More than A Photo...

It has been a very strange few days. For six months Hayley and I have trained twice a day to try and make the British team for the World Athletics Championships in Doha later this year. On Sunday we failed to achieve that goal. As athlete and coach, we are both disappointed and hurt. I spent a sleepless night on Sunday replaying the weekend over and over in my mind. Looking back further, on the training, was there anything else we could or should have done? Did I make a mistake in the race plan? 

And then…

On Monday morning all hell broke loose. Hayley walked into a shop to pick up her lunch on the way to work, just like any Monday morning, and was greeted with her finish line photo on the front page of the national newspapers. This is despite the fact that Charlotte Purdue had run the 3rd fastest time in history by a British woman and qualified for the World Championships, and probably the Olympics, on the same day. Callum Hawkins showed that a bad race and psychological challenges can be overcome in emphatic style. Other British athletes ran incredibly well and let’s not forget that Eliud Kipchoge ran the second fastest marathon ever with an absolute masterclass. Except the general media did seem to be forgetting. Why was Hayley the story? It would seem to be because the interest in running is not based on it being a sport but an activity. We were really disappointed with the outcome, but everyone expected us to be celebrating. Suddenly, unintentionally, Hayley had become a viral news story and “inspiration to millions” both for the way she struggled to the line and the fact that she was back to work the next day. 

 

The thing is, there is nothing surprising about either of those things. Crawling to the line is what anyone would have done. The reality is that she set off too hard in the first 10k, largely by following a pacing group going quicker than advertised. She then kept pushing to, and eventually slightly beyond her limit, for the next 20 miles. The psychological preparation she put in was undoubtedly influential on this, as is the fact that she is as hard as nails. But that’s a more nuanced message and doesn’t have the mass impact of those photographs. A picture paints a thousand words, but not necessarily the ones you would choose. 

 

Being back to work for the NHS also became a big part of the story. It doesn’t really register with either of us. Hayley doesn’t feel entitled to be a full-time athlete and I’m not sure it would be the healthiest choice for her even if it was an option. She hasn’t yet performed at the level we would expect to reach before it was available to us. And so, like most of the other 42 549 finishers she went back to her day job on Monday. A bit stiff and sore, but otherwise fine. It’s also important to say that now and in the past many athletes have performed at a much higher elite level whilst working full time. And yet at various points the media have tried to claim that she is the “only full-time elite athlete”. It has been a battle to constantly try and correct them. 

 

We have found ourselves answering some truly strange questions from “researchers”. A selection of my favourites below – 

“Did Hayley run for charity or get in through the Ballot?”

“Is this her first marathon?”

“Did you find the race hard?”

“Do you think she didn’t do enough training?”

Apparently securing a job as a researcher doesn’t require the ability to utilise google.

There have on the other hand been many wonderful aspects to the coverage. Teachers have used the footage in assemblies. So many people have been in touch being incredibly kind and generous, saying that they have felt inspired. It’s not hard to understand why people warm to Hayley so easily. She is so honest and open at the same time as being grounded and humble, so much of that is down to her amazing family. The message that perseverance and resilience are admirable qualities is a good one, regardless of the vehicle for it. A pleasing angle on the coverage was the fact that Hayley’s gender wasn’t a factor. She was treated as an athlete first in that sense and that’s too rarely the case in the media. 

The biggest concern for us has actually been the idea that we may be directing attention away from athletes whose performances deserve it. Sponsorship opportunities rely on profile and this should be meritocratic and based on performance rather than what is in essence a human-interest story. Throughout we have tried to stress the respect and admiration we have for Hayley’s competitors and that they in fact inspire us to want to learn and improve. Unfortunately, that is the section of the interview which is often edited out. 

Perhaps thankfully, the attention will be very short-lived and is already dying down 48 hours later. 

So…. What now?

We rest, recover and go again, just like any other dedicated athlete. Hayley is much more than a photograph and we will set out to show that in the coming months and years. The thing we love about running is actually running. Neither of us can wait to be back on the road or the track, half-killing each other in sessions or chatting about nonsense in recovery runs. Hayley will keep worrying me sick with gymnastics and I’ll be mercilessly, but fairly, mocked for my lack of ability in the gym. There is a great group of British female distance runners at the moment. We can all push each other forward and start to significantly close the gap to the front of the race. Charlotte has shown that. It’s about testing your own limits and helping others to test theirs.

So, thank you for all of the amazing messages and words of support. It all fuels the desire to move forward and produce a much better, and probably much less publicised, performance in the future. 

P.S. My personal, emotional response to watching what Hayley did on the Mall back was just the same as many other people. I cried my eyes out with pride and told her that she was my hero. Because she is. But now we will prove how good she can be, as well as how brave.

Daniel Robinson