The endurance athlete chats about his outstanding mental strength, marathon training and race fueling tactics.
James Cracknell’s two Olympic and six world gold medals are permanent reminders of a golden era in British rowing, but the multi-decorated athlete is equally famous for excelling at seemingly endless extreme feats of endurance.
The 46 year-old Londoner is renowned across the globe for his almost inhuman ability to push himself to the limits in races in disciplines including running, cycling, kayaking, swimming, triathlons, and even rickshaw challenges.
Last year, Cracknell ran his fastest ever marathon on his seventh outing over the distance, finishing in a superb 2:43:12 in London. His performance was much-lauded as representing the ‘perfectly paced’ marathon – he stayed within a second of his average kilometre pace of 3:52 throughout the entire race (see table below).
His six other marathons have all been in London apart from one outing in New York in 2009, where he posted a 2:54:17 result. Every marathon bar two has been under three hours, with one of those his debut in 2006 when he ran a still impressive 3:00:10.
The other was his 3:03:56 result from the 2011 edition of the London marathon, but that time represented far more than it appears on paper.
Just nine months earlier, Cracknell was knocked off his bike from behind by a lorry during the Race Across America challenge, which he was aiming to complete in just 18 days. The crash severely damaged the frontal lobes of his brain, and his life was only saved by wearing a helmet.
Not one to sit back and rest during his injury recovery, the extreme athlete finished runner-up in a 430-mile bike race in Alaska (the Yukon Arctic Ultra) just six months later in an incredible feat of determination and bravery.
The 2000 and 2004 Olympic coxless four gold medallist has also achieved one of the highest finishing positions by a British runner at the gruelling six-day, 156 mile Marathon des Sables ultra marathon desert race in South Africa.
Cracknell crossed the line 12th in 2010 after numerous health scares throughout the event. This included collapsing at the end of the 82km fourth stage, refusing a drip because it would incur a two-hour time penalty, yet recovering regardless to complete the race while also managing a hamstring injury!
We chatted to the seemingly unstoppable giant of British sport to find out how on earth he is able to push himself to – and well beyond – the ‘normal’ human mental and physical limits, what tips he can pass on to mere mortals for keeping strong and getting the pacing right in endurance races, how to fuel a race properly and much more.
Fast Running: Your mental strength is outstanding – can you advise runners of all standards how to ‘tough it out’ when facing down every athlete’s demons telling them to ‘slow down’, or, even worse, to stop mid-race?
JC: I rely on the training and that my body won’t let me down. I make sure I know where the drink stations are, take a little food (gel or energy blocks) with me, and make sure I’m well hydrated before the start. That way your body won’t let you down.
When it gets hard, I tell myself it won’t last forever and my body may not enjoy it but it can take it.
I think of the training I’ve done and the sacrifices I’ve made, as well as the friends and family who I’ve opted not to go out with but instead went out on a run! I’d be letting all those people down if I gave up as soon as it got hard.
FR: Thousands of runners across the UK and Ireland currently in training for autumn half and full marathons – what tips can you pass on to help others ensure they don’t crash and burn during the 26.2 miles?
James Cracknell: The hot summer will have been hard on everyone training for a half or full marathon, but I’d take comfort from the fact that any Indian summer will feel like a cool day in comparison.
There are three things I try and do when I’m preparing for a full or a half marathon, or any race to be honest:
1) Set your target from the start (be that just to complete it, or to achieve a certain time), then construct a training programme, and see it through.
2) Trust the training that you’ve done, your body won’t let you down.
3) Don’t change your target on the start and think you’re going to better Mo Farah’s time. If you’ve got something left with two or three miles left, by all means let it rip – but not from the start!
FR: How do you fuel up for half and marathon training runs, and the races themselves, to get the best out of yourself? And do you run ‘on empty’ in training?
JC: I definitely train empty (not every session) but for two to three runs each week, so my body gets used to getting pushed when it’s stressed, in other words, on empty.
For the race, I get up very early and wake my body up with a 20-30 minute gentle jog three to three and a half hours before the start. By two hours before I’ll have forced some porridge down (preferably with water) and maybe some scrambled eggs.
Then it’s a case of hydrating before the start – with an isotonic drink, not just water – and then about 20 minutes before I’ll have an energy block or two.
During the race, I’ll know where the drink stations are, especially the energy drink stations rather than the water ones, and will target those. I also have a block every 45 minutes, just to top the energy up.
FR: For those runners already entered into an autumn half marathon or marathon over the next few months, what are your key tips for how to prepare for the challenge?
JC: I’m no running or nutrition expert so what I’m about to say might not work for everyone, but I’ve found these work for me:
1) Try and lose a few kilos, don’t go mad, but carrying a bit less helps significantly.
2) Don’t become obsessed by distance. Yes, we have to do long steady boring runs, but the key sessions for me are threshold sessions and interval training, so build them into your schedule.
3) Know what training you’re going to do that day – don’t just put your trainers on, head out the door and make it up.
4) If you’re injured – even just a niggle – don’t run. It’s a weight-bearing sport and it will only get worse. Cycling is good and I love elliptical trainers too, but make sure you increase the volume you would normally be doing on a run.”
FR: Finally, the biggest question of all – what drives you to run, and take part in all the extreme challenges you take on?
JC: I enjoy it, and, if I’m honest, I miss the adrenalin I only feel when I wake up on race day.
I enjoy setting a goal, training for it, then seeing if I can achieve it. That gives me confidence for targets in life (personal and professional) outside of sport.
I try to do different events and sports so I’m not always training for the same thing. Perhaps the key thing is to include friends and family in the process, or do the event with someone, as it makes it more fun and you’re more likely to see it through.
FR: It’s reassuring to find that even multi-Olympic gold medallists, who have completed Olympic distance triathlons in under two hours (no mean feat) as well as finishing second in the awe-inspiring South Pole race (473 miles) along with longtime friend and fellow extreme athlete, Ben Fogle – amongst many, many other achievements – follows the same, simple advice that many of us ‘mere mortals’ follow for race training.
Plan your training schedule carefully and make every run count, don’t push through an injury but instead embrace cross training if injury strikes, fuel and hydrate well, and, most importantly of all – enjoy it and look forward to that pre-race adrenalin, knowing that James Cracknell himself still gets that incredible buzz we all love before a big event!
James Cracknell is part-owner and organiser for the Cheltenham Half Marathon (30 September), Great West Run (Exeter, 14 October) and Weston Super Half, Weston-Super-Mare, 24 March 2019). Entries are open for all three events now.