words: Greg Heffer
It’s been quite a year to say the least, James. How are things going?
As the months go by it’s completely different. From January to now I feel much sharper and things are coming back in terms of organisation, the amount of sleep I need and getting angry at things I didn’t get angry at before. That’s starting to normalise now. July 19 is the anniversary of the accident and my wife’s thinking of hosting a ‘day I could have died’ party; it’s not the best title! It’s been difficult because all through it my wife’s been either pregnant or post-natal but we’re very lucky to have three children. You take things for granted sometimes but I definitely don’t do that now.
It didn’t take you long after your accident until you got back into endurance events. What was the motivation?
I wanted to draw a line under the accident. I think it’s important for anyone who’s been through an accident to learn from it and let it change your life in some ways, but it shouldn’t change your ambition or what you believe you can get back to. There are very few things with a brain injury that you can control, it’s very different to having an objective scale of physical progress. Lying in a hospital bed for two or three months was not good, as I’ve always been active. When I first came out of hospital I couldn’t do for 10 minutes what I used to be able to do for an hour and a half but you soon improve and that’s a positive you can register and control. Fitness is something I can control whereas with other things you’re frustrated that you can’t.
You seem to be on the right track with your time of 3hr 3mins at the London Marathon this year. How did it feel?
It was OK. I’d broken my foot so I hadn’t run for about two weeks beforehand but I’m lucky to have a big endurance base. Would I have liked to run faster? Yeah, but you don’t get anything for free with running. I’d like to go under 2hrs 50mins but that’s not my raison d’etre. I spoke to Haile Gebrselassie and he asked me what time I was going for and I said three hours, he replied: “I can run all the way there and half-way back!” So I thought, ‘I’m not going to cheer for you ever again now you’ve said that!’ The sad thing is he can. I said: “right, get in a boat!”
No pressure (well, not much anyway) but how does running compare to your other events?
Running’s tough, it’s weight-bearing whereas with rowing and cycling you’re sitting down. On the good side it’s a very time-efficient way to train. Speed-work is really important. Someone said to me once: “Why teach yourself to run slowly?” The quicker you can make your top speed, the longer you’ll be able to maintain your race pace for. If you can get some big lactate tolerance sessions in, then that will make the long runs feel a lot more comfortable. They’re not very fun though!
Are endurance events more about the physical or mental side?
They’re mental, physical, practical and hopefully about learning new skills. The big thing to remember is that you need to stay positive and really relish the fact you’re there. In the Marathon des Sables the people who did well were the people who thought, ‘I’m running in the Sahara, it’s great, it’s hot, it’s lovely.’ Whereas other people thought ‘ugh, it’s so hot today.’ It’s really going to get you down if you have that attitude. These things should also not be the be-all and end-all. It’s what you can bring back into life afterwards which is more important. For example, my little boy now has a much better understanding of Antarctica after I went there, such as the fact that polar bears aren’t there but penguins are. “What biscuits are there?’” he said!
Talking of your son, according to your Twitter bio he thinks you’re an Olympic typist. Will you have to do an Uncle Albert and sit him down one day to tell him all your stories?
Yeah that’s really depressing that. We did sit him down to watch a video but he lasted about two minutes, before asking: “Can we watch SpongeBob SquarePants?” I thought, ‘you could at least last until half-way!’
Despite coming second to SpongeBob, would you consider yourself a positive person?
I’d say I was motivated by negatives. Rather than say, ‘I’m the best’, I would view it as ‘they’re good so it will take a special performance from me to beat them’.
Endurance events must test your positivity. Was it easy to stay upbeat during an event like the Marathon des Sables?
Better runners than me found that the limited food, sleeping in the sand and crapping in the sand got to them a bit more than me. I bought into that mentally which helped. I also did some acclimatisation training in a heat chamber, but whether it actually helped or not didn’t matter, I believed it did and then when it got really hot one day I knew I could manage.
Who was your running hero as a nipper?
Seb Coe and Steve Ovett were just amazing. The way they knocked seven tonnes of shit out of each other and broke the world record; we’ll never have that again. We take it for granted just how phenomenal they were in the early 1980s. I grew up in Kingston and used to go out running on Richmond Park with school and there was this guy we used think was like Billy Whizz from the Beano. It must be Seb Coe, we thought, and it really was! He was so rapid, it’s like a phenomenal golfer; the difference between what I do and they do is like a comparing different species. James Cracknell joined the general public for the Bupa Flash Run in Regents Park which was announced via the Bupa Running Twitter and Facebook pages.“Like” Bupa Running on Facebook and follow @buparunning on Twitter.