Runner's World Heroes 2011

Meet this year's Heroes of Running, as named by the Runner's World UK team.

Posted: 10 May 2011

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The Mentor: Mick Woods

In RW's 2008 Heroes awards, Steph Twell, bronze medallist in the 1500m at last year's Delhi Commonwealth Games, was crowned the Rising Star. In 2009 it was Charlotte Purdue, who took gold in last year's European Junior Cross Country Championships. Last year the award went to Emelia Gorecka, who won bronze at the same competition. All are members of Aldershot, Farnham and District AC - and all are coached by Mick Woods.

Woods, 62, has been coaching since 1986, when he was still running marathons (he has run more than 70 and competed internationally for Ireland). "I had a 2:20:12 PB," he says. "It wasn't bad but I know if I'd had someone like myself as a coach, I'd have been much better." His tone is not self-congratulatory; it is disarmingly matter-of-fact. He loves his job and he knows he does it well: in March, eight of the athletes he coaches made the 24-strong GB team competing in the World Cross Country Championships.

Until 1993 Woods combined coaching and full-time work, but that year he left his job as a British Telecom engineer to concentrate on his passion, taking a position in St Mary's High Performance Centre in west London, where he still works part-time. He has coached "countless athletes".  Visit and count: there are presently about 90 who name him as coach, but he is involved with many more than that at lower levels.

Woods has a simple philosophy when it comes to coaching: the squad, not the individual, is what matters. Star performers such as Twell, Purdue, Gorecka or English National Cross Country Champion Jonathan Hay (another of Woods' athletes) inspire those around them. "It's like a pyramid," he says. "What you get at the top end is only as strong as what you have at the bottom. That base is where those athletes come in. You try to channel them to the top."

Woods uses the word 'pathway' a lot, but that path need not necessarily take an athlete to a long career in athletics: "People might have an involvement in the sport in other ways, such as being a coach or administrator. But perhaps their time with me sent them on that pathway. And I think that is massively important."

Experience has taught him what to look for in an athlete. He first saw Purdue running when she was 11 years old, in a race in which she finished 16th. She says she has him to thank for her athletic career. "What I look for in an athlete is someone who has courage and the ability to stick at something when they are not necessarily achieving the best performance," says Woods. In Purdue he saw a girl who was really trying. "She was not an athlete with perfect movement. She had little leg lift and was very much a heel striker, but what I saw was someone who could have an engine - endurance - and that has always been Charlotte's success."

He says that talent will only take an athlete so far, that what is more important is commitment and an ability to stick to the task even when things are going wrong.

And things recently went wrong for Steph Twell, who broke her leg in a race in February. Her season is over but Woods has no doubt she will return and be in contention for the Olympics next year, though her preparation will have been severely curtailed. 
"I see Steph's real potential beyond 2012. With all the athletes I am coaching, their potential is beyond 2012 and if I stopped I feel I would be letting those people down. That's not what I intend to do. 

"I want to see this through because I don't envisage giving up coaching until the day I die. Or at least until the day I can't stand by a track and time-keep."

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