounding my brain, so I couldn't stand up. I was taken home and I was sick again as soon as I came through the front door. I couldn't even lift my head off the pillow or I got absolutely screaming headaches that no one could put up with. I was home for about a week, but it wasn't getting any better. They had to take me to hospital, and my headache got so bad that it didn't go away even when I was lying down. I had to have painkilling injections for two days. I couldn't even lift my head to sip water, so they had to put me on a drip.

There were teletext reports at the time that your career was over because you had had a stroke. Roger Black was told you had had a heart attack. Were you aware of all this going on? Yes. It was a scary time. I usually research my injuries on the net. This time my girlfriend looked up the details of dural leaks and she found that there were some cases which had lasted seven years. So that was it. I just had to wait and see what happened.

While you were stricken, you fed yourself on Jaffa Cakes and had to let your dog, Patch, out of the back door to pee. Are you still eating Jaffa Cakes, and if so, shouldn't they be sponsoring you by now? And is Patch getting a better deal these days? No sponsorship deal as yet, although if Mr McVitie wants to talk business then I'm all ears! Patch is well loved but unfortunately half the beast that he was - he's just been castrated!

Do you believe in all that star-sign stuff? Not really.

What is your all-time favourite film, and why? Scarface - every man wants to be like Al Pacino.

What is your proudest achievement outside athletics? Being a godfather to my cousin William.

Why do athletes always have to run anti-clockwise? You've got me there, I've got no idea.

What three words best describe your character? Determined. Ambitious. Hilarious.

What is your favourite saying? You can run with the big dogs or sit on the porch and bark (former US Army Major General Wallace Arnold).

Attachment The Benjamin Lowdown

* Born: 2 May 1982 in Cardiff. Club: Belgrave Harriers. Coach: Tony Lester.

* Getting started: Always "the fast kid at school", Benjamin excelled at sprints, winning first national title in 1997, at 14, in the Under-17 indoor 200m. He was also the captain of the Welsh roller hockey team as a teenager and played rugby at Radyr Comprehensive in Cardiff. He only took up the 400m aged 19.

* Junior honours: Won six AAA national championship titles over 200m indoors and outdoors at Under-17 and Under-20 level between 1997 and 2001. World Youth Champion over 200m in 1999; gold in 400m and 4x100m at the 2001 European Junior Championships.

* Senior record: Won the 2002 AAA senior national championship. That year, aged 20, he made the finals of both the Manchester Commonwealth Games and the European championships, but a hamstring injury stopped him running in the latter. Eighth in 400m semi-final in Athens 2004; fifth in 2005 World Championship final. Broke 45-second barrier this summer, beating Olympic champion Jeremy Wariner at the Norwich Union London Grand Prix.

* Sporting heroes: Michael Johnson, athletics; Jonah Lomu, rugby; Lance Armstrong, cycling.