Matt Long struggles to catch his breath as Oliver Dustin and Graeme Mason drag him around a couple of laps
29th May 2021. BMC Sport City. Manchester
There’s a sharp intake of breath followed by a rapturous round of applause for the flame haired young man who has just shot to the top of the under 23 800m British rankings as the electronic scoreboard flashes up 1:45.71 as a jubilant meeting organiser Stephen Green gladly listens to stadium commentator James Thie who is rightly waxing lyrical about the terrific talent that is Oliver Dustin.
Several days later I did what most men won’t this summer by catching up with him along with the man who has walked beside him steadily under firm footing for many years.
Long term coach
I am keen to unpick the tripartite relationship between long term coach Graeme Mason, the University of Birmingham coaching team and Oliver himself. Graeme is quick to credit both Luke Gunn as Head of Athletics and West Midlands talent hub lead and Dean Miller, who is instrumental in planning the training schedules for athletes. “Dean is bang on it in terms of letting us know what we can tap in to and we have a good point of contact in Ollie Armstrong, the physiologist”.
One senses that Graeme is most certainly not a controlling but rather an empowering coach and this is born of his natural modesty and humility. He recalls that, “I once said to Oliver’s Dad, ‘We’ll get him to 18 and see where we are at. Look, its essentially a hobby for me. Oliver isn’t my athlete but rather he’s an athlete”. With a nod to the ongoing coaching contribution of Bud Baldaro and Sally Straw, he continues that, “I look at what Birmingham University can offer as simply extending his support team in a healthy way”. Oliver adds that, “The key is communication. I talk to Graeme every day which is why it still works with me being in Birmingham and him being in Cumbria”.
When pressed on how he balances elite athletics with study, the chemistry student readily acknowledges that, “It’s hard but the switch to online learning in recent times has been a benefit because of the flexibility which it gives me to do double days”.
Oliver retains deep affection for his roots in Cumbria but says, “Back home I trained with Graeme’s daughter Olivia which I enjoyed. This being said when training with a whole bunch of guys like Jonny Davies and Tom Keen, I need to bring my ‘A’ Game with me to every single session. I can’t just turn up and go through the motions”.
Graeme alludes to being influenced by a Lydiard based philosophy which is underpinned by the conviction that a solid aerobic base is a prerequisite in order to progress further up the pyramid of stimulus response based training. In addition strength endurance through regular teenage commitment to Northern Area level cross country races was engendered with Oliver and this focus on strength endurance is credited to Percy Cerutty and still features in the Border man’s schedule in terms of a mile long hill (Uldale) which takes him 6 minutes or so to climb.
Graeme continues that, “I’m a great believer in variety so its multi pace, multi-distance, multi-surface and multi-location for Oliver and my athletes. My approach is heavily influenced by the work of the late Frank Horwill who founded the Brutish Milers’ Club and the late Peter Coe who guided his son Sebastian to two Olympic 1500m gold medals”.
He acknowledges that the approach of this two is dated but still relevant if refined and points to the more recent work of Jack Daniels in this context. In taking about how this philosophy is effected in practice, the 2019 European U20 champion jumps in to say that one of his key ‘go to’ sessions is 5 sets of 450m (@1500m pace); 200m jog; followed by 200m in 24/25s.
Fundamental and Foundational Development
Up until his mid-teens Oliver played, “every single sport in the book that was going at school!” and credits this with developing what he refers to as “core skills”. At 14/15, healthily he was still to specialise in terms of event group and even at during mid-teens he remembers that, “I was getting beaten in Cumbria county and county schools events on both track and cou8ntry and struggling to make county teams”.
Graeme is adamant that in learning to train, a teenage Oliver was made to habituate drills religiously and he is convinced that this in part accounts for the relaxed speed which the 49.0s 400m man has. With a laugh he shares that, “When he was 11 years old, I remember him blowing a gasket trying to run a 600m time trial. I turned to his Dad and said ‘Don’t’ you worry he will make a great 800m runner one day. These days he looks really comfortable on the first lap of an 800m. He can get to 400m in 52s and look like he is jogging”. Graeme signposts Owen Anderson’s 2018 publication Running Form as being well worth a read.
Those of a certain age will remember when a young Steve Ovett burst onto the senior scene in the mid 1970s, that he steadfastly refused to chase records until his iconic rivalry with Sebastian Coe took off at the turn of the 1980s. The Brighton man who famously took Olympic 800m gold in Moscow back in 1980 would shamelessly say it was all about crossing the line first regardless of the stopwatch split.
In a similar vein Graeme notes that with regards to Oliver, “He looks to win. It’s the way he executes his races. He has a great finish which is there for everyone to see”.
So far this season, Dustin has polished off his rivals and it remains to be seen if he can continue wiping the floor with them.
On the 27th June Dustin lined up in one of the most competitive mens 800m fields in recent British Champs history. As they approach the 300m mark Josh Lay has kept the race honest, going out quick to lead into the home straight, tracked by Elliot Giles with Jamie Webb and Daniel Rowden looking very relaxed in third and fourth positions. Oliver sits second from the back, yet to show his, very bright, Border colours.
As the 500m mark approaches a flash of orange stretches to eat up ground in lane two to move into 5th position. With 200m to go Dustin almost looks a little detached from the front group as the field splits into two, with his long stride stretching to keep in touch with Rowden and Webb. As Josh Lay’s legs start to succumb to the quick early pace Dustin moves through the Rugby & Northampton man and Jamie Webb and swings out into lane three to make his assault on the final 100m.
Face etched with pain and effort, head back, arms driving Dustin stretches his arm into the arm, dragging his chest with it through the line for a photo finish with Giles and Rowdon in a stunning closing 100m. As the results are flashed on the scoreboard Giles becomes British Champion by 1/100th of a second, but Dustin secures second place, and at the age of 20 a seat on the plane to the Tokyo Olympic Games. Stunning stuff.
Matt Long is Midlands Mens Team Manager for Road, Cross Country and Masters and a Mentee Team Manager on the England Athletics Team Staff Training Programme. He welcomes contact for support through firstname.lastname@example.org