Former world-renowned middle-distance runner, Steve Cram CBE, is taking part in the second RunFestRun in a row when it comes to Laverstoke Park in Hampshire this month.
The 60-year-old motivational speaker was part of the infamous running trio in the 1980s which consisted of himself, Seb Coe and Steve Ovett – but now Cram is part of a new competitive group alongside Paula Radcliffe MBE and former hurdler Colin Jackson which will be on full display at the event.
Having designed all the running routes himself and relocating the event three times due to Covid restrictions, Cram is hoping that RunFestRun which is partnering with Chris Evans’ CarFest will be a great weekend which all the family can enjoy.
As well as speaking about all things RunFestRun, the European holder of the fastest mile revealed which moment he’s most proud of from his athletics career, explained what it felt like to represent England in the Commonwealth Games at 17 years old and how he got into running in the first place.
When did you decide middle distance running was for you?
I don’t know if there was a moment, I was a typical kid at school wanting to be good at something. Actually, to be fair I was quite good academically and everything, but football was my love. It was just that when you went to senior school as it were – I always use that word because back in my day there was grammar school and all that – so at 11/12 they kick you out to go and do a bit of cross country. I’d never been good at sprinting so on school sports days when you’re young they’re all short and fast, so I was never good at that. I could play football and other things. As soon as I started a bit of cross country, going further, I was like, I’m pretty good at this.
I think probably seriously when I was 12 going on 13, I joined the athletic club, and I ran my first race, and it wasn’t only that I was good, I won some prizes which I’d never done playing football. I got my name in the local paper, so you get a bit like oh that’s cool.
What did it feel like to represent England in the Commonwealth Games in 1978 at just 17 years old?
I was still at school, that all happened in a very short space of time from when I was doing well nationally but within a schoolboy set up. I hadn’t actually run for Great Britain junior team; I was still only 17 and I got invited. I’d run a very fast race at the Durham School’s championships because I was annoyed at some people and oddly enough it made me run really hard just on my own. From that I got invited to go and run in a big, televised event in London, when athletics was on much more often than it is these days. I broke the world record for a 17-year-old in the mile in that race so I got asked to go to the Commonwealth Games basically that day or the next day, so it all happened in the space of a week. I had my holidays booked with my family and I had to cancel them. It was an amazing two/three-week period.
And then actually going to the Games you get thrown into the deep end, I’d had no junior representation then all of a sudden, you’re going and you’re mixing with people you’ve watched on television. I was in all the newspapers, things are a bit different to these days, but I was on the back page of the Daily Mirror at 17. I don’t even know what the equivalent of that would be these days, 10 million people bought those papers. I went from being a schoolboy who was quite good at running to going and representing my country but also getting loads of media attention.
It was a bit of a steep learning curve and also when I went to the Games it was a different type of steep learning curve, athletically it was a steep learning curve as well. But I learnt about being in the village, knocking around all these other famous athletes so it was a great experience. Probably anything else you’d ask me or anyone else would ask me about my career was all entrenched in that period from the overnight changing from someone who was good at sport at school to this could be my career. And also, at the same time getting thrown into the public eye as well and having to deal with all of that.
How significant did it feel to you when you broke world records, not just once but consecutively, especially over a 19-day spell in 1985?
The way you have to explain it to people is that going back to when I was 15/16 our sport is about you know you’re getting faster, you’re getting quicker, your times or how far you throw the javelin, it’s measured. You’re always wanting to beat your best and you beat your best again then you beat your best again and, in that process, somewhere along the line you start breaking the county or the school record, the national under 18 record, the world under 17 record.
Then eventually one day when you’re standing on the start line the next time you beat your personal best, you break the world record because you’ve got that good. It is an amazing thing and it’s an amazing feeling because it’s how athletes measure themselves – records and gold medals – but in some ways it’s just the same process of what you did when you were 17 and you were trying to run your best. So, some of the thought processes in doing it are the same, you’ve got to do something, you’ve got to push yourself like you haven’t done before, you’ve got to go through 800m a bit quicker than you’ve ever done before, take a risk. That process doesn’t change it’s just you’re doing it at a heightened level. Probably the impact is greater because people still ask me about it all these years later, so the impact is different.
And why three in 19 days? In those days we didn’t have championships every year, so it was after the ’84 Olympics, so in ’85 there were no championships. It was a year where I didn’t have to prepare for trials for a games, I could just go and run and see how fast I could run. That’s why it happened in that particular year because most other years I was trying to get ready for a particular date like the Olympic Games, the World Championships, European Championships, whatever it might be.
Are you surprised that you still hold the European record for the fastest mile?
Every day I’m surprised. I think even as a British athlete back then, myself, Seb Coe and Steve Ovett – it’s hard to explain to people – but we were bigger than footballers are now, it was a different world. Because there were three of us and it felt like there was always going to be somebody else coming in after that would just do what we did. Here we are all these years later and Seb’s still the 800m record holder and I’m still the mile record holder and it’s like really, after all these years?
The one thing I would say at the moment we’ve got a new crop of young lads who are getting really close. A guy called Josh Kerr ran very fast in America a couple of weeks ago. So, these are really good young athletes who’ve got the potential to finally get there and break it. I’ll be sad but in terms of records you never own them, somebody else is always going to come and take it. When I broke one of my three world records in 1985, one of them only lasted three weeks but the mile one lasted nine years.
What is your proudest moment from your athletics career?
They all have a different meaning at the time, so I probably have a different view now to maybe what I had at the time. When I won the World Champs it was the first ever World Champs for athletics and that was a big thing.
I think the thing I’ve had most enjoyment out of being an athlete and only because of the longevity is breaking the world mile record. The reason for that is when I grew up Roger Bannister was voted the most famous Britain of the 20th Century and he broke the four-minute mile in 1953. It was kind of an exclusive club, there wasn’t many of them when I was running, there had only been another 10 or 11 people who had since broken the world record. We started meeting quite regularly after I’d retired, celebrating Sir Roger’s 40th anniversary, 50th anniversary, sadly quite a few of them aren’t with us anymore. So, that race has given me more enjoyment and fun and meeting some of my own heroes over the years, so it’s felt a little bit different to everything else.
How and why did you get involved in motivational speaking?
You just get asked. I do less of the corporate stuff now, but I like talking. I think when you’ve been successful at anything there are things that you learn about yourself that you probably don’t really understand why you’re doing it. I was a little bit interested in that as I came towards the end of my career, so I was like 34/35. I started reading quite a lot of books about, I guess what these days you would call self-improvement. I wasn’t interested in that really necessarily, but I’ve always been interested in the psychology of sport and generally. I’ve learnt a lot about why people are successful and it’s usually not the things people think they are. So, you end up doing a bit of that.
Actually, when I started motivational speaking, I just talked about myself and my training and my racing and the processes I used to go through. 10 years later I hardly ever spoke about myself. Now today I very rarely do because what I did was a very long time ago, but I’ve watched and commentated on other stars from Paula Radcliffe, Usain Bolt and Jessica Ennis-Hill or whoever it might be, I’ve learned how they think as well. I’ve met some great sportspeople, I’ve met politicians and business leaders, so you pull in lots of other thoughts and stories and things which are applicable to different scenarios and different situations. That’s really what I like doing.
I do love talking to people, I do like it when there’s a smaller audience and you can get a bit more interactive. The worst things I used to do, in fact I stopped taking bookings for, was anything that was a sales conference on a Friday afternoon where people had been on a conference for three days, all hungover from the night before, knew that you were the celebrity speaker at the end. I don’t do that anymore. I still enjoy motivational speaking, I do less of it these days because I’m a bit busy doing other things, but I do enjoy it.
Was the transition into TV commentary an easy, natural next step for you after retirement or did it take some getting used to?
It took me a little while, yes. If you’re successful in an individual sport like athletics you do a lot of television and I hung around a lot of television. Actually, the management group I was with it was all the sort of TV presenters and commentators of the 80s and 90s, I wasn’t really with a sports management group. I was around these guys a lot, so I sort of understood a lot of the mechanics of television and what I mean by that is I had friends who were directors. People tend to just see the camera, looking at a camera, but you realise all the things that go on behind the scenes. So, I sort of understood the mechanics a bit more than probably most people would at that point, but I never really saw myself as a commentator, that was an accident, and I was awful to begin with. But I was given some really good advice at the beginning which was - go and learn live television, go and work somewhere.
So, I went to work at Eurosport and although that might not seem that glamorous it gave me a great base. It’s a bit like athletics, you have to train. These days they drop people who have finished their career in the deep end and they either sink or swim. Whereas at least I was allowed to develop for two or three years, then the BBC came and said: “You’re doing a great job, do you want to sign up?” I started commentating in 1995 and I joined the BBC in ’98, so a long time.
What is RunFestRun and what is your role in the event?
Well, it’s a great concept, I’m an event organiser myself and we do straight forward running events but we’re always looking to add elements, millions of people run and love running. Chris (Evans) is an infectious character and I’ve been to CarFest and you see the enjoyment people get from being at events like that. The idea of mixing together, like CarFest was the mixing of music and the love of cars, well this is just mixing a love of running with a festival as well. It’s likeminded people in a great setting for a weekend just having great fun, learning a lot, we’ve got people for them to listen to and talk to but to be honest the essence is on the fun, so I guess that’s the job for Paula [Radcliffe] and Colin [Jackson] and I.
I love the idea when the guys were talking about it initially, obviously we’ve had a bit of a hiatus because of Covid, but introducing a little bit of competition into it, fun competition, hence we have teams and we’re team captains. On the first one we did I just couldn’t help being competitive so when we turned up for the weekend, I think everyone else was taking it a little bit more low-key. I had Team Bee, everyone had been given an allocation, they get dressed up, wear t-shirts and everything and I was like right come on, let’s win this weekend! We were robbed of the win by the way. But I loved it.
I ran for a living, and I run now like everybody else, just to keep fit and I run four times a week and I love it. But events are a great way to give you something to train towards and focus on. RunFestRun isn’t really about running a personal best or necessarily running your first marathon or something. We’ve got something for everybody, from a two and a half kilometre up to a half marathon. You can do everything if you want to, some people will, or you can just pick and choose and if you’ve got your family there have a bit of fun and have a bit of chill time and enjoy the concerts as well.
If you’re in for it me, Paula and Colin will make it competitive for that extra bit of spice which is good because at the end of the day that’s who we are, that’s the world that we came from so you’re probably not surprised that we get a little bit competitive.
And you’ve redesigned the running routes for the event, was that an easy thing to do or did you find it quite difficult?
That’s been a bit of a challenge because we’ve had three different venues since Covid hit of where we thought we were going to be and even from earlier this year. Obviously, we all had hoped everything would have changed for this summer, but it hasn’t quite got to that point. At least we can have an event that will be part of CarFest which is fantastic so that’s been a little bit more of a challenge on that side to get all the routes sorted. But I’ll be brutally honest it’s the bit I love.
I design the routes, make sure they work, we’ve got timings to get people through and we may still have some social distancing things in place. I like maths and geography, they were my best subjects at school so combining maps and routes with timings of how long people take to get round the route, getting them assembled, so yeah numbers and maps – right up my street, I love it.
Do you expect to see a big turnout given the past year and because so many more people have started running because of the lockdowns?
I think to be honest this year for everyone has been a bit of a holding year and to give you an example in our other events we’ve got lots of people who are ready to go but we’ve also got people who are a little bit nervous about coming to a big, mass event so I think there’s a balance there. For a lot of people, they can’t wait to go to concerts and big running events again. The really big running events I’m not sure they’re yet going to be able to happen so actually with RunFestRun it’s of the right size, about 4,000/5,000 people, we know we can do that and deliver that safely, we’ve got lots of space outside - that’s what you need - so Laverstoke Park Farm is brilliant.
This year will be of that size because we’re also part of CarFest so this is about space, how many people we can have. In future though moving into next year hopefully RunFestRun can be part of its own again and we can grow to make it even bigger. There certainly seems to be a demand for it, running shows no sign of stopping in fact there’s more and more people out running. What I do know though is a lot of people who came to the first one are coming to this one because they had such a good time so I’m pretty sure it’s going to be the same this time. Hopefully we get the weather for it, the runs are pretty much off road across lovely fields and woods, and it should be absolutely gorgeous so with a bit of sunshine that will just add to the whole thing.
Paula Radcliffe, Steve Cram CBE & Colin Jackson are team captains at this year’s RunFestRun festival, which takes place between 27th – 29th August at Laverstoke Park, Hampshire. For more information, visit www.runfestrun.co.uk.
Words by Lucy Roberts for Female First, who you can follow on Twitter, @Lucy_Roberts_72.