AUGUST 2016: I first met Joe Ashley when he was training with RunBrighton over the 2013/14 winter season, preparing for Brighton Marathon, which he went on to complete in 3:04.
His ability as a marathoner, for someone relatively new to running, combined with his keenness to support others, led to his agreement to be a RunBrighton Ambassador the following summer.
His goal to break 3hrs in the following April’s Brighton Marathon was accomplished with a time of 2:57.
But there was clearly much more to be achieved than his sub-3hr marathon. I introduced him to the Allison Benton training group.
It soon became clear that Joe’s principle goals, as well as his natural talent, lay on the track.
In February this year, he won gold in the Southern Counties Veterans Indoor Champs 1500m, at Lee Valley, in a time of 4:25.
And in the last six weeks, Joe has achieved PBs on the track for both 800m (2:06) and 1mile (4:44), as well as producing his fastest road 10k (35:22).
Joe, firstly, congratulations on your string of recent PBs. What do you think has brought about so many back-to-back improved performances over the last month or so?
I think the hard work in training over the winter is starting to pay off. As you know, I’ve been training with Allison’s group since November last year, and that’s really helped. Although I’m training for shorter distances, my weekly mileage is actually greater than when I was training for a marathon. And that has led to improvements in form, in fitness and in speed, which are now starting to show. Also, I seem to have benefitted from limiting my races this year to specific targets. Rather than racing week in week out, I’ve been more selective this year. Racing invariably means compromising training, and so I’ve only raced when ready – with a few exceptions that have usually backfired!
How did you come to shift your focus away from the marathon to much shorter races?
I came to realise last year that not only did I enjoy shorter distances more, I was actually better at them in comparison with the marathon. My first track race was in the Sussex Vets league in 2014, and I just loved it straight away. I loved the feeling of absolute exhaustion after such an intensive short distance. It was only then that I started to equate the running I was doing with ‘athletics’. Up until then, I hadn’t considered myself an athlete. It opened up a whole new world of running options and possibilities.
What I didn’t know was how best to train for it, so for 2015 I did the same thing as before, training for the spring marathons, and then raced on track during the summer as an afterthought. That year I consistently improved on the track over the summer, and ended up ranking in the top 100 in the UK V35 category for 1500m. My age-graded results and Power-of-10 rankings were all better for the shorter races than for the long ones.
So, with the age of 40 looming, I thought now was the best time to actually focus on middle distance races, with the hope that I can build up and maintain some speed as I move into the V40 category in a couple of years’ time.
In terms of the ways you train, what are the main differences between the preparation you did for the marathon and the sessions you do now for your shorter-distance targets?
That’s where I needed help! There are plenty of plans out there for marathon training, and groups such as RunBrighton, but I didn’t know how best to train for track. The first difference is that rather than, say, a 16-week plan for a target race, I had ‘phases’ of training throughout the autumn, winter and spring all building for the summer season. The second main difference is that the key sessions for me now decrease in distance and increase in speed over the phases, whereas for the marathon it was almost the opposite, with the long Sunday run increasing week on week.
In preparation for this summer’s track races, sessions over the autumn and winter months were focussed around long interval training at between 3k and 10k race pace, and also at a consistent 35/40 miles every week, rather than increasing week on week. Sunday runs were capped at 60 – 90 mins max, so I had to up the mileage during the week by running to and from training and the nursery, for example.
In the spring, the intervals started to reduce in length but increased in speed to 1500m / 3k race pace. While the interval volumes decreased, again my weekly mileage stayed about the same through more steady and easy running. Then, as the summer approached, the intervals shortened again and speeded up to 800m / 1500m pace, with even longer rest and recovery periods.
And what about cross-training? Does gym work and other non-running activity feature in your overall prep?
It does now – initially reluctantly, but I’ve gotten used to it. I now try to go to the gym twice a week for about 30 mins of strength and conditioning exercises. Although one of the reasons I started running was to avoid the gym, I’ve accepted that I need to go if I want to continue to improve. It’s a necessary evil!
I know you have a 20-month-old daughter. With your wife, Emily, a keen runner too, how do you juggle the baby-sitting so you can both train and also find a balance between running and family life?
That’s the tough part. The reality is that it just isn’t easy and it means constant compromise and sacrifices.
I get some miles in by running our daughter, Bea, to and from nursery when I can. And Emily is able to get more sessions in by training during her work lunch break. Also, we have a very supportive extended family who help out when they can, although sometimes the unexpected happens and it just means re-planning. It’s not easy to stick to a rigid schedule, but we do our best.
Plus, we include Bea when we can, taking her out in the buggy. We have other running parent friends who are in the same situation, so it’s good to do things together – we all know how hard it is to juggle everything. But other things have had to be reduced a lot – mainly going to the pub!
Clearly, the combination of running and bringing up a young child takes up a fair chunk of your time. What did life before running and family look like? Were you always sporty?
Not at all! I always avoided sport, all the way back to my school days. Back then, rather than sport on a Saturday, I was usually playing trumpet at a local music centre. In fact, I’m not sure I did anything that would be considered sporty between leaving school and starting to train for the marathon in 2013, which was the best part of 20 years.
Before running, I spent a lot more time out and about, mostly at gigs and festivals, and getting to know Brighton through the local pubs. I used to play in a band too, just playing covers but it was a lot of fun.
Getting into running was partly through Emily and partly through those pubs. Emily was once training for a Race for Life 5k so I went to the gym with her. I’d never run 5k before so thought I’d give it a go on the treadmill. I was surprised, and she was furious, at how manageable it was.
So when some friends down the pub signed up to the Brighton Marathon, I thought I’d give that a go too.
What’s next on your race agenda?
The next big races for me are the Southern Counties Vets outdoor championships later this month, then the British Masters outdoor championships in September. In the meantime, I’d like to get a few test races in, but those are my main targets this year.
And do you have an ultimate running goal?
Not really. I guess coming to running late means that I see it as making the most of what I can do at my age, rather than having the luxury of being able to look too far forward. It used to be a sub-3hr marathon, but that’s moved on. Over the next two years, it’s about being competitive, first regionally, then nationally, then internationally, at 1500m. Beyond that, who knows!
Joe, congratulations on some excellent recent performances, and good luck with all your forthcoming races on the track.
By Mike Bannister