Wisdom from an Olympic Marathon Bronze Medalist

Charlie Spedding (white/red vest) duals Steve Jones (blue vest) in the 1985 London Marathon.

Charlie Spedding (white/red vest) duals Steve Jones (blue vest) in the 1985 London Marathon.

There is an excellent, little-known book by Charlie Spedding called, From Last to First: A long-distance runner's journey from failure to success. Few outside of British Athletics are aware of Spedding. He won the Houston and London Marathons in 1984 and placed 3rd at the Olympic Games that year — totally out of the blue. Essentially, he was the Bill Rodgers of the UK.

His autobiography is a must read for any aspiring distance runner or coach. I only know of it because a copy was given to me by a sharp tongued Brit, Chris Cook, who was the final coach of my competitive running career.

Spedding details how he ascended from a 14:00 5K man to Olympic medalist. The pivotal moment comes in Chapter 6, which he titles: THE BEER DRINKERS GUIDE TO SPORTS PSYCHOLOGY. 

After a long winter and spring of hard training and racing, he finished a disappointed 13th at the 1980 British Olympic Trials in the 5,000m. 

He writes: 

Eight years had gone by since I ran 4 min 4 sec for a mile. I had managed a few decent times, a handful of minor international race victories, and a third place in the AAA Championships. Despite nearly a decade of evidence to the contrary, I believed I was capable of more, but success seemed so elusive. 

After this disappointing result, he decided he needed to change. What did he opt to change? His vocabulary. 


He writes, "I realized if I changed my vocabulary, I would change the thoughts in my head. When I changed the thoughts, I would change my actions. When I changed my actions, I would get different results."

This passage has colored my coaching since my first day on the job.  It makes sense to me. The progression is simple and correct: New Thoughts, New Actions, New Results. 

This is the world in which the coach and athlete traffic: Trying out improved training methods to develop an improved competitor to race towards improved outcomes. 

This shift in mindset forced Spedding to rethink his approach. He realized whenever anyone asked how he was doing or how his running pursuits were going, he replied by saying "not bad."

I tried to justify myself by thinking how everybody tends to say 'not bad' and it's just a custom and doesn't really mean very much. I stopped because I suddenly knew how wrong my attitude was. I wanted to be a successful runner and to be successful, I had to do a lot better than average. By definition, most people are average, and I had to be different than most people if I was going to be better. Doing or saying something because most people did it wasn't going to help me be better than them. I needed to do, say and think things in a better and different way.

What does Spedding mean by successful? "I wrote on my pad, 'Success is measured by how much I fulfill the talent I was born with.' "

I like this definition because everyone can use it.

However, it prompts a final question — How do we know how much talent each of us is born with? Honestly, we can never truly know because talent is only a promise


Thanks for reading. I'm glad you're here. // jm 

Jonathan Marcus