True champions use the race conditions to their advantage, says Steve Trew.

"Smart people use oppressive conditions as a help rather than a hindrance" (Illustration: Peter Greenwood)

General belief has it that when one of the greats in world middle-distance running, Kiwi Peter Snell, was approached to write his autobiography, he asked the question, “What title do I choose?” A dinner companion queried, “Are there any bugles in the book?” “No, of course not,” he said. “Are there any drums?” When he replied that there weren’t, his friend said: “There’s your title then – ‘No bugles, no drums’.”

But it’s not that, is it? For us self-effacing Brits, the “no bugles, no drums” statement means just getting on and getting the job done. Which is what Peter Snell always did in his races: just got them done. Snell was a big man for an 800m/1500m runner, who looked more like a discus thrower, which shows that looks mean absolutely nothing at all. Results are what matter.

What poor conditions?
Nearly 50 years ago, Peter Snell ran a world record 800m in one minute 44 seconds. What made it even more special was that he ran that time not on a lovely fast tartan track, nor on hot ashes. He ran it on grass. That’s like riding a 25-mile time trial into the wind, or swimming a 1500m race against a slow-moving current. For the greats, conditions mean nothing – you go out and you do what you have to do because you can and there’s no alternative.

Take World Champion Helen Jenkins in Vancouver a couple of years ago. The elements were doing their absolute utmost to conspire against her, but the smart people use those oppressive conditions as a help rather than a hindrance.

And then there was Rachel Joyce this year at the World Long Course Championships – conditions meant that there was no swim, which is her strongest discipline. It should have been a disaster, but not for Rachel – she just got out and did the job. Helen and Rachel are two athletes who both decided that mental toughness could and would win the day.

Negatives to positives
Stuart Storey, a top TV track and field commentator and one of the best hurdlers that ever competed for Great Britain, put it like this: “Whatever the conditions were, I would talk myself into using them to my advantage. Wind blowing a gale into my face? Great! I’m a big, strong athlete, I’ll suffer less than the lighter guys. Wet conditions on the track? Great again! My power means that I’ll get a good grip while the others might slip.”

It’s stuff like that – dealing with whatever the gods of fortune and misfortune may throw at you – that’s the mark of the champion athlete, whatever the discipline. Nothing fazes you, nothing detracts or distracts.

Fast and faster
Going back to the great Peter Snell, he arrived at the Rome Olympics as an unknown with a best time that was unlikely to get him through the first round of the 800m. He then proceeded to run faster and faster through the second round, the semis and the final. How?

“I didn’t feel I was running any faster, but I was running in the same race as athletes who were, so I had to!” Utter simplicity. Certainly no bugles and no drums, just absolute self-knowledge and sheer self-confidence.

Stacked against
My good friend Chrissie Wellington went into this year’s big dance in Kona knowing that the odds were overwhelmingly stacked against her. And yet, Chrissie won – again. How on earth did she do that? How do you face a nine-hour jo`urney knowing that the discomfort and pain from previous injuries will be there, trying to slow you down? Well, you deal with it. That’s what Chrissie did. But more than that, not telling anybody, not making excuses, not allowing yourself any get-out at all. And because of that, you do the best you can and you win. For Peter Snell, for Helen and Rachel, for Stuart, for Chrissie, for all of us – no bugles, no drums.

This article was originally published in Triathlon Plus magazine. Save time and money by having every issue delivered to your door or digital device by subscribing to the print edition or buying digitally through Zinio or Apple Newsstand.

You’ll find loads more blogs from the likes of Steve, Phil Graves and the Triathlon Plus team in’s blogs section