AUGUST 2017: Helena Tobin might well have good running genes, but the success that she has achieved has not come purely from raw talent – she knows how to train hard!
Helena, I know all your family have always been involved in athletics. I guess you therefore got into running at an early age. What’s you first memory of running?
Despite my family background, I actually got into running relatively late for a middle distance runner. I was into gymnastics and drama (not running) when I was younger, although gave both up when I went to University. I was about half way through Uni when I discovered I had become really unfit and needed to do some proper exercise. I couldn’t run for more than five minutes without having to stop and get rid of a stitch. I would wait until it got dark to go for a run so no one would see me jogging so slowly. I gradually built up the length of my runs until I was ready to join an athletics club. It wasn’t until I graduated and moved to Cambridge that I started to train properly for middle distance events.
What was your favourite distance when you were running at your best?
It would be hard to choose between the 800m and 1500m. Most of my training was geared towards the 800m and my PB is 2:05 (set in 2005) for this distance. However, I was perhaps more successful over the 1500m (PB of 4:16, set in 2006) in the one year that I specifically focused on this event. I love the tactical nature of the 1500m, but do still miss the intensity and lactic burn from running a fast 800m!
What level did you get to? I believe you raced against some top athletes who subsequently went on to become household names in world athletics. And what would you say was your most memorable moment?
I’ve been county, inter-counties and south of England champion on the track at various points in the past and won two bronze medals at the British indoor championships. The first of those bronze medals came from a race won by (the now Dame) Kelly Holmes at the British indoor Champs in 2004 (the same year she won her Olympic gold medals in Athens). It was my first national medal and a memorable moment for that reason, but also because I had to make a desperate lunge for the finishing line landing flat on my front, legs in the air – and all televised on the BBC! The thrill of standing on the podium next to Kelly stays with me to today.
What originally brought you to Brighton? How did you come to join Brighton & Hove Athletics Club? And do you view here as home now?
After graduating from Sussex University, I moved to Cambridge where I trained for 800m/1500m with my first great coach, Mike Vogel, and his group. Mike very sadly passed away suddenly some years later, which led to me breaking away from athletics for a while. I decided to move back to Brighton, as my boyfriend (now husband) was still living in the city. I happened across the Hove park parkrun one Saturday in 2009 and Brighton & Hove’s (B&H) Richard Carter who suggested I come along to one of the club’s track nights. Brighton is definitely my home now. I’ve made so many great friends in Brighton via parkrun and joining B&H, and I love Sunday runs around the city as there is always a friendly face to wave to.
What about going forward? Have you put your track racing days behind you? What distances are you now focused on?
A temperamental Achilles tendon has forced me to give up middle distance running sadly. However, my coach for the past seven years, Allison Benton, has helped me transition effectively to 5k and 10k. My first ever 10k was the Eastleigh 10k in 2010, which was a struggle and I finished in 39:29. But, thanks to Allison’s tough training sessions, I gradually brought my PB down returning to the Eastleigh 10k in 2015 to finish first female in a PB of 34:29. The time allowed me to qualify for the track 5,000m at the British Championships in 2015. Unfortunately, I was injured in the couple of months leading up to the champs and had a poor run despite setting a PB of 17:03. Nevertheless, it was almost 10 years since my last British champs, so I appreciated every single moment and had a smile from ear to ear as I stood on the start line. I still try to do as many training sessions on the track as possible now as, to be honest, I just love running in circles! I have been known to do a whole 70min Sunday run running laps of Hove lawns.
And how do you find it training with Allison’s group, often being the only female in sessions with some of the top runners in, not only the local area, but, in some cases, the UK? Does that help push you?
At training sessions, the group normally divides into a group one and group two according to speed, so you’ll always find me in the latter! There is a great sense of camaraderie within the group as a whole, though, especially on blustery nights in Hove park where we’ll cheer each other on up the hills. It’s a privilege to be amongst a group of athletes that treat training with such professionalism and dedication. It’s an inspiring group to be part of.
I know that you’ve often been held back by running injuries. How have you continued to maintain fitness when unable to run? And what motivates you to keep bouncing back?
Yes, the running injuries have been very frustrating as they normally turn up just as training is going really well! I’ve learned to embrace various cross training strategies to maintain fitness during these bouts of injury, which has included a lot of tough spin classes! It has helped immensely having a coach like Allison who has supported me so much through the difficult injury periods. She has always helped me to keep the bigger picture in mind when setbacks occur and set out a course to comeback. I doubt I would be running now or have achieved the goals I have over 5k and 10k without her training plans and guidance. At Allison’s suggestion, I’ve also changed my strength and conditioning regime over the past eight months or so, with the expert help of Matt Bartsch at Riptide. These weekly strength sessions have made a massive difference in helping me stave off the injuries – I only wish I had learned to deadlift much earlier in my running life.
I guess we shouldn’t finish the conversation without mentioning your brother, Rob, part of the men’s GB 4 x 400m relay team in the Beijing Olympics, who were recently upgraded to Bronze following the disqualification of the Russians. Having watched you both run, it’s amazing how you have identical running styles. Have you always been supportive of each other or is it more a case of sibling rivalry?
Yes, we do have a very similar running posture, although my legs don’t move quite as fast his unfortunately! I’ve always been in awe of my brother’s running talent. He has won medals at all the major champs (Commonwealth, European, World and now Olympics). I remember travelling abroad to watch him in the early days at the European Junior Championships in Grosseto, Italy and World Junior Championships in Kingston, Jamaica and being really inspired by those experiences. (Incidentally, we were in the Kingston stadium when Usain Bolt won his very first world title in 2002!) When I was running 800m/1500m at the British championships, it was nice to have my brother and his training group there to tag along with. In fact, when I qualified to run the 5,000m at the British championships in 2015, it felt quite odd being by myself in the warm up area as Rob had retired from running by then.
My parents continue to fly the flag for the family at the major championships, as officials. They work tirelessly as volunteers every summer helping track events run smoothly. My Dad was an official at the recent world athletics championships in London and one of his more interesting jobs was ringing the bell in the women’s 800m final won by Caster Semenya!
Helena, lovely to catch up, as ever, and it’s been really interesting hearing about your earlier running days. Hopefully you’ll remain injury free, going forward, and good luck with your 5ks, 10ks and whatever distance you move onto next.
By Mike Bannister