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STAND BY ME

by Michelle Carnegie
24 June 2018


It’s a fact: behind every good athlete stands a good coach. And this is no exception when it comes to 2018 Comrades Winner Ann Ashworth, and the pro men from Team Entsika, who not only won three gold medals at this year’s Comrades Marathon, but also won the overall men’s team prize.
 
In fact, it’s not just a good coach behind these athletes, but rather an exceptional one. John Hamlett, described by many as the most successful Comrades coach ever, could not be any prouder of his athletes. But he is quick to add, their work continues and even bigger things are ahead. “I am proud of Ann, proud of my boys and how we got through things on the day. But we must not become pride filled. That’s when you fall on your face. We are going to keep our feet firmly on the ground. If we do, then we will succeed.”
 
Run24 caught up with Hamlett on his experience at the 2018 Comrades Marathon, and what lies ahead.
 
Did you expect Ann to win?
Ann approached me two years ago. I didn’t really want to coach women, as there are different equations that come into play with women. But Ann was persistent and I said let’s give it a go. I quickly realised Ann was hard-core. She was even nicknamed Iron Lady in our training camp. She was committed, despite a full time job and she would put everything on hold to do what she had to. If I told her to run four hours on a Wednesday, she did. When she had to go to training camp for six weeks, she did. At camp she was the only girl amongst the pro men but still managed to match them every single day.
 
Last year’s Comrades was disappointing for her, with having to pull out in the early stages due to injury. This year no one thought she would win. The day before she was critical of the running splits I gave her, but I believed she could actually do better than those splits, especially after seeing her in training. Of course God willing and all things matching and fitting up. Come race day, she handled those splits quite easily. There was a shuffle of positions in the women’s race, but Ann was prepared for it, as we knew it would happen.
 
With 8km to go I told her to pick up – she assumed someone was catching her, but I just wanted her to run under 6:10, that was in my mind. When she crossed the finish line I think she was very surprised!
 
When were you certain that Ann was going to win?
When I saw she caught the Russian girl (Alexandra Morozova), I knew the competition is comfortably matched. I also knew if it came down to a fight Ann was up for it. The way she had trained and matched the men, everything worked like a charm. She earned this win every step. And that after lots of people wrote her off.
 
As a coach, what makes Ann an exceptional athlete / in essence a Comrades winner?
Her determination to do what needs to be done. It was often hard to get her to back off. She is a soft person inside but very hard on herself. She is the opposite of any female I have ever coached.
 
What do you as a coach go through on Comrades day?
I had loads of information as to what was happening on the course - people sat at home on the Internet hammering info through to me, some sent WhatsApp messages, and I had a bunch of seconds on the route. Of course thanks to Comrades we had full route access. On any race day I need to force myself to stay away from emotion. I have to keep cool, be calculated and focus on what needs to be done. Of course you have emotions and concerns like when Gift (Kelehe) and Gordon (Lesetedi) were pushed out of the pack. I was really concerned. They trained so hard, and when they backed off it was almost as if I was backing off. I need to keep my emotions in check on race day and never lie to my athletes. They need to know what comes from my mouth is real. Even when you see someone is going to win you need to be even more cool and calculated. You never win until you win. I told Ann the only time you stop fighting is when you cross the finish line.
 
How do you feel about your team’s performances?
My guys are very grateful for having won 3 golds and the men’s team prize, especially keeping in mind we only have 8 pro athletes. Of course we would have liked a win. But it was nice to see Bongmusa Mthembu win. We have a vested interest in him, as he was part of us at the 100km Champs. He earned it and worked hard for it. My boys still got gold and got through a tough day. I’m proud of them; on a day that everything did not work, they still got gold. We don’t want to make excuses, I just know when it all comes together these guys will rock the socks off everyone. Next year is around the bend; Gordon and Gift are still hungry for a win.
 
You’ve been described as the most successful Comrades coach of all times. How does that feel?
It’s nice to be proud, but I don’t like pride. We have bigger things ahead and another 5 years to go. I’m proud of Ann and of my boys, and how we got through things. But we must not become pride filled; that’s when you fall on your face. We need to keep our feet (and sometimes knees) firmly on the ground. If we do, then we will succeed.

What’s next for Ann and the men’s team?
Well, we did a fartlek session the day after Comrades! That was the team’s breakfast present from me. We did 20 minutes of fartlek just to get things going. They disliked me immensely when they started, but 10 minutes into the session they were back sprinting like they were in training. That session sorted out the muscle breakdown. They’ve had a week or so off, now each one is deciding what they want to focus on next. We will soon decide on the way forward. Ann has big things ahead in the next three years, it will be a challenge for her as she has a high profile job, and there will be pressure. But she has another 2-3 years of serious racing before we re evaluate.
 
Any advice on post Comrades recovery for recreational runners?
Stay active. Don’t do nothing. Remember, it takes only 3 weeks for you to lose 50% of your fitness and for your VO2 Max to start dropping. It’s fine to come off Comrades and chill. But we were engineered to move and to do something, so focus on active recovery, play soccer, play with your kids but just move. Start planning for next year, but also remember, when you start running don’t overdo things that by December you are already worn out.
 
Any wise words for those who did not achieve their goals or in some cases did not finish?
For those who did not finish - if it wasn’t because of injury or because you got sick on the course - then I reckon you probably know that you didn’t do the homework. When you start again, build up properly, don’t listen to weird advice. No one should not finish Comrades. I believe everyone can finish this race. Plan to succeed and not to fail.
 
Tell us about your nutrition / sports performance range?
I’ve been coaching for 37 years and got a reality check when it comes to nutrition while visiting Russia. It has taken a good 20 years for me to engineer the right supplements and quantities for each athlete and their body composition. Performance nutrition is optimum; it is critical feeding these guys right to the finish. They will fail if they are not fed right. I don’t believe in urban legends when it comes to nutrition. I initially developed a range just for pro’s, but soon we are going to release the range to the market. It will be online driven with some well-chosen points of sale. I also have a lifestyle range for those people who are overweight.
 
Your team is sponsored by Entsika. How did this sponsorship play a role in the team’s performance this year?
Entsika is an awesome sponsor! The word Entsika means pillar in Zulu. For years I’ve been concerned about what happens to these pro athletes when their running years are done. Entsika literally came to the table, sat down with each athlete and looked at their present career and studies. They are helping to get each athlete up and going so one day when they stop running they will have a nice job or degree. Take for example Gift, who wanted to be a Personal Trainer. Entsika has helped to move him into Sports Science.
 
Describe a good coach?
A good coach leads with a scientific specific training program, and his results speak for themselves.
 
Describe Comrades in 3 words?
Consuming. Intense. Exhilarating.
 



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