UK M45 No.1

APRIL 2021: At the recent Olympic Marathon trials in Kew Gardens, Ian Leitch of Brighton Phoenix became the UK’s fastest ever M45 runner, and also set a new marathon record for his club. His time, 2:17:26.

But not only has Ian had success in his running; he is also an awesome cyclist!

Ian, congratulations on such a fantastic marathon performance. Firstly, what was it like standing on the start line, mingling with the country’s top marathon runners, including Chris Thompson, who went on to win the race?

It was a real honour to be invited to perform at the trials. So few of us have had the opportunity to race during this period, so I wanted to make the start line and give it my very best. In fact, just making it to the start line had been a challenge. I was on antibiotics and also had abdominal pain on the day, which has subsequently been diagnosed as a couple of hernias!

However, despite all this, standing there and looking ahead, I felt proud to have been invited, proud to have made it, proud of the adversity I had overcome and proud to be in the company I was in.

You would have had your own race strategy planned out. What was your principal goal and how did the race pan out for you?

My form had been building and building, and I knew from experience that my 16-mile marathon tempo, three weeks before, had me in 2:14 shape, which was pretty exciting. I decided to go out at that pace, and in a group. My principal target was the European V45 record of 2:15:51. However, the pain in my abdominals meant although I felt comfortable aerobically, I was limited elsewhere.

I came through halfway in just outside 67:30, and then on 20 miles an unusual thing happened… my legs checked out! We’ve all had those moments when you have to give yourself a talking to, and this was one of those.

I am a big proponent of the old-school carb depletion and diet, but antibiotics had prevented me from following my plan, and I’m sure that caught me out. I had to temper my pace and go into the classic survival mode.

How did it feel, at the finish, realising what you’d just achieved?

There’s a picture of me coming over the line, showing me in real pain – I was relieved it was done. I am a driven person, and I had mixed feelings. I felt I had not run my best race, despite the PB. It was very different to when I ran 2:18 in Brighton, in 2019, when I ran to my best ability at that time.

But then I saw Geoff Hill, who had given me some guidance during the build, and I thought that if someone had told me on the Tuesday, when I was in A&E in the small hours, that I would get to the line and run 2:17, I would have taken it all day long. I drove home, hugged my wife and kids, and cracked open a beer.

I imagine that last month’s performance would be one of the highlights of all your running so far. But what other key moments have there been?

Far and away my biggest running highlight was running 2:18 in Brighton. It was the first time I had really applied myself to a marathon and worked out a training methodology that would work for me. (I am self-coached.) Dan Nash, Paul Navesey and I had a battle that we will probably be talking about in our chairs, drinking beer, when we’re really old. I got everything out of myself that day, and will never forget seeing my wife, kids and family as I finished. It was the exact feeling you want from a marathon!

I know you’ve been involved in mountain biking at a high level, and also triathlon. What came first, the running or cycling? Can you remember how it all began?

I always ran as a kid. I just loved the free feeling it gave me. I remember my first event was The Sunday Times National fun run. My mum then entered me in the Surrey County 1500m Champs in my Hi-Tec trainers, unattached, which looking back was a strange thing to do. The fields were big, back then, with heats and finals, and I loved the community and the excitement of the event.

I’ve always cycled too, loving the exploration it can bring.

I had a big hiatus in my 20s, which were devoid of sport and full of socialising. Since then, I’ve jumped between running and the bike, choosing different experiences over outright specialisation.

And what has been your best achievement on the bike?

There are two…

The first was riding from Tierra del Fuego in Argentina, to Prudhoe Bay, North Alaska, in 2005/6. It was extremely tough and rewarding, and taught me a lot about different cultures and self-reliance.

The second was taking back the South Downs Double record, in 2016, just before my daughter was born. I had broken the record for riding the South Downs both ways (200 miles off road and 7,600m of climbing), in 2009, and then, well-known endurance racer Josh Ibbett took it off me by ten minutes. I had perfect weather for the second go, and it was just over 15 hours I will never forget… riding that beautiful ribbon across the south of England, pushing and flowing to the finish and a few beers with my mates. I was really on it that day.

I understand you have a young family. It must be difficult fitting in all the necessary training around them?

My kids are two and four, and I also have a busy job. Life can, at times, be a real juggle. Lockdown inadvertently helped my running, as working from home has meant it’s been easier to do a lunchtime run, for example. I am also a proponent of lower mileage at higher speeds…  which saves time and also gives you the endorphin rush required to get straight back on it with your family. I call it ‘all killer, no filler’! I do no core strength work at all, which probably explains the broken body!

Through lockdown, over the last year, we’ve seen a huge growth in the number of people who’ve taken up running. And I know many are talking of plans to build up to a marathon. What advice might you have for them?

It’s fantastic to see so many people out there, having a great time running and enjoying the outside. We live in a wonderful city and it’s been uplifting to see friendly faces enjoying such a pure sport. Whether you can run close to 2 hours or nearer 6, the marathon will always be a challenge. There are four things I would keep in mind.

Firstly, remember why you’re doing it in the first place – it should be a fun challenge, about getting the most from your body and being involved in a community moment – smile!

Secondly is mental strength. There will always be periods where you feel it’s not going your way, but the beauty of the marathon is that the problem can be temporary, and the feeling coming out of the other side is one of elation. Plan for the tough spells and work on talking yourself around.

Thirdly is to train at race pace. I spend a lot of time running at my projected marathon pace – these runs can be hard but normalise race day, giving you confidence and making the day less daunting.

Fourth – it’s great to join a club – many of them have so much history and community and advice – for me, it’s with pride that I pull on my Phoenix vest.

How do you switch off from running? What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

I love spending time with family and friends, drinking beer, getting outdoors, doing up our house and visiting art galleries.

And what’s next with your running, Ian?

I would love to run another marathon, but it’s stressful in many areas. I think I’ll be aiming for some shorter distances, like 5 and 10k, to see what some focus can bring!

Ian, congratulations again for becoming the UK’s all-time fastest marathon runner in your age category. Thanks for the insight into your build-up, and we look forward to watching your progress over the shorter distances.

By Mike Bannister