Interview with former GB long distance runner Ben Norris

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Ben Norris was selected to run for GB in the World Cross Country Championships in Poland, alongside Mo Farah, when he was just 18. Just as he was about to go Kenya with the GB distance team he got a serious knee injury. This was the first of numerous injuries that he never seemed able to recover from, physically and psychologically. At the age of 20, he was forced to quit the sport and wholly reinvent himself. The Distance is a work in progress show that marks his first foray into documenting this significant chapter of his life. Roundhouse Duty Manager Jack Brooks (Roundhouse’s very own fitness coach) caught up with the former GB long distance runner ahead of his show here on Sunday.

Jack: You mentioned that you were pushing too much too soon, do you think you were put under too much pressure? Could you tell us a bit more about what this entailed?

Ben: I think my coach and I both got excited by the results I was getting and so instead of taking stock and thinking about career longevity, we started thinking about trying to make the London Olympics, which realistically was way too soon (I would’ve been 20 and attempting to qualify for the marathon, traditionally a distance run later in a running career).

Jack: I read a statistic that says just two percent of young footballers signed at 16 are still playing the game professionally when they turn 21. Figures as of October 2015 estimate that 141 former players are languishing in the British prison system, almost 90% of these offenders under the age of 25. It seems that there is such a focus to be moulded at such a young age with no other alternatives when it doesn’t work out. Do you think more should be done to prep young people of the competitiveness of the field and the realities that they won’t always make it through?

Ben: Absolutely. I think athletics is a little less bleak, because even the top runners struggle to make their entire livings from the sport so very few young runners are under the illusion that it will be their main earner, but nevertheless it still shapes their life choices. It’s weirdly similar to acting, I think, in that you need to make your life rich with other things – relationships, interests and hobbies, or even other professional pursuits, otherwise when the sport is taken away you’re left with nothing.

I interviewed a former running colleague of mine who says he only chose the degree that he did (Sports Science) because he felt he ought to, despite having no interest in it, and now he works a 9-5 in payroll which he says pays the bills but leaves him pretty unfulfilled.

Unlike acting, however, there are far fewer transferable skills in being good at a specific sport. You’re training to do one very precise activity, very well. The problem that footballers have in particular is that many promising kids are in academies from an extremely young age; it affects their schooling and their lives in general, not just their bodies, so they end up having more limited social experiences, and spending a lot of time with just their own gender, and this can lead to problems later in life too. You read a lot of stories about sportsmen and issues of consent and sexual assault, and I wonder whether their academy upbringing has something to answer for in this regard.

But often teams don’t care about this, they just care about getting the best results while the athlete is at their prime, and then chucking them on the slagheap when they’re not useful anymore. This is changing, thankfully, but it could change quicker, and in more sports.

Jack: It seems that the main problem is that people are not only let go by their coach or their team, but completely left alone to deal with life after. I’ve wondered whether there should be some sort of post profession programme that helps young sports men/women into jobs or equips them with skills, what do you think?

Ben: I couldn’t agree more. It might seem like an overstatement, but I genuinely think there are huge swathes of former sportspeople who had to retire early, or were forced out of the sport, floating through life with something not dissimilar to PTSD, or at best a fundamental purposelessness. Ex-Olympian Andy Baddeley said in a recent interview that he really struggled to adjust his mindset after he retired, because he was approaching everyday domestic activities with the same rabid competitiveness as he approached his training and racing, which is obviously unhealthy. And Andy had had a long and successful career already.

It’s the same as anyone who is made redundant or forced to change direction suddenly – they need re-training, or to find a new thing, otherwise it’s a bloody struggle to get out of bed.

Jack: I’m running circuit training classes at work. Could you give me some tips for a good warm up/warm down?

Ben: It depends what you’re doing of course, but for me it’s all about doing a bit of cardio (a light jog) and then lots of stretching. Some kind of group game is always fun too. We always used to play ninja at uni (not with the athletics team, with the actors, but it’s still a great group physical warm up). It might take me too long to explain but it basically involves taking turns round the circle to make one single move and try and hit another person’s hand in the circle, who is allowed to make one defensive move as well. If you’re hit you’re out.

Jack: You mentioned about your pressure to be the best and how this can be a barrier to happiness. As someone that has to commit a lot of time to the gym and rugby training, I don’t often get home until 10 o’clock, eat late and then struggle to sleep. I can get in to a bit of a cycle of feeling really tired and then struggling with being social. How did you manage your time with personal relationships/combat feeling tired?!

Ben: I didn’t, is the short answer. I became increasingly insular as sport became a bigger part of my life and my ambition grew. Which was fine, if a little isolating, when things were going well, but it meant as soon as injury struck, my life was a barren wasteland.

I would say that being happy and socially healthy is as vital a part of your training and the training itself, because if you feel alone and can’t sleep, you’re not going to be able to perform well.

Jack: Final question. How do you redefine yourself in the wake of catastrophe?!

Ben: That’s a big one. That’s the big one. And it’s the question that the show attempts to answer, or at least explore thoroughly. So you’ll have to come and see it!

Get tickets for The Distance this Sunday.