England Athletics coach education tutors Chris Hollinshead, Matt Long and Phil Fleetwood recall Farnell’s career and assess the implications his story has in terms of how the sport currently embraces matters of diversity

Mark Farnell is an inspirational Paralympic runner from the West Midlands in England, who represented both Wolverhampton & Bilston and Tipton Harriers during a career that spanned three decades.

Born with congenital cataracts resulting in a visual impairment, Farnell recounts that in the days before inoculation, his mother may have come into contact with someone with rubella (German measles) which resulted in him being born with no vision. He says this was discovered once he started crawling, which he did backwards as opposed to forwards. After various operations, surgery resulted in Farnell having 10% vision in his left eye and 1% in his right.

Farnell’s career profile is impressive, winning 25 international medals including 15 golds at the Paralympic Games, world and European championships over 5000m, 10,000m and his favoured distance, the marathon. He ran in five consecutive Paralympic Games starting with Seoul in 1988 and finishing at Athens in 2004. Additionally, he has personal bests of 50 minutes for 10 miles, 66 minutes for half-marathon and 2:32 for the marathon.

Farnell’s Paralympic classification was B3 (T13) which meant that he was not eligible for a guide runner. With the training environment impacting upon his vision, Farnell developed a pattern early on of undertaking three sessions per days during the week; running 3 miles to and from work and then undertaking a 4 mile equivalent session during his lunch break at West Park in Wolverhampton. Back in the early days he would join a group in Wolverhampton for an early evening run but in the winter could see no more than 2 metres ahead. That, Farnell says, “scared me to death”. It was a nightmare, so “I stopped”.

Farnell credits Andy Cooper and Terry Bullock, two of his team-mates from Tipton Harriers, more than any coach he ever worked with as they supported and guided him through many long marathon preparation training runs. “It was good having someone there for reassurance, to provide direction and point out hazards such as approaching vehicles,” he says, speaking during an interview with Chris Hollinshead.

The trio ended up becoming lifelong friends as well as training partners. “It doesn’t matter that they weren’t the same running speed as me as we would adapt sessions so all three of us would gain from training together,” Farnell adds. “Terry sometimes would push me to the front of a race start line and say ‘get to the front, go on you will beat these’.”

When I start to unpick Farnell’s training it becomes apparent that he was self-coached and working on a trial and error basis of what appeared to work. He freely admits that it would have been beneficial to have had a coach to help guide him through his career but in his early running days none were forthcoming. Additionally, the road running group he trained with were not allowed to train on the track because they were not deemed good enough. Whether right or wrongly, Farnell learned from his peers in the running group and, as he says, ignorance is bliss.

“Things started to change in 1985/86 as I was getting faster and the club started to ask me to compete for the club over cross country and road,” he says. “From there on I was invited to run more on track with the coached group and I became even quicker.”

Besides working full time, Farnell regularly ran 100 miles per week during his career, judging the training volume by the reaction of his body to the loading. At weekends there would be 10 miles on a Saturday morning plus a speed session in the afternoon, followed by a 20-mile Sunday run. The miles, as Farnell notes, just kept adding up until he was consistently running high volume. The only time Farnell had a rest was if he was injured or ill.

The key point, as Farnell notes, is that this was in the days before coaches and sports science were readily available to all. In 1987 he ran the Bath half-marathon in 67:04, a week later, he ran the Raydar 20-miler in 1:48 and got injured. Farnell says: “With hindsight it was inevitable, as I wasn’t putting in adequate recovery or the core foundation of strength and conditioning to support my running.”

To compensate for this, Farnell started undertaking a circuit session three times per week and freely admits to having no idea what he was doing. Besides sit ups, he bought a 20km barbell and some weights to undertake squats and chest pushes, which as he points out were done lying on his soft and comfortable bed.

Farnell made his international debut in Gothenburg in 1986, winning the world marathon title, and from then on success followed. Frequently at major championships he doubled up events, running either the 5km or 10km and marathon and was confident in his own ability.

However, at the Atlanta Paralympic Games in 1996, things did not go to plan. After being entered for all three distance events the process failed to work and cost him what he believes was a gold in the marathon.

Having won silver in the 10km earlier in the week after being out-sprinted on the last lap, the scheduled 5km was cancelled on the Friday due to bad weather. It was rearranged for the Saturday at 7pm, 12 hours before the marathon commenced. Farnell recalls that the rule at the time was that if he pulled out of the 5km he would be disqualified from running the marathon. The decision was taken to run the first 1km of the race, drop out, catch a taxi and go home to bed. It got worse than that when the taxi did not arrive and he had to wait for a bus to take him back to the athlete village. Having got back to the accommodation at midnight he was up at 5am the following morning for a 7am marathon start. “I was knackered,” Farnell recalls.

Farnell remembers two classic encounters with Carlos Talbott from the USA at Seoul 1988 and Barcelona 1992. “Carlos was a rival who was better than me but I beat him more times than he beat me,” he says, because of fine tuning training, learning how to tactically run your own race and not falling into the trap of running someone else’s race.

“At Seoul Carlos wiped the floor with me at 5km and in the marathon,” he adds. In hot and humid conditions Farnell was pulled along at a faster pace, passing half way in 69 minutes. At 15 miles it was all over, pacing and tactics were wrong. Talbott went on to break the world record in 2:22.

Four years later in Barcelona, Farnell ran his race and won marathon gold. As he recounts, Talbott blew up. Farnell had spent the intervening years working on pace judgement and tactical running; it was no longer about running fast times but winning the race that mattered. This time he let Talbott take the pace early on and stayed calm and relaxed before reeling the leaders back in, taking the lead with around 3 miles to go, winning his only gold Paralympic medal.

Farnell considers himself, along with others such as Noel Thatcher and Bob Mathews, as trailblazers for Paralympic sport. Back in his early training days as a senior athlete, Farnell acknowledges that there was not the awareness of Paralympic sport that there is now and that as a runner he had to find his own pathway to success.

So having celebrated his career, Matt Long and Phil Fleetwood now consider the implications for how the sport has adapted to embrace diversity.

1. Role models

Back in the 1980s there were indeed few role models in disability sport, as Chris Hollinshead’s interview with Farnell alludes to. Pleasingly, nowadays the likes of Stef Reid and Libby Clegg are well known and respected in track and field and following London 2012, the likes of David Weir, Jonnie Peacock and Hannah Cockroft are indeed household names. This makes recruitment and retention in disability sport so much easier due to the visibility of these previously ‘invisible’ groups.

While these role models exist for athletes, we need to see more of them across all event groups. The next step should be the identification of coaching role models whose visibility will inspire others to get involved in disability sport.

2. Exclusion

There is strong evidence that nowadays a spirit of inclusivity exists in our sport. This being said, there may well be coaches who are not yet ready to embrace this trend of inclusiveness. This may not caused by overt prejudice, but by a fear of not knowing how to coach an athlete with different needs.

3. Early versus late specialisation

Farnell played football and swam while at school, before he went on to specialise in terms of his commitment to endurance running on the roads. If he were to join an athletics club nowadays he would be encouraged to work on his fundamental and foundational movement patterns across a range of run, jump and throw activities before deciding when and how to specialise. Of course, not all disabilities allow access to every activity, but a supportive school and parents may be able to identify a range of suitable activities.

4. Coaching

In the interview with Hollinshead, Farnell makes reference to being self-coached. He would have had little option but to use his own self-guided discovery to work out his training and racing programme. Nowadays it’s likely he would work with a coach who would hopefully be athlete-centred in terms of recognising his individual needs. An effective coach will look at the athlete, rather than the disability. They will realise there is often ability hidden behind the disability.

5. Fitness factors

Back in the 1980s, Farnell’s emphasis on training was on volume in terms of the fitness component of developing endurance. Nowadays he would be encouraged to consider other factors of fitness including flexibility and co-ordination, which are of equal value to all round athletic performance, recovery and avoidance of injury.

6. Overload versus progressive overload

Back in the 80s, by his own admission Farnell’s training and approach to overload often resulted in over-reaching. With the guidance of a coach, his approach to overload would be more progressive in the year 2020.

7. Strength – generic or functional?

Farnell’s approach to strength work was generic in terms of weight training back in the 1980s. Nowadays his approach to strength and conditioning would be more functional and developed to the specificities of the demands of his event(s).

8. Multi events versus event specialism

Back in the 80s, Farnell has indicated it was prescribed that he be a multi-eventer in major competitions. Three decades later it is now more likely that he would have been encouraged to be an event specialist given the considerable demands of endurance based running events over a relatively short period of time. The para-athletics support team should not allow this occur nowadays due to the evolution of coach education and greater awareness of the importance of recovery.

Questions for self-reflection

Para athletes

1. What am I doing to focus on long-term development rather than short-term specialism in the sport?

2. How am I developing all fitness factors relevant to athletic performance – namely endurance, speed, strength, flexibility and co-ordination?

3. When am I in danger of over-reaching in training and neglecting the principle of progressive overload?

4. Am I prepared to fail and am I going to learn from both my successes and failures?


1. Why is it important that I retain an individual centred approach in working with a para athlete?

2. What am I doing to focus on long-term development rather than short-term specialism of the athlete in the sport?

3. How am I developing all fitness factors relevant to athletic performance of the athlete – namely endurance, speed, strength, flexibility and co-ordination?

Significant others in the sport (officials and other volunteers)

1. What are we doing to make sure we make our sporting environment inclusive?

2. How can we utilise role modelling to promote para athletics?

3. When is it appropriate to signpost para athletes to others in our sport who can assist their retention in athletics?

4. Am I prepared to be honest if I don’t know? Who can help me in developing my understanding of the athlete’s needs?

5. Is what I see the athlete doing wrong caused by the disability? If it is, how can I minimise the effect? If not, like any athlete, how can I correct it?

Other questions to consider:

1. What do I need to know regarding the specific impairment considerations of the athlete?

2. What training considerations (organisation, location, equipment, pairings, grouping, etc.) do I need to include?

3. Where do I get additional support / information from?


Today we see Olympic and Paralympic athletes as specialists in their own field, preparing for their own events and competing at the same levels, but often separately. It was not always so and indeed today there are many examples where athletes with a disability are competing successfully in clubs, with their peers who have no disability.

This historical and comparative piece has attempted to address what we can learn from these two situations that will allow us to provide better support for both athletes, their parents and coaches who need it.

» Chris Hollinshead, Matt Long and Phil Fleetwood work together as England Athletics tutors. Chris is a level 4 endurance coach with Castle Coaching Fitness and has been involved in coaching para sport for 23 years. His first experience was coaching T46 arm amputee Andy Bird to world silver over 1500m before working for 12 years as a lead endurance coach on the Paralympic talent development programme and more recently with athletes on the Invictus Games programme. Phil has coached a variety of events for 49 years and is now an established RaceRunning coach who supports the Paralympic Academy RaceRunners and CP Sport in the event’s development