Mark Vile masters the middle distance coaching art at Cambridge & Coleridge Athletic Club
Stood in the middle of the athletics track with a giant umbrella to shelter from the pouring rain, it was impossible not to feel like the odd one out.
“You can see for yourself, we’re out in whatever the weather; sun, rain, wind or snow,” says Mark Vile, with raindrops running down his forehead and dripping off the end of his nose.
The deluge has not dampened his spirits nor the young proteges in his charge in what has become one of the region’s go to athletics training groups.
While the growing mass of puddles look intent on swamping the infield, leading to those impractically dressed attempting a sideways goosestep, the 12 to 14 year olds seem oblivious to the conditions.
They are awaiting the instructions of their coach, who is building a reputation across the country as one of the top developers of middle-distance runners.
“It’s a quieter night than usual as the older athletes are taking part in the Kevin Hoover 5km race,” says Vile, with a nod to the other side of the track where a large number of competitors is beginning to swell.
Despite the conditions, there is a spring in the step of Vile, who jokes that he may “look like a shot putter these days” but he was a runner in his youth; a national cross-country champion and racing internationally on the road and cross-country.
It was, in fact, while at a meeting in France in 1996 that the then Westbury Harrier – a Bristol-based club – met his now wife Jo-Anne Newcombe, who was running for Shaftesbury Barnet Harriers, for the first time. She went on to finish 25th overall and third British athlete in the London Marathon in 2000.
Athletics and family have intertwined for Vile ever since and so when his daughter, Alice Newcombe, needed a coach after starting running with Cambridge & Coleridge, it was time to pass on those skills.
“I was lucky enough when I was younger to train with some of the greats, like Peter Elliott, the Olympic silver medallist, and Eamonn Martin, the last British male winner of the London Marathon,” he said.
“I’ve been in top groups in the past so I know the sessions that are required, I know the effort level that is required – I’ve done it. We don’t ask the athletes to do anything that I haven’t done myself.”
It had never been a long-term goal to become a coach though.
After leaving the Army, Vile worked in sales for 20 years, but as the coaching started to take off, he found himself sometimes struggling to get back in time for training.
With the support of his wife, he made the decision to put his career on the backfoot to concentrate on athletics and has since become a self-employed taxi driver working out of Stansted airport.
It has allowed Vile to devote more time to sport, and that is reflected by the growth of his training group to 50 members.
They first started eight years ago with around six athletes, and were boosted as Rob Huckle won a national medal.
The numbers had doubled to 12 in the second year as Kieran Wood won the English Schools and national championships. Success has continued to follow, with results being the biggest selling factor – and word of mouth.
“In a very short space of time, we had five or six really decent looking athletes that first of all became county champions,” said Vile.
“We first started dominating the county scene and we entered the Essex Cross Country League and got hammered.
“They realised they had to step up so that helped, and the following year we went back to the Essex Cross Country League and won it.
“Then we started winning regional titles, and now we’re winning national titles, and that’s how it works. Of course, now we’ve had Tom Keen who has won a European title.”
Seventeen-year-old Keen has been a flag bearer for the group in a phenomenal year.
He has won the 3,000m European Athletics Championships and the 3,000m ESAA English Schools’ Championships, the 1,500m under-20 county title, got silver in the Under-20 1,500m at the England Athletics Championships and 3,000m Loughborough Students BUCS Trials & Open.
And there has also been considerable success for Julia Paternain, pictured left, but the arrival of another athlete has helped take the group to another level.
“We’ve now got a brilliant guy called Jack Grey in our group,” said Vile.
“He’s a senior athlete and joined us as an existing runner having moved for his work to Cambridge, and he was third in the National 10K Road Championships.
“He trains phenomenally hard. We were already training hard, but when he joined the group he raised the level again because everyone realised that even though they were working hard, Jack Grey works harder.”
It is far from all about the victories though.
Vile recalls when he won a race back in Bristol, and an athlete who finished 10 minutes adrift approached afterwards to ask if he had run a personal best.
He replied no, to which the beaten athlete said he had, and so therefore had run better on the day.
“And he was right,” said Vile. “It’s always stuck with me. We’ve got runners of all abilities.
“A lot of ours will not make it nationally, and they know that, we’re realistic with them. But they all know they can still improve and they get great pride out of just running personal bests or making a team.
“The great thing about the club is that in each age group we don’t have just one team. There is always something for them to aim for, no matter what level they are at.”
Vile is eager to pass on lessons learned through his own athletics career.
He describes himself as “a decent runner but my problem was I was a master of none of the disciplines”.
With good times over a number of distances, rather than focusing on one, say the 1,500m on the track and qualifying for the Commonwealth Games, or the cross-country or road, he would try to do both.
“I’m really keen on the group not to do that,” he says. “They all have goals in the summer, and goals in the winter to aim for.
“That’s where the success comes from because they only concentrate on those and not the whole spectrum of getting carried away with loads of different races.”
Vile is helped in coaching the group by Ric Park, Ollie Park and Andy Parmenter, but unless based at the elite centre in Loughborough, there is no remuneration, it is about the love of the sport.
“We were all coached by volunteer coaches ourselves, so all our success came from somebody else in the past putting the work in for free,” said Vile.
“I get what people say, they want to make it more professional by paying coaches but that’s not how it works in athletics.
“I’m happy to put back for something that somebody else gave me years ago.”
And come rain or shine, this group of C&C runners seem on the fast-track to success under Vile’s tutelage.