Runner moves to hit new heights in marathon

Mike Rowbottom talks to Peter Whitehead, an athlete who has benefited from altitude training
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The Independent Online
Two years ago, Peter Whitehead decided to get serious about his athletics. At 28, he was a top-quality club runner, a 2hr 17min marathon runner, and tantalisingly close to international standard.

Two years on, he has given himself a real chance of competing in this summer's world championships, having finished ahead of Eamonn Martin in Sunday's London Marathon, with a personal-best time of 2:12.23.

Whitehead took a gamble. He gave up his job in a newsagents at Leeds Bradford Airport, and set off to train in the high altitude of Albuquerque. There was no easy path there - he was simply given a couple of contacts out in Canada by Gerry Helme, the Northern-based runners' agent. Funding came out of his own savings, and what could be provided by his wife, Sandra, who works in a bank in Leeds, and his mother, Dorothy, a pensioner.

The gamble worked. The only question in his mind was why he had not made the move years earlier. "I took a month to train, and then had six races in three months," he said. "I made more over there in that time than I would have done in two years if I had stayed here. I am holding my head above water."

The experience has been an uplifting and stimulating one for an athlete who spent 10 years on the British scene. He has trained regularly with the Olympic 10,000 metres champion, Khalid Skah, and several Kenyan runners, adopting their regime.

"The Kenyan secret is simple," he said. "They train at altitude. They train very hard. And that's all they do. They train in the morning, then go to bed, then train in the late afternoon."

The view from Albuquerque has encouraged Whitehead to re-evaluate his career, and his attitude to the domestic middle- distance scene. "There is no question about it. I am very resentful of the lack of support for runners over here. I don't understand why they can have races of 2,000 or 3,000 people in the States offering first prizes of $50-60,000 (£30,000) and maybe a car. Yet when you race over here, the first prize is 100 quid if you are lucky.

"Quite often you get vouchers or cutlery, or something else you can't live on. I question how these races can generate so much sponsorship and so many entry fees, yet produce such a pittance in prize-money. If there was a better system over here, it would help athletes like me to make the decision to go full-time. You have got to have money to train. You can't do it without money. It's as simple as that.

"I have been able to do it only because my wife and my mother have been able to help me. You ask how much it has cost me - it hasn't cost me anything, it has all been down to them. They have given me thousands."

Whitehead's views are echoed by a many people within athletics. "It would be nice if there could be a group which would train abroad," said Paul Evans, Britain's leading finisher on Sunday in fifth place. "I am sure it would improve the general standard."

Steve Moneghetti, the Australian Commonwealth champion who finished just three seconds behind the winner, Dionicio Ceron, expressed a similar opinion, saying that training camps at altitude could have a beneficial effect.

Chris Brasher, chairman of the London Marathon, has been critical of the support given to British long-distance runners for many years. "The distance- running scene in Britain at the moment is pretty pathetic," he said. "In the last few years, the sport has generated about £1.75m from road- running. But this has been dissipated in the regions, and no one seems to know quite what has happened to it."

Over the weekend, 14 former British medallists in the marathon signed a letter deploring the lack of support currently offered to British long- distance runners.

What may help is the ongoing negotiation between the London Marathon organisers and the British Athletic Federation, which has agreed in principle to put up a sum of around £30,000 towards a national training squad. This sum may be matched by the future sponsors of the London Marathon. For Whitehead, and many like him, it cannot happen soon enough.