Britain is forced to play catch-up

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The Independent Online

Today marks the 20th running of the London Marathon. It promises to be the most memorable yet. Never before has a such a wealth of high-speed marathon runners toed the same start line. Sadly, though, none of those speed merchants happens to be British. Never before has Britain's marathon stock run so low. Last year only one Briton ran faster than 2hr 15min in any marathon. Nine of the overseas entrants for today's race have broken 2:08.

"The state of British marathon running is nowhere near what it used to be," Lindsay Dunn, one of Britain's leading distance running coaches, acknowledged. "At one time, when I was a member of Gateshead Harriers, we had five runners in our club who could run under 2:15. What you can do about it... it's very, very difficult. But somehow, somewhere along the line, we have to start making inroads."

UK Athletics has already made a start. Last month the domestic governing body appointed Dunn to an innovative new role, National Marathon Potential Coach. Considering his impressive track record, it promises to be a big step in the right direction. Dunn happens to be the only guru who has guided a British athlete to an Olympic marathon medal in the past 36 years. As a coaching adviser, he helped to plot Charlie Spedding's path to bronze behind Carlos Lopes and John Treacy in Los Angeles in 1984. With Dunn's guidance, Spedding also won the London Marathon in 1984 and ran 2.08:33 as runner-up to Steve Jones in the 1985 race, a time that still stands as the English marathon record.

"The basic idea is to try to identify potential future marathon stars," Dunn said. "I'll be working with Norman Brook, the Technical Director of Endurance Running for UK Athletics, and we'll be looking at good distance runners who are maybe planning to move up to the marathon over the next few years and offering support to them and their coaches. It's not going to have any great impact this year, for the Sydney Olympics. What we're really looking at is between now and the 2004 Olympics.

"One of the things we'll be looking for is people who run well in the Great North Run or in any of the other big half-marathons or 10-milers. It could be that they are either not coached or that their coach perhaps has no experience of international running. In that case, we'll try and point them in the right direction - the coach as well as the runner - and try to help them as much as we can. Broadly speaking, we're just looking to offer help where we can, in coach education, athlete education - really anything we can do to bring them on. A good example was me going out to Germany last weekend."

Dunn spent Friday to Monday in the northern German town of Detmold, observing and absorbing the coaching methods of Volker Wagner, the man behind the two leading women entrants for the Flora London Marathon - Tegla Loroupe, holder of the women's world best time for the marathon, and Joyce Chepchumba, last year's London winner. "It's given me a lot of food for thought," Dunn said. "The way they train is on a totally different level to what we're doing in this country. The quality, the intensity and the volume of their sessions is on a higher level than anyone in this country would even dream about doing. It's going to be a long, rocky road for British marathon running to try to catch up."

In his own running prime (he still competes as a veteran), Dunn never quite made it to international level. He was not far away, though. He ran 23:20 for five miles, was runner-up to Walter Wilkinson in the North of England championship mile, twice won the north-east mile title and was a member of Gateshead Harriers teams that won national cross-country and road-relay titles. He started in coaching by advising his Gateshead club-mate and training partner, Brendan Foster, and his many successes, apart from the 1976 Olympic 10,000m bronze medallist, have included guiding Barry Smith to the IAAF Golden 5,000m title in 1981 and Geoff Turnbull to a World Student Games 1500m bronze medal.

"I haven't coached as many marathon runners as I have runners at other distances," Dunn said, "but I feel the percentage of success I've had with marathon runners has been far greater. The schedule I use is different to what other people use. I've used it with Charlie and with other people I've coached and it seems to have worked for all of them."

The latest beneficiary could emerge today - not on the streets of London, but in Hamburg, Germany, where Dominic Bannister, one of Britain's leading cross-country runners and a member of Dunn's training group, takes up the challenge of the marathon for the first time.