On 4th October, GB International and New Balance athlete, Charlie Hulson, will compete in the London Marathon’s 2020 elites only race. In what will be his second race at the marathon distance, Trackstaa got a chance to talk to him about his goals for the race, how his training has gone and to learn a bit more about this professional distance runner from North Wales.
Stepping up to the Marathon
This time last year, Charlie had never competed at marathon distance. After a stellar running career in the shorter distances, including a successful road and cross-country career, including a 17th placed finish at European Cross, it’s hard at first to understand why the switch.
“I had decided pre-Valencia [his debut marathon in December 2019] to switch fully to the marathon distance,” Charlie tells Trackstaa. “I had been out injured for six months and I spoke to Steve Vernon [his coach at New Balance Manchester who he had parted company with a couple of years previous] about my options and we collectively agreed to switch to the marathon.”
Often for elite athletes, the switch to the marathon comes later on in their career, but at only 26, Charlie is still fairly young. “Steve Vernon and I decided that if I was going to make the switch, I might as well do it sooner rather than later” he says. “In the lab, when we were discussing it, all my numbers swayed towards the marathon. My efficiency scores were always quite high so I think it just made sense”, he adds.
With a debut marathon time of 2:14.24, it’s now plainly obvious why it was a good decision to switch to the 42-kilometre distance. After the longer distances in training came as a bit of a shock to the system initially, he is quick to point out that the race went as well as he could have expected. “The aim was to play it smart, we trained to hit 2:14, I think maybe I could have gone quicker but we didn’t want to risk aiming for a 2:12 and then blowing up; I think I ran 2, perfect, 67 minute splits.”
After this performance, it’s obvious that he’s a convert to the marathon. “I just really enjoyed the process, way more. Unlike the shorter races, you train for 6 months on a specific end goal. Everything is focussed on that goal, there is nothing else really like that”.
After 10 minutes, it is very obvious to me that I could talk to him about marathon training in detail for hours, so conscious that I am not taking up too much of his time, I decide on a sharp change of subject. “I’ve read that you have described yourself as uncoachable, Charlie?” I ask, hesitantly.
After a self-conscious laugh, he’s completely honest. “I am a nightmare”, he concedes. “I always have been, I think it’s because I just like to run off feel. So many coaches are hell-bent on only doing what their plan is and I just like to run based on how I am feeling that day.” Although, he’s quick to clarify that it’s not the case with every coach. “Now I am back with Steve Vernon, because we’ve worked together before and he knows what I’m like, he knows basically how to manage me”.
The conversation quickly turns to shoes and as a New Balance athlete, I was keen to get his view on the latest New Balance range. A lot of their latest shoes, with the ‘Fresh Foam’ technology have been garnering rave reviews. A cursory check of Charlie’s Instagram will tell you that he’s a big fan of the 1080v10s but I was keen to understand what he will choose to run London in.
“I’ll be wearing the New Balance RC Elites, I am not sure if they are out yet. I have been running in a prototype now for about 6 months and genuinely, I am not just saying it, they are better than anything out there” he says, before adding, “I ran Valencia in the Vaporfly and they are obviously amazing shoes but I would choose these New Balance ones any day”.
Life of a working athlete
In doing a bit of research for the interview, I had read that Charlie still works full-time in the family bakery, in Flintshire, North Wales. “Yes, I have never known any different and it’s been in the family for over a hundred years” he says, proudly. “I do about 50 to 60 hours a week at work”, he explains and perhaps it was the audible surprise in my response of, “wow, fair play, mate”, because he was quick to qualify it. “I am not moaning about it, as I said I’ve just never known any different. I’m in about 6 and out about 5. Genuinely, some athletes whinge about having to work and be an elite athlete but, time wise, I can do it. Even if I was ‘full-time’ I wouldn’t actually be able to run any more. Maybe in the recovery I miss out but, I seem to be able to handle it so, it works”.
A lot of athletes have reported that covid-19 has really affected the quality of their preparation for runs that they were not sure were going to be going ahead, for Charlie that’s been no different.
“I was still in a training block in April and I essentially peaked for London and then with all the uncertainty about whether it was going to go ahead or not, I ended up just trying to hold the peak. It was tough because we didn’t know what decision to make for the best. I ended up picking up a niggle, well a bit more than niggle, it just wasn’t sustainable. We had known for a while before the announcement that the race would be an elites only race and in May I could only jog, I couldn’t really run and so honestly it was really touch and go for a while whether I would be able to get enough training in to compete. Thankfully the base fitness was there so it hasn’t proved too much of an issue.”
In only his second marathon, and with all the disruption, including picking up an injury, it’s impressive to hear that his training has been relatively unaffected. “Its [the training block] has gone really well, mate. Way, way better than Valencia where the longer work was new and I found it really hard, particularly the recovery”. Confidently he adds, “before Valencia, I wasn’t even able to finish some of the sessions, but this time I have been nailing every single one and I just feel far more comfortable. Today [13th September] was my last big one.”
The next Marathon
To the race itself, I was curious about what a realistic goal would look like given the quality of the field this year. “The plan is just to improve on 2:14. I do know that I am capable of going quicker”, Charlie says. “Perhaps in the region of 2:12 or lower. But yeah, this race is mainly to improve a fair bit on my debut in Valencia and I know then that I will be right there around the Olympic qualifying time.”
“So, given the change to the route, what’s your strategy for the race?” I ask. “It’s not really changed much”, he replies. “I’m not going to go mad, I’m planning on a negative split to get in and around 2:12.” It’s clear that despite the stellar cast in this year’s London marathon, he is intent to remain focussed on running his own race.
I have now well surpassed the 20 minutes that I had said I would take of Charlie’s time, given his commitment to the family bakery and an intense training programme I am conscious that I am using up all my good-will. This is my first athlete interview and Charlie’s generosity with his time and patience with my clunky questioning is evidence of the real top bloke that he is. Buoyed by his instance that, “honestly, don’t worry, it’s fine, mate”, I press on and quiz him about his pre-race rituals.
“I do get very nervous”, he says whilst laughing. “Like, I never sleep before a race, I am not great with nerves. Before Valencia, I literally didn’t sleep at all. By the time I am on the bus to the race, I feel chilled. I’m quite confident anyway and I’m impatient by the day of the race; I just want to start.”.
Whilst I am totally unlike Charlie and get nerves right up until I’ve got the first mile under my belt, I was pleased to hear that we share a similar pre-race ritual. “I do have some rituals”, he admits. “I like to set out all of my gear neatly and set out my trainers, ready for the next day but nothing too mad, I just try and chill out as much as I can”.
I’m sure he is pleased to hear me punctuate my next question with the word, “finally”, but I am keen to ask the question that is causing a lot of debate throughout the running world. Bekele v Kipchoge.
“Yeah, I mean they are just in a different league altogether, it’s an unreal opportunity to be with them”, you can hear the genuine excitement in his voice at this point. As far as the race for the ages, as some are billing it, goes, his prediction is controversial one. “It will definitely be quick, I mean if Bekele is anywhere near Kipchoge with a mile to go, I think he wins. Kipchoge will know this though so will probably aim to keep the pace high.” He’s not getting out of it that easy and I push him for a firm answer, he’s laughing now, “Bekele all the way for me”.
We end with a promise to get him back on Trackstaa, in some form or another, after London to see how he gets on.