The Darling May Be's Of Bud (09/03/2014)

The following article was written by Duncan Mackay, respected athletics and sports journalist, and was featured in the May 1995 edition of Runner's World.

The Darling May Be's Of Bud

Vast plumes of hot breath greet Bud Baldaro as he edges his Vauxhall Astra into the car park at Warley Stadium on this Tuesday evening in February.

More than 20 runners, ranging in age from 14 to 40 something, huddle in small groups underneath the canopy, stamping their feet in a vain bid to keep warm as the mercury plunges towards zero. Baldaro stops and winds down the car window to talk to them.

"Rowey, great run on Saturday," he yells to Birmingham University's Paul Rowe, who finished 20th in last weekend's Birmingham cross country league – his best ever performance. "I knew you had it in you."

"Wrighty, don't you know what a telephone looks like?" He shouts when he spots Amanda Wright, who hasn't called him for a while. "It's something you speak into."

"Oh shut up," retorts Wright, who has heard it all before.

"Dave, fabulous run in Luxembourg," Baldaro calls out to Dave Payne, who finished sixth in the IAAF World Cross Challenge race in Diekirch two days ago. "You know you can make the World Cross for Durham, don't you." It's a statement, not a question.

Payne, Wright and other British internationals whose names are familiar from the results pages of the athletics press our regular members of the group, but Baldaro makes sure that he also has a word for the three youngsters he is invited here from the school where he teaches. "All right lads? Looking forward to tonight?"

As he parked the car, Baldaro admits that he didn't expect such a large turnout on this inhospitable night. "It shows that there really dedicated," he says. "I can feel that it's going to be a great session."

Baldaro – schoolteacher, top coach and all-round good guy – makes himself available to everyone who asks him for help. He has coached some of Britain's top distance runners, including Steve Tunstall, Andy Bristow, Adrian Passey, Lisa York and Marian Sutton.

Raw winter nights like this will be familiar to any distance runner who has achieved success, whether that be winning an Olympic gold medal or breaking a personal best. Yet in many ways, this feels like entering the inner sanctum, because the average Joe Jogger believes that the elite have somehow discovered a secret formula, a sure fire, pain-free method which allows them to run so fast.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Up and down the country – but Stan Long's group in Gateshead, George Gandy's in Loughborough, Alan Storey's in Kingston and Norman Poole in Sale – groups of top runners are preparing to follow the same kind of ritual as that about to take place in Warley. Every single one is dreading that build-up of lactic acid in the feeling of pain that they know will hit them at some point in the evening. But they all do it because they understand that ultimately, it will make them run faster.

"It doesn't matter how good you are: unless you work at it, you won't achieve your potential," says Baldaro as he walks through the car park, past a group of beer bellied football is getting ready for a kick about on the adjoining Astroturf pitch. "Working in a group can drive people on, make them achieve things they didn't believe what possible. Everyone has to work so much harder, and that should help them race better. It's the same for anyone who aspires to better performances, and it doesn't matter whether that means beating 45 minutes for 10K for the first time or making Britain's team for the World Cross country."

At the very least, a coach can be the person who holds your running together. He or she will decide where and when the training group should meet and how far and how fast they should run, and generally bring structure to a training programme. They can also fulfil the role of adviser, motivator and confidant, as well as offering an informed and objective opinion about your training.

No less a runner than Sebastien Coe exemplifies the benefits of training in a group. In the winter of 1983, when he was recovering from the illness which many experts believed would curtail his career, Coe spent months training with runners at Haringey, using them as benchmarks to measure his fitness as he gradually recovered. It worked: in 1984, he became the first man to retain the Olympic 1500m title and finish second in the 800m.

Runners have come from all over the Midlands to attend this session. Lamb has spent 75 minutes travelling from Derby; Wright has come from Much Wenlock, Payne from Leicester, and marathon runner Steve Davies from Mansfield. Baldaro has given Davis the moniker 'Pot Black' because he shares the same name as the snooker player. Everyone, it seems, has been awarded a nickname, but some are more imaginative than others. Lesley Morton is 'Kiwi' is because she comes from New Zealand, while Marian Sutton is 'Half' because her maiden name was Witt. Get it?

The runners crowd round Baldaro like chicks around a mother hen. "What are we doing tonight?" They ask. The group rarely do the same session in successive weeks. They may do repetition miles on the road a Fartlek session in Warley Woods – no one knows until a few minutes before the session begins. Variety is the spice of life, explains Baldaro. Tonight they training on the track.

"Shall we pay first, before we go out on a warm-up? It'll save time and we get back." The internationals, like the schoolchildren, have to pay their 75p to use the track. There are no exceptions. Baldaro recalls an incident four years ago when Russia's Olga Bondarenko, who was in Birmingham to do a local road race, came down to use this track; "she was the reigning Olympic 10,000m champion, but they said she still had to pay her 50p. Even when I told them who she was, they didn't budge."

Having paid, the runners set off for a 20 minute warm-up in the streets around the stadium. Two sad figures stay behind: Paul Rowe and Matt Smith were injured in Saturday's Birmingham league and can't run, so they're left alone to discuss their injuries. They agree that when you're running well athletics seems like the greatest sport in the world; when you're injured, it seems like the most frustrating.

Rowe reflects on the progress he has made since joining the group. Rubbing his hands to keep warm and pulling his Gore-Tex top up around his neck, he says; "it's definitely been a huge help. When I was studying in France I was stuck on my own, and the quality of your training suffers. You get the most benefit from training with someone. It's psychological – though Bud shouting at you all the time makes you run better, too!"

When the runners return to the stadium, they reassemble on the track. Under the bright floodlights they complete their warm-up with a series of loosening exercises and sprints up and down the home straight. Their bodies strewn all over the track, but miraculously, though sprinting one way manage to avoid crashing into those coming the other way or standing still and doing leg curls.

After five minutes, Baldaro brings order to this chaotic scene, addressing the athletes as if he's about to send them over the top. "Is no softness here tonight, it's exactly the same for the women as for the men. And remember, if you do the fast rep too fast, you've ruined the session, so be careful."

The runners split into three groups, according to their ability: elite men, women & Vets and then the youngsters. The elite are due off at first, but are kept waiting by Dave Payne, who is still taking off his tracksuit. "Come on Payney, you superstar," yells Baldaro. "Can I have your autograph first?" No one escapes Baldaro's barbed tongue, the matter how talented they are.

They set off in Indian file on three laps of the track. Baldaro sprints back and forth across the football field, shouting encouragement. "That's great, lads," he screams as they complete a lap in 70 seconds. Meanwhile the youngsters – oblivious to the internationals there sharing the track with – have completed one lap. They're tired but happy, and their faces glow even more enthusiastically when Baldaro comes over. "That's excellent. Have a jog with me, you beggars."

The women run past Baldaro, who is standing by the finish line. "That's great stuff, Wrighty," he yells. It is in fact Elaine Foster, "at least get my name right!" She calls back. A few minutes later, when her muscles are full of lactic acid and crying out for a rest, she couldn't care less if he mistook her for the Queen Mother.

Bryan Clifton leans on a barrier, surveying the scene. A Tipton Harrier with the AAA 12 Stage Relay very much on his mind, he takes a keen interest in watching some of the clubs best runners training. But his mind is also wandering back to the old days, when he ran at 2:28 marathon and trained with a group which included Commonwealth 5000m medallist Allan Rushmer and 2:09 marathon John Graham.

"I always remember Graham. It didn't matter how fast we were running nothing could shut him up." Clifton recalls. "They were great times, I still run 12 miles every Sunday across the old railway lines with Rushmer."

His trip down memory lane is interrupted by the sight of Ashworth Laukham standing in front of him, hands on his knees, trying desperately to regain his breath after the group's third 1200 m. Laukham, stalwart of the Tipton 12 Stage squad in recent years, has had a break from running for a few months and is now trying to regain his fitness.

"Enjoy that, Ash?" Enquires Clifton. "Wonderful."

"It's just like the old days."

"No, it's much more painful now," says Laukham through gritted teeth.

The idle banter, a feature of the evening, has ceased now. Everyone has their hands on their knees, and the only sound is that of heavy breathing – and Baldaro's voice piercing the cold night air. "Forget the wind....I don't care how bloody cold you are....Jo, speak to me, let me know you're not dead....Forget the watch."

No one is listening. Each athlete is alone with their own fatigue, contemplating whether they have it in them to deal with the three sets of 800m they face next.

Baldaro decides who will lead each lap. No one argues. Silently, they grind out what is required. No one drops out. The session over, everyone heads for the small stand beside the track to drink. Baldaro addresses them; "When you sit down and analyse this session, you'll realise that it was a great one,"

After a 20 minute warm down, Baldaro offers an open invitation to his house for pizza. On the way home, he replays the session while Steve Hope, a sub 14-minute 5000m runner who Baldaro has great hopes for, explains how training with other athletes has helped his career.

"It's been phenomenally useful," he says. "I came from a small club in Crewe where we trained hard, but nothing like we do here. I've been training with Bud for 4½ years, when I first came, the group was absolutely awesome. I found it really motivating. It's taken me three years to get used to the sessions, but it paid off last summer."

Back in Baldaro's kitchen, the runners begin to arrive in dribs and drabs. One phones through an order for pizza ("Seven ham and pineapple, yes, that's right, seven"), another brews tea and coffee. Baldaro cracks open a bottle of red wine and opposite round.

Social get-togethers after sessions have always been a feature of the training group. Back in 1954, after they had finished their workouts, Roger Bannister, Chris Brahser and Chris Chataway used to visit a Lyons Tea Shop, where they planned their assault on the sub four-minute mile.

The topics discussed at Baldaro's house aren't quite as high-powered as that, but entertaining nevertheless. They range from who will make Britain's team for the World Cross-Country to the merits of Yeats's poetry, and from why Leicester City footballer Mark Draper has gone so bald so young to whether or not red wine gives you gout.

But the conversation keeps coming back to the evening's work. "A great session," concludes Baldaro. "But we've got a do it all again next week."