On the 4th October, we were all glued to our TV screens watching Jonny Mellor compete in the 2020 London Marathon. A unique event this year because only elite athletes were taking part and it was 19 laps around St James’s Park. Jonny is a local lad from the Wirral and married to Sophie, one of our Bears, so we were all emotionally engaged right from the start. We were on tenterhooks all the way through the race, although Jonny just went from strength to strength, finishing in 2.10.38 and the first Brit to cross the Finish line.
Bears are always curious and we wanted to know all about Jonny’s background and build up to the big event. So let’s start at the beginning and share it with you all.
Jonny was born on the Wirral in 1986 and from being a youngster was always mad about sport. Growing up, footie was his number one love. He played up to Under 16’s and has always supported Liverpool FC. He was also a strong swimmer, training three times a week, and played every sport at school, including hockey and cricket.
When he went to John Moore’s university to study Building Surveying, he was training with Liverpool Harriers. Supportive coaching at the Club and hard work from Jonny resulted in him winning the British Universities 5000m title. This gave him the confidence and motivation to really focus on his running and he began to believe in his potential to be an elite athlete.
His first job after finishing university wasn’t a great match for the demands of serious running. He was working long hours on a building site and struggled with the time and energy demands of his training, so when his contract ended, he opted for a part-time job to focus solely on running.
Through his early 20’s he was competing in the Diamond Leagues on the track and training for distances between 5k and Half Marathon, with some Cross Country during the winter months. He won a number of northern titles, including the British Under 23’s 5000m. He also bagged a Half Marathon time of 62.59!
In 2014, he was selected to run in the World Championships in Sopot, Poland and to represent England at the Commonwealth games in Glasgow. This was a period when his physical performance was becoming world-class but he was suffering mentally from anxiety and found it hard to deliver his best performances under the pressure of competition. In his own words “I felt that I always let myself down under pressure and knew I needed to conquer my nerves if I was to reach my potential. There was no point in putting so many hours of hard physical training in, when I wasn’t dealing with the mental side. So I began to read sports self-help books and educate myself on how to focus on the process and not the outcome. It’s helped me ever since, even in the London Marathon, when I felt calm throughout the race.”
In 2014, now part of Steve Vernon’s team of elite athletes, Jonny attended a training camp in Kenya. Whilst there he became ill with a mystery illness, that worried doctors so much that he was sent back to the UK to undergo urgent medical tests. He was diagnosed with ITP, which results in a very low level of platelets. A very worrying period followed, when he didn’t know if he’s be able to run and compete again. He was put on a 10 week course of steroids, which enabled him to resume training with Steve, who supported him as he embarked on a rocky road through his illness and the side-effects of the steroids: weight loss, a reduction in bone density and muscle loss. The ensuing 18 months brought highs and lows, from winning the British 10k Championships in 2015 to enduring three consecutive stress fractures. Jonny’s is a story of winning against adversity.
By the end of 2015, he’d got the right medication for his condition and had a clear path ahead. Steve was now employed full time by New Balance and Jonny was invited to join his newly formed team of international athletes, living and training in the north west. Around this time, whilst he had the pace of a sub 4 minute mile on the track, he wanted to transition to marathon competition. This was partly inspired by two of his running heroes: Eliud Kipchoge and Paula Radcliffe. “Following their careers, dedication and success, I fell in love with the marathon.”
His first marathon was in Frankfurt in 2015, when he followed his plan exactly and ran it in 2.16. In 2017, he ran London in 2.18, ending up in hospital the following day due to dehydration (a common lesson for elite athletes learning how to fuel adequately for competition). In September of the same year, he ran Berlin in 2.12. In 2018, he ran London again in 2.17, first Brit to finish after Mo Farah. (Any marathon fans reading this will remember that 2018 was an incredibly hot day for the marathon that year).
By 2019 and into 2020, Jonny’s target was the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. The first objective was to achieve the Olympic qualifying time of 2.11.30. The race chosen by Jonny, Steve and his race manager, Jurrie van der Weldon, was Seville on 26th February 2020. “It was a flat and fast course and as a team, we could compete without any of the distractions that London brings”. It was a good choice, as Jonny smashed the target, crossing the line in 2.10.03.
After Seville, the world changed with the impact of the Covid pandemic. Races were cancelled or postponed, group training was suspended and even physio appointments were no longer possible.
The London Marathon was postponed to October and the Tokyo Olympics until August 2021. “It was a challenging period with no certain target, a calf injury that I couldn’t get treated and no team to train with. My ideal training period for a marathon is 16 weeks and I had 13 weeks to prepare for the new London date, with some doubt as to whether it would actually take place.”
Normally there would be 4 weeks “loading”, which is the phase that was reduced for the London timeline. For Jonny, loading comprises 100 to 110 miles of running per week, including progressive hill runs, where he picks up the pace as the run goes on, a long run of 16 to 20 miles, gym twice a week and core strength training once a week. (Jonny will run most days, have a sports massage once a week and physio every six weeks). As a neutral runner, Jonny runs his day to day mileage in the New Balance 880v10.
After loading, there’s 6 weeks of “transition” to build pace. This will include track sessions, 10k races and Half Marathons at marathon race pace. Long runs continue, increasing in distance up to 22 miles and at a harder pace.
With this volume of training, 110 to 120 miles per week, Jonny is increasing his calorie intake to fuel sufficiently. He’s supplementing porridge for breakfast and healthy cooked meals with protein shakes and bars and cake and biscuits when he needs immediate energy.
Ideally, marathon preparation will also include 4 weeks of altitude training at a training camp with the New Balance team in St Moritz or Albuquerque. “It’s time to focus completely on running with two sessions most days and a recovery nap in between: eat, sleep, run, repeat! Long runs will be 24 miles, which will either be progressive (increasing in pace) or include periods of faster effort. There will be a Half Marathon time trial each week and gym sessions. Miles will be approximately 115 each week.”
Finally 2 weeks countdown or “taper”. A word of caution from Jonny “You can’t make up for lost training in these two weeks. You won’t improve but you could blow it, so remember that less is more.” The training programme will amount to 80 miles in the first week and 50 miles plus the marathon in the second week. It will include short and intense efforts such as 4x400m and 3x1mile. It’ll also include races, if possible. Before Seville, Jonny ran a tempo 10 mile training run, immediately before competing hard in the Alsager 5 mile race, coming in 3rd in 23.55. He also ran the Cheshire Half Marathon at marathon pace, holding back against the temptation to compete!
Finally race day is in sight and as you’d expect London was a bit different this year. “I had the first Covid 19 test on the Monday before the race and with a negative result, I could travel to London on the Thursday. Friday was press day for New Balance, which was all done via Zoom. I think I was more nervous about that than the race itself! It was difficult to forecast my performance with an unusual build up and dodgy weather forecast. With a qualifying time for the Olympics already under my belt, I was looking forward to the competition for the British Championships.” The battle was on with the leading British contenders Jonny, Ben Connor, Ross Millington, Josh Griffiths and Chris Thompson.
All of the athletes competing were staying at the same hotel in what was at the time a secret location, near Eton. There was high security and they weren’t allowed to leave or to have visitors. They had to wear a bleeper around their neck that went off if they go too close to anyone. When they wanted to train, they could use a 1 mile lap in the hotel grounds. Not so good for the African contingent who’d arrived on the Monday. Dinner was on their own and they spent much of the time pre-race in their rooms watching TV. They were tested on the Thursday and again on the Friday. As per protocol, they were also blood-tested for performance drugs just prior to the race.
On the Saturday, they provided the race organisers with their “fuel bottles” . They can have up to 16 bottles on their allotted tables (and Kipchoge has all 16). Jonny has 8 bottles, filled with OTE super carbs. (As it happened, he dropped a bottle during the race and took a contingency gel instead.)
On race day, his chosen breakfast was porridge and half an OTE duo bar before a coach took them to the start of the race, where they were allocated their own portaloo. A treat for any competitor! Jonny said he was feeling “calm and clinical” as the start time approached.
“It took a little time to get used to the idea of 19 laps and to let any stress disappear and get into the rhythm of the laps. The groups of runners naturally shape themselves and we had Mo as our pace maker, so I was able to let him do the work, relax and run as efficiently as possible within the pack. The weather was drizzly, which isn’t great for a fast time but I put that out of my mind.
The good thing about the laps is that you can see your competitors on the screen and hear the commentators each time you run down the “home straight”. I could also hear Steve, which was a real boost. At half-way I felt good and knew I could do the same again. At 30k, I hit a bad patch and was labouring to maintain the pace. My whole body was sore, especially my hamstring, but I had the confidence from my last two races to know that I’d come out of it, so not to weaken and lose my position. At that stage I was in a small group with 2 other guys and Ben Connor. The two other guys put a burst in and moved on but Ben and myself hung back to race for the British title. The battle between us continued until 5k to go when Ben dropped off the pace. I didn’t really know that until the home straight when I could see the screen, so continued to push my hardest all the way through the line. The race starts with attention to splits and pace but ends in a battle for survival. I crossed the line with a sense of relief and triumph, I’d achieved another 2.10 marathon time and won the British title. On a dry day it could have been 2.09. I was really happy with my performance and looking forward to getting back to celebrate with Sophie.”
After the race it was straight back to the hotel to pack up and then home, with a stop at Burger King at the motorway services to refuel. A night in his own bed was appreciated before heading up to Scotland for a few days holiday with Sophie. “Recovery is important, so we ate well, slept well and ran together each day, at a nice steady pace to keep the legs turning.”
So what’s next for Jonny? The crazy thing is that running 2.10 twice this year doesn’t guarantee a place in the squad for the Olympics next year. He needs to be deemed a contender to win a medal and may have to prove his potential one more time at a trial in March 2021. Not great timing for ideal preparation for Tokyo in August 2021!
In the meantime, he has a Liverpool Harriers Club record in his sights for the Half Marathon. It currently stands at 61.39 and it would be a triumph to better it next spring. Good luck Jonny and a huge well done for London. We’ll be cheering your progress all the way!
The Bear Team