SPIKES sent an enthusiastic amateur to track practice to see what it's like to train with real life athletes. Cue pain, shame and fulfilment in equal measure.

On a cold, wet and windy Thursday morning in the middle of May, I was lucky enough to join the Mile End Camp training group for some track drills. The session was taking place at the Mile End Stadium in East London, and was being led by effervescent, dreadlocked Coach Chris Zah, whose stable includes world class sprinter Perri Shakes-Drayton.

Turning up 15 minutes late was not a good start, but Coach Zah (winner of the European Athletics Coaching Award for 2013) just told us to get changed and out on the track. I should say that ‘us’ was me (Tom), former SPIKES editor James Charlton, and five-times snooker world champion Ronnie O’Sullivan – a 34:54 10k runner – who James was interviewing for a feature in his new mag. For those of you who don't know Coach Zah: the man is known to everyone as the Rev, and the track at Mile End is his church. Amen to that.

For our first sermon, we would do 4x300m in 50secs with 2mins rest with Cuka, a partially-sighted Portuguese sprinter. The first two sets were ok, the pace only taking its toll in the final 50m. The third was a real challenge, but I held on in.

The final run was really tough. I could see Cuka (that's her Portuguese nickname, BTW, they've all got them) easing round the bend 20m ahead of me while James eagerly scampered in her wake. I stuck to Ronnie’s shoulder and thought of home.

After a short break we were told to line up alongside Richard Strachan and Gemma Dawkins for 500m in 70secs. Gemma suggested we start at the beginning of the home straight.

“I like starting here because it’s like cheating. You don’t really notice the first 100m,” she said. I nodded confidently, forgetting the pain of a few moments earlier.

We took off. I certainly did notice the first 100m. And the second, third and fourth.

Gemma and Richard were going at cruiser speed, but all my energy had been sapped by the 300s and even flat out I couldn’t keep in touching distance. My legs felt like they would buckle with every stride; the lactic was burning through my arms; I was breathing so hard I was concerned I might exhale a lung, and I don’t think there’s a stretch for that.

During this lap of intense accumulating pain, the single stand had filled up with a couple hundred school kids ahead of their sports day. I was very eager to be away from their glares as I bounded with little grace down the home straight, but my legs and lungs were putting significant skids on my escape plan.

I somehow held out for the finish but knew I was spent. While Gemma, Richard, Ronnie and James did a flat out 150m before going through some dynamic stretches, I sleuthed off to talk to Cuka. She offered some consolation, pointing out that I had done drills for two different events. I made a mental note to castigate Coach Zah later.


I ambled over to the final bend where Ronnie was having his photo taken. The high jump pit was winking at me, so I decided to hoik the bar up to 2.45m and see what all the fuss was all about. The results speak for themselves.

I brought the bar back down to my level and had a crack at my own high jump PB – 1.15m set with a smooth scissor kick around 15 years ago (at KJT's Wavertree Track, as it happens). I cleared it with an untrained Fosbury Flop, and then a 1.20m. As humble a leap as it was I was made up.

We then ducked into the small gym squeezed below the stand. I did a short cycle before deciding to balance my behind on a gym ball. I watched in awe as the eight or so chiselled superhumans performed a variety of stretches and lifts that looked simple, but I knew would be impossible for me to even attempt.

These guys are quite simply on another level. Even though it would be rare for most of them to make the podium at an Olympic Games or world championships, they are the lifeblood of the sport. The setting isn’t glamorous, the facilities aren't the very best, and they have to share them with a bunch of kids, but these guys are out running intervals twice a day, whatever the weather, for the sheer love of it.

Groups like the Mile End Camp are the track and field community. They support each other through training, through injuries and through rehab, as well as through the problems away from the track that we all have to deal with.

When one of them makes it, when one of them hits upon that magic formula that sees them run speeds, throw distances and jump heights that are world class, success belongs not just to the individual and their coach, but to the whole group. Just like the group is there for support through the tough times, it is also there to help athletes stay grounded after victory. 

Cuka didn’t lambast me for backing out after that tortuous 500m. She dug out the positives and assured me that I was doing fine. When I complained of a pain in my shin muscle to Richard, he showed me a stretch that would help put it right. When I walked over to Gemma to apologise for not being able to keep up, she consoled me with assurances that someone like me, a bog-standard park-running middle distance jogger, is always going to struggle doing short and fast intervals.

“It might improve your kick,” she said. It might give me a kick in the first place, I thought.

For that one morning I genuinely felt part of Coach Zah's congregation. By paying my £3.25 and running with and sharing stories with and getting angry at Coach with the rest of the guys, I had become part of the Mile End Camp. And it felt great.

Massive thanks to Coach Zah, Cuka, Gemma, Andrew, Richard and the rest of the Mile End Camp for putting up with us. And to James and Ronnie for letting us impose on their feature. And to Malcolm Griffiths for the header photo. 👍