Going The Distance – Neil Featherby

He's the man behind Sportlink that people know, love and respect but now it’s his turn to be in the spotlight for our Q&A...

What inspired you to start running?
Where do I start with this one? At 9 years of age I remember reading a comic with the fictional character Alf Tupper in it and I suppose his nickname “Tough of The Track” appealed to me. However, I also remember watching the 1970 Commonwealth Games as a 12 year old and just got hooked on watching the distance events. It just so happened that by the time I got to Hellesdon High School, where cross country running was compulsory, I was good at it. I went on to win area and Norfolk schools titles on the track and cross country too. Then having just turned 16 years of age, I ran in the Eastern Counties Schools X/C Champs, lost one of my shoes after less than a quarter of a mile and finished 2nd in the race after running virtually all the way with just one shoe on. A few weeks later I left school and that was it as far as competitive running was concerned for me for another 8 and a bit years. I just think what with work and of course other things which appeal to young lads in their later teens, that became far more appealing than running at least 80 miles a week which I had been doing from when I started training properly aged 14.

Picture: At the Malta Marathon being presented with a trophy by one of my all-time heroes, Emil Zatopek, the only athlete to ever win the 5,000 metres, 10,000 metres and marathon in the same Olympic Games.

What have been your greatest achievements?
Whatever I say now I will think different later on so I don’t think I have one. I am lucky to have had several. My first England vest in 1986 (Aberdeen Marathon 2nd) was so very special as was my first GB Vest in 1987 (Kosice International Marathon 13th). Winning the Leicester Marathon in 1984 was also very special for personal reasons as was winning the Wolverhampton Marathon in 1987, which is where competitive running all started for me again in 1982. So to go back five years later and win it, meant a lot. Then of course there was winning my local Norfolk marathon four times (1986, 1987, 1989 & 1990) which was also the Eastern Counties Marathon Champs as well. However, my first sub 2:20 in Berlin in 1985 when I finished in 2:19:07 and then of course a year later when I ran 2:17:35 also at Berlin. As said, it is difficult to pick one out as I also have so many fond memories of trips and marathons overseas, such as the Hong Kong Marathon 3rd and Bermuda Marathons 4th. It is endless really and all I can say is that running really has been a huge part of my life for which I have been privileged to visit and race in countries all around the World because of it. Just as importantly I have met some absolutely awesome people who became good friends for which I still keep in touch with them to this very day.

Picture: Winning the Leicester Marathon in 1984.

Have you had any serious injuries?
Depends upon what you mean by serious. I had two stress fractures in 1981, when I decided to start running again after a seven year lay-off. As many will know, it was after recovering from those stress fractures when my every day running streak started and thankfully still exist. I have ran at least once every day for the last 38 years (Sept 1st 1981). Oh and yes of course I have had several other set backs through injury or illness during that time. However, let’s not talk about running when hurt or ill. I have some serious obsessional tendencies lol.

What is your favourite race distance?
I suppose I have to say the marathon, but I did like racing 5 milers through to 10 miles a lot too. Even 5k’s. Needless to say, I have also raced plenty of half marathons and other distances up to the marathon along with a few ultras up to 106 miles on the back end of my racing career.

What is your favourite pre-race food?
I am a vegetarian and have been for over 20 years. Prior to that I had spells of trying to be a vegetarian during the 1980s, but back then I could not get it right so would eat white meat and fish. Having studied sports nutrition, I now know how to ensure that my diet meets all the nutritional requirements. Nevertheless and answering your question, my diet back in my competitive running days, always consisted of a high consumption of complex carbohydrates what with running well over 100 miles each week be it for training or racing. On the day itself assuming it was a morning race, then nothing more than something very light such as a bowl of porridge with perhaps a round of wholemeal toast. If an afternoon race, then something a little more substantial, about three to four hours beforehand, but once again nothing too heavy. May be a couple of rounds of wholemeal toast with two poached or scrambled eggs. If it was an ultra, then I would probably eat a small rice or pasta dish with tinned tomatoes about four hours before.

Picture: Battling it out at the front when on the way to winning the Bury St Edmunds 20 mile road race in 1986.

Do you have any post-race recovery tips, food drink, rest?
Yes of course, particularly after a hard race of an hour or more. You don’t always want to eat straight away, so a recovery drink to help with hydration and refuelling with a couple of pieces of fruit. I would also make my own type of smoothie sometimes too. I would then keep drinking until I was sure I was hydrated and then look to consume a proper meal, once again containing plenty of carbs with some protein and good fats. After a marathon, I would keep my running down to just very easy short runs for a few days whilst paying very careful attention to my diet so as to help ensure full recovery.

Do you have any superstitions or favourite pieces of kit like lucky socks etc...?
Yes, I am terrible. Kit was never really an issue, but I have bad OCD which I don’t mind admitting too. Having worked with lots of tops sports people, I am amazed at how many others do too. I think because of how am, I so easily recognise it in others.

If you were able to do any other sport, what would you choose?
I have been involved with several other sports and at a high level. I grew up wanting to be a speedway rider initially. Then a footballer before discovering my talents were better suited to running. At the same time, I have also been involved with football in a fitness capacity and professional boxing. I have seen the good and the very worst side of this sport, so it can be a bit of a love, hate thing for me. Nevertheless, I did absolutely love training with all the guys back in the day. Working with Paul Ingle when he defended his World IBF Lightweight Title at Madison Square Gardens was absolutely awesome. However and just seven months later, it went from awesome to horrific. Yes as said, I have seen the really good side of boxing and then as what happened to Paul, the worst.

If you had an ideal weather condition and time of day to run, what would it be?
I love running in the rain when it is really fresh. You can’t beat it!

What is your all time favourite running shoe?
I am a real geek when it comes to running shoes and have a huge collection which goes back years. I even have a pair of Lawrence Ripple cross country shoes which were the last pair I bought when at school and just before packing up. However, there have and always will be just one type of shoe which I like and that is light weight and pretty minimal. There are now so many shoes on the market where there is most certainly something for everyone, but for me and as said, they have to be minimal. If I have to pick a favourite, then it would be the Reebok Paris and Nike Terra TC. Both models from the mid 1980s. Neither of those brands in my opinion produce shoes like they did back then. Currently, I really do like some of the shoes which On now manufacture as they are as near to fitting and feeling like my very old favourites from yesteryear.

Who’s your running hero?
Far too many to mention them all, but Emil Zatopek, who I was lucky to meet twice, Ron Hill, Rob De Castella, Steve Jones, Steve Ovett who I also became good friends with until losing touch with him after he left the UK. I spent the day with him and his then wife Rachel, on my 32nd birthday along with a few others on a yacht in Bermuda and then just as we were all heading back to our hotel, he said to me, “do you fancy going for a birthday drink?” It was awesome and ironically their first born arrived exactly one year later to the day. They sent me pics each consecutive year too for a while.

Picture: With Steve Ovett and friends after the Bermuda Marathon in 1990.

What’s the best thing about owning Sportlink?
That really is a tough one to answer once again.
Owning Sportlink really has been like running a marathon. In other words it has been a 25 year rollercoaster. However and just like any good marathon runner, even if and when you go through a bad patch, you have to keep your mind fully focused whilst always believing in your ability to come out of it so as to finish strongly during those last few miles and get across the finish line knowing you have done a great job. Apart from that and just like my running career, I really have met so many fantastic people along the way. Not just from the running world either. For many years and right up to moving up to Taverham, in 2009, we were heavily involved with the football clubs, rugby clubs and of course those from boxing as well. Even hockey and cricket for a time. Running and sport has been my life, so I suppose that’s the answer to the question of what’s the best thing about owning Sportlink.

How do you see the future of running?
Running has changed so much over the last few years. It is now so much more than just a competitive sport or as a way to get fit for another form of sport. These days, people run for so many differing reasons. I think it is great and I don’t mean just from the perspective of the business. Years ago, if you went running, particularly around the streets, you could be sure that you were going to hear a few cat calls with the usual boring and repetitive comments for which it would put a lot of people off. Or of course they would go out running when it was dark in the hope that no one would see them. However, no one give it a second thought anymore whereby it is just part of every day life and expectancy to see people out running irrespective of their ability, age or indeed shape or size. There was a time when I was waiting for the bubble to burst, but I don’t think it will now. Needless to say, the introduction of the Park Runs are one of the reasons that running has become so very popular and I also believe social media, particularly facebook.

I will also just mention that, whilst I have seen running change so much over the years, I have also seen huge changes in the running and sports industry. What with the running boom of today, the market has been flooded with products and of course many obscure and even extreme events which really are so very popular. It’s not that many years ago when people would have suggested that you must be mad to even think about doing some of the runs which now exist. There are some people out there who will look at it purely from the purist and elitists point of view, but that is wrong. At the end of the day, if people are getting enjoyment from what they are doing or they need that little bit of extra excitement to get them out there running and that is what keeps them exercising, then great. Who can argue with that? The only thing I will say is that I do personally think that before some people jump straight into a pair of running shoes, if they have not done any exercise for several years and perhaps have one or two minor health issues, they really should just have a professional check up before doing so. This is where the Couch to 5k programme also comes in and has proved to be effective.

Whilst we have seen what is now known as “Lifestyle Running” becoming so very popular, at the very sharp end, the elite are just getting so much quicker. No one can really argue that it is the Kenyans and Ethiopians who make up most of the sharp end in endurance running, but when you look at what recently happened with Eliud Kipchoge and the sub 2 hour marathon challenge, or with Brigid Kosgei running 2:14:04 just 24 hours later in Chicago, it is mind blowing. I do also think that much of this improvement in performances has to come down to all the funding from big businesses who back the sport be it the athletes or of course the sports scientists and techno guys who so very carefully monitor everything especially when it comes to such projects as the two hour challenge. Therefore and as long as the interest from the public and media continue and providing the shoe manufacturers and other businesses continue with their backing, then I am sure we can expect to see many more phenomenal advancements during the next few years.

How has the sports trade changed during your 30 plus years in the business?
Well having just mentioned the roles of manufacturers and sports science, there are now so many new additions to the every day runners kit for which some of these products really are super and so innovative. But and at the same time there are also some products out there which I do have to say cause me to raise an eyebrow.

Picture: Leading from the start of the Bungay Half Marathon in 1986.

People who come into Sportlink can be one hundred percent assured that we are here to educate and advise on what is best for them. We will not try and sell anything which we feel does not suit the person or perhaps is not necessarily needed. Whilst we believe in good quality products, we also try to ensure that quality comes at a price which is justified.

How does having a running specialist bricks and mortar walk in store compare to online selling companies?
Needless to say that there are occasional times when we get asked to match some of the heavily reduced online prices for which it is impossible especially when these prices are far cheaper than what we buy in at ourselves. We will always go out of our way to give great discounts, but it does also beg the question as to how and why some of these products online are so cheap. I wrote an article a few years ago about being careful when buying from online stores, which produced a very big response where lots of people brought shoes in to show me which they had indeed purchased online saying they had bought their first pair from us and then saw the same item cheaper elsewhere. Yet for some reason they didn’t seem as good as what they got from us. On numerous occasions, I pulled the tongue back and there it was “not for resale.” It is so important to make sure that you are confident that you are getting exactly what you expect to get when buying running footwear or any other item which is required for a specific need and with this in mind, I personally know what I would do if I was the consumer.

How do you compete though when it comes to being asked to price match?
As already said, we give excellent discounts whilst also giving a brilliant customer service with lots of knowledge and experience from all our staff. We obviously have to make some degree of profit as if not we won’t be here. All the usual overheads and many outgoings do not come free. I only wish they did. However, most people understand that and really are brilliant. There is a lot of loyalty out there that’s for sure.

I also think it is fair to say that we go to great lengths when it comes to supporting local runners, running clubs and races/events with sponsorship. This also of course encompasses the Norfolk Grand Prix Series whilst also not forgetting all the charity work we do too. I look at it as being all part and parcel to providing such a super service at Sportlink whilst also thanking everyone for the continued support we get from what really is a fantastic running community.

Do you have any plans to make changes now having got to where you are at with the business after 25 years?
Yes of course. You have to be ready to change or indeed evolve . If you don’t you will end up getting left behind and back in the past. However, and first and foremost and something which will never ever change and that is our policy when it comes to always wanting to provide a fantastic service. Having my son Craig and all our brilliant staff who all just happen to be very popular local runners driving the business forward, customer service will always be guaranteed at Sportlink.

You mentioned earlier that you have run every single day since Sept 1st, 1981. How long can you keep this going?
As long as I stay fit and healthy, I intend to keep running every day. I still run twice most days. This of course is helped by the fact that I have husky and wolf type dogs who also love to run. They say dogs mirror the image of their owners. Well whilst my dogs most certainly aren’t a mirror image of me when it comes to looks, the one thing we do share is our love for running.

Picture: In the Horsford Woods.

Jaffa cake, cake or biscuit?

I very rarely eat cakes or biscuits. However, Karen Grapes flapjacks are something else. Just ask Baz Hipwell.

Neil Featherby Marathon Times

2:17:35 Berlin 1986

2:19:07 Berlin 1985

2:20:33 Norfolk 1987 (over distance by 300 metres)

TOP 3 AVERAGE = 2:19:05

2:20:47 London 1985

2:21:20 London 1986

TOP 5 AVERAGE = 2:19:50

2:22:02 Wolverhampton 1987

2:22:30 Kosice 1987

2:23:03 Hong Kong 1987

2:23:09 Deluth 1990

2:23:56 Aberdeen 1986

TOP 10 AVERAGE = 2:21:22

Also ran a 2:24 (last ever marathon in Nantes), 3 x 2:25 (Leicester, Palermo & Luton), 1 x 2:26 (Malta), 1 x 2:28 (China) and 1 x 2:29 (Norfolk).