James Thie is a busy man – even when he’s locked down. The former top four world ranked 1500m runner, now the power behind athletics at Cardiff Met, is keeping his own wheels turning, as well as those of plenty of others, as he told Owen Morgan.
Athletics has played a massive part in James Thie’s life for the past 30 years.
From competing as an international middle distance runner for Wales and Great Britain, to becoming a hugely successful elite coach, the sport has dominated his waking hours.
The two-time British indoor champion is also performance director for athletics and senior lecturer at Cardiff Metropolitan University.
In his “spare time” the 41-year-old even commentates on athletics, picking up the mic at events across Wales and far beyond.
One Saturday last autumn will give you an idea of the hectic schedule Thie regularly keeps.
On October 12, he started his day in a Eurosport studio in London commentating on Eilud Kipchoge’s history-making 1:59 Marathon Challenge in Vienna, before driving back to Cardiff to call a dozen races at the Cardiff Cross Challenge event.
If that wasn’t enough, he then headed to Minehead for his brother’s stag do and was still up the following morning in time to bang out the miles on his usual Sunday morning run.
And a Thie training run is no gentle jog around the park. He still competes regularly with Cardiff Athletics and just over a year ago, he won 1500m gold in the M40 category at the World Indoor Masters Athletics Championships in Poland.
It’s not unknown for him to climb down from the commentary gantry to compete in a race before returning to pick up the mic for the remainder of the meeting.
So, how is one of the busiest men in British athletics coping with the restrictions of lockdown?
Unsurprisingly, he’s keeping himself busy.
University work is continuing online, as is his coaching, and he’s even holding hugely popular circuit sessions via video.
Then, there is the not insignificant task of working on his doctorate and predictably undertaking the role of PE teacher to his two primary school children.
Thie, who finished fourth in the 1500m at the 2004 World Athletics Championships, said: “It’s strange times for everyone. In terms of athletics, I’ve been involved in proper track and field for 30 years and this is the strangest time I’ve seen.
“Usually at this time of year you are prepping for the start of a track season. We would be a few weeks away from the British Universities, the start of some of the bigger races, and not that long away from the Olympic trials, but for the first time ever we have all been thrown into this mass limbo.
“For the last 11 years I have been part of the London Marathon Elite Crew, that’s obviously not happening now until October.
“It’s a strange time because we’ve obviously got athletes trying to get ready for a season but no-one has any idea whether or when there is going to be one.”
For a man who has been involved in athletics for so long, the loss of the day to day involvement in the sport he loves has been difficult to come to terms with – especially the hands-on coaching sessions.
“I’m lucky that I have found something I am very passionate about and been able to carve a career out of a sport that is predominantly an enjoyment,” says Thie.
“I’m hugely grateful that I’ve been able to stay within the Cardiff Met umbrella. They have been phenomenally supportive.
“The stuff we do there – the athletics set-up and the whole ethos of Cardiff Met, all the sport and well being – I’m hugely lucky to be involved in that.
“Then, there’s the coaching side that I got involved with just over 10 years ago. I never set out to become a coach. It just evolved organically. To have had the success we have had is brilliant.
“And that’s probably the hardest thing I am finding right now. A few weeks ago we had the email from Welsh Athletics saying there was no face to face coaching until at least the 31st of May.
“That was the realisation that for at least two months, the norm we had been used to – I love the face to face, interaction side of coaching – was gone.”
But that wasn’t going to stop Thie, who has coached the likes of Cardiff steeplechaser Ieuan Thomas to the World Championships, Commonwealth Games and European Championships, Tom Marshall to the Commonwealth Games and Stephen Morris to the Paralympics and IPC Athletics World Championships.
The former Welsh Champion, who last year guided Cardiff Met student Jake Smith to the British under-23 half marathon record, said: “Right now we can write schedules and be in contact, which is great and is a part of coaching that’s good, but the actual coalface coaching is the face to face interactions.
“When you’re told you can’t do that for a couple of months, and also this uncertainty that you’re prepping and trying to get people motivated and ready for something that might not happen, there is a huge sense of feeling in limbo.
“As an athlete you sometimes think that you might get an injury – I remember missing some races and stuff – that was something that was part and parcel.
“But none of us in the whole sports industry could have envisaged missing the chunk of time that we have over the last few weeks and that we’re going to have in the next few weeks or months as well.”
Despite the lockdown, work goes on as both a lecturer and a coach, using already established technology and alongside increasingly creative new methods.
“The university has gone online, so where people are still teaching, they have online platforms to do that,” says Thie, who was on the British Athletics staff for the 2017 European Junior Championships, 2016 World Junior Championships and the 2015 European Under-23 Championships.
“Students are sending their work to us and we are marking. Everything is online assessments now.
“With the students, they are potentially at home more than they are ever at university, anyway. So as a coach you are coaching them throughout the year, anyway, and they are back home over Christmas and the summer holidays.
“As for the athletes themselves, I’m just trying to touch base. We have platforms that we use to get information.
“We use a training group, an online platform called TrainingPeaks, where anyone’s training gets updated and they can upload their training on there and I can comment on it with feedback, so that’s not a new thing.
“It’s some of the other events that I feel most sorry for – the sprinters, the jumpers, the throwers.
“For an endurance runner to go out and run at this time it is still feasible to almost do pretty much the training you would do regardless – even without a gym or a track. But for the technical events it’s rotten because they just don’t have the ability to do their event.”
Thie has tried to recreate the face to face coaching interaction, which he enjoys so much.
“The day I heard we couldn’t coach for two months I thought I would be proactive about it and that I would start an online circuit which we have done as a group for a number of years,” says the man who twice represented Wales at the Commonwealth Games.
“I thought well ‘you know what, if I can get a few of the athletes watching, I get a work out at the same time’.
“So I stuck it on YouTube and the first video that I put on got 1,500 hits. We get about 100 people doing it live with us in my little gym in the house which I stream on a Monday and Wednesday at 6pm.
“I’ve had some really nice messages from people from all over the world. I had a lovely one from Angharad Davies, the Welsh runner living out in Spain, who made a really good comeback this year, indoors.
“She sent me a message saying ‘thanks so much for doing the circuit, I feel part of the community doing it week by week’.
“It’s really touching. There was also a lad I was coaching at the University of Wales, a Spanish athlete who went home for the lockdown. They can’t even leave the house, their exercise is always within their four walls.”
The videos aren’t just for elite athletes. There is potentially something in them for everyone trying to keep in shape, even if it’s just Thie’s uplifting chat and mentions to various people taking part.
“I’ve got some really good friends who are not runners by any means and they have been following them and I’ve had messages from athletes who have got their parents doing the exercises with them,” says Thie.
“I’ve had a really nice message from the parents, saying thanks so much. I try and give a few little shout outs and everyone I give a shout out to loves it. It’s nice to have that kind of connection in these strangely disconnected times.
— James Thie (@TeamThie) April 20, 2020
“Also, I feel I get my little coaching buzz twice a week from it and I feel like even though the interaction is not right there and then, the interaction I get afterwards from athletes and other walks of life, people just taking part, is great.
“People are asking, ‘please don’t take them down we want to do them in the future’, so I’m going to have to think of a way of keeping them up there.
“To do something that has helped people like that is great. So there are a few flip sides and a few things where you have got to be creative as a coach.
“There are no absolute right or wrongs right now. You’ve just got to find a little bit of understanding of what’s going on, a little bit of routine and that’s why I think the circuits work because it’s twice a week. Or people can do them at other times rather than do them live. Quite a lot of people are picking them up through the week.
“It’s also manageable enough for me. I don’t know how Joe Wicks does it day in day out, I’m knackered after just doing it once! I think twice a week is more than manageable.”
The coach is also concentrating on the fitness of those closer to home. As you would imagine, PE lessons feature heavily on the Thie home schooling timetable.
“For the first three weeks we did have Joe Wicks on and then I decided that over Easter, because I’ve got a seven and nine-year-old, they should have a little bit more of a holiday,” says Thie.
“We did a little bit of Joe Wicks and I think we did the daily mile every day before the Easter Holidays as well. So over the holidays they’ve been on their bikes or scooters doing the daily mile.
“Yesterday, my daughter did the videos I’ve been doing. I set her up so she could do a private one to my little lad in the sitting room and she did the PE lesson for him, so that was brilliant and I was really proud of her.
“They are definitely doing more PE than perhaps they would have been doing at school. PE is very, very high on the Thie curriculum!”
Here’s @TeamThie – @cardiffmet Performance Director of Athletics backing our 2.6 challenge. Join our 10K team and raise money for Kidney Wales. Run 2.6km, 2.6 miles, 26 minutes, or even 26km! Click the link here: https://t.co/dsbxXxMV9J #twopointsixchallenge #supportingourNHS pic.twitter.com/18tuxTVn79
— Cardiff 10k (@Cardiff10k) April 24, 2020
And it’s not only the younger members of the family who have been doing their homework.
Thie says: “I’m currently studying my doctorate in coaching. It’s actually about being creative as an endurance coach, so this situation fits in with the next chapter but I never thought this chapter would come along or be written in this way.
“So, I’m keeping busy with other stuff, but having a seven-year-old and a nine-year-old at home 24/7 . . . jeez! I think NHS staff should have double pay and teachers should have double pay as well. It definitely makes things interesting.”
Thie is determined to take any positives he can from the situation the sport he loves finds itself currently facing, including the opportunity to step back and take stock.
“People are trying to see this as a little bit of a positive in a bizarre way because you do feel like you’re on a bit of a carousel where you are literally onto the next race all the time,” he says.
“And I often get asked as a coach ‘when is your downtime’? It’s not like being a football manager where your season ends in May or June and then you have pre-season starting back up.
“Being an endurance coach, especially with track runners, road runners, cross country runners, there is no start or end to the season, it’s continuous.
“You have got road starting in September which coincides with the end of the track season, so you have got guys who have built up in August ready for the road season, whilst you have people finishing off the track season.
“So everyone is taking their breaks at a different time. We have athletes in our group racing every single week of the year pretty much, so there is something to having the chance to step back and kind of have a breather.
“I think that was nice for the first couple of weeks but I think now we’ve all had enough and we all want to get on with it.”
Thie fears the break could have long term effects on the sport if the hiatus continues for too long.
“It’s that unknown factor,” he says. “Is the track season going to be in August, or even September?
“I’m starting to get nervous about things like the Cardiff Half and other events because they are so vital to the lifeblood of the sport in Wales. It would be a tragedy in sporting terms if that had to be postponed or cancelled. So it’s just fingers crossed.”
However, he adds that the whole situation has to be put into perspective.
“Sport’s important but we’re talking about people’s health. What’s happened puts things into perspective.
“The real heroes are the people on the front line and the people who are really putting the hard work in at the moment.
“So, however much we may feel sorry for ourselves there are people out there doing a hell of a lot more and a hell of a lot more worthwhile stuff.”