We all like to back our teams and when it comes to major international events we get behind our national team. With the Rugby World Cup currently ongoing I’m expecting to see lots of banter on Facebook, as my friends cover pretty much all the countries taking part. It’s great having a team or even a person to support, living the highs and lows with them, but what’s it like to be part of that team? Well this week’s blog I’m going to give you my own personal reflection of what it feels like to be selected.
My first memories of selection/rejection come from my schooldays, being one of the crowd up for selection for one of two football teams. Of course in the playground, as long as you want to play, you’re always going to get selected, but it’s a matter of when you get selected. No one wants to be the last one to be selected but it can be a cruel old world and if you can’t improve it’s important to find a different skill. I know guy’s who were pretty rubbish at football but once they accepted that and concentrated on being the goalkeeper they upped their chances of an early selection, after all better to have a half decent goalkeeper than a half decent winger if you already have three good players.
I started running because I couldn’t make the grade in football or hockey and I really wanted to be part of a team sport. Funny that, you might consider running is an individual sport but actually it’s both and one of the things I enjoy most about running is being part of a team, win or lose the team spirit is worth it every time, though I admit it’s better if you win.
When I started running I joined my local club, Belgrave. I started my racing on the track, running non scoring events in the Rosenheim and Southern League, and watching the scoring races. Seeing guys in Belgrave singlets running much faster than me I knew I had a way to go before I could make the team and for this reason I refused to purchase a Belgrave singlet until I felt good enough to wear it, after all anybody can wear the singlet, I wanted to earn it.
When the cross country season started I felt like I should get the singlet, I had improved and felt like I was representing Belgrave, even if I was still not counting in a scoring team. But it didn’t take long, in less than a month I was Belgrave’s 10th man in my 2nd Surrey League event, thus making the scoring 10 and counting towards the team score. I was so happy to have succeeded where I’d failed in other sports and I was proud to call myself a Belgrave Harrier. That got me recognised and although I was still some way off the best of Belgrave, my willingness to participate and my improving form made me a regular in future Belgrave teams.
In my first year at Belgrave I went along to watch the South of England 12 stage relay, which in those days took part on the roads around Wimbledon Common. It was a spectacular sight and though many of the athletes were unknown to me I knew I wanted to take part in this race. But this race wasn’t for anyone, you had to be selected.
For the next few years I tried hard to make the team but I was never quite good enough. I was asked to be reserve in 1992, the last year the race was held in Wimbledon but I never got a chance to race over the roads I trained on. The following year the race was moved to Thurrock, such was my improvement in form over the previous winter that I wasn’t just selected for the 12 man team but I was asked to do a long leg. It was a great feeling to be part of the team, just a year too late. After this I was a regular 1st team member in National, Southern and Surrey teams for Belgrave and won many medals over the years.
I’d achieved my goal but what next, I’d never really thought about representing my county or anything even higher but when I won the Surrey 10000m championship in 1993 I started to believe I was good enough. I was disappointed not to be selected for the Inter-counties that year, until I realised that selection had taken place before the County champs and you also needed to be known by the selectors. After that I’ve tried to make sure I get known by the selectors, though I still want selection on merit. Also in that year I was selected to represent Merton, the London Borough I lived in, in the London Champs. I’ll never forget the race (3000m) I was always up with the leaders and felt good coming into the final 100m, I launched my sprint and saw a gap on the inside, as I started to pass the Wandsworth athlete his arm came out and he executed a perfect Michael Schumacher manoeuvre, pushing me off the track and onto the grass, it broke my stride and one of my spikes as my foot hit a lump of concrete, but it just made me more determined to beat him, I surged again and left him trailing in my wake by a clear second. Even though I’d beaten him I was still pretty annoyed with him and we exchanged a few words. I got my own back the following year when, having moved in with my girlfriend, I took his place in the Wandsworth team. Of course Geoff Jerwood and I are now mates and team colleagues and it pains me more that Geoff is no longer able to compete, after all I owe him a shove.
In 1994 I made my debut for Surrey, not on the track but in the Inter-Counties Cross Country champs, having had a good run in the Surrey County Cross Country champs. Once again it was a great feeling to be handed a Surrey singlet and a badge.
1995 was my next move up the ladder, I’d entered the South of England 3000m champs. I’d run some good races in 1993 and 1994 and truly believed I had a chance in this race. I always respected my opponents but never had any fear of them, after all I’d made huge improvements and I didn’t see any reason why this couldn’t continue. As I declared myself I was told there was an inter-area match and would I consider running for the South-East of England, well that was a step up on Surrey so naturally I said yes. I was then told that there were some other faster runners yet to declare so I may not get selected. I said ok but also that I didn’t mind if I ran or not for the South-East but I was here to win and I was going into preparation mode so would appreciate early notice, to which the chap got a bit tetchy. I went away to put my numbers onto my Belgrave singlet and relax. About 5 minutes before the start the, clearly deaf, chap came up to me and handed me a South-East singlet and told me I was running for them. He caught me off guard otherwise I’d have told him where to stick his singlet. I quickly changed over my numbers and put on the singlet, only to find out it was designed for a shot putter and was half hanging off my shoulders. It was a really windy day and this was the last thing I needed. Thankfully, before I could lose my concentration we were called to the start. It was a fantastic race, the early pace was slow, due to the wind, and then, after 3 laps it really picked up. I had no idea how fast we were going but was involved in a 5 man tussle for 1st place. As we reached 400m to go Neil Caddy and Jason Humm shot off, I was strategically badly placed and missed the initial burst but went after them anyway. Neil won in 8:24.43, Jason was 2nd in 8:25.67 and I remained 3rd in 8:27.02. It was, and remains a personal best for me. I was a bit annoyed with myself, missing the break, but I doubt I’d have beaten Neil in any case. The bonus was that I was given the silver medal as Neil had not been declared in the Championship, this also handed bronze to my old NatWest and RBS colleague and future AAA champion Nick Wetheridge who’d come 4th in 8:30.66. I was pretty happy with my result and almost allowed myself to forget about the idiot who’d given me a tent to wear.
That would have appeared to have been the pinnacle of my representation, I often thought I should have been selected for the South of England in some of the road races, but as I tended not to race on the road as much as track and cross country I imagine I wasn’t so well know to the selector. However, at age 37, in 2002 I received an unexpected call to run for them in the National 10k Champs. I was running the Surrey Road Relays the day before and normally would have said no, as I don’t generally do back to back races, but once again I saw this as another pinnacle so said yes. It turned out well for me, I ran a good leg on the Saturday, helping Belgrave to silver medals and then ran 31:55 in the next day’s 10k, my fastest time for a fair while and fully justifying my selection as I was 2nd in the team. I ran for the South again in 2003 but only 3 weeks after the marathon I struggled for pace and could only finish 5th Southerner (out of 6) in 33:39. I travelled up with my pal, and best man at my, so far, only wedding, Al Stewart (not the singer, definitely not the singer) and it was great to see him have one of his best runs, finishing 2nd in the race and first Brit.
We were now 10 years on from when I’d made my initial impact on the running scene and I’d accepted that I was wasn’t going to get a senior International call up, but, at 38, I was only two years away from reaching Veteran status (it was 40, for men, in those days, nowadays it’s 35 and we’re called Masters). My training partner of many years, Charlie Dickinson, had represented England, on many occasions, in the International Cross Country race and this now became one of my main focuses.
When I hit 40 I was running well, either winning or being 1st over 40 in all my races, but then I tore my hamstring. I tried hard to get fit again but ran out of time and, rightly, wasn’t selected for the England team. Towards the end of the year I moved to Edinburgh to take on a new job that required working nightshifts. I continued to train hard but knew I could not run to my full potential whilst working nights (you have to work them to fully understand how it impacts your body). I accepted that my best chance of running for my country had passed. But then Alex McEwen, who’s group I trained with occasionally, suggested I tried Scotland on the basis of residency. I did and was selected for the team in the 2006 International at Falkirk. It was a dream come true for me but I did have reservations, I wasn’t born Scottish and felt guilty about taking the place away from a born and bred Scotsman, however, my Scottish running pals set me right, supporting my inclusion. I ran well, finishing 3rd Scot.
I represented Scotland for the next three years and during that period I even represented British Masters on the track against Belgium and France. Then in 2009 I moved back to England and I was told this would rule me ineligible to represent Scotland. Even marrying my Scottish girlfriend wouldn’t have swayed the selectors, so I didn’t. But as it turned out when I turned 45 I was running better than when I’d turned 40. This led to me gaining selection for England so I made my 5th consecutive International Cross Country appearance, this time in an England singlet. This was a real high for me as it is so competitive to get into the England squad and there are only 6 places available. Unfortunately I was struggling with an injured knee and didn’t have a good run, finishing 6th Englishman, though I would have been 2nd Scot and did beat an England M35.
So that’s my personal story of how I went from wanting to represent my club to actually representing my country.
Well what of now? When I wrote last week’s blog I alluded to the fact that I had done something to my back. One of my coaches once told me that one of the easiest ways to get a back problem is to bend over to pick up a piece of paper from the floor. Well David, you can add to pick up a pair of shorts from the floor to that. That’s exactly what I did, I was all ready to get out and run a hard run and suddenly I was bent over in agony. My back had spasmed and locked me into position. Over the next two days it got worse and to stand up from a sitting position I first had to get down on my knees. Don’t even ask about getting out of bed, it was bad enough in the morning but needing the loo in the middle of the night was an experience I really don’t want to repeat. I did appropriate back exercises and gradually mobility returned, but it meant I lost a week’s training. I started running again on Saturday, just an easy 30 minutes with Carole, but I’m starting to build up again. However I think it is unlikely I’m going to be able to show any form before selection for this year’s International Cross Country so have accepted this won’t be my 6th consecutive year at the champs, though I’m not ruling it out. But the good news is, despite the lack of exercise, I’ve actually maintained my weight, you see I’ve been following my nutritional meal planning programme (you can too www.rogeralsop.co.uk/nutrition).