By Owen Morgan
The future is looking bright for Welsh distance running as the country’s endurance programme is paying dividends with some hugely promising performances.
Although Wales missed out on individual and team medals at the inaugural Commonwealth Half Marathon Championships in Cardiff last weekend, there were a number of season and personal bests clocked by the home elite runners.
On a day which will forever be tinged with sadness following the subsequent death of two runners in the mass race, there is hope that Welsh running is heading in the right direction.
Swansea Harrier Dewi Griffiths was the pick of the home competitors as the first Welsh finisher in the Commonwealth Championships, claiming a creditable ninth place.
Although slower than his best performance of 61:33, Griffiths’ time was an encouraging 62:56 considering he has missed much of the season with a stress fracture in his hip, which ruled him out of April’s Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast.
Since his return to competition, Griffiths has been in excellent form and feels he is getting back to somewhere near his best.
The Llanfynydd-based farmer, who also retained the Welsh Half Marathon Championship title on Sunday, said: “It’s good to be back, I just wish I was in last year’s shape.
“I probably surprised a lot of people by running that time, considering how much I’ve missed and how little I’ve done.
“I’m happy with the time, but the competitor in me wants to be better. Fitness wise I’m not too bad, it’s just the speed in my legs isn’t quite there. But running 62.50 isn’t a bad time is it?
“I was happy to be the first Welshman home and the boys ran well today, it’s just a shame we didn’t quite get on the podium as a team.
“I knew it was going to be between us, England and Australia for two of the medals, so someone was going to miss out, unfortunately it was us today but we all ran pretty well out there.”
Asked about the next stage of his comeback, Griffiths said: “Hopefully the European Cross Country Championships at the end of the year and then possibly a big marathon. Potentially London but we’ll see what happens.”
Pushed further on whether next year’s athletics World Athletics Championships were on the agenda, a cautious but smiling Griffiths replied: “World Championships and Tokyo (Olympics) hopefully, but we’ll see what happens in London first.”
The second Welsh runner home was Scotland-based Swansea Harrier Kris Jones, who slashed just over a minute off his personal best to clock 63:57 and take silver in the Welsh Championships.
Jones, who is just at home competing in world class orienteering events, said: “I just tried to hide away in the group as much as I could at the start.
“I didn’t really know if we were going too fast but I felt ok and it was really nice to come in with a big PB, although the last 5k was hard .”
Fellow Swansea Harrier Josh Griffiths also claimed a PB, lowering his best by 11 seconds to register 65:07 and claim the bronze.
Griffiths said: “I went out hard to give it a good go, I knew we had a good team and obviously wanted to finish as high as we could.
“We all gave it a really good go and ran well. I don’t think we quite got the team medal in the end but we all tried our best. You can’t ask for too much more.
“The support was brilliant as always in Cardiff, especially wearing the Welsh vest you got a bit of extra support, so thanks to everyone who came out and supported us, it means a lot to all of us.”
The biggest PB amongst the Welsh men’s elite team came from 3,000m steeplechase specialist Jonny Hopkins, who smashed his half marathon best by a whacking three minutes. This after being called into the team at short notice.
Hopkins said on Twitter afterwards: “Commonwealth Games and Cardiff Half Marathon didn’t disappoint. One week notice and a three minute personal best of 65:20. Loved every minute of it.”
The Welsh women’s team produced equally impressive performances.
Cardiff AC athlete Clara Evans finished 11th overall in the Commonwealth Championship race and claimed the Welsh women’s title in a PB of 74:15.
A delighted Evans said afterwards: “Going around the course with home support was really nice. Everyone cheering you on and shouting ‘come on Wales’. It was amazing and worked to my advantage. It was a minute and 15 PB for me so I’m really happy. I couldn’t ask for anything more.”
“It went better than expected, I got to half way, looked at my watch and I was like, ‘ooh you’re running a bit fast’. But I thought I’d go with it and see what happened. I didn’t think I could run that fast, but I obviously can! And it’s always nice to get a Welsh Championship medal.”
US-based Rosie Edwards claimed 13th place overall and silver in the Welsh Championships with yet another PB in a time of 75:25.
The Rotherham AC athlete enjoyed the occasion of her first Welsh international vest saying: “I had a lot of fun out there, it was a great day. It was nice to be out here with the team, first time running for Wales.
“It was a great atmosphere, the crowds kept us going, especially on the hill at 12 miles. I saw a huge Welsh flag and it kept me inspired and kept me going up the hill.
“I was hoping for a little bit faster today but you’ve always got to be happy with a PB.
“I’m definitely hoping to run for Wales again. It was a great experience and I’m aiming for Birmingham and the 2020 Commonwealth Games.”
Worcester AC’s Jenny Nesbitt finished 17th overall and third in the Welsh Championship in 76:14, while Swansea Harrier Alaw Beynon-Thomas finished 24th in the Commonwealth Championship in 79:41.
There were also some excellent performances outside of the Welsh elite team.
Cardiff Met student Jake Smith, who is coached by James Thie, powered his way to a six-minute PB as he finished 14th overall in 64:01 and was the first runner outside of the Commonwealth championship competitors to cross the line.
With so many personal bests being clocked across the board, much of the success is being attributed to Welsh Athletics’ National Endurance Development Programme.
Pembrokeshire marathon runner Caryl Jones is another of Wales’ top class endurance athletes, having competed at both the Commonwealth Games and European Championships this season.
The Swansea Harrier, a late withdrawal from last Sunday’s Welsh team, is quick to praise the programme.
Jones says: “I think regional coaches like Delyth Brown, Kevin Evans, Hedydd Davies and Carol Jones were the biggest influence on my development as an athlete because they were the first ones to recognise endurance talent and were always present at training sessions and races.
“Consequently, I have been able to develop further with more recent coaches and have received fantastic support from Sport Wales in maintaining my high levels of performance.”
National Endurance Manager for Welsh Athletics, Chris Jones, says the aim of the programme is to keep the conveyor belt moving and continue to develop the talent being produced – with one eye on the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham.
Jones says: “Our aim over the next four years will be to continue to invest and support athletes building towards the 2022 Commonwealth Games.
“Over the past two years we have seen a growth in the number of athletes representing Wales at both European and World Championship events – 12 endurance athletes qualified with A standard performances for the recent Commonwealth Games, which culminated in two medal winning performances.”
The National Endurance Development Programme supports around 35 Welsh endurance athletes ranked in the UK’s top 30 in their respective events.
The aim is to share best practice amongst some of the nation’s most talented endurance athletes and coaches to create a sense of togetherness in the athletics community in Wales.
The programme offers opportunities for athletes and coaches to work with the Sport Wales delivery team on key areas like nutrition, strength and conditioning and key group skilled running sessions throughout the year, to enhance the resources and support available to them.
In addition to the national programme, the Regional Endurance Development Programme supports regional endurance athletes across a wide base in Wales and is divided into four regions across the country led by regional coordinators.
There are currently 150 endurance athletes and 40 coaches involved in the regional development programme, all of whom are involved in a series of regional development days throughout the year, focusing on key areas such as physical preparation, coach education, skill development and athlete-coach support.
At the latest North Wales Regional Development Day, over 50 athletes and their coaches from Menai, Deeside, Maldwyn, Wrexham and Colwyn Bay came together for an endurance workshop led by North Wales Regional Coordinator, John Messum.
“Despite numerous members of the regional programme being away representing Wales at the British Junior Mountain Running Championships, there was still an excellent turnout of athletes and coaches”, said Messum.
“The day started with athletes undertaking a long track session focused on even paced running, before moving on to pilates and strength and conditioning work in the afternoon. The development day once more provided a very rewarding experience for both athletes and coaches alike, and we look forward to future sessions with great optimism.”
Optimism seems to be an appropriate choice of words given the number of elite endurance athletes setting new personal bests and an inspiring example to the younger generation in Cardiff at the weekend.
Chris Jones added: “Currently we have a standard-based investment programme with Sport Wales that rewards athletes who reach a required standard.
“This will continue in its current model for the near future and will be part of our overall athlete award scheme going forward; however, it will be reviewed as part of our performance submission making sure that this approach allows enough flexibility and is the best use of our resources for athletes in Wales.”
Hopefully Wales will continue to enjoy the fruits of the programme’s success in run up to the 2020 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham and beyond.