James Sullivan has been chatting with London-bound race-walker Colin Griffin.
Colin Griffin is an elite race-walker from County Leitrim, Ireland. He competed at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games in the 50k Walk and has qualified for London 2012 in the same event. He finished in 11th place at the 2010 European Championships in Barcelona. His PB of 3:51:32, set in 2007, ranks him 3rd on the Irish all-time list behind Robert Heffernan and Jamie Costin.
James: Thank you for taking the time to talk to The Running Review. So to begin, how did you first get involved in athletics?
Colin: Both my parents were involved in athletics. My mother was an athlete and competed internationally for Ireland in World Cross Country, Europa Cup, and World half-marathon. Some of her career highlights include winning a national senior title over 800m, twice winning the Dublin Women’s Mini-Marathon and running a 2.41 marathon. My father founded the athletic club in Ballinamore when he moved to the town as a teacher in 1965. He was team coach for the Irish team at the 1972 and 1980 Olympic Games. He served as Director of Coaching for Athletics Ireland (BLE at the time) and was president from 1991-1994. So I had an unavoidable introduction to athletics from a very early age!
James: Did you have a particular athletics idol growing up?
Colin: Growing up in the 1990’s watching Sonia O’Sullivan dominate on the track and Catherina McKiernan excel at cross-country on the world stage certainly inspired me.
James: What drew you to race walking over other track and field events?
Colin: My dad coached the event in our club and was also a race walking judge at national level. From a young age I played other sports and competed in most track and field events. When I was under 13 I did the race walking event for the Community Games and finished 2nd in Mosney and it was then I knew I had a future in the event. When I was 15 I began to specialize fully and gave up other events and sports.
James: You competed at the Beijing Olympic Games in the 50km Walk. Can you put that experience into words?
Colin: It was most certainly a learning experience. I was DQ’d in the race pretty much as a result of applying poor tactics and lack of conviction. I found myself isolated from a group early on and did not have faith in my technique and that tension showed and I was punished by the judges. But I’ve learned from it and have developed as an athlete ever since. I am confident that the experience I gained from Beijing will work in my favour come London.
James: What one moment in your career to date are you most proud of?
Colin: Winning my first race over 50km in 2007 in a time of 3.51.32, beating quality opposition, achieving the A Standard to qualify for the 2008 Olympics and setting a new Irish record at the time. It was a huge career breakthrough at the time. That performance is still my PB 5 years later and needs to be revised!
James: You have had a few issues of late with regard’s DQ’s. What have you learned from these disappointments? What have you done to put such experiences behind you?
Colin: I’ve had issues with DQ’s on and off through my senior career. Race-walking technique never came naturally to me and I’ve always had to work hard to develop it and in later years maintain it. My style is slightly different to other athletes and can attract attention and wrongly influence the judges’ opinions. There are some judges who will always red card me no matter how good I am, but there are also many who are fair and only card me if I’m having a bad day.
At the end of last season I decided to leave my Italian coach as, despite learning a lot and giving me a whole new dimension to training ideas and biomechanics, I felt I wasn’t getting his time or attention. He had commitments with the Italian athletes and Chinese athletes whom he had a lucrative contract to work with. So I guess I was at the bottom of the pecking order and was only hanging on in the last 2 years just to ‘tick the box’ to have a coach so that I would remain funded on the High Performance system. When I left him, I tried to put a system in place last winter where I would have someone to work with in Ireland on a regular basis and receive the technical feedback I needed. However, I had difficulty having that supported and then when I lost my grant early in the season it put me in a difficult and isolated position and I paid the price for it by getting DQ’d in a 50km race in March.
After that DQ in March, even though I was no longer Carded, a few of my support team who did my video analysis, sports science support and strength and conditioning and all work for the IIS, agreed to continue providing me with whatever support I needed. Between them I got every key session over that 8 week period videoed and was able to see myself more often and work on different weakness in preparation for the World Cup. That was a huge help and may have prevented me getting that 3rd red card at the World Cup!
James: At the recent World Cup meet in Russia where you gained the Olympic A-Standard, you received two warnings within the first 10km. What was going through your mind at that time? What did you do to cope with the pressure that one more mistake could have ended your Olympic hopes?
Colin: I received the 2 red cards in the first 9km while I was going at very conservative pace. Usually the faster I go the better my technique is, and that showed in a 20km race I did 3 weeks previously where I received no red cards from any of the judges. So I decided to increase the pace after 10km and open up more and settle into a better rhythm. I just had to throw caution to the wind, not be paralysed by fear or tension and just trust my instincts and embrace the challenge. The further I got into the race, the better I felt despite the temperatures hitting 32 degrees after 30km. I felt better in the final 10km than I did in the first 10km!
James: There was a lot of added pressure on you in the lead-up to the race as it was your last chance to qualify. How did you deal with this?
Colin: It didn’t help the fact that I wasn’t initially selected for the World Cup, despite having easily met the selection criteria. I had the extra challenge of having to fight my case to be selected without any extra unfair and unnecessary conditions put upon me and thankfully some people showed a bit of humanity and common sense and that decision was overturned. Otherwise I may not have had the chance to qualify for London.
Of course there was a small bit of hype built up about potential selection dilemmas should other athletes also qualify along with me, with Rob and Brendan also qualified, but I detached myself completely from that and just stayed focussed on myself, my own preparations and race plan.
James: How satisfying was it to eventually achieve that A-Standard in a time of 3:52?
Colin: Extremely satisfying as it was a long hard road of several failed attempts over 2 seasons for one reason or another. That performance was always in me and I never doubted my ability. While some may have lost faith in me, it was important that I had faith in myself. But to now be able to look forward to London and make definitive plans is really satisfying and I am looking forward to it.
The support and good wishes I received after that performance was very also uplifting. But it’s important not to rest on a false security bubble. You are only as good as your last race and I’ve experienced both extremes in the past 12 months and have learned to take nothing for granted.
James: What are your goals for London?
Colin: To be top 12 and if conditions are favourable to better my PB. I want to enjoy the experience and the build-up and use the home support to my advantage.
James: You recently lost your grant from the Irish Sports Council. How much of a challenge has this been and what have you done to overcome this setback? Do you feel athletics in Ireland gets its fair share of funding or can more be done to help the sport develop?
Colin: It was a huge challenge especially in Olympic year and I suppose I could have looked at it as a ‘vote of no confidence’ in me. I had a difficult 2011 where I didn’t meet the criteria as a result of getting DQ’d in key races and had to drop out of the European Cup at the 35km mark with a torn abdominal injury. But I had a very good 2010 season where I had got a PB over 20km and 2 good performances over 50km in the World Cup and the European Championships and had met several of the criteria elements. So I felt that in Olympic year I deserved to be given every chance possible to qualify and prepare for London.
At a meeting with our Performance Director in November I was given a ‘90%’ assurance I would be Carded, so it was a bit of a shock when I was told by him in February. At the time I had a small health issue to deal with and was focussed on getting that A standard in the 50km race in March, so I decided to keep my head down and not waste time or energy disputing it and if I hit the A standard in that race I would be reinstated.
But When I got DQ’d in that race in March and missed out on a chance to get back on the Carding scheme, I was then put in a very difficult and isolated position for the following 2 months preparing for the World Cup. As it was my last chance and didn’t want to have any regrets, I staked everything on preparing for that race and was prepared to suffer the financial consequences after if it hadn’t worked out.
Athletics does get its fair share of funding compared to other High Performance sports, but I feel that money could be spent better and more effectively.
James: Can you give us an insight into the training schedule of a race-walker? What would an average week of training be like, specifically in terms of key sessions and total mileage?
Colin: I would cover between 200-240km per week. A typical week’s training would include one extra-long endurance session of 35-40km, one medium long session of 30-35km, fartlek sessions of 8x3km/1km or 6x5km/1km etc or steady tempos covering 25-30km. I would do 2 technique sessions which would include 100m-400m intervals or short hill sprints for technique economy and cadence. I would do 2-3 weights sessions per week and 1-2 yoga sessions.
James: What are your favourite and least favourite training sessions?
Colin: My favourite sessions are 40km sessions at altitude. When they go well up there, I know I’m in good shape. My least favourite sessions are hill intervals at altitude such as 12x500m or a hard 15km climb. They are brutally tough as the higher I climb the less oxygen available!
James: The current world record for the 50km walk is a staggering 3 hours 34 minutes, which equates to well under sub 3 hours for a marathon, quicker than most people can run such a distance. Do you feel that some people do not appreciate the extraordinary athletic ability of race walkers?
Colin: Maybe, but I suppose most people can appreciate a 50km performance to what it equates to in a marathon rather than a 50km performance itself. Last year I did the Belfast marathon as a training session in 3.17.45 and I think most people were amazed that a race walker could walk a marathon at that pace, which for me is a pace I would train at for 35km and 40km sessions most weeks. To be a good race walker you have to have good all round athletic ability. In the winter months I would often go for a few runs with some of the runners and be cruising at 6.45 per mile pace in my off-season!
James: In recent years the organisers of major championships have staged the race walking events on a 1 or 2 kilometre lap circuit in the centre of the host city. It is great for spectators, but can it be boring for competitors, doing for example, 50 laps of the same circuit during a race? Can keeping full concentration in a race like that be an issue?
Colin: Race walking events have always been staged on a 1km or 2km circuit, but in recent years they have taken the event away from the stadium to city centre locations with mixed feelings on it. For me the city centre locations are more spectator-friendly and a better atmosphere. I particularly remember the European Championships in Barcelona where it was a 1km circuit. I went into the championships less than 100% fit as I had missed a few weeks training in the lead-up with a hamstring injury and did not feel good at all during the race from early on. But the huge Irish support around the course kept me going and got me through the last 10km and I finished 11th which is my best senior championship performance to date. Keeping concentration is not a problem, as I break the race distance down into shorter segments like every 1km or 5km and I find that helps me. When it’s a very bad day at the office, the small laps can be torture in the latter stages of a 50km race!
James: It seems that the challenge of competing on the world stage without funding is not always understood and appreciated by the general public. Do you feel that athletes in Ireland sometimes don’t get the credit they deserve off the Irish media when compared to comparable achievements by individuals and teams in the more popular and better funded sports such as rugby and football?
Colin: Yes, but that is the reality and athletics is only a minority sport in a country where rugby and football enjoy a greater following and profile. Irish athletes have to achieve a lot more such as winning a world title perhaps than these sports to get equal or greater recognition from the general public.
James: There have been no Irish broadcasters at the past two World Championships. What can be done to help the sport gain more media exposure in Ireland?
Colin: As athletes it is up to us to produce championship performances that raise the profile of our sport in Ireland to justify Irish broadcasters and journalists to be sent out to cover World Championships and other major international events particularly during these difficult times where it has become less affordable. We are fortunate to have plenty of genuine athletics people working in Irish media who no doubt would love to be able to cover these events but are constrained by their budgets.
James: What are your views on drug taking in athletics? Have you ever suspected a competitor? How do you deal with the frustration that some opponents may not be playing by the rules?
Colin: It’s certainly still prevalent and I have my suspicions about some of my competitors but there is nothing I can do to prevent it so I don’t waste time or energy worrying about it, only train as hard as possible and hopefully perform as well as I can.
James: You are the president of the IAAF for one day. What drastic changes do you make?
Colin: Get rid of DQ’s in Race Walking!
James: When not competing, do you enjoy watching athletics? What current athlete do you like watching the most?
Colin: I love athletics and seeing Irish athletes achieve success, particularly our younger athletes who are breaking down barriers that my generation may have failed to do. Internationally I like watching Usain Bolt and Mo Farah perform.
James: That’s great Colin. Thank you for your time and the very best of luck with your preparations for London.
Colin: No problem! Thank You
Keep up to date with Colin’s progress through his official website.