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Barriers to success

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Tom Fordyce | 09:09 UK time, Friday, 29 May 2009

Fear. It wasn't there when I first tried the shot put, nor the long jump - but confronted by a flight of high hurdles, I can't shift it from my head.

I know it's daft. They're inanimate wooden barriers, not a despot's long-range missiles. Unlike the missiles, they'll also fall over harmlessly if I boot them with my foot.

What's the worst that could happen? Unfortunately, having spent a masochistic hour earlier in the day watching hurdling calamities on a video-sharing website, I have a pretty good idea.

The range of accidents is remarkable. People trip and nose-dive into the hard track. Others stumble into the first flight and wear the hurdles across their chest like wooden bandoliers. Some simply plough through them like demented bulldozers, slowed down incrementally by each barrier until they collapse in a confused heap of limbs and spikes.

Never before has 1.07 metres seemed so high. Never before has 110 metres seemed so far.

For the first time, the scale of the decathlon ahead has become apparent. Learning one new event from scratch is hard enough. Learning nine (praise the saints for the 1500m) in just four months makes the tasks of Hercules seem like household chores.

How not to hurdle

Two factors come to the rescue. The first is the accumulated memories of watching Roger Kingdom, Colin Jackson and Allen Johnson ripping up hurdling records with wondrous displays of speed, grace and power.

Most of us track and field fans possess a miserable fraction of those athletes' attributes. What we do have, thanks to years of watching them in action, is the ability to do a poor impersonation of how they used to run - the forward lean over the hurdle, the whipping through of the trail leg, the Jacksonesque exaggerated dip under the invisible finish tape.

It's a bit like being able to do an impression of Graham Gooch's batting stance, with that idiosyncratic backlift and nodding head movement. It doesn't mean you can handle yourself against 90mph fast bowling, but you might be able to lay a bat on a gentle medium-pacer in the nets.

The second factor is that coach Ian Grant, an old hand at breaking in weak-kneed decathlon debutants, has quietly lowered the height of the hurdles from precipitous to pragmatic. On race-day they'll be set at the standard 3' 6". Today, to avoid repeats of Gail Devers in the '92 Olympics final, or the lovely Lolo Jones in Beijing last summer, we'll satisfy ourselves with 3' 3".

It's not cheating. It's prudence. Honestly.

As with all the other disciplines taught so far, getting the technique bang on is everything. Until it's correct and second nature, there'll be no doing it at speed, or off a long run-up, or with any finish line to Jacksonesque under.

For 10 minutes there's merely gentle jogging past the right hand side of the hurdles, pulling the trailing leg over each one. For the next 10 it's jogging past the left hand side, getting the lead leg to come up with toes pointing forward. Only half an hour in do we actually put it all together and go straight down the middle.

One thing had always puzzled me about Jackson: why he insisted on wearing those tiny split-seam shorts, years about they had became a fearsome fashion faux-pas.

Four hurdles in, it makes complete sense. Try to get over a hurdle in your modish mid-thigh baggies and you might as well be wearing manacles, so restrictive is the cut. I roll up the waistband, apologise to bystanders for the winking expanse of nearly-buttock and go again.

Sadly the similarities with Colin end there. While the big boys always take three strides between barriers, I'm definitely taking five. When I try to cut back to three, I run out of leg with the hurdle still way in the distance.

In hurdles terms, this is bad. I am unmanned. It could be worse - on the one occasion we did hurdles at school, an overweight pupil found it so difficult to get airborne that he simply crawled under each hurdle - but only just.

Five strides might be my natural pattern. It might even get me through the race without eating track. But will I ever be the real Mark McKoy? Nope.

Better is the discovery that rhythm, as in many physical pursuits, is the key.

When you're coming off the hurdles with decent lickety-split momentum, you flow towards the next barrier easy as you like. Stay too upright, or lean away to the side to get your trail leg through, and the hurdles are suddenly coming at you at seemingly random intervals.

When it goes wrong it feels dreadful - like a succession of stutters interrupted by vertical jumps. When it goes right - and in the hour I'm doing it, that happens maybe twice - it's an absolute delight. The hurdles seem to lose height. The track seems to grow in springiness. The fear, miraculously, evaporates.

It comes back with a bang during the subsequent pole vault session, but let's concentrate on the positives for now. Bars were cleared. Confidence slowly returned. Shins bruised and bleeding from accidental collisions with unyielding fibreglass poles will mend.

Ever so slowly, I am starting to feel a little more like a real decathlete.

It's not the performances, nor the ability - not even close. It's the smaller things, like waking up at night with new aches in strange places ("Ah," you think, before rolling over and falling asleep again, "that'll be my discus maximus"), or having old bicycle inner tubes draped around various doors in the house so you can work on your javelin throw sans spear.

It's not always easy to explain. Training in the park the other day, and without the medicine ball the session required, I improvised by hurdling a chunk of branch around instead. Try rationalising that to the early morning dog-walkers, or indeed their slavering, sabre-toothed hounds.

I've even got my first proper injuries - a nasty dose of patella tendonitis on the right knee, and a mysterious issue with the IT band on the other. On the down side they're disrupting training plans. On the up, they're gaining me significant decathlete kudos points - what we might call Maceys.

Then, as the week ends, word comes through to make any man forget his woes.

The Daleyphone has been answered, and the answer was "yes". The Thompson training session is on.


  • Comment number 1.

    An entertaining read as ever Tom, I think its one hell of an effort you're undertaking. However, to train with Daley Thompson its got to be worth it!!

  • Comment number 2.

    Hey Tom. Welcome to my world of scraped achilles/calves and scarred knees! I've been hurdling for 20+ years and have fallen quite a few times - it doesn't hurt as much as the dent to your pride. I've also managed to break lots of hurdles & even lost a shoe in an unintentional Brian Whittle tribute but still finished the race!
    As you're probably finding, technical events can't be mastered in a few weeks, let alone a few hours. But if you can learn the basic skills & apply them in a controlled manner (so 5 strides is the way to go & a time around 19secs should be achievable) then you'll be "fine".
    Good luck!

  • Comment number 3.

    That's great. Can you get as much video from the sessions as you can and put it on the site. Nice to see the learning process in more detail!

  • Comment number 4.

    good stuff tom - i was a little bit concerned that this blog would be a slight waste of time compared to proper sporting coverage. i take it all back - you're giving a real good insight into the world of the hardest working people in sports, athletes... keep it up!

  • Comment number 5.

    Hey Tom,

    Good stuff! I've done the high hurdles once (I'm a middle distance man like you) and it was an experience I don't wish to repeat. I did clear each hurdle with an almost vertical jump and finished in 23.7s, but I drifted to the outside of my lane and the guy next to me drifted to the inside of his with the result that we were practically holding hands for 110m!
    It's the Cotswold Olimpicks this evening - not going to have another crack at the shin-kicking title?

  • Comment number 6.

    Bodisback - you've made me feel better about the five strides. I can't thank you enough.

    paulhilliar - I'll get on the case for the forthcoming Day of Daley

    Lempster - that's a great tale. And I reckon I'll pass on a repeat of the shin-kicking - I couldn't run for six weeks after reaching the final last year. Or wear socks, for that matter.

    Anyone got any hurdling drills I can work on in the park?

  • Comment number 7.

    Good luck Tom.

    I've hurdled in the past and as you know the hurdles are 3'6".... I'm a little over 5'6", you do the math! For me, it's more like doing the high jump 10 times over 110m. Each of the 10 hurdles are a potential circumcision but fortunately the only scar I've had from hurdling are on my knees! I'm sure you'll survive :-D

  • Comment number 8.

    An interesting, well written read. I'll have to check out your other posts...
    I remember my first attempt at the hurdles - at a Southern League Div 3 match when I was about 17. I was a regular triple jumper and there was no one to run the B string hurdles. I gave it a go and managed to clear all the hurdles in a very uppy-downy style and came second. (Not actually all that hard at Southern League Div 3 B string standard!!) I was congratulated by onlookers at being able to three stride between the hurdles. :o) I don't remember what time I did for that first race, but other the coming years I got my time down to 16.3sec.
    After passing 30 it seemed that the hurdles were being placed further apart down the track and by the last two I was crashing into them quite hard! I retired not long after that.
    Good luck with your decathlon attempt - in my experience pole vault in a real leap of faith!
    You mention training drills - you should be able to use the back of a park bench to practice stretching your lead leg hamstrings, and then, standing behind the bench, lean on it and practice your trail leg 'whip through' movement. I used to hear terrible cracking sounds when doing this!

  • Comment number 9.

    Tf, fearless or stupid,

    taking it to a whole new level, getting the greatest all rounder of all time to advise...

    listen, learn, show him respect, and the minor matter of 100 per cent commitment, he won't accept anything less and maybe you'll come out of that session a few per cent better,

    fearless or stupid, either way it's going to hurt..

  • Comment number 10.

    Hurdling - remember it well - again another middle distance runner coaxed into helping the club out - firstly in the steeplechase, and then (since i made it over them) as the B runner in the High Hurdles....They look much higher when you are crouched down at the start line...

    IF you can do three strides all the better it made me a lot faster, but i couldn't manage it all the way through, so Sally Gunnell esque I used to change from 3 to 5 half way across..... Maybe that might help - since if you can get from hurdle 1 to 2 in 3 strides it will put fear into your opponents!

    Hurdling drills - one leg at a time - run and only pull the lead leg up and snap it down (pushing off it); and then run and only lift the trail leg (working on bringing it back down asap).


  • Comment number 11.

    Another corker from the boy Fordyce. I never offer any practical advice for your weekly trials but like to think I am offering the all-important back-patting and sheer wonderment of how you do what you're doing.

    One thing that puzzles me though - How exactly do you practice javelin with a bicycle tube? Is is just a question of strengthening your bicep and shoulder muscles as you take up the strain?

    P.S. When is this decathalon taking place again?

  • Comment number 12.

    I think as much of the Daley Session as possible needs to go up.

    Keep going - you'll get there lad!

  • Comment number 13.

    Unfortunately, no-one told me you had to hurdle with three strides, so I just learnt to use four and alternate legs. It probably explains why I wasn't the fastest, but was very good when running against the wind!

  • Comment number 14.

    Hi Tom,
    Keep going - a Daley masterclass is worth all this huffin' and puffin' in itself.
    I suggest learning how to do some self-strapping with a physio; sounds like your body is becoming a real decathlete's - love the terminology of a 'Macey'.
    Hurdles - the one event I thought I could do until Colin Jackson's coach Malcolm Arnold told me I landed like a sack of potatoes. Other words of wisdom might be of more use though: its all about speed, with a heavy dash of balance, rhythm, and coordination. Therefore fast feet, high hips, strong arm action, and always, always look to accelerate. Remember too, whilst 3 strides might be perfection, (4 strides brave), 5 strides halfway down the track is pragmatic with four events still to go.
    Park Olympics warning - don't try what a friend of mine did and used park benches as hurdles. His nose was never the same again.



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