MAY 2016: Ray Matthews of Brighton Phoenix is on course for being only the second runner in the 50-54 category to break 17 minutes for Brighton & Hove parkrun (current best, 17:07), second only to Olympian Richard Nerurkar.
He is convinced that the recent improvement in his performance is, in no small part, down to spending his nights sleeping in an altitude tent… more significantly, one designed and constructed by Ray himself.
And there must be some substance in this notion, as his business partner for this relatively new tent venture is none other than British 1500m Champion, Charlie Grice!
I caught up with Ray just as he returned from Plymouth, where he’d been setting up a tent for another international 1500m runner, Mike Wilsmore.
Ray, where did your own running begin?
I have a couple of memories from my childhood. When I was just 7 or 8, my friends and I had smashed a window and found ourselves running from the police. My friends all got caught and I was the only one who was able to outrun them. It was then that I first thought, ooh, I could be a good runner! My second memory was of winning the 400m on school sports day when I was 11. It was on grass and I ran 70.1 seconds.
But I didn’t really run after that; just played football. At 16, I had a motorbike accident, broke my thigh, was left with one leg a lot shorter than the other, and was told I’d never run again. In my late teens, I was more interested in the club and rave scene.
Over the next two decades I did virtually no sport at all, and only started running properly at 41.
And I know you’ve also done a few triathlons. Do you take these as seriously as your running?
To be honest, I just dabbled at triathlons and duathlons for a couple of years. But the training took up so much time. You have to be really organised, and mentally strong. I didn’t possess that attribute! In fact, that’s why I’ve only run one marathon; I don’t have the focus that’s required.
I understand that, a couple of years ago, you rescued someone from their sinking car after they’d driven off the road into a canal. What happened? I imagine it was your experience of the open water that gave you the confidence to jump in?
I’d driven up to Cambridge to buy a triathlon bike. On the way back, it was a lovely sunny day and driving conditions were good. I suddenly saw a sinking car with an elderly man in the driving seat panicking, flailing his arms around. I didn’t give it any thought, and dived in. The driver couldn’t get his seat belt off. The water was up to his chin when I managed to get the door open and undo his seatbelt. I pulled him out and he was fine.
It was a bit surreal later when I had to walk, soaking wet, into a local pub to change into some running kit I had in my car. I don’t think the locals believed me when I told them what had just happened!
With regards to your running, which do you see as being the biggest challenge – more the physical, or the mental, aspects of training and racing?
As I mentioned earlier, I not very organised and focused. I’ve always had trouble staying focused in both training and racing. This is why I’m probably better suited to shorter distances. I think this has changed a bit recently, though. I used to drink a fair bit but have given up alcohol now. And I watch my diet closely. I’ve cut out a lot of sugar intake, and my weight is coming down. So, I’d say I’m actually much more focused now than I’ve been before.
I’ve set myself a couple of specific short term goals: to go sub 17 for 5k, and also to become Sussex Masters County Champion for both 800m and 1500m next month in Ewell in Surrey.
So, what’s your favourite race distance? And what would you say has been your best performance to date?
My two best performances are probably a 2:15 800m at Withdean in 2012, and a 17:04 5k in Ashford just last week.
I suspect I’m really an 800m runner!
What, in your view, is the most beneficial type of training session?
There are a couple of sessions that seem to work well for me. Over about 6 or 7 weeks, alternating between mile reps one week and 800m reps the next gets me really fit. And there’s a great session I do with Paul Church of Arena 80: it’s basically a 10-mile off-road fartlek, where we run hard through fields and recover when we have to open gates. If you train to run well off-road, racing on the road or track is so much easier.
So, tell us about the tent. How did the idea come about? And what feedback have you received from runners who’ve used it?
I’m good friends with Charlie Grice, British 1500m Champion. About a year ago, I went to visit him up in London where he was spending his nights sleeping in an altitude tent. When I saw the tent, I thought it looked far too big, inefficient, uncomfortable and fraught with problems.
With my background in fashion, tailoring and also making boat canopies, I couldn’t help but feel I could come up with a better design than what was already on the market. It was at that point that Charlie and I came up with a unique design and became business partners of ‘Affinity Altitude’.
So far, we’ve sold tents to UK Athletics, English Institute of Sport, British Swimming, and to numerous individuals, not just runners. And the results have been fantastic, with PBs all round.
Sometimes we sell both the tent and the machine, and sometimes just the tent if the client already has the machine. We actually have a range of tent designs, for example to sleep in or to house a treadmill, but they’re all based on the spray hood of a yacht.
And how did you originally become mates with Charlie?
As you know, he and I both run for Brighton Phoenix. A few years ago, I was having problems with shin splints. I needed a pair of track spikes but wanted more cushioning than you get with conventional spikes. So, I bought a pair of spikes, cut them up and also cut up my favourite racing flats, and effectively made some cushioned spikes out of the two pairs. Charlie was about 16 at the time, a promising up-and-coming athlete. He was intrigued by what I’d made, we got chatting and have been good friends since.
Ray, great to catch up, and thanks for telling us about the altitude tent. Good luck with your forthcoming races on the track, and we look forward to seeing you break 17 minutes in parkrun very soon!
By Mike Bannister