Meet the runner - Keith Dunlop
Keith and I trained together at Edinburgh AC. He and his lovely wife, Katie, have a real enthusiasm for athletics. That passion rubs off on the people around them. Keith spoke to me about fatherhood, changing motivations and his low mileage, high quality approach to training. This is another interview where I learned a lot about mindset and being the best you can be.
I live in the south of Edinburgh with my wife and our daughter who turned one last week. One big advantage of having been in lockdown and working from home over the last few months has been the chance to have some proper “Dad-time”. It’s been an opportunity I would have otherwise missed, but just as tiring as training for a marathon!
I’m an equity partner in a law firm in Edinburgh, specialising in commercial property and corporate transactions. It’s a busy role at the best of times but the economic effects of the lockdown have been challenging, especially addressing concerns our employees have had about the situation in general. Our business continues to operate, although on a reduced scale currently, but we’re in a good position and have prioritised ensuring everyone will have a job to come back to. It’s been a situation that none of us could have envisaged, on a scale we really couldn’t have planned properly for. However, working from home has allowed me a lot more flexibility in getting out for a run during the day to clear the mind, and I’ve been trying to make the most of the unusually good weather recently!
I was recently appointed as the Independent Member of the Selection Committee for Team Scotland for the next three years.The role has involved input into the drafting of the general selection policy for the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games, and in due course we will be tasked with selecting the team itself across all sports involved in the Games. The governing body of each sport is in the process of establishing their own sport specific criteria – so in the case of athletics, scottishathletics propose the time, height or distance standards for each event. When the selection window closes in 2022, they will put forward a case for each individual they consider having met their criteria. There’s a limit to what I can say about this as the individual sport policies are not yet finalised or public! Our role is then to determine whether the general and sport specific criteria have been properly applied and ratify the selections (or not). When we met with the Performance Directors of all of the sports in January, I made the point to them that I hope that they make our job as tricky as possible by producing as many performances as possible over the agreed standards. The overall size of the team has been determined by the Commonwealth Games Federation. Some very difficult decisions will need to be made.
I was fortunate enough to attend a school which organised regular athletics and cross-country fixtures throughout the year.Rugby was the main sport for boys, and I’m not exactly built to succeed there. I was always happy just to get picked, however, so I would show up for lunchtime running from primary 5 onwards. My first race was the Scottish Schools cross country in primary 7 (the first year I was old enough to take part). We had a team of six and I was about the fourth best. As with most wee boys, I got a bit excited off the start line and was in the leading five to the top of the first hill. Things went less well from there and I finished 125th, but that was the start of things.
I have always enjoyed sprinting, but I could only ever come third or fourth in our year at school. So, I was always shunted up a distance because I wasn’t in the best two at the 100, or 200, or 400, or 800. Very few people at that age wanted to do the 1500, but the PE teachers always knew I’d say yes. We had to take part in every event in PE classes and I found I was also quite good at triple jump. As I got older and the rugby boys got bigger, I was able to get into the shorter distances again and won a few Glasgow and Scottish schools medals at 400m. We also won the 4x100m Scottish Schools a couple of times. I was athletics captain in my final year and got a few decent results. That said, my Mum keeps a letter given to her by our head of PE the day I left school which says “Keith has always been a pleasure to teach but is the most frustrating pupil I have selected for athletics. If he would try to win rather than just enjoying taking part, he could be really good.” Maybe if she hadn’t waited until I was 30 to show it to me then I could have been a contender…
I took running a bit more seriously when I came to university in Edinburgh as joining the university club was a good way to meet new people. I had never really trained before but as a fresher was directed towards Meadowbank and managed to persuade John Lees to let me join his group. I also joined Edinburgh Athletics Club at that time and have run in the Scottish and British Leagues and cross country ever since. I was a 400 / 800 runner at that stage and the group included Paul Walker, who had run the 800m at the 1997 World Championships, Andy Brown who ran 1.48, Ian McGurk who was a 46 second 400 runner, Craig Houston and Jim Hand. That sharpened me up a bit… They showed me what it was to train seriously, but also that you had to enjoy yourself. We had a group of about 8-10 of us on Tuesday and Thursday nights and Sunday mornings and the chat could be pretty vicious! The great thing about that group was that we all worked together, whatever our relative abilities. The slower guys like me would work as pacemakers for the fast guys before big races. We’d often do a few 600s the week before and I could take them through 400m in 52s comfortably enough before being left well behind! In return though, they couldn’t have been more encouraging, and they took just as much from us running our own PBs even if they were 80 or 90 metres in front. Over the years the likes of Jenny Ward, Joanna Ross and Emily Dudgeon picked up GB vests at 800m from our group too.
I trained with John until 2012 before age and working commitments got the better of my track running. I still see him, and he has an amazing group of girls he works with now. I suspect they’re a lot less trouble than we used to be! Since then I have run on the road and cross country mainly. I have joined in with Alex MacEwen’s famous sessions but more or
less make it up as I go along these days.
My training week used to be very structured when I did track:-
Sunday – long reps in Holyrood Park, say 9 x 2minutes with 1 min stand recovery, then gym / circuits. Recovery run late afternoon.
Monday - easy run and weights;
Tuesday - longer track session, say 8-10 x 400 or 5 x 600
Wednesday - easy run and circuits
Thursday - shorter track session, say 6 x 300 under 40s or 8 x 200
Friday - off
Saturday - easy run and circuits
Now that my running is done mainly for recreation I really just run to feel. I’ve never been a high mileage runner and very rarely do more than 30 miles a week. When I ran my marathon PB of 2.52 I averaged 39 miles for 14 weeks with a highest weekly total of 52 miles.
My staples are to try each week to do:
1. One long run. This is never done to mileage but rather to time – i.e. if I’m going for 90 minute I don’t care if I run 9 miles or 14 miles (unlikely…)
2. One tempo run of up to half an hour; and
3. One set of reps which add up to around half an hour – e.g 6x5 minutes or 8x4.
The rest of my week is easily filled. There will be plenty of people reading this who will feel a bit sick at the lack of structure, but I really do try to avoid overthinking it and just enjoy myself.
The other key thing I try to do is keep some speed in my legs. My days of repping 400s in 52s are well behind me, but I can at least pretend on the grass!
I still do circuits and focus on flexibility, and we’re fortunate enough to have space in our garage for some weights and other bits of kit. My wife was an international hammer thrower, so strength and conditioning mean a lot to her. She toughened me up when I moved to the marathon, although is very much still the person in our house who moves the heavy furniture.
The issue I tended to have when marathon training was keeping weight on, so I’m fortunate to be able to really eat as much as I like. I would certainly not say that diet is ever something I’ve been particularly conscious of. I’m not scientifically minded so I tend to switch off when I read or hear about the benefits of high-fat, low carb diets, veganism, supplements etc.
I’m a bit more superstitious about pre-race breakfasts and they will always involve porridge with honey and a couple of bananas. I have a very good friend who was a low 2.20s marathon runner and he swore by boiled eggs in the morning before a race as they would “bung you up”. I’m allergic to eggs so can’t comment, but I did have one unfortunate experience sharing a hotel room with him before a race. We were up too early for the hotel breakfast, so he boiled his eggs by holding the on switch on the hotel kettle for a few minutes. That was all fine for him, but I forgot when we got back to the room after the race and re-boiled it for a cup of tea. A cup of tea made with eggy-tasting water is a mistake you only make once.
I’m not sure if it counts as favourite, but I have a pair of socks which stays in the drawer apart from race day. They come out only on that day, they take part in the race, get washed and go back in the drawer. They have a nice tight fit on my feet, and I have never had a blister in a race since I got them several years ago!
There are lots of track races I look back on fondly – taking on the likes of Danny, Chris Rawlinson and Curtis Robb at BUCS or British League when I was younger and re-living my primary school cross country days by going past Letsrun.com favourite Alan Webb in the heats of the Scottish Championships 800m one year (I didn’t stay in front of him…) – but two races I think of as being my favourite.
One of my best races was the 2015 London Marathon – I’ve run faster since, but I ran 2.53 and it was my first sub-3 hour marathon. The context is that the year before I had a Callum Hawkins experience on The Mall. I fell a couple of times but crossed the line in 3:00.24, although I don’t remember doing so. I had run most of the way with our EAC teammate Stuart Johnston and remember him telling me at 800m to go that I had 5 minutes to break 3 hours, so that last half mile wasn’t my finest. And Stuart left me behind because he didn’t want his Power of 10 page ruined by not breaking 3 hours. I ended up in the medical facility in the finish area for a long time after the race. Going back in 2015 was nerve-wracking to say the least, especially when I started feeling ropey again coming along Embankment. But I managed to knuckle down and keep it together for the full 26.2 miles this time. The beer in The Harp at Covent Garden was particularly tasty that afternoon.
My other top race was the BMC 5000m in 2016 – I ran a Grand Prix meeting in Glasgow in 2016. I had targeted it with the aim of breaking 17 minutes. I turned up on the night and it was windy, but the pacemaker was due to go at 16.45 pace, so I settled in at the back and found my rhythm. I was 22ndout of 22 after 2000m, but still feeling good and sheltering from the wind. After halfway I started to pick my way through the field and was 4th with three laps to go. I caught the 3rd placer with 1000m to go and was then on my own but gritted my teeth and came home 3rd in 16.57. Not world beating by any means, but it was the satisfaction of having a race plan and getting it right on the night and delivering on the block of training I had put in.
I don’t really dwell on bad performances, to the extent that I’ve struggled to think of something I’d say was my worst. There have been races here and there where, for example, I was tripped up in the 800m semi-finals at BUCS and didn’t finish or went out far too fast in a 10k, but to me they’re just chances to learn and come back better the next time. In the end, it’s only running!
I was fortunate enough to run a BMC 800m at Crystal Palace when they used to have the Grand Prix there. It was amazing to see the pictures of the historic performances in the stadium. Nowadays on a domestic level I don’t think you can beat the atmosphere at the National XC at Callendar Park or the relays at Cumbernauld. Loads of people hate Cumbernauld because it’s often really muddy but it’s probably my highlight of the year.
I’ve run the big city half marathons in Stockholm, Gothenburg and Valencia. The Varvet in Gotherburg is amazing as they have start waves over the course of four hours and the city comes out to support all day. The famous finish over the water in Valencia is special too.
Probably my favourite was parkrun in Whistler, Canada. My wife and I were there on holiday a couple of summers ago. There are about 25 people and it’s run on the cross-country ski trails through the forest around Lost Lake. The scenery is spectacular and it’s the only time I’ve ever had a race briefing which included what to do if you meet a bear during the run!
I’ve always enjoyed trying to be the best I can be at running at any particular time. I enjoy the competition with myself. When I put my mind to it, I do try my hardest, even though it often doesn’t look like it! But in the end running for me has been and always will be about enjoying myself. There are times when I don’t enjoy running and when that happens, I stop for a while, but it always drags me back eventually.
My motivation has definitely changed since our daughter Eilidh arrived a year ago. My wife and I experienced five miscarriages before we she arrived. In a way I’m less and more motivated now by running. We’re so lucky to have Eilidh in our lives that I’m really not bothered by missing runs to do other things with her. On the other hand, I’m not a young Dad and there will be races at sports day in a few years where she will not want to be embarrassed. But I hope that she will learn how much enjoyment you can get from sport through participation. I’ve also run as a ‘mid-packer’ in enough cross countries where there are young kids watching and shouting, “Come on Dad!” so I’d quite like to still be able to show her that I can compete. She was walking before her first birthday so maybe she’ll be quicker than me.
I worked for London Organising Committee at London 2012 and saw the athletics close up. I’ll never be the right shape for it, but I’ve always thought that javelin throwers have the ability to really command the stadium in the way that other events can’t.
Away from athletics, though, I would love to be good at ski cross. I think that winter sports have done a great job in making themselves more visually appealing and attracting a new audience through TV or streaming. I’m not sure I could turn my brain off to the risks involved but it looks great fun!