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Saturday, October 24, 2009

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Book Review: Born to Run

Friday, October 23, 2009

Let me start with a confession: even though I've been writing about the sport for a number of years, I'd never read a book about athletics. Most of those that I'd come across were either biographies - which I don't really like - or statistical compendiums which I like even less.
'Born To Run', however, promised to be different which is why it was so intriguing. For one thing it dealt with ultra running which is a very particular niche within the sport and therefore hardly likely to follow the same styfied approach of other books.

And so it turned out to be. Indeed it was much more then I ever expected. 'Born To Run' starts from a simple premise: plagued by a number of running injuries and repeatedly told to choose another hobby, author Chris McDougall asked himself why his ankle hurt when running, particulalrly given the research that goes into the technology of modern running shoes.

Accidentally coming across a native American tribe called the Tarahumara who live in the Mexican desert and who can run for long distances over prohibitive terrain in sandals proved to be the tipping point as he set out to discover their secret.

That he manages to do, ultimately curing himself and taking part in a race involving the both Tarahumara and a number of leading ultra runners.

It is this journey - which ultimately is one of self discovery - that he talks about in this book.

The beauty of 'Born To Run' is that McDougall manages to balance the personal side of the story with the wider picture of running as an act. Throughout his talk diverts into an attack on the shoe industry, confirmation of the theory that man was indeed built to run and into talks about nutrition.

In doing so, his risk was that of adopting a preacher's tone with the result of boring the reader. McDougall, however avoids this purely because he has no intention of trying to convert people to his way of thinking but rather is relaying his excitement and fascination at learning about each one.

And this, his ability to relay his emotion, is what makes this book work so well. 'Born to Run' is a truly wonderful book, among the best that I've read this year. Irrespective of whether you have an interest in athletics or whether you are a runner yourself, this is a book that must be read.

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Problems and the Road Running League

Monday, October 19, 2009

It would seem that I have caused a problem for the MAAA with my article last week on the Times of Malta because of the failure to mention a sponsor. It doesn't matter that the MAAA did not issue a Press Release on this new sponsor, nor that no one apart from the runners would know of the Road Running League if it weren't for that article.


Nor does it matter that there will probably be no race report from yesterday's race. No, it is I who have created the problem for them because I take the trouble to write about athletics.

In that case, I think that I've got better ways to spend my time. This will be my last posting for the foreseeable future.

Best of luck to everyone and sincerely hope that Maltese athletics doesn't keep spiralling downwards.

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Road Running League: Initial Reactions

Saturday, October 17, 2009

There has been plenty of talk since the new format of the Road Running League was announced. MaltaAthletics.com spoke to a number of athletes to gauge their views about these changes and what they thought could be done to improve matters

Anthony Chircop
MAAA President
We had held a meeting with the representatives of the Clubs and heard their suggestions. They agreed that we have different distances and that although we would keep times of the athletes as usual the positions and awards will be decided on the system of points and not on the times registered. Again this was requested by the Clubs themselves.

As you are aware the Road Running League previously consisted in 5 Road Races all of 10K each. We wanted to make it more attractive with the scope of (a ) making it more interesting and (b) to see if we could improve the standard of Road Running so that we would be able to find athletes good enough to represent Malta in International events.

The Road running league will now consist of a 5K, two cross countries and 2 Raod Runs of 10K each. I personally would have prefered to have one Cross country but to include a Half Marathon however this idea was not accepted.

I now heard that there are some runners who are complaining that we have included the cross-country runs. These were included as we had been receiving requests from Long Distance runners that we send a team to participate in the World Cross Country Championships. Yes, we agree but we need to know who the the best local Cross country runners and that they obtain reasonable times over the distances - we have to set a standard. Now how can we send athletes to particiapte in an international cross country if they first do not particpate in local events?

Another innovation in the Road Running League will be the money prizes- that is our grateful thanks to the local agents of Power Bar.

Also of great interest, I must say is the "endurance program " for the young athletes. We are giving due importance to the strenghening of middle and long distance starting at grass roots level. Again I am sure that we would find people who would complain. But then is there something that we can do for which people would not complain. It is the accepted norm that people would complain if one does not change things - but they would complain more when you do change things.


Jonathan Balzan
Current male holder of the Road Running League title
I disagree with the new format. No consultation was done with the athletes or at least i was not approached.

It should have remained same distance as it was before, which made it fair with everybody. Why change something which was going on well? The change which should have been ideal was to use the same route for all league the fairest way to go about it.

I disagree with cross country events: so even name should change now, no longer a road running league. Chance of getting more injuries, besides our athletes are not trained for cross country events, it has been made up in a way to force athletes to do one cross country race. Given also that in our country there is not much the possibility of doing cross country races like abroad, this was unnecessary and it killed off the traditional Road Running League.

The points system has killed the incentive of getting better times. Athlete x who knows that he will beat athlete y will be tempted to just overcome him in a race without bothering of getting a better time!

Prize money is a good incentive, but there is a negative element: it will force athletes to do all races rather than skip one, in times when there are already too many races on the calendar year. More demanding.


Giselle Camilleri
Current female holder of the Road Running League title

My initial impressions are that finally there are some financial rewards. This should have been done a long time ago and I think that there should be rewards for teams as well. I think that having mixed distances is a good idea and the same applies to the cross country as this will allow us to get a good experience.

The fact that races will be decided on points means that it will become more tactical rather than going for time. I don't think that this will raise the overall level since it is points that count and not time.

As for doing things differently, I would introduce some form of prize, even a token one, for individual race winners. Why shouldn't their effort on the day be rewarded?

Joelle Cortis
Promising long distance runner
Initial impressions - in the case of the young athletes I think they’re going to feel a big jump when next year they have to start running 10km and I guess that might put off some athletes who this year are going to be running 1 mile and maximum of 4km and then next year have to run 10km. Regarding the format of the open RRL I personally liked it as there is a mix of distances and not just 10km for every race. I think in that way it will be more competitive as some people would do better in 5km/8km and others better in 10km. I think we might see some surprises this year re the first top 5 places

In this structure there is a hint of middle distance running. There has been a very big change and yes I do think that this will improve middle distance running in Malta. In this way the RRL is more open for options in the sense that its not just 10km and those that are brilliant in it have more of a chance to win. There are other distances such as 5km and 8km which will make the competition even more interesting as it will be hard to pin point the winners in some races as some athletes are good in 10km whilst others in 5km.. I’m really curious to see who will be the winners this year: we might be really surprised!

With respect to the mixed distances issue - personally I like the fact that there are shorter distances than 10km as I still feel the 10km to be a long race (for me).

I think that its about time that the MAAA included the cross country. I have been to UK and its just awesome the way their cross country races are - in about half a metre of mud!

With respect to the league depending on points - well in this case it all depends about your position in the race and timings are not really taken into consideration. I don’t think this will effect me much as I always run to get a personal best or a good timing. Position always comes as a side effect of a good run.

What I still don’t understand if the points will be separate for the women or if they will be counted altogether with the men. If the latter is the case it might not make too much sense as if in the first race 50 people turn up and lets say one places 3rd women and 30th over all and in the second race she places 2nd women but 60 people take part so she places 35th over all that might not make too much sense. So I hope the MAAA considered this and will consider the women as separate from the men

Since athletes here are not paid and there are always running costs such as coaching, massage, new shoes etc I think its a very good initiative to have prize money as at least athletes will get something financial out of it. I’m sure most athletes run because they love running, however it is always a help. In my case I am still a student (i.e. income of 85euros a month) and I really hate asking my parents for money. In fact I forgot the last time I asked them for money because every year half of my stipend & smart card money goes to buy my running shoes etc. So yes, personally I think this incentive will help runners from all walks of life

As in anything else there will be people in favour and against and its difficult to reach a point were everyone agrees. For example some might enjoy cross country whilst others may dislike it because there is more of a chance to twist your ankle. I think it was a good idea in the first place and I guess the MAAA will just have to see the response of the athletes after this RRL season and see what they can arrange, change etc.

What would I do differently? Well in my opinion, leaving the RRL in its new format, I would have put a little bit more incentives when it came to the teams and also incentives regarding veterans. For example, do prizes for lets say veterans teams too! In that way it won’t always put the 'fun' and 'excitement' on the top athletes but also those veterans who don’t come in the top places would have a reason to run the RRL. There are quite a few vets who don’t run the RRL because there is no reason for them to run! This could be a great incentive for them.

Regarding open team events the MAAA came up with the idea of a challenge cup which I think is really cool. However I already started hearing opinions from other lady runners where they were asking how come there wasn’t any prize money for the teams. Since there is money for the top 6 places, they should have put at least 100 Euros or something to encourage athletes and put them in a TEAM SPIRIT which is hard in such an individual sport. Incentives means that they will go to race not only for themselves but also for the team - all pulling the same rope.

Finally, what if the MAAA come up with a scheme where the top 4 or 5 runners men and women have their surname as their race number? I can assure u that this will trigger the 6th, 7th, 8th place to try harder next year to get that special number plus it looks super cool and even during races, people passing by their cars will see the surname of the athlete and therefore at the same time having the athletes 'advertised' in their sport whilst racing!

Gerald Grech
Top long distance runner
Well, finally it seems there is some interest from the association in long-distance running which is positive!

Mixed distances is good, perhaps 2 x 5km would have been more appropriate than just 1. Cross is good idea as long as the association intends sending a team to represent Malta in cross-country championships.

The points system I didn't really like, time performances should be rewarded rather than just position as it will slow down athletes who might choose to play it tactical just to win.

Yes prize money is definitely a big boost and incentive and huge motivator, in fact I'm sure the level of competition will be very strong this year!

I feel there was little consultation with athletes as regards format but some ideas like prize money was taken up.

One thing that has to be done for sure is accurate measurement of courses, otherwise any road race will remain a farce like what has happened in the past/ Time performances should be rewarded rather than position and athletes need to be motivated to be part of the national long distance team who will then be sent to represent Malta overseas.

Races should not stretch all the way till April when track season is in full swing and dates should not coincide or be too close to important events like half-marathon etc.

All in all I feel there is some movement which is very positive, one hopes that this will be a continuous process in the years to come to keep improving standards and athletes' well being.

Caroline Ciappara
Allcomers Athletics Club
Well to be honest I prefer what we had before especially with regards to the distances we have now. We have less opportunity to run 10k.

Would you like to share your views on the revamped Road Running League? If so, why not leave a comment here or else submit your views on our facebook page.

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Road Running League Changes Direction

If ever confirmation was required that the Road Running League was in severe need of a major overhaul, that came this year when a measurement error at one of the races and the subsequent internal wrangling over the outcome of this race meant that the results over who had won the league were delayed by a number of months.

What was supposed to be the major road running event in Malta had descended to a farce. With leading athletes complaining that there was no real motivation for them to take part and the level of local distance running in apparent decline, the need for a drastic change was evident to all.

And change has indeed been served out. This season’s Road Running League which kicks-off next Sunday will be radically different from the one that came to a close last April. Indeed, rather than being focused exclusively on the 10k distance, this year’s league will feature a five kilometre race as well as two over cross country terrain. Just as significant is the decision to move away from a system where the runner with the fastest combined times wins to one where the top finishers in each race are assigned points and the one with the highest overall total is the winner.

Inevitably, these changes have caused quite a stir. “For every decision you take you will find people complaining. It is accepted that there will be complaints if you don’t change anything but there will be even more if you do change,” is the somewhat philosophical view of MAAA president Tony Chircop.

“I’m hearing that some athletes are complaining because we’ve included cross country races,” he went on. “We did this because we’ve heard from athletes who would like to take part in the World Cross Country Championships. We’re all in favour of that but to do so we need to know who the best cross country runners are and for them to get decent times.”

In truth, the inclusion of cross county is just one of the reasons that has raised the hackles of those opposed to the changes that have been put forward.

“I don’t agree with the changes that have been made,” says Jonathan Balzan, winner of the last Road Running League and perhaps Malta’s best long distance runner at the moment. “I think that the same distances should have been kept as this was fairer on the athletes. Similarly I don’t agree with the cross country race because apart from the heightened risk of injury athletes don’t train for such races.”

“The points system has killed off any incentive to achieve better times. An athlete who knows that he has the beating of those chasing him will run purely to win and not to improve the time.”

“That there will be monetary incentives is a good idea but this system forces athletes to take part in all the races which is quite demanding especially considering the overcrowded running calendar.”

On the other side of the fence there’s Giselle Camilleri. The top woman in the last edition of the Road Running League, as well as winning bronze in the Games from the Small States of Europe, Camilleri insists that “the fact that there are races over varying distances is a good idea,”

“The fact that points will decide the winners will make races much more exciting although I have my doubts as to whether these will raise the overall level. I also liked the introduction of the cross country as it will allow us to gain experience on this terrain as well”

Joelle Cortis is another who agrees with the changes made. “Personally I liked the varying distances. I think that this will make the championship more competitive because some athletes excel in the shorter distances whilst others in longer ones. I think that this will lead to some surprises.”

That said, Cortis has a word of warning. “My initial impression was that young athletes will have a difficult time next year when they have to race over 10km whereas the maximum that they will do now is 4km. I think that the gap will be too much for them and this will discourage them from staying in the sport.” As one of the most promising long distance runners on the island she is better placed than most to comment on this issue.

Even so, her impression remains positive. “As with anything else you will find those who are in favour and others who are opposed. Personally I think that this is a good idea but believe that the MAAA have to be ready to listen to what the athletes have to say at the end of the season.”

And this is the crucial point. Although it remains to be seen whether the changes made were the right ones, there’s no discussing that something had to be done to stop road running’s decline. These changes are, in other words, a step in the right direction but definitely not the end of the road.

The only certainty, at this stage, it that it will be interesting to see how matters unfold over the coming weeks in the hope that eventually this leads to a mature discussion over what further steps forward are to be.

Would you like to share your views on the revamped Road Running League? If so, why not leave a comment here or else submit your views on our facebook page.

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Balzan Troubles the Record Keepers Once More

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

You know that you've had a fast race when you're met with the congratulations of a traffic policeman at the finish line.

That was Jonathan Balzan's experience at yesterday's Hilly Clothing Gudja 8K as the policeman who had spent the previous hour on his motorbike ensuring that runners and cars are kept at a safe distance from each other approached him to express his amazement.

"You were like a motorbike!" he said, shaking his head in evident awe before admitting that he had measured the pace with which he was running on his speedometre. "At one point you hit 20 kilometres per hour and kept going at that pace for quite a stretch."

It is testament to Balzan's status as the best that local long distance running has to offer that his only rival at the moment is time. And even that is getting a beating.

In three of the last four races he's competed in he has managed to set a course record so there was little surprise that he did so again in Gudja.

26.04 is the official timing of his finishing time yesterday, the third time in three years that he has redefined the boundaries of this race.

"At the fifth kilometre I was struggling a bit," he said blaming this on the after effects of the cold he had been nursing during the week. "But then I started to recover and my coach told me that I had to push for it so I did."

That final push paid off. "I'm extremely happy with this result. Beating the clock is always my target anf thankfully I'm doing that on a regular basis."

To further outline Balzan's dominance was the finishing time of Rodney Cassar who, at 29.25 was over three minutes behind the winner. Third place went to Patrick Saliba who covered the 8 kilomeres in 29.37.

There were no new records among the women but Giselle Camilleri (pictured) was just as dominant, eventually winning in 30.57.

Fresh from a summer spent training in France, she seems eager to build on last season when she won bronze at the Games from the Small States of Europe.

"For me this race was preparation for the Road Running League that starts next week,"she admitted.

"That is not to say that I didn't push myself. It was still a difficult race and this isn't an easy route. Still I think that I had something in reserve at the end."

Last year's winner, Joelle Cortis, finished second with a time of 32.29 whilst Rita Galea came third in 35.55.

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No Changes to Gudja Races Planned

Saturday, October 10, 2009

One of the most atypical races in Malta, the Gudja 8km that is organised by St. Patrick's AC, takes place next Sunday and the usual high turnout is expected. "Last year we had a good turnout about 120 people. Hopefully this year we might reach this number again," confirmed Joe Zerafa, the event's race director

"I think the Gudia 8kms has now been established and athletes look forward to this race," he continued. "A lot of athletes like this distance, as it is not a 10kms but not a fast race like a 5kms. I think we should keep this distance as it is quite unique and as I said it is now established."

Jonathan Balzan, who set a new course record at last weekend's St Vincent de Paul 5k, will set off as favourite to win. So too Joelle Cortis, winner of this event last year and now running for organising club St. Patrick's AC, who will also be looking to confirm her status as the most promising female long distance runners on the island.

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My Favourite Run: Ruben Debono and the Malta Half Marathon

Friday, October 09, 2009

I've just done the Berlin marathon and have to admit that it was a marvellous exeperience, one that I will cherish this race for all my life. Being my first full marathon, I will never forget the experience. My trip to berlin for the full marathon is actually the crowning of this feat, if i may humbly call it that!

Locally, my favourite race is without any doubt the half marathon which is organised at the end of february each year. My best result, achieved in 1995, was that on 1:47.10. I think that a lot of runners know the route, the traditional one from Mdina to Sliema, whihch is mostly a downhill route of 21km.

The reason that I enjoy it so much as it comes at a period of the year when you can achieve the best results as you would have been training for it during the fresh autumn and winter seasons. The build up for the race is also accompanied by other races which also help you up to maintain a good physical shape not only for this race but also for other long distance races. I like this race so much that I have been doing this race, (i.e the half marathon race of february) for these last 20 years!
The predominantly downhill gradient is that special something that other races don't have especially considering the considerable length of the race. Most probably the only exception is the Mdina - Spinola race held two months before. Obviously this factor helps us runners to achieve a good finishing time.

Another factor which makes this race so good is the fact that so many maltese runners do their utmost to compete in it, irrespective of their abilities and targets.

My Favourite Run is a regular feature on MaltaAthletics.com where athletes have the opportunity to talk about those races which they love competing in. If you would like to be featured, simply drop us a line at malta.athletics[at]gmail.com.

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