NOVEMBER 2015: In the 1980s, Tim Hutchings (pictured right, just ahead of Steve Ovett), who was predominantly a 1500m, 5000m & cross-country runner, earned himself medals at the European Championships, the Commonwealth Games and the World Cross-Country Championships. He also finished fourth in the 1984 Olympic Games.
Nowadays, he is an established TV commentator covering many high-profile athletic events.
And, in 2010, he founded the Brighton Marathon, due on April 17th, to be staged for the seventh time.
I caught up with Tim to find out about some of the background to his running, about some of the athletes he’s met along the way, and about what prompted the launch of the Brighton Marathon.
Tim, first of all, what would you say was the highlight of your running career?
That’s not hard to answer; it has to be running in the Olympics in 1984. I’d been with my old Coach Frank Horwill for nine years by the time we went our separate ways, but I like to think it was one of his most satisfying coaching achievements. Funnily enough, making the Olympic team wasn’t as celebrated as much back then as it is now, just as finishing fourth was considered rather run-of-the-mill, when Seb had won 1500m gold and Crammy taking silver was considered a failure. These days, athletes are local heroes for simply making the team, and even if they get knocked out in the heats, they are hoisted round town like they’ve returned victorious. It does make me smile. But seriously, no amount of money can buy those memories, and I’m well aware of how privileged I was to make that team and have a decent run. And just like these days, I had a virtual team behind me and they share in that achievement – Frank, my Mum & Dad, my training partners and so on.
What is your earliest running memory? And did you reach a high level as a junior athlete?
I have one distinct early memory, of a very specific incident, which I guess was a clue; I remember one summer’s day, aged about seven, having to chase our family dog for three miles along the grassy kerb of the lane between our house and the school near Turner’s Hill where Mum worked; he’d followed her car as she drove off and wouldn’t stop till it got there. I clearly remember flailing along after this dog, screaming at it to come back and crying all at once – in the mid-sixties, the country lanes were seriously quiet you understand – but it wouldn’t. Three miles later I’d done what half of Kenya seem to do at least twice a day, that is run to school! I was in tears, thoroughly shagged-out and too tired to give Shane, the dog, a decent kicking. Actually I’m only kidding about thumping him; he was a great mutt, my first true love.
So that school was a private school up near Crawley, Worth Abbey, where I started at the age of 9, and cross country was compulsory in the winter. Before everyone yells “silver spoon”, I’ll have you know the reason my brother and I went there, is because my Mum worked as a secretary there; she toiled for years, and they just kept her salary – that was the deal. So Cross Country was the norm in winter, that and rugby, and while I was a decent County standard rugby player and no more, I used to win or finish high up in all the Cross Country races easily, be it at School or County level; national level was a bit different as I was doing so little training compared to some other kids of 14-16, but it was clear where my talent lay. I wish I could claim some momentous voluntary quality on my part, but it was simply talent; I was very lucky to be able to get round faster than the other lads, on just rugby fitness.
I remember in 1975, winning the Sussex Youth 1500m at Withdean when it was a cinder track, in 4:04 I think, and then going on to the English Schools in Durham a few weeks later and placing second to one Eammon Martin – who I remained rivals with for many, many years, and of course, he went on to win the 1993 London Marathon.
Whilst natural ability must play a strong part in reaching the levels you did, there must have been a lot of hard training along the way. What was the secret to your eventual successes?
At Worth, a guy called Neil Leach was training hard and he started dragging me out for regular training, say 4 times a week, in the spring and summer of 1975; that was when I won my first County track title and then ran for England in the Schools International (after finishing second to Eammon).
We knocked out some damn hard sessions, but they were being given to Neil by Frank Horwill, who he was seeing occasionally up at Crystal Palace. We’d do a couple of miles warm-up, bang out a hard session round the grass fields of the school, and then a couple of miles warm-down. I didn’t know it, but it was near perfect training – speed work, long reps, short recovery medium-paced stuff (threshold work in effect), plenty of hills, and so on.
And do you know, I never lost that sub-conscious acceptance that hard training equalled results. I could have probably trained harder and could have trained smarter at times in my career, but actually 85% of getting fit, is the willingness to work hard and getting lots of running done. The last 15% is the clever stuff – the ‘cream on the cake’.
What brought about the switch into commentating?
Well, jumping forward 14 years, during which I like to think I got 90% out of myself – via four Commonwealth Games teams, a World Champs, an Olympics, a few World Cross Country appearances and before a hamstring injury followed by two operations put paid to any more serious running – I was suddenly 31 years old and staring back at my professional career; all jolly nice to have a house full of cups and a few significant medals, but that didn’t pay the bills. We hadn’t been married that long and were looking at the idea of kids. The Commentating kind of landed in my lap; I was invited to do a few colour commentary programmes for ITV, the sort of thing that Brendan Foster does on BBC, supporting the main commentator. Anyway, I got invited to do it for Eurosport, which as the time was the sports channel for SKY.
In 1991, SKY was setting up SKY Sports, so they sold Eurosport to TF1 in Paris, and I got invited to follow the Eurosport brand across the channel. I worked in Paris about 60-80 days a year for several years, doing dozens of programmes and that’s where I really cut my teeth as a commentator. It was great fun; fly there, prep hard for the programme, get it done in a studio, then head out in to the night for a few French beers and some food, then bed and a flight home the next morning. I was like “You want to pay me to do this?” Since then, it’s snowballed and I’m incredibly lucky to do what I do.
I know you’ve met hundreds of world-class runners? Who, in your opinion, is the greatest of all time? And who is the most interesting runner you’ve met?
The greatest of all time is probably Haile Gebrselassie. He’s a lovely fella, frighteningly intelligent, always upbeat and optimistic, full of energy and enthusiasm and he happens to have broken 27 world records and have a bunch of Olympic and World Championship titles. For everything he brings to the sport, not just his running prowess, he’s by far the greatest runner.
The most interesting runner I’ve known – still know – is probably Dave Bedford, the guy who broke the 10,000m world record when he was 23, then ended up being Race Director of the London Marathon, taking it from one era into the next, from being effectively a giant club race, to the richest marathon in the world. Dave coached me for a couple of years in the mid-eighties; he made so many mistakes himself as a runner, that he was the ideal person to guide a talented athlete around many of those same errors. He has a wicked sense of humour, calls a spade a spade, absolutely does not suffer fools, adores his beer and good food, and is fiercely loyal – as long as you see things his way. After I started Brighton Marathon rolling, he wasn’t best pleased, but we’re cool now.
Can you recall any particularly bizarre or unusual incident you’ve commentated on?
Where do I start! Thousands of races & field contests and each one unique. People falling at the final steeplechase barrier, sprinters refusing to leave the stadium after being disqualified for a false start, marathon runners staggering all over the home straight and disappearing into a load of pot plants just yards from the line, a starter firing the gun and shooting himself in the foot, people’s private parts coming out during races (male and female), and more, so much more. The best times were probably when Crammy (Steve Cram) and I worked together for 3-4 years at Eurosport; we got the job done but my god, did we have some laughs!
And how did establishing the Brighton Marathon come about?
In 1991 when I retired from professional running, I was still sponsored by Reebok, so they asked me to be a Consultant on a variety of issues, including which UK races and athletes they should sponsor. Then I started working with Dave at the London Marathon in a variety of roles. I was doing more and more TV commentary of course, and then I started doing bits of writing for different running magazines. And to cap it all, soon after the internet came on stream, in 2001 I started working for a sports technology company called Active; they still provide the software for the Brighton Marathon’s entry system today.
So the way I explain it, what with having an idea about elite performance too, is that I had just about all the slices of the pie chart, a variety of skills and knowledge, and when I stopped working for the London Marathon in 2006, it seemed obvious to me that the UK really only had one viable marathon, the big one in London, and that seemed wrong to me. I knew the UK could support more than that and I knew Brighton well enough to know it had masses of energy and vibrancy, was only an hour from London and had a good running base. And perhaps most importantly, I knew that London rejected close to 100,000 runners a year… that’s 100,000 people who wanted to a) run a marathon; b) in April; c) in the south of England – and no-one was catering for them! Can you believe that? Seems ridiculous now, eh?
So I pulled together a team of 4-5 guys who had the right skill-set as I saw it, and we literally met in the pub a few times. And while it took a bit of convincing on the part of a few city agencies (like two years plus!), we got sign-off eventually. You’ll understand we have to work with the City Council, the Police, Fire Service, the Hospital, the city’s Highways Dept, St.John Ambulance, South-East Coast Ambulance Service, the city’s SAG (Safety Advisory Group), Adur City Council (because the Power Station is their patch), umpteen independent resident groups, Churches who want their normal Sunday service, Pubs, Clubs, Restaurants, Retailers….everyone affected by the event. Many of them took a lot of convincing, but now I think everyone gets it. We put a lot of effort too, in to making sure the city and its people, felt like stake-holders in the event.
You must be very proud of how successful the event has become, now of course including the BM10k as well as the children’s mini-mile races. What is the biggest challenge in putting on such a grand annual event? And can we expect any interesting additions to the marathon weekend in 2016?
From that original group in the pub, only Race Director Tom Naylor and I are left; actually we are the only two who saw the process through to eventual sign-off, because it was very drawn-out and people had to earn a living and get on with their lives. So Tom runs the show now, from our office on West Street and at Grounded Events, the company we set up to organise the event and any others we could think of or acquire, we have a group of highly skilled, very hard-working staff. With due respect, I think that most people have no idea how hard it is to put on an event of such magnitude, and of how much work goes on behind the scenes.
The biggest challenges were overcome in the first 2-3 years when the event was scaling up, but it’s still a huge challenge to make sure that the route is clear each year, that the charities fill as many places as possible, that enough volunteers come on board, and so on. Essentially, the main challenge is getting the logistics to work right for our runners, our customers, to ensure they have a great day, from A to Z, not just on race day, but right through Brighton Marathon Weekend; that is something that takes many months to achieve.
The Mini Mile Races were something I very specifically wanted to do to give the kids something to get excited about. A Mile is very user friendly, it’s a distance we can all relate to, and they’ve grown from something like 700-800 in 2010, to over 2,500 kids now. It’s great, it’s growing and it’s here to stay and putting it in Preston Park in 2014, after four years on the seafront, was absolutely the right thing to do; the races had outgrown that last seafront mile and importantly, they were too big for the limited timeslot we had on race morning. Now they take place on the Saturday, have their own day in the spotlight and the kids and parents love it.
The BM10k was introduced in 2014 to give people an option that was slightly less challenging than a full Marathon. It’s growing nicely, is a very fast route, and the entrants get to taste all the best bits of the main marathon that follows shortly after. We’re really pleased that it’s embedded itself in race day. Dropping in a new race like that, is quite a big decision and squeezing it in to race day, before the marathon runners go off, is not easy.
We owe a huge debt of thanks to our volunteers, without whom, the races simply couldn’t take place. And no, we don’t have any significant changes planned for 2016; the Brighton Marathon Weekend is a huge undertaking and we just want to consolidate what we have, to ensure that every paying customer, as well as the rest of the city, has a great experience.
Tim, it’s been an absolute pleasure getting an insight into the various aspects of such a fascinating career. Congratulations on all you’ve achieved in running, on your brilliant commentaries and for giving us the fabulous Brighton Marathon Weekend!
By Mike Bannister