As Andrew Butchart starts to move away from the track, the two-time Olympian explains why he is enjoying having to learn a new craft as he targets his first marathon
Andrew Butchart might be one of Britain’s most experienced endurance athletes but, when it comes to the marathon, the 32-year-old describes himself as: “The young pup just trying to learn the tricks of the trade.”
He will have his first taste of tackling the 26.2-mile distance in New York on November 5, excited by the element of the unknown. Preparations have been going to plan, judging by his recent and sizeable personal best of 62:15 for the half marathon at The Big Half in London.
Butchart will head Stateside with a sense of contentment over his lot in life. Happily married to fellow Olympian Lynsey Sharp, with their son Max, the Scot is also convinced he is making the right call in starting to edge away from the track.
He is quick to point out that this marathon mission might fall flat on its face – “I could blow up at mile 10” – but the roads have been calling for some time and the intention is to follow his athletic ambitions on the tarmac.
This was the first summer since 2015 that Butchart wasn’t in the midst of competing at an Olympics, World Championships, European Championships or Commonwealth Games. Even though he is the reigning British 10,000m champion, there was no intention to target Budapest – whether that be over 25 laps or the 5000m.
Watching the track action from afar, with the exception of running 10,000m at the Brussels Diamond League last month, has suited him just fine.
“For the past few years if there was a Diamond League 5000m and I wasn’t in it and somebody ran really quickly, I would get annoyed and be like: ‘Why wasn’t I there?’” he says.
“This year was the first time I was actually hoping that the guys did well. I wasn’t jealous one bit. It was never the plan to go to the World Champs but I didn’t ever feel like: ‘I should be there. I’m missing out.’ I’m on a different path now and I’m content with that.
“I could flop at the marathon and absolutely hate it so I’d never say never [to going back to the track] but I’m excited by the roads.
“I like the way the season works. You can pick your own path. Watching the World Champs was a blast, knowing that I’m doing my own thing and that I’m happy with where I am.”
Was there any pain, though, at the fact that there were no male British competitors to watch in either the 5000m or 10,000m? With Farah now long gone and Butchart stepping away, there is an undoubted gap needing to be filled.
“I’m not going to lie, it was disappointing,” says the latter. “You hope somebody new comes through but I just think that, the way that the standards are with British Athletics … I’ve said to some people that I’m so happy and grateful that I’ve been to two Olympic Games and many World Championships because I think for some of the younger guys it’s going to be really hard to make teams if they don’t change the way that the selection is made, which is a shame.
“There are definitely guys in the UK who could compete for a top 10 finish at the World Champs, even if they haven’t hit the standards that are put in place. I don’t think distance running [5000m and 10,000m] in the UK is in a bad place, it’s just that where the goalposts are right now is not in the favour of those guys.”
When Butchart speaks to AW, he does so from another Font Romeu training camp. For the past 18 months he has been guided by Gary Lough, husband of former world record-holder Paula Radcliffe and the man who shepherded Mo Farah through the latter stages of his career.
He had been training alongside Farah for six weeks. “He’s helped me so much in my career – I’ll forever be in debt to that man,” says Butchart. However, it’s another member of the group whose brains “the apprentice” has been picking.
Bashir Abdi, the Somali-born athlete who competes for Belgium, is an Olympic marathon bronze medallist, not to mention the European record-holder thanks to his time of 2:03:36 in Rotterdam in 2021.
“Bashir is the person to listen to,” says Butchart. “He knows his stuff and he picked it up really quickly. I feel like he came from the same sort of place on the track that I have. He’s smart, he’s switched on and I’m very grateful that I’m in his company.”
There is an admiration, too, for his coach. Butchart says it was a long-held ambition to work with Lough and he set the wheels in motion around 18 months ago, when injury struck.
“I had a stress fracture in my leg around four weeks out from the British Championships and I had been coaching myself after leaving Barry Fudge,” he says.
“I messaged Gary and said: ‘I know it’s a long shot, but I think this could be my last year on the track competitively. I want to move to the marathon, do you fancy the challenge?
“He took me in and it was a case of get fit fast. From the outside looking in, I had a poor year last year but, at the same time, I thought it was absolutely magic because I still made it to all three major championships and didn’t get injured. After that it was a case of: ‘Let’s look at potentially moving towards the road and how that all will look’.
“Myself and Gary have known each other a long time. We became good friends quite quickly and I knew how he’d trained Mo and what he’d done with likes of Bashir, having done okay on the track and then developing him to being the road animal that he is. I just thought that it wasn’t too far away from what I could potentially do.
“I much prefer Gary’s mindset towards the marathon and the way that he thinks it works.”
The mileage has been higher – Butchart will peak at 115-120 miles per week – but in general marathon training hasn’t been some radical departure for him to wrap his head around.
“The way that Gary trains us is actually really similar to 5000m/10,000m training,” he says. “It’s just the mileage is a little bit more and then you run a faster long run. The sessions aren’t too dissimilar to what I was doing before.
“Most sessions are on the track and we don’t actually do much on the road. It’s not like 5km reps and stuff like that so it’s a bit different [to more conventional marathon training]. It’s very short still. And I like it.
“The thing that I struggle with is this fast, long run and that discomfort, trying to get used to it. That sort of tempo where you’re straining but not straining all at the same time.
“It will take time. I did a mini marathon build-up back in January and February just to see how I came through it. I guess I passed that test. I’m looking forward to the challenge.”
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The thought of running around the packed streets of New York appeals greatly, too. The fact that the course is renowned for providing the kind of challenge more akin to a championships contest than an all-out speedfest is also a big tick in the plus column.
It’s the different mental requirements which Butchart is perhaps most concerned about.
“Probably not,” he laughs when asked if he thinks the marathon will suit his personality. “My mind probably works a bit too much to think of taking your time and not reacting. When you’re on the track you’ve got to react fast because if you don’t you’re not going to do well. I think the marathon is probably a lot different in that you’ve only got a few matches to burn and you can’t burn them all at once. I think it’s more about learning to keep relaxed.”
His wife and son will be there to watch his voyage of discovery, providing an added incentive to do well and to help justify all of that training time away from home.
“I may not get this opportunity ever again to compete and be in the front line,” adds Butchart. “You never know, with the sport and how it goes. There is no real pressure. I’m not going there to try and run the Olympic qualifying time. I’m just going to try and run the best I can and place as high as I can then what will be will be.
“Lynsey and Max are going to come out and to see them at the end, having done all of this work and hopefully after a good result, it will be nice to celebrate with them.”
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