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My 2015 New Year Sprint Experience

The 146th New Year Sprint was held on the Musselburgh Racecourse, the same venue it has been held at for the last 14 years. Day one of the race meet is purely for the athletes, whereas day 2 held on New Year’s Day, is part of a larger programme of horse races and attracts thousands of lively spectators. The sprint races are held on the grassy turf alongside the main race track but not on it, for obvious reasons as the horses hooves would soon churn up the track, making it very difficult to race on.

 We arrived on the morning of the 31st December. It took us about two and a half hours to drive there from Newcastle Upon-Tyne and the drive there was certainly a scenic one. Scotland never fails to capture the imagination. Eric Smart, now 58 years old, whom I have the pleasure of coaching, was a winner of the big sprint in 1988 and knows the game inside out.  So for the next two days the roles were reversed and Eric would share as much of his wisdom as possible, to help me to make the adjustment from a veteran synthetic track runner to a grass track sprinter.

 We stopped for a coffee and to stretch the legs and Eric told me of his training and how different it was back then to the training programmes of today. Speed work 6 times a week and sometimes twice a day.  No weight training, no circuit training, no plyometrics, no flexibility training, no supplements, no harness runs, no hill runs, no over speed work. The list of what he didn’t do went on and on and it seemed like a programme built on speed, speed and more speed but by God it worked, which begs the question, why are we doing what we do today? His entire programme seemed to laugh in the face of modern day programmes, yet it worked. Eric talked enthusiastically about how he moved in with his coach for months before to live like a monk in preparation for the big day. As we drove further into Scotland and the conversation went on, it appeared that the key to avoiding over training and injury problems was the fact that almost all running was done on grass or ash tracks and rarely on the tartan.

 So, has training for the 100m really improved that much? Usain Bolt’s times as well as other Jamaicans would seem to prove so. My personal opinion is that training on grass is a huge key to sprint success. Usain Bolt and Yohan blake swear by it and we know the great Ed Moses almost never trained on a tartan track. Could the amateur athletes learn something from these old pros?

 Eric had and still does have a flowing technique, with small arm angles and loose shoulders much a kin to the styles and role models of Allen Wells or the great Pietro Mennea from Italy.         

 Eric’s Coach Jim, who is now 91 and hasn’t missed a New Year sprint final since just after world war 2, was there once again. He coached both Eric and Dougie Donald to sprint victories and he was definitely a man on my list to meet and at the very least shake hands with. A true legend of the turf wars.

 Dougie Donald was already Facebook friend of mine and a man I knew from the masters track scene but he too was on my list of men to meet and try to understand a little more about how these workhorses could churn out 6-10 speed sessions a week, when modern day sprinters cannot take more than 2.

 We arrived at the venue at 10.30. The heats of the big sprint were due to start at 11.30. I was in heat 8 and Eric reckoned we should allow 3 minutes between each heat.  So a fair estimate was that my race would be at around 11.54. Normally for an athletics meeting I would allow 45 minutes for a full warm up. On this day I felt quite loose, so I thought 35 should do it.  That gave us about 25 minutes to dump our stuff somewhere and check out the track.

 The weather was dry and about 6-7 degrees which was warm for New Year’s Eve in Scotland. The wind was all over the place and strong but predominantly a cross wind. The race course is very near the North Sea and so is almost always windy. 

 Vangelis' Chariots of Fire theme tune played over the loud speaker and bookies begun to set up their stalls in front of the main stands. Eric pointed out an older guy walking down past the bookies, the man seemed to be in his own world with a gentle smile on his face. Eric said, "See that bloke there, well ye na Chariots of Fire? He was one of the runners on the beach!" Wow I thought, not only does this place have the Chariots of Fire feel, it has the theme tune and the cast! I was half waiting to bump into Harold Abraham's coach Sam Mussabini when suddenly this jovial fellow by the name of "King Billy" caught the eye of Eric. The two of them shook hands and greeted each other and I could not help but notice the incredible resemblance of Abraham's coach. King Billy was wearing a tartan flat cap, a matching tartan scarf and a stop watch around his neck. He had the same grey moustache matching his grey hair and thick eye brows. His overcoat was immaculate and his smile infectious.

 So far it was every bit the historic and traditional event I had hoped for.  The race starter arrived dressed in immaculate white trousers, white shirt and red blazer. He looked like many of the organisers, as if he might have been in his 70s and I couldn’t help but wonder where the new crop of organisers or officials would come from to keep this sport alive.  According to Eric, these same people have kept the sport going for as long as he can remember.  He looked thrilled to be doing what he was doing and I have to say after watching the first 7 heats, he was a good race starter; not a traditional starter as in normal track meets however. In normal meets the starter will hold the athletes in set for usually a couple of seconds to ensure everyone is still. It seems that in the handicapped race scene, it is more important to get them away first time. The time delay between the athletes raising their hips and leaving their blocks seemed to be more dictated between the words “Set” and “Set” than between “Set” and “Bang” So the athletes would come to their marks and the first thing I noticed was the difference of actually saying "Get Set." I had not heard that since I was a young kid.  Starters in athletics just say "Set." So, as soon as he said the word “Get” the athletes would raise their hips. The word “Set” seemed if nothing else, like a nice fill in, to fill that awful void of deadly silence we are used to in traditional athletics meetings; a deadly silence which caused Usain Bolt in 2011 to false start in the world Championship final and get disqualified. 

 I had watched 7 heats and not seen a single false start this was unheard of. As far as I could see people were also not trying to anticipate the gun but were just a lot more confident knowing full well the consistency of the starter.  I really think this is something traditional athletics should take on board.  I haven’t been starting well since my return to athletics as a master’s athlete but I felt like I could really get out well here with these commands. It’s always worth listening to the starter because they all have habits from repetition. 

 When the time came Eric set my blocks in and hammered in 6 screw drivers; two into the main shaft of the starting blocks down the middle, a further 2 at the back and 1 behind each foot block. I wasn’t taking any chances. I had also decided that getting a wet knee in the set position was not something I fancied so I had brought with me a car foot matt cut to size to put under my right knee. It worked a treat even if I did get a few peculiar looks.  I did notice that I was the only one who had a knee mat. I asked Eric if in his 25/30 years of competing, anyone else had adopted the knee matt technique. He scratched his head and replied, “To be honest kid, I’ve never seen anyone but it’s not a bad idea.”

 Eric had already registered me on the day and picked up my bib. The bib is a loose fitting Velcro strapped crop vest which goes over your own chosen vest and simply has your lane number on.  It is really a legacy from before there was electronic photo finish timing. It was so important to distinguish which runner had placed where, that the runners would wear bright bibs. Now it is simply part of the tradition.

 I was in lane 3 in the middle and was starting off 9.5m over a 110m race.  My main opposition was a talented Scottish International female competitor called Gemma Nicol. She was hungry to be the first woman ever to win the Big Sprint but she wasn’t the only woman. The other heats had some talented female sprinters who all had a good chance.  This is the only time men and women can become true racing rivals.

 Only the winners of the heat would be guaranteed a place in the semi-finals or what are called the Cross Ties.  We peeled our tracksuits off at the last minute and took to our marks under the starters command.  “Get …. Set. BANG!” We were away and I had reacted well. The long needle spikes were clawing at the turf to find purchase. I had made up ground on Tommy Ashby (10m) of Innerleithen and at 50m was level with Gordon Mcpherson of Hawick (13m). I could still see Graeme Armstrong in  front, he was off 19m but the danger woman Gemma Nicol had started off 17.5. I had 8m to make up over 100.5.

 At 90m with 20 to go three bodies were still in front. It seemed almost impossible that I could make up the ground in 20m. I kept my chin down and tried to relax rather than tighten up and the gap was closing. With 5m to go a voice inside me said throw yourself at the line. I have missed timed many dives in my career but I think I got this one perfect. I hit the ground under my centre of gravity causing me to rotate quickly and fly head first over the line. I hit the ground and did a forward roll. I felt I had not done enough. I was sure Gemma had just grabbed it.  We waited 5 minutes whilst the judges looked at the photo finish.  Eventually they read out. “First place in heat 8 was Liam Collins in 12.09.” Gemma Nicol had finished second in 12.10 just 0.01 behind. I was through to the cross ties with the added bonus of having won £50 for winning my heat.

 It was 12.30 and Eric said, “Well well well,  we now have the tough decision… do we put you in the 90 and see if you can pick up some prize money or do you want to rest for tomorrow’s semi-final?”  I thought about it and looked at the results from all the heats.  I had finished 9th overall. I figured if I was going to win it, I would have been in the top 3-4 at least, regardless of wind, so I figured why not make it into a great 2 days of training and racing and see if I could pick up some more prize money in the 90m.

 It wasn’t long before I was back down on my marks for the Pat Chester 90m sprint handicap. I had lane 7 this time and the same mark of 9.5m. I started well again and once again won my heat just hanging on against Kevin Eddie and Cumbie Bowers.  My time was 9.86.  I had around 45 minutes before the cross ties, just enough time to grab a mars bar, keep loose and do a few strides.  In the semi final I had lane 1 which seemed to be one of the worst lanes on the track. I reacted well again but this time stumbled when I hit a divot at 40m, I recovered pretty well and finished 2nd behind Eoin Lowther of Jedburgh.  It looked like he would be the man to beat in the final. I was delighted to be in my first major handicapped Sprint Final. 

 The final came and I had the honour of being the back marker in lane 4 with Eoin Lowther to my left and nearly 3m in front of me. This young lad was in superb form. I also had Gemma Nicol once again to my right. I got my worst reaction of the day but still picked up well. I could tell at 60 I had not put myself in touch with Eoin early enough in the race and I was starting to reach for him. I corrected my technique and tried to relax, before I knew it I was dipping for the line. Eoin won it in 9.50, Holly Mckay of Jedforest AC took second in 9.66 and I had out dipped the vets 90m winner David McKay by 0.01 running 9.73 to his 9.74.  Another £65 won and an even bigger smile on my face. Eric who by now had almost lost his voice came to congratulate me. He was thrilled. It was a great end to a great day and a fantastic end to 2014.

 The question now was after 4 races would I have enough in the tank for 2 more the next day? We drove about an hour to our hotel. Finding a closer one on New Year’s Eve would have cost 3 times the price, so we found a Travel Lodge. Driving to the hotel my body felt like it did when I was a young teenager and used to compete in about 5 events for Gateshead Harriers. After a good analysis of the day’s competition and the rivals, we had some food and got our heads down for the night. 

 New Year’s Day

 We had our porridge and coffee and set off to the track. It had been raining and we knew the track would be soft.  The wind was also strong and blowing into the faces of the runners, so it was unlikely that times would be faster. My hopes lay in me being quite a strong athlete and hoping my strength would carry me though. 

 I was in heat 1 of the cross-ties in lane 2. I felt pretty tight in warm up and my hamstrings were a little crampy so I just hoped I could get through without pulling anything. We took to our marks. I knew that Eoin Lowther and Ewen Dyer were the main guys to beat. The gun went and I started well. I pulled about 50cm back on Lowther over the first 30m which gave me an indication I had got out well. Sadly I couldn’t seem to pull much more back on him. He was in great form off the back of his 90m win. I tried to stay relaxed but my body was already trying to dig deep and find something which simply wasn’t there. In the last 20m I felt Morro Bajo coming from the back marker on my shoulder. I dived for the line and finished 4th. Only the winner would go through for sure and on this occasion it was Eoin Lowther in 11.95. A great time in these conditions.  I had finished 4th in 12.13 a respectable time given that it was my 5th race. We waited to watch the other heats. Cameron Tindle looked very comfortable and was the overwhelming favourite for the final. Two women also looked great, they were Jasmine Tomlinson and Stacie Downie.  We waited to hear who the fastest losers would be and eventually about 20 minutes before the race was due it was apparent that Jasmine Tomlinson had been the 4th fastest loser running 12.11 in her cross tie to my 12.13! 0.02 had denied me of a place in the Big Sprint. I was disappointed but I had such a great time and knew that this had been my best New Year party ever! 

 The final came and it didn’t disappoint. Young 16 year old 2-1 odds on favourite Cameron Tindle of Edinburgh AC (5m), wearing the traditional red vest for the back marker came through in the last 5m to win the title and £4000 in 11.97. Ryan Houten  of Cardrona (11.0) who Eric had tipped to win had been beaten in to second place in 12.00 and Jasmine Tomlinson of TLJT (22m), the girl who knocked me out of the final almost had the race in the bag with 10m to go but dipped too early and put the brakes on. She took 3rd in 12.07. Stacie Downie  of Edinburgh AC (17.5m) was disappointed with her 4th place in 12.08 as she had run an amazing 11.97 in her cross-tie but tweaked a hamstring in the final stages of the race. Ewen Dyer of Pitreavie AC (7.75) got the better this time of Eion Lowther running 12.10 for 5th. Craig Sowerby of Seaton AC (10.5m) ran 12.20 for 6th pushing Eion Lowther of Jedburgh (12.5) into 7th in 12.24. Clearly  unless you're Michael Johnson 6 races in 2 days is just a bit too much to ask of the body. I think had he not done the 90m, he may well have pushed for a top three place in the big sprint. He is definitely one to watch out for.  Morro Bajo took 8th with 12.33 and that concluded a fantastic 2 days of the New Year Sprint.

 I will definitely be back next year and my imagination has been lit up by this sport. My aims now are to find out how we can bring this to the Newcastle Race Meetings in the summer. It takes mostly Money and organisation.  We have electric timing and race event management through our sponsor Richard Hunter. We have our in house handicapper in Eric Smart. We need some bigger sponsors for prize money to attract the athletes and then there is no reason we cannot attract bigger stars and old school celebrity athletes to compete with the modern cream of the crop of handicapped racing.

 A huge thank you to Eric I could not have done it without him and a huge thank you and well done to all involved in the organising and running of the event. Modern day athletics can definitely learn a thing or two from how this event is organised. One of the biggest things being the piggy backing of another large event to achieve an instant atmosphere. Wouldn't it be great to see the 110m handicap at a formula 1 grand prix, or a 90m handicap at a football match,  sprint races at the Derby, Ascot or even the Grand national?

 And as for finding out the secrets of Dougie Donalds success that’s for another article.

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Liam Collins

Published: 2015-01-05 11:43:41