The future is bright for Grace and Piers Copeland. We sat down with the siblings, and their coach Bob Smith, to chat running, university and development.
This year already Grace set a world leading u23 mark over 10km of 33:54 at Brighton 10km in April. Piers, a bronze medalist at the British 1500m champs, has run 3:39.50 in Germany a performance which saw him qualify for this week’s European U/23 Champs. Yet upon entering their home the first thing you notice, apart from the big fluffy dog charging towards me, is just how down to earth, humble, yet focused the two young athletes are.
Over the next hour and a half this first impression is proved correct. Along with their coach Bob Smith, the Dorset pair provide an insight into their journey to where they are now, the difficult transition to higher levels and how they both differ in as many ways as they are alike.
Foundations of success
Despite some notable recent notable exceptions, such as Melissa Courtney and Louise Damen, Dorset is not known as a hot bed of distance running talent. Piers and Grace were keen to highlight the role their local club, Wimborne AC, played in their development.
“Every year at school we would do a cross country loop in the summer” says Grace. “Someone saw us running this loop, which was actually about 5km, when I was about nine” adds Piers and they said “why don’t you come along to Wimborne you seem quite good”
“Wimborne is a great club for younger age groups, up to under 15” says Grace, who joined the club aged eight.
“At Wimborne there is Ian Kennedy [Grace and Piers’ first coach], for endurance he is the lynch pin” says Smith “if Ian wasn’t there most likely these guys would have had the career progression they have seen”.
“The progression was slow of course” says Grace “but it was as much for the social side of things, it was just massive fun. We’d be doing sports hall as well and progressed to three sessions a week by the time we were 12 or 13.”
“The sessions weren’t heavily structured. We’d go out for 30-60 minutes and include some efforts but you’d have no idea how fast you’d have run. It was about fun”.
“As they got a little older that’s where I got involved” says coach Smith. “We broke the sessions up into more exact groups to make sure everyone had someone of their ability to train with”.
It’s a story of being patient with talent, of nurturing as much as pushing, of recognising the value of long term development. These are two athletes who seem to have a steely internal drive. Their development seems to have been well suited to environment that allowed that to flourish, with a patient nurturing approach.
A time of transition
Grace talks with self real awareness about some of the difficulties of the teenage years for a good athlete. “My highest point was when I won the national cross as an under 13. All those years I did the British Cross Challenge races and I would come first or second and it felt so easy, always flying high.”
“Then after that high point, anything that came afterwards that didn’t quite reach that point just felt awful, if you know what I mean?”
The culture of sport is one that can see a lot of pressure loaded on athletes who have success at a young age. What can be key is having the right people around you to put everything into perspective and focus on the bigger picture. For that it seems the Copelands had the right person in Smith.
“You might say that for some kids growing up having massive success early on isn’t a good thing” says the coach. “I can understand why a lot of good young athletes drop out if they can’t hack that stress. Stress from parents, clubs, peer groups.
“Then 14, 15 or so my legs started to feel heavy and we didn’t really know what was happening,” remembers Grace. “I was coming 40th or more and it became really hard to stay motivated.”
“Eventually we discovered I had very low iron levels. My ferritin levels were at 14.” That wasn’t the end of the problems though. “The iron supplements I was taking wasn’t getting absorbed correctly. We tried everything chopping and changing diet, mixing with other nutrients. Eventually we went with a gluten free diet, the doctor said it wouldn’t make a difference but six months down the line my ferritin was back to 50.”
“We looked at my mechanics too, and I got some orthotics which really helped reduce some of the additional fatigue and soreness I was experiencing in my legs”.
So it took two or three years working at a lot of ‘non running’ bits, and the persistence and support of parents to help Grace find the causes and fund some of the solutions.
“I had my fallow years too” says Piers “under 15s in particular. The kids I was racing against were taking 15-20 seconds off their times in those two years from 13-15. I think I only took six to eight off mine and it can feel demoralising”.
“Now at 18, 19, 20 it feels much more level and you see how good people can be longer term, but there is a huge risk of dropping out before you get there with too much pressure”
Finding your own path
It becomes clear very early on how close and relaxed Bob’s relationship is with the athletes. The important role the coach plays is not just about whats sessions to run, but so much more than that.
“I remember watching Piers in the cross country at Parliament Hill in 2015 and it was just crap” says Smith “his arms were down by his sides and he was clearly just not enjoying it.
So we took a risk and thought lets give indoors a go. I thought there might be a high risk that his long striding technique wouldn’t be suited to it but we felt it was worth a shot, because the enjoyment just wasn’t there”.
Very often we see young athletes leaving the sport because that enjoyment isn’t there. Parents or coaches pile the pressure on to achieve success at a young age. Fun, clearly important in the pair’s development, disappears. Smith’s deeper insight into Piers’ running could just be a key turning point in his career.
Finding a diamond indoors
So in 2016 they moved indoors. “We had a couple of races, 800m and 1500m and there wasn’t much competition. I think I ran 4:04 (at the 2016 South of England u/20s) and won comfortably, out of what felt like nowhere I was offered an England vest!”
“So we went to Sheffield with the England vest and thought we’ve gone from hating cross country to running indoors in an England vest. We’ve got nothing to lose”
“I took the race out hard, expecting the guys to come back and they didn’t. So in a year we went from saying “Piers this isn’t too good, to “Wow I have got a diamond here” said Smith.
“So the success came out of being prepared to try something different, something that felt risky.” Piers can certainly close out a race. For anyone watching the British indoors his last lap was a sight to behold, something he has repeated on numerous occasions over the years.
“I know a lot of athletes will be aware of Piers’ ability to kick” smiles Smith. Always good to have a ace like that up your sleeve.
Their coach highlights the sensitive and critical time as both Grace and Piers transitioned from school towards university.
“To be honest it couldn’t be any better. We have got a lot of time for what’s happening at Cardiff Met,” states Smith. “I have got massive respect for James Thie. Piers and I discussed that ‘when you get there, if you want to move to James, and that feels right, go for it,’ but when Piers decided to stay with me James has been hugely supportive.”
Piers is just finishing his second year studying economics. “The first year was pretty easy to get the balance right,” which might be a rare quality at his age. “I found quite quickly there were loads of good groups. I live in a house now with four other athletes – Jake Smith, Kieran Lewis, Jordan Wood and James Heneghan”.
“With Piers it really helped moving to university. When you can train with others, the miles just tick off. You can have a bit of a crack at training and it feels that bit more enjoyable and easy, and that will really help Grace too” says Smith.
“I used to take the dog out with me but as soon as he sees me in my kit now he hides by the sofa” says Grace, clearly only half-joking. Given the ease of transition and success with training groups, it’s no surprise that Grace tells us she will be going to Cardiff as well to study art.
The artist and the economist
It’s hard to not fall into clichés when speaking to the talented siblings, with their approach to training and racing mirroring the different personalities. The artist Grace, the economist Piers.
“I’ll lay out a programme for a month or a couple of months with every day detailed. Piers is great because he follows it fully,” comments Smith. “Sure he wil call me and we might change elements to link up with the training group at Cardiff or whatever, but otherwise he will literally follow it to the letter. If I set Piers 10km, he will literally run 10,000m”
Asked if that’s his mathematical brain at play Grace laughs “nah he’s just lazy”.
Ever the man to think beyond the simple training plan Smith is quick to add “it’s a lot of pressure as a coach, with that level of compliance you really feel the pressure to get it right.”
Not just two peas in a pod
“These two guys, even though they are brother and sister, are athletically totally different” says Smith.
“If you look at Grace every time she races she has had pressure, every since she became national cross champion. Piers was good when he was young but he wasn’t brilliant. He could go into the national, come 100th and walk away quite happy.”
“With Grace she would race, come 30th, and it would feel like a bad result. With Piers he has always applied the pressure to himself.”
Differently to Piers, Grace’s success has been born out of a lot of cross country. “I am beginning to feel happier in the longer distances, I feel you can get away with a few more mistakes at a 3km or 5km than an 800m-1500m.”
“Grace has a pretty large aerobic tank, Piers doesn’t” says Smith “so when you look at the 10km races the reasons we ran them were totally different. For Piers it’s the pathway to something else. For Grace it would be more of a goal, she feels comfortable at those distances 5-10km.”
In another five years Grace will most likely be a 5-10km runner, Piers will still be an 800m-1500m runner and that’s the two totally different pathways that lie ahead”
“I’m much more I’ll try everything” says Grace “I just really want to enjoy it, I think if you are happy then you can run well”
Importance of clarity and structure
“So in terms of personalising training morning 15 is the earliest I’d look at that” says Smith. “With these guys I have always used the Daniels system [Jack Daniels – US coach]. Grace is the youngest I have every personalised training, after she won the national cross”.
“This means that even if they are training on their own they have clarity on what is expected. It’s not just running around in circles aimlessly, they know if they have performed well in a session”.
The importance of education, rather than just blindly following instructions, can really help with the motivation levels in young athletes. If they have a clear understanding of what they are doing and, more importantly, why, then they are more likely to see it through.
Through the whole interview it’s clear that Bob Smith isn’t looking for short-term success with the siblings, but to help them both reach their own potential in a long and successful endurance career. It’s refreshing to see.
Piers will be competing for Great Britain at the European Under 23 Champs this week. “Dave Scott, my agent, has been brilliant at supporting me to find the right races” says Piers.
“I’m really excited for the U23 Champs this coming week, it’s going to be a great learning experience competing for GB for the first time. At the Champs, I would like to make the final it will be tough but hopefully I can make it! But the main thing for me is to gain experience and to enjoy it!”
“After the Euros we need to have a think about what next as he will have been competing at a high level since May and that’s a long time to peak” says Smith.
After sustaining an injury at the Loughborough International Grace is looking to take a short break through the summer before heading to university. “I would like to focus on some more road races after such a good start” understates the young starlet about her world lead over 10k.
“I also want to have a crack at some indoors. So really it’s a year of trying some things out.”
Needless to say, whatever the siblings try their hand at in the future, it will be exciting. With patience and wise heads on young shoulders, both have bright futures ahead. With coach Bob Smith at their side, you feel they both have a fine co-pilot to help them on their journey too.