Eamon Harvey interviews Leitrim race walker Colin Griffin - holder of the Irish 50k Walk record

 

Q. Colin lets go back to the 24th of March 2007, Dudince Slovakia, when you set the National Record in the 50km walk. Take us through the lead up to his race. 

 

It all started really at the end of August 2006, when I had narrowly missed out on qualification over 20km for the European Championships in Gothenburg. I was very disappointed not to have qualified, and having not yet made an Irish team for a senior major championship. I always knew my real potential was over 50km, and I felt that this was the right time to make the move up to 50km, and I began my winter’s training with a new and bigger motivation. I had been self-coached at the time, so I carefully planned out my training and competition schedule targeting that 50km race in Slovakia in March. Training went very well over the winter, and for the first time in a few years I had a clear run of preparation, with no injuries. I took 6 minutes off my 30km PB in December. In January I went to South Africa for 4 weeks altitude training, and my training there, in terms of quality and volume was on a much higher level than previously. My last tune-up race was a 30km race in the Isle of Man 2 weeks before the 50km race. I took a further 4 minutes off my PB, with a Blood Lactate reading afterwards of 1.6mmol. A clear indicator that I was ready to do something big over 50km.

 

 

 

 

 

Q. Take us through the important moments of the race. 

 

The weather that day was awful, gale force winds and rain. Typical Limerick weather during the winter! I had trained in these conditions so many times, and believed I could hold my own much better than my rivals. It was a competitive field, and as it was my first 50k, I decided to sit in the group for the first 30k. At 25k I knew nobody wanted to be at the front in the wind, and I was feeling good. At 28km I went to the front of the group for the first time just to test my rivals. Before I knew it I had built up a clear lead by 32km, and for me this was when the race would start. It was just a case of keeping things together. At 40km I knew I was comfortably inside the Irish record, not to mention the A Standard. On the last of the 2km laps, I really enjoyed it and began to relax. I thought of all the previous years’ disappointments, injuries and near misses; not to mention those who believed in me and supported me throughout everything. It was a great feeling to cross the line after such a big journey and reap the rewards.

 

 

 

 

Q. How long does it take the body to recover after an event like this?

 

After a hard 50km race, you have to allow 3 to 4 weeks to recover.

 

 

 

 

Q. You got the qualifying standard for the World Champs in Osaka 2007 and the 2008 Olympics. What were your expectations going into the world champs? 

 

My expectations were very high going into the world championships. That summer my training was on a much higher level than before my first 50k, and at national seniors I took over a minute off my 10km PB, breaking the 40 minute barrier for the first time. I had acclimatised to the conditions very well and I really believed I was ready to compete at the top end of the race.

 

 

 

 

Q. Osaka must have been a disappointment, with being DQ’d. Can you take us through what happened?  The first 5km was very slow for everybody. It was early morning and I suppose everybody was anticipating the heat and humidity as the race would progress. I was in the lead group, in 13th position at 10km. I had picked up one warning by that stage, as is common for many athletes. By that stage the leaders began to increase the pace, and I had my own plan to maintain my own planned pace, so I became detached from the lead group. It’s not the ideal position to be in so early in a 50k, as it’s mentally much easier to stay in the group, but I didn’t want to take any risks so early on so I decided to hold back. By 15km I had picked up a 2nd warning and this put me in a very difficult situation. Even if I were to finish, it would mean going the last 35km on 2 warnings knowing that one more and you’re out. A lot of athletes have survived this situation. But as I passed the 17km mark my third warning had come in and the chief judge disqualified me. It was very disappointing, particularly as I had prepared so well and I never got a chance to see how well I could have done. Unfortunately, publicity-wise, it overshadowed my 50k breakthrough performance from March, but that’s sport. It was a major championship, with a greater public interest and that’s the consequence.

 

 

 

 

Q. Can you describe the rules, in relation to being DQ’d. 

 

There are two rules – 1) One foot must be in contact with the ground at all times i.e. the lead foot must strike the ground before the rear foot leaves it, and 2) The knee of the leading leg must be straight when the foot strikes the ground and must remain straight until you are in a vertically upright position. There are usually 8 judges on the 2km race circuit, plus the chief judge, and his assistant. If 3 judges working independently, issue a warning for either offence, as judged by the human eye (i.e. no camera’s, outside influence etc), you are disqualified. My DQ was for my left knee. A lot of people would have the general perception of ‘he got caught running’, but that is not the case. Getting DQ’d in my event is no different to breaking in a long-jump or knocking the bar in a high jump. You want to do as well as you possibly can within the rules, like any sport.

 

 

 

 

Q. How did you deal with the weather in Osaka? With Beijing being of similar weather, what have you learned, in preparation for the Olympics?  I allowed myself 2 weeks to acclimatise before my race, and I felt this worked well. In fact, I felt I had fully acclimatised within 5 days. So at least I can use the same formula for Beijing knowing that it works.

 

 

 

 

Q. So moving on to 2008. You have a new coach and you’re based in Italy. How did this come about? And why did you decide for a change. 

 

After Osaka, I had to make a big decision. I had been self-coached for 3 years and was able to get myself to a good level of fitness and conditioning; but I had experienced this technique problem on a number of occasions before. My style was not as fluent as others, and therefore I easily attracted the attention of the judges. I had been trying to improve it for some time, but I felt I had done as much as I could on my own and perhaps, it was time to look further a field for help. I discussed this with Max Jones after my race in Osaka, and he assured my I would be supported to work with an overseas coach.   

 

In the weeks after Osaka, I considered a number of options, but the one that appealed to me the most was Sandro Damilano in Italy. He is regarded as one of the best technical coaches in the world, and his athletes have a great championship performance record. His brother Maurizio, whom he coached, was Olympic champion in 1980 and twice world champion. Sandro also coaches Alex Schwazer, who was 3rd in the 50k in Osaka. I contacted him at the end of September, and he expressed a great interest in helping me. I went over to his base in Saluzzo, in north Italy in November and stayed there for 5 weeks. He identified my technique problem straight away and we began working on it, changing a lot of things.

 

 

 

 

Q. What athletes do you train with? Who is in your group?

 

It’s a very good group, with high-level athletes such as Alex Schwazer (bronze medalist over 50km in the last 2 World Championships), and Elisa Riguado (bronze medalist in the last European Championships); and also 5 other athletes who are a level or two bellow that. Only two of them speak English, and I am learning Italian. They are a great group of people and were very helpful to me when I arrived here first. Outside of training we have a good laugh with each other.

 

 

 

 

 

Q. Can you describe your training base in Italy? What are the facilities like?

 

Saluzzo is a great place to train. It’s a small town, about 50km from Turin, on the foot of the Alps. The weather is always good, with bright sunshine, and no wind or rain. The Italian athletics federation operates a residential training centre here, where I stay. The training routes are good, as well as track and gym facilities. In the afternoon, I enjoy taking a stroll around the town and going for a coffee.

 

 

 

 

Q. What is your coach’s philosophy on training for the 50km? Does his training methods differ from what you were doing before?

 

His training methods don’t differ greatly in terms of general structure. However, I have increased my mileage this year regularly averaging over 200kms (125miles) a week, with a longer base of aerobic work; and now I am feeling the benefits, as I am stronger and more solid for this time of year, than before. The biggest change is the technique work, which there is a greater emphasis on. I do specific technique drills and exercises almost every day.

 

 

 

 

Q. What goes into training for the 50km? Can you give us an example of a typical weeks training? 

 

A recent week here consisted of:

 

Mon: (AM) 15km hill session   (PM) 10k easy followed by technique work

Tues: (AM) 35km    (PM) 7km + Gym (Core/Abs workout)

Weds: (AM) 15km easy  (PM) 10km easy + flexibility/Mobility

Thurs: (AM) 5km easy + 8x3km(13.30)/2 min R (PM) 10km easy + Gym (Core/Abs)

Fri: (AM) 15km hill session   (PM) 10km easy followed by technique work

Sat: (AM) 40km    (PM) 1 hour Core/Abs + stretching 

Sun: (AM) 15km easy  

 

 

 

 

 

 

Q. How do you prepare for a 50km race, in terms of nutrition.

 

In training, like for a marathon, you have to teach your body to be efficient with its energy cost, by doing race-specific workouts. During training, I would consume the right nutrients depending of the day’s training, and take a recovery drink consisting of a carbs: protein ratio of 4:1 straight after training. I would carbo-load for 2 days before a 50km race. I would eat extra portions of rice/pasta and consume a carbo-loading drink. I would keep fat intake to a minimum, except for essential fatty acids and omega’s which are important. I work with my nutritionist Andrea Cullen, so she advises me on my nutritional program.

 

 

 

 

Q. In the actual race, do you take special drinks, food etc.

 

Yes, I would consume a specially prepared drink containing carbs, electrolytes and amino acids. I would take gels, every 6km from 20km onwards, with water. From 30km onwards I would also take caffeine

 

 

 

 

 

Q. What kind of injuries do you mostly get? How do you deal with them? Do you have medical back up in your base in Italy?

 

I’ve experienced foot injuries in the past, which I would regard as my weakest link, particular tendon injuries. I wear orthotics in my shoes all the time, and do strength exercises for my feet. I have to be very careful when increasing volume or quality of training. I also have a very rigid lumbar spine, which affects my technique. I have to stretch well every day, and get regular physio, massage and occasionally work with an osteopath to mobilise my spine and joints.

 

 

 

 

Q. What are your plans leading up to Beijing? What type of races will you be doing?

 

I will compete over 50km in the World Race Walking Cup in May, in Russia. I will also race over 20km on April 5th, in the IAAF Challenge race in Portugal. I will also do another 20km race at the end of April, but just a controlled effort to prepare me for the World Cup. I will have a much later than usual start to my racing this year, as I have changed my technique and want to make sure that I am fully prepared to race. I will spend most of my time here in Saluzzo, and in the summer will spend 4 weeks at altitude in Livigno with the group, to prepare specifically for Beijing.

 

 

 

 

Q. Will the volume of training be reduced in the months coming into the Olympics, talk about how a walker tapers off for a 50km walk.

 

After the World Cup 50km in May, I will have 3 ‘active’ recovery weeks, then June and most of July will be big volume months. In the 4 weeks before my race in Beijing, we will slightly reduce the volume focusing on the quality of key workouts. Then 2 weeks before the race will be a full taper. I will arrive in Beijing 15 days before my race, and so will also be acclimatising to the conditions and time zone.

 

 

 

 

Q. your PB of 3.51.32 would have placed you in the top 5 at Osaka, what are your goals going into the Olympics.

 

For me there were a lot of unanswered questions as to how well I would have done, being DQ’d early in the race. The heat was also a big factor. I finished 2007 ranked 19th in the world over 50km, with more than 3 from some countries ahead of me. So I suppose top 12 is a realistic target for Beijing, but anything can happen. After the World Cup in May, hopefully I will have a better idea of where I’m at.

 

 

 

 

Q. After your 3.51.32, do you feel that you have more respect from the top walkers in the world?

 

Yes, as 3.51.32 was one of the fastest debuts by anybody for 50km, so people certainly took notice after that performance. A lot of people, who were in Dudince in March, couldn’t believe how well I did in those windy conditions, and felt there was much more in me that day.

 

 

 

 

Q. What time do you think it will take to get among the medals?

 

In most major championships, medals are won in the low 3.40’s. Hopefully by 2012, I will be competing at that level. 

 

Check out www.colingriffin.ie and follow Colin's progress as he embarks on the road to Beijing.