Britain's top marathon runner talks work/run balance, what it’s like to train in Kenya, and finding the UK’s best canals.
It was the 2021 London Marathon, the scene set was tense, the anticipation palpable. The crowds banged the boards and clapped their hands, encouraging – even beckoning – the competitor’s home. The cool and calm of the British autumn was in direct contrast to the hot and fierce competition that was happening on the course. Ethiopian winner Sissay Lemma had just claimed his first major marathon title, elated as the journalists and cameramen swarmed as he crossed the line. As the finishing - and subsequent collapsing – of the podium winners unfolded, everyone’s attention turned down the road to the first British competitor charging in. Roaring up the home straight, he saluted the crowd before crossing the line in a remarkable 2:12:58. The name Phil Sesemann not only roared through the commentator’s microphones but into the nation's consciousness.
The Leeds resident has since gone from strength to strength. He’s now an Adidas athlete, has won several races and improved his time to a 2:12:10 in this year’s London Marathon. On top of all that, he’s balanced training and racing with his job as a doctor for the National Health Service.
Having grown up in the south of England, he moved to Leeds as a university student to study medicine. He was always a runner but was also a keen swimmer, and it was during this period he tried his hand at triathlon.
“I joined a squad with the Brownlees, competed at a university level and tried to do it alongside studies and a social life. After that year, my running went well due to the huge aerobic component of trying to swim and cycle as well. And then I went back to running as it’s what I’d always done and what I enjoy. I’ve been focussed on it the last 8-9 years slowly making my way up the distances.”
“I tried not to burn the candle at both ends and be very self-aware of what I’m capable of."
His respect for the multi-disciplined athletes of triathlon is apparent. “I often found with triathlon, from a time commitment point, you can’t mickey-mouse it. In running, you can do 10 hours and be pretty good. Even if you’re doing a 9-5 job, and that just isn’t the case in triathlon.”
Getting a given athlete to break down mentally is generally a simple recipe. You do not subject them to a serious injury or even put them through heartbreak; you just need to show them the weather forecast for an average British winter. A theme that was made apparent as he trained in three sports outside during the cold months at university.
Sesemann was not deterred, through the next decade he continued to race and train, not for external reasons, but for the sheer love of it. “Up until London, you might get the odd bit of prize money, but running was definitely costing me more than I was getting.”
He now runs as a full-time job, supported by Adidas and several other companies. Conversely, the professionalisation of his then-hobby to his now-occupation hasn’t had the usual ramifications. Instead, the opposite has happened. “It’s a lot more fun and enjoyable. There are the hours in the day to do all my training around a full-time, or even a part-time job. But now the focus of each day is the running, not trying to fit it around other things in the day.”
Scheduling training around work is something he is well practised in, but the horror stories of junior doctors’ work hours are well known. When an athlete’s body is under intense fatigue due to a training workload, the first victim is always one’s cognitive function. A balance that is hard to strike working in the high-octane emergency room, where patients’ lives depended on his decisions. “I tried not to burn the candle at both ends and be very self-aware of what I’m capable of. I wouldn’t do a hard, 20-mile marathon pace training session and then go into a shift. I’d try to have a sleep between sessions and shifts for recovery, and I’d also over-eat to ensure I wouldn’t be hungry on shift which leads to fatigue.”
“The worst thing I can do for my running training is to pick up an injury or illness, so there is no point going to work already exhausted or fatigued as you’ll just pick something up. It helps my running when I’m rested and switched on and obviously helps me function when I’m at work. You don’t want to be wanting to sit down and rest in an emergency department.”
Whilst he still completes the occasional shift to keep his practice licence, those days of careful work-training balancing are in the rear-view mirror. He recently completed a training camp in Kenya; far from the harsh, strip light lit rooms of a Leeds hospital.
“It was hard work. You get up, you eat, run, eat, nap and then go out for another run.” But the biggest takeaway wasn’t the workload, it was the culture.
“You’d turn up to the track in Leeds on a Tuesday night and be excited that there are 30 guys and 20 girls there for the session. But you’d go to the track in Kenya and there are 200 athletes, and they’re running everywhere. All different groups are in lane one and two. There are people doing strides in lane four but the wrong way round” he laughs. “You’re at the track with Kipchoge and these amazing athletes - and they’re just out there training. You go into town and countless more athletes are training on the road.”
It would seem that running out there isn’t just a hobby or a sport – it’s a way of life.
“We did this training session, a 20km long run. One of my training partners, Emile Caress, was in flying shape; he’s just equalled the British record for a 10km. We were both building to a half marathon and he smashed this long run, 20km - really quick. This Kenyan guy joined us, and he kept with Emile for about 16km and didn’t fall that far behind for the final four. He completely put me and [my other training partner] away, completely smashed us. And we chatted to him after and asked ‘what are your times?’ and stuff like that, and he didn’t have any. He didn’t race. He wiped the floor with us, and he’s never done a race. I’m a professional athlete and I felt like a fraud!”
Whilst different, the community around running is not an alien concept to Sesemann. A brief scroll through Instagram and his love for his local running club is apparent. In Britain, each city or region will have its club, a bastion of community and tradition - Phil’s former club Blackheath and Bromley dates back to 1869. Run completely by volunteers, each club's sole aim is to keep athletics alive at club, county and national levels.
“When you wear your club vest, you’re representing your training partners, you’re representing the volunteers, all who have put so much time into you over all those years.” It would appear that the simple act of donning an athletics vest has a very symbolic weight. “Each time you step out, you’re representing something much bigger than yourself.”
“When you wear your club vest, you’re representing your training partners, you’re representing the volunteers, all who have put so much time into you over all those years.”
The club events aren’t run off prize money, it’s for the love of the sport and the bragging rights in which people compete as passionately as they do. This grounding of young athletes starts from a young age and is so engrained it transcends Olympic Golds and World Records.
“It does mean you go to the British Outdoor Championships and you have Dina Asher-Smith (multiple European, World and Commonwealth Games Champion) and Jake Wightman (World 1500m Champion), these huge athletes and then they’re wearing their club vests when they’re winning the British title at the Olympic trails. These people are getting paid a lot of money by Nike and New Balance, but they’re not wearing their brands – the people who are paying them – they’re wearing club vests.”
Be it training for a super league marathon under the glaring lights of the world's press, or a grassroots running relay within his local club, there are two distinctive aids: Kipchoge, a four-year-old Spaniel-Vizsla cross and Hiley, a one-year-old German Shorthaired Pointer, both of which share the nickname of “the milage mutts”. They join Sesemann on all steadier or longer runs, although it should be noted that that’s a professional runner calling them “steady”. When I spoke to Phil, he and the dogs had just completed a 35.45km (22 miles) run at 3:25/km (5:29/mile) pace, their longest yet.
The scene for this long run was yet another of the Leeds’s residence passions: disused canal paths and railways. “I have a campervan and like travelling around the U.K, and wherever we go I’m always looking for good places to run, and with a towpath you know you’ll get a straight, flat run that’s an out and back. Unlikely to meet any sheep or anything like that, and they’re just great places to get your training done. I’m always on the lookout for them.”
“There is one near York that I use for my long, hard marathon prep training runs. Most of my mates would rather be on the hills so I do get the piss taken quite a lot!” he laughs. He now posts reviews on Instagram about each different path, often discovered with two milage mutts by his side. Authentic to the last.
"Most of my mates would rather be on the hills so I do get the piss taken quite a lot!”
To close, he’s asked the equivalent of a “death-row meal” question. If he could go for a run, with anyone, on any terrain and for any distance; who, what and where would it be? To some, this would be an opportunity to grace the famous, explore the undiscovered and run the unending. The thoughtful Essex man pauses, thinks, and says “I’d be with my Leeds City AC teammates and dogs, and just be out on the canal.”
Down-to-earth, loyal and doing what he loves, which sums up Britain’s best current marathon runner better than any number of superlatives could.
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