Last week I spoke with former BUAC, Cambridge & Coleridge, and GB international athlete Ed Aston, who was a maths student at the University of Birmingham and is our current club record holder over 800m, with a 1:47.02 clocking set in Gothenburg, Sweden, in August of 2010.
What was your athletics career like before you came to Birmingham?
I had always done things like school sports day, and then when I was about 10 a few of my friends had been going down to the local athletics club and suggested I joined - I went along and loved it. I went to a few English Schools’ champs, and gradually took it more seriously as I began to find my niche. I’d started to fall further and further down the pack in cross country and was starting to getting further away from the sprinters as well, but found that when it came round to the summer I was having success over 2 laps.
My home club Cambridge and Coleridge was a typical small city club, mostly it was local leagues, counties and East Anglian stuff, but we’d send a decent number of people to English Schools, maybe 5-10 every year. I absolutely loved it there, had a really good training group and a great group of friends. I ended up finishing 2nd at English schools in a 1:53 PB in year 12 and took it more seriously from there. I ended up on UKA funding a year later after missing out on a spot on the World Junior team by a tenth of a second. I took a gap year before uni to try to make the team for the European Juniors. I did make the team, but didn’t perform as well as I’d have liked unfortunately.
"Once I’d visited, that was always where I was going to go."
What was it about Birmingham that made you decide to come here to study at the university?
I had gone through and looked at which universities were in the top 10 for maths, the top 10 for sport, and of those who had a track on campus. I’d been to a few open days and actually had a blank spot on my application form, when my dad suggested Birmingham. They gave me an offer and also invited me to an informal interview to come and see the place. Nowhere else had really caught my eye on open days so I got the train up from Cambridge on my own and ended up falling in love with the place to be honest. The setting of the track, everything all in one place, even the maths department seemed relatively interesting (as far as a maths department can be), and I just thought it really looked like a place where I could spend my time, which I hadn’t felt about anywhere else. I ended up applying for a deferred year but once I’d visited that was always where I was going to go basically.
I’d had a friend from my club who had gone to Birmingham about 4 years before me, but all he’d really told me about was the Ivy League Tour, which obviously sounded amazing. In the end there was a bit of pressure on me from UKA to go down to St Mary’s, but I’d been down there and it wasn’t really for me. They didn't do my course actually, so I would have had to go to Brunel for lectures. I met Bud [Baldaro] at the England U20 champs before the European Juniors on my gap year and told him I was coming to Birmingham next year. I think he said something like “oh yeah I hope so” but in my head I already had the grades and thought “no I definitely am coming”.
What did you find about the set-up that worked for you once you got here?
The big thing for me was the gym work that I got a lot out of. I wasn’t a scholar in my first year, I never got organised enough to fill out the application form, but since I was on funding I used to go over to the HIPAC once or twice a week to get a bit more involved in that set-up, and then got involved in the scholarship stuff with the uni from second year. What I really liked was not having to travel for training, with everything being right on my doorstep; canal, fields, track, gym. It was easy to just roll out my door and do a session, and there were plenty of good athletes around. Sundays I often used to run with the girls as I’d get dropped by the distance boys, but there was always loads to get involved with.
I’d come from a very much out-and-out 800m background, but if I had to swing one way I usually went down to the 400m, I never really had that big endurance base and never really could handle much of the longer stuff. When I arrived I tried to jump in a bit with Bud’s group, with the distance guys, but I was usually getting dropped off the back and taking more recovery. They’d do something like mile reps off a minute recovery and I’d normally do them off 3 minutes recovery and still run a little bit slower than them, so I’d try and do things like alternate reps. I jumped in with them every now and again but mostly I did my own stuff. I was pretty close with my coach from home so worked a lot with him but tried to get the guys training together. It was a bit of a shame as we had four guys under 1:50 and three or four more in the low 1:50s, so there was a really good 800m group potentially, but there wasn’t really an 800m lead coach. We tried to collaborate and I did bits with Joe Durrant, Chris Smith and Andy Whetstone, but it was all very much ad-hoc. It wasn’t quite how Luke [Gunn] and Dean [Miller] have got their 800m group now.
Let’s move onto your club record - 1:47.02 set in Gothenburg, Sweden - was that something that had been on your radar for a little while and something you were targeting?
So running the 1:47 was on my radar yeah, massively. I think I’d gone under 1:49 maybe 10-15 times before I went under 1:48, I’m not sure exactly (editor’s note - it was 15 times) so it had been coming for a number of years. The record itself I didn’t know about. I wasn’t really sure where the record of the records was so to speak, there wasn’t a big noticeboard or anything. When I ran 1:47 no-one told me I had the record but I’d sort of assumed that that was probably it. I didn’t actually know I officially had it until I went for a run with Gunny (Luke Gunn) a couple of years ago, but I’d always thought I probably would have heard if a Birmingham student had run 1:46, as by that point you’re probably on people’s radar for major champs and things.
"It was probably the best field I’d run against - everyone was decked out in their sponsored kit."
So was it more of a personal target for you?
Yes, so obviously I’d wanted to set as fast a time as I could, times in training had been suggesting I was in shape and I’d run so many 1:48s I felt I should definitely be going quicker. I’d been to the World Indoor Championships that winter (2010), then I’d come out early-season and run well. I was 4th at the UK champs and 2nd at the England champs. After those it was a case of “ok for the Commonwealth Games I need to run 1:47.50, and I need to run it twice within a couple of weeks”. I’d had that on my radar for a while but it hadn’t quite clicked. With 2 weekends where I’d tried to peak for champs that weren’t necessarily quick times it hadn’t happened, so I just went time chasing and blocked in 3 races in 6 days.
I went out to Amsterdam and ran 1:47.9, a PB, and won that race but it was pouring with rain so felt there was a quicker time still waiting. 3 days later I went to Sweden and ran the 1:47.02 there, before heading off to Copenhagen 2 days later and winning in 1:47.9 again. I had one last ditch effort when I got back at a race down in London, but I was shattered even in the warm up - I think I ran 1:49 or something. I just remember lying on the track at the end of it just laughing thinking it was ridiculous and I was just so tired. Four different countries and four different races in 8 days but I’d given it a go.
Crossing the line in Gothenburg I was super happy as I’d just taken almost a second off my PB. I came 4th in that race and it was a pretty stacked line-up. I think aside from World Indoors it was probably the best field I’d run against - everyone was decked out in their sponsored kit and everyone there was an international. I think my coach thought I must be a bit gutted, 3 hundredths more and I would have run 1:46, but I just thought I don’t know where those 3 hundredths would have come from in that race. I ran it pretty well, got towed round, made it past people, didn’t really lose my stride anywhere or get clipped or anything, so on that day I think it was as fast as I could have gone to be honest, which is nice reflecting back on it.
"I think athletics has hugely shaped who I am now."
Did you feel like your training had gone any differently that year or had things just come together over time?
Things had clicked a bit more. First year I’d picked up a few bugs and things as you do. I remember getting one just before national indoors and being gutted because I felt like I was in really good shape - I scraped into the final but was in pieces by then basically. Second year things went a bit better, again I picked up the odd bug but nothing major. By third year I think I just got used to a bit higher training volume. I knew I was in really good shape, I was clocking some times in training that I hadn’t done before. 4 x 400m off long recovery was a session I did quite a lot, and I knew if I could run ~52s for the first 3 and ~54s for the last one off 9 mins rest then I was in 1:48 shape. In 2010, the year I set the record, I remember doing that session once and the first rep came out as 49, so I thought “ok yeah, I’m in pretty good shape here”. There were other sessions like that too- I did a 300m/500m/300m session and I went through the 400m split of the 500m in 49, so I knew I was really shifting in training. I could sprint well too, which at the time didn’t seem like such a big deal, but in the years after I often felt like things were tugging and I couldn’t sprint flat out as freely. Basically I’d had no injuries over a period of a few years and it all just sort of clicked that year.
Are there any things you think you learnt from your time in BUAC that you still use in your life now?
I think athletics has hugely shaped who I am now. I’ve certainly not come across anything in the rest of my life where the pressure is at the same level. A lot of people in my job get stressed, but when you’ve worked for something for however many years, or all through the winter, training every day or a couple of times a day, training training training, and then it all comes down to less than 2 minutes - that is pressure. So that’s something I think I’ve certainly taken through with me, things don’t seem such a big deal I guess now because I’ve dealt with much higher pressured situations.
Middle-distance running and distance running, a lot of it is just hard work, suffering and being uncomfortable, so being able to push myself through difficulty is a useful skill I’ve been able to take into other walks of life.
"My happiest times in the sport were training and racing with my mates."
Have you got any tips or advice for current university athletes or those applying to university in the coming years?
It’s a cliché, but I do really think the best advice is to try and enjoy it. It can sound silly and I know I didn’t really listen when people told me that when I was younger. I thought “no, I just want to take this as far as I can, I want to be as good as I can be, I don’t want to have any regrets on that side”. I certainly did that, but I also feel like, more so towards the end of my career, I didn’t enjoy it as much as I could have and I sometimes lost sight of why I was doing it. You do only get to do it once.
When I went to World Indoors, I put quite a lot of pressure on myself. I think I kind of thought “I’ll do loads of these, this is just a step to the next one”. And then actually now, well that was my only one, and so I do wish I’d made a bit more of it. Obviously I’m glad I took it seriously while I was out there, but after I’d been knocked out in the heats I was still trying to be all super professional, and really I should have just let it go and had fun.
Keeping the social side of it is really important. My happiest times in the sport were training and racing with my mates. I never minded doing the slog on my own, going for long runs or cracking out gym sessions by myself, but I definitely enjoyed it more when I was with my friends. Try to make it sociable on a day-to-day basis, because inevitably you are going to have to do stuff on your own, and keep sight of why you started in the first place. When you’re busy trying to make teams, chase records or win races, I think it’s very easy to forget about why you actually started.
What did you end up doing after university?
I spent 5 years just trying to see how far I could take my running really. I took a year out just after graduating to try and make the London 2012 Olympic team, and then started my teacher training in September 2012. I did that part-time for a couple of years around running, then worked as a qualified teacher part-time for two more years. I went full time with teaching in 2016 when it became apparent that I wasn’t going to qualify for Rio 2016, even on the off-chance. My body just couldn’t handle the training by the end and I wasn’t running as fast as I used to. I knew if I couldn’t train as hard as I used to then I probably wasn’t going to get back to that level.
I’m teaching maths full-time now and married to my girlfirend from Birmingham. We met in first year of uni and live in Harborne with our two little boys. I work at King Edward’s School which is obviously just a stone’s throw from the university campus. Life is happening I guess!
What made you decide to base yourself in Birmingham after graduating?
I stuck around because I had a good set-up with all the facilities I needed. I stayed on as a grad scholar so the uni were still supporting me with my gym and S&C coaching. My now-wife was originally from Nottingham and I was from Cambridge, so it was a good middle-ground and we had plenty of friends kicking around in Birmingham still. It was just a natural progression really, we didn’t really want to move back to each other’s home town and we liked it here so we decided to stay.
People choosing to stay here after uni is something that wasn’t happening so much when I was studying. The top athletes were the uni guys, and then they’d go off and it would be the next uni guys, whereas now more people have started to stay. Luke (Gunn) and Hannah (England) came back, Len (Alison Lundy, née Leonard), Hannah Brooks for a bit, so there were athletes in the area who were sort of better than the university students.
Are you still involved in athletics at all?
I took over as Head of Athletics at school 2 years ago, so I did one summer running the option and one summer organising the option before COVID came! Hopefully we’ll get a bit more of a season next year. It’s interesting actually, it’s very different to my athletics experience. Obviously I was super keen and loved it, and wanted to see how good I could be but now I’ve got a real mix of athletes - some quite like it and go down to a local club outside of school, but for a lot it’s a just their games option for an afternoon a week. It is different, but it’s really nice seeing that side of the sport. I remember a match I helped at when I first started at the school when I was just coming towards the end of my own athletics career. I saw kids racing each other and trying to win purely because they liked racing, not because they wanted to make this team or run some time; they were simply racing because it’s fun to do. I found it inspiring to see that side of the sport again which I’d become quite distanced from. It’s so easy for it to just get more and more serious.
What do you think the Commonwealth Games coming to Birmingham in 2022 can do for athletics in the area?
Hopefully we’ll get some nice new facilities, I know they’re redoing the Alexander Stadium so that will end up as it should be, it’s been a bit run-down for a while. Fingers crossed it will get people interested and involved in the sport, and also give people a chance to run in a home games - I think that will be a great opportunity for the local athletes and the university students and graduates who’ve stuck around.
"When you’re busy trying to make teams, chase records or win races, I think it’s very easy to forget about why you actually started."
You can view the complete set of club records here.
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