Wednesday 11 March 2020

Calum Johnson Interview

AFTER his National Cross-Country success I eventually found time to ask Calum Johnson a number of questions and, under the microscope, he confidently come up with some interesting, honest and sometimes controversial replies. So here goes and I hope you appreciate his answers as much as I did - BillMcG

Q. Alan, your dad, was no slouch in his younger days so was it inevitable that you would follow in his footsteps or, like many youngsters, did you have a calling to play football.

A.   Unfortunately, I don’t think I inherited the football genes. I know my Dad used to play in his school days and I think my other two brothers got the football bug as they both played for the school and one of them still plays football now. I grew up knowing Dad was a really good runner and I always thought one day he would try and get me into running despite me having other interests like Judo and Swimming (quite a bizarre combination I know!). He never ever pushed me into running competitively though of which I’ve respected a lot and he would always let me do what interested me. Eventually, after being involved in school cross-country races as a teenager, I finally found that I was a decent runner as a 15/16-year-old and I am sure that this would have been music to my Dad’s ears!

Q. Can you remember your first race and if so where and what was it and how did you get on and if you didn’t win can you remember who did?

A.   Although I never ran for a club as a youngster (well until I was about 15/16 when I joined Gateshead Harriers), Dad used to always take me down to run in the Good Friday Road Races (organised by Elswick Harriers which was his club in his running days). I recall racing in the under-13 race and wore one of my Dad’s Elswick vests which was huge on me! I finished third that day but can’t remember who was in front of me though. My first race as a Gateshead Harrier was at the Northumberland County Schools’ Cross-Country Championships (Inter Boys race) and I think I finished fourth or fifth that day. It was won by former runner and fellow Gateshead Harrier and good friend Lewis Hogg who won it by miles. Lewis had so much talent but sadly injury problems stopped him from a running career as a senior athlete. I went on to finish 74th at the English Schools’ that season.

Q. Your dad still has the bragging rights as far as track times go. Do you feel that is a side of the sport you would like to put right?

A.   He certainly does and I will put my hands up and say he was definitely a quicker athlete than I am now! His track times from 800m up to 5000m are way better than mine. I think I have bragging rights when it comes to cross-country though! I am very much a strength/endurance-based athlete due to the nature of my training and the volumes of training I do for Triathlon. I would love to try and lower my track PB’s one day. I don’t know how that would fit into my Triathlon commitments but I haven’t ruled out solely focusing on running at some point in the future, and if that is the case then I certainly will try to focus on improving my track running capabilities and times.

Q. About six years ago athletics looked as though it was being pushed to one side even though you were awarded your first GB vest. Was it around that time you were attracted to the triathlon scene?

A.   I gained my first GB vest as a junior in January, 2013 at the Great Edinburgh Cross-Country and I remember it very well. I was still based in Newcastle at home around that time and was training with the group at Gateshead. Although Triathlon was now my main interest, I tended to use cross-country as part of my winter training and preparations for the Triathlon season. I then moved to Leeds for University in September, 2013. It was around that point I started to focus more on Triathlon so I had to compromise on cross-country races in the winter. Being down in Leeds I was part of the Triathlon programme and sort of had to abide by the coaches down there!

Q. Since starting your triathlon journey you have had some notable successes. What has been the highlight of that journey so far?

A.   Despite Triathlon being my main focus, winning the National Cross-Country title has certainly been the highlight of my sporting career so far! However, there are some stand out moments in Triathlon for me which include finishing 12th at my first World Under-23 Triathlon Championships and winning silver in the Mixed Triathlon Relay. Also, I won my first international title at a European Cup event in The Netherlands in 2017 which was special, especially as both my parents were there watching and were able to share that special moment with me.

Q. While cross-country isn’t on the Olympic programme is it triathlon you feel you have the best chance of becoming an Olympian?

A.   I would love to see cross-country eventually on the Winter Olympics programme. I can’t see it happening in my time as an athlete which is unfortunate as I do feel it would be my best chance of competing at an Olympic Games. However, saying that, I haven’t ruled out trying to qualify for the Triathlon in a future Games. As much as racing at the Olympics is a dream and goal of mine, I think you have to be realistic and as it’s only once every four years, plus a maximum of three athletes who will go, the chances are slim. Especially when you take into account the bias and politics involved when picking athletes. As someone who knows the sport well, I am confident in saying that at the last two Olympic Games, it wasn’t necessarily the best three triathletes that were on the team and unfortunately that’s how it seems to work. I do believe I have a chance, just like any of the other top level triathletes in Great Britain and I will do my very best to put myself in a position to qualify in Paris 2024 (2020 team already picked, albeit prematurely). If it doesn’t work out then you may see me try to qualify in a different sport (I’ll keep quiet on that one for now). I think qualifying for the 2022 Commonwealth Games is a very realistic goal for me and that is something that is very much on my radar right now.

Q. Winning the ‘National’ came out of the blue to many observers but after your Northern victory many of your followers felt you had a great chance and so it proved.

A. Yes, to be honest, I surprised myself by winning the National and the way I performed on the day. I think as far as execution goes, it was one of my best ever performances. Races like that don’t come along very often as an athlete, there aren’t many days where everything goes right and you feel absolutely 100% in control. After the Northern, I knew I was in great shape and my fitness was really good and so I knew that I had a good chance of getting a medal, that was my main goal even though it’s not something I think about too much before a race. It may surprise a lot of people that as someone who doesn’t solely focus on running can win such a big race and beat a lot of high class runners. However, what a lot of people don’t know about me is that as a Triathlete, I do large volumes of training across the three disciplines. I tend to rack up on average, about 30 hours per week. Yes, I don’t run the miles that the top runners in the country will run but I do a lot of training that conditions me very well and gives me a good aerobic engine for events like cross-country. When courses are tough and heavy going, as Nottingham was, it suits me well being more of a strength-based athlete.
National Cross Country winner Calum Johnson
Heavy going at Nottingham

Q. The ‘National’ has been won by many great endurance runners in the past including North East Olympians Jack Potts, Alex Burns, Brendan Foster and Mike McLeod. You’ve joined an elite band and after reading the names of previous winners on the trophy how does it feel to join such illustrious company?

A. Winning the National really was a dream come true. I’ve said to a lot people that it’s a race I’ve imagined winning since the day I started running competitively. To actual win it really did mean a lot and I think the photos at the finish line were testament to that! I keep having to look at the trophy to remind myself of what I have achieved and when I read through the names, I am just in awe of what is in front of me. I still wouldn’t put myself in the same league as those names you’ve mentioned like Mike and Brendan as they have achieved so much more than I can really dream of. As a Newcastle/North East lad, I am honoured to have my name next to theirs on the National winning trophy as I really do aspire to be at the same level as they were in their best running days. 

Calum makes the cover of Athletics Weekly

Q. The cross-country season is drawing to a close so what are your immediate plans for the rest of the year?

A. I am actually quite gutted that the cross-country season has more or less ended as it is something I really love doing throughout the winter months. It gives me the motivation and the right training I need to prepare me well for the Triathlon season. My first Triathlon race is just under three weeks’ time and it is part of the European Cup series. I would love to start the triathlon season off on a high. I know my running is definitely in a good place right now so it’s a case of fine tuning my overall fitness and making sure I am ready for the swim and the bike segments too as they will determine whether I am in the race or not. I then plan a Wold Cup race a month later and hopefully qualify for the European Championships in July where I would like to aim for a medal there.

Q. I know your mam and dad, Heather and Alan, have been an inspiration to you over the years supporting you through the highs and lows, but who else over the past decade or so has helped guide you to become the nation’s leading cross-country athlete?

A. Yes for sure, Mam and Dad have been the biggest key players in supporting me and keeping me on track over the years. They have always looked out for me, been at my side every step of the way and given me the best possible chance of reaching the top. They’ve allowed me to take opportunities that would be out of my reach if it wasn’t for their support so I can only thank them for that. 

To be honest there are too many people who know who they are, that have supported me in several ways on this journey. I certainly have to thank John Stephenson, the coach at Gateshead and aside from my Dad, he is the other person to introduce me to running. I joined his group at the very start and have loved every bit of it and so much that I am actually back there now after seven years away at University and other places too. John has always believed in me and has never given up doing so despite all of the setbacks I have had. That means a lot to me, to have someone who fully supports your endeavours and goals no matter where you are or what you are going through just shows how great a person John really is. 

As you’ll know and many top athletes will know, there are people who come and go and are fully behind you when you are performing well but then disappear off radar when things aren’t going so well. As an athlete, those people you don’t need in your team. It is people like my parents and John, who you should respect and engage with because ultimately, those are the ones that will help you reach your goals and achieve your dreams.

Q. You have worked extremely hard over many years and you have finally been rewarded. Where there any times when you felt that it wasn’t going to happen and the enjoyment was no longer there?

A. I always find this one of the most important questions to be asked so I am glad you have asked me! Unfortunately, most people who follow sport and follow you as an athlete and aren’t necessarily close to you, will never know what really goes on behind the scenes. Generally, they will see happy social media posts, good results, see you flying to sunny and beautiful locations around the world and basically assume that you live this dream life with no stresses or worries! In reality, it’s far from that. Don’t get me wrong, I am grateful to not be working a nine-till-five job and that I get the opportunity to visit some brilliant places and see some cool things but that’s just a very small part of the life as an international athlete. 

To be one of the best athletes in the world, you have to be one of the most mentally and physically strong people and that takes a lot of work. Over the years, I have had many setbacks. I’m not going to go into them all as I feel that will just bore people. In Triathlon, there is very little reward for a huge amount of work and so you really do have to enjoy the training. When I go to races, it’s money out of my own pocket (usually I will go to races and whatever money I win will go to paying for the trip), I don’t stay in fancy hotels, I use public transport (which isn’t easy with a bike when travelling abroad) and I have spent many nights in airports to save money. Even to the point of tying my luggage to my feet so I can try to get some sleep without having anything stolen! I’ve been turned away every year for the last five years by the Triathlon governing body, telling me I am not good enough or I am too old to ever become a world class athlete. 

I’ve had to pick myself up many times, get on with it by myself with no coaching, medical, physical or financial support. But I have kept going, I’ve always had enough belief in my own ability to keep going and not give up, and to this day I am proud of that. One thing I have learnt is that if you start to lose the enjoyment, then something needs to change and you must try and work that out yourself because nobody else is going to tell you that. Only you know how you really feel.

Q. Finally Calum, athletics is not easy by any matters or means so what advice would you give to any youngster considering taking up sport.

A. I think foremost is that you are enjoying your athletics or whatever sport it is that your training and competing in. As a youngster, you really want to be doing more than just athletics that may include another sport, going to school and joining in after school clubs, socialising with your friends. Don’t sacrifice all those other things for just athletics. Don’t treat athletics as the only thing you care about or that matters. It’s ok to have a bad race, or a training session you’re not happy with. Take time to look after your body and enjoy going out for food or to the cinema with your mates. I have been there. Yes, I train a lot of hours now, and I commit most of my life to a sport but I certainly wasn’t doing that until most recently. Don’t let any setbacks (i.e. injuries, illnesses or even people telling you that you can’t do it or you aren’t good enough), stop you from working hard or trying to achieve your goals. Be patient, keep persevering and look after your health.

Q. Given your result at the National Cross-Country Championships, was the Inter-Counties result a bit of a disappointment? What were your thoughts following the race?

A. Yes, I was disappointed with the result at the Inter-Counties. I would have liked to have been more competitive at the front end of the race and really competing with the likes of Mahamed and Adam Hickey. The frustrating part was that I know I am capable of doing so, especially on a tough and muddy cross-country course. However, the two weeks post National and leading into the race had been far from ideal. I struggled to do any training after the National due to illness and then ended up in hospital the week before with abdominal issues and was unsure whether I would even race. However, I decided to race because I love cross-country but in hindsight it was probably not the best decision in terms of looking after my health! But these things you learn from and you get to know more about your body and how to deal with certain things. I still finished fifth and that is still way better than I have ever performed at this race which shows that despite everything, my fitness is in a good place. The North East team won the team title which did help lift my spirits and I was chuffed to see the title return to where it belongs, up in the North East.

Intercounties XC Senior Men

Thanks for your time Calum, 

Bill McGuirk

Follow Calum on Twitter @caaljohnson