Australia's Julian Spence in the marathon at the IAAF World Athletics Championships Doha 2019 (Matthew Quine) © Copyright
Feature Doha, Qatar

For athlete-coach-athlete duo Ellie Pashley and Julian Spence, a mutual interest

When Ellie Pashley first set foot on Doha soil, her first thought was: “Thank God I’m not doing the marathon.”

Nothing unusual there. Even for those who had acclimatised in warmer conditions, as Pashley had with a training camp in St Moritz, the first blast of heat and humidity in Doha was a daunting experience.

Pashley’s first thought was followed almost immediately by a second. “Probably best I don’t tell Julian.”

Julian, is Julian Spence, who ran the marathon for Australia. He had also been at the training camp and came into Doha on the first day of competition.

In a rare, if not unique, arrangement, marathoner Spence is the coach of 10,000m representative Pashley. But while Pashley had achieved the 10,000 qualifier – in Stanford, earlier in the year – as well as the marathon qualifier, and so had a choice of events, for Spence it was marathon or nothing.

Most probably, it was IAAF World Athletics Championships Doha 2019 marathon, or nothing. Spence is 33, works full-time managing a running shop with his wife, Brianne Hook, and knows his opportunities are finite. Indeed, Doha may be the only chance he gets to pull on an Australian singlet.

“This is my team,” Spence said a few weeks before departing Australia. “I’m well aware that to go to the next level will take something special.”

No second thoughts for Spence then. See opportunity to run for Australia in world championships, grab opportunity to run for Australian in world championships with both hands (he finished 39th in the marathon in 2:19:40).

As already noted, the Pashley-Spence athlete-coach-athlete relationship is rare, if not unique. There will be other examples, perhaps, but the most notable this writer can find is that between US hurdlers Ryan Wilson (silver medal in Moscow 2013) and Nia Ali. Wilson coached Ali to a gold medal (over Sally Pearson, no less) at the 2014 world indoor championships.

This can have its difficulties. As Wilson told Spikes subsequently, at the 2013 USATF championships it was a logistic nightmare when they were both competing, but worked a lot better at the indoor championships where he was not competing.

What is even rarer about the Pashley-Spence relationship, then, is that they are both competing at the same championships.

Pashley is a physiotherapist, Spence manages a running shop. The pair met when both were working in another running shop in Geelong, just outside Melbourne. Pashley, then Ellie O’Kane, had shown potential as a runner but, burdened by expectations, her own as well as others’, hadn’t fulfilled it.

Spence, on the other hand, had come from an amateur Australian Rules football background and was gradually getting into running. As he says himself, he is a “running nerd”, with a natural interest in the how and why of running and the training detail.

“Julian began coaching me almost inadvertently,” Pashley says. “The running was nothing special at first, sometimes a 5-8km run after shop closing time. They shared the common goal of wanting to run a marathon.”

Spence describes this as his “hobby runner” phase, and Pashley was at a similar level. “We were part-time runners,” he says. “We’d sometimes go for a run after the shop closed and think we were pretty fit running around in the dark for 20 minutes.”

Pashley was burdened, and burdened herself, with the expectations that come with ability. “She was obviously talented, but it was frustrating to see that talent wasting away. She wouldn’t train, or put pressure on herself to perform.

“I suggested she back off and she started to enjoy it more. When she got serious, she came to me and asked if I would coach her. We were both inexperienced but we nutted it out together and she has progressed to the point where she is Australian top-10 all-time in the 10,000, the half-marathon and the marathon.”

Though Pashley has gone higher, especially after her 31:18.89 – a Tokyo 2020 qualifier – thirteenth place in the 10,000m in Doha, both have developed as they have gone along.

Pashley’s rise was marathon-led. She ran 2:46 in Melbourne in 2016, 2:35 in Berlin the next year, 2:31 in Cape Town in 2018 and 2:26:21 in Nagoya earlier this year. Her track improved followed in the marathon’s wake: 34:39 in the 2016 Zatopek 10,000, 32:17 in the same race two years later and a world championships qualifier 31:43.51 in Stanford this April.

Ironically, Pashley is now presented with the same dilemma for Tokyo as she had this year. She is qualified for marathon and 10,000, but which to run?

Whatever she decides, Pashley is certain she is on the right track with Spence as coach.

“It works well. I look at him and think how well he copes with the difficult balance of work, family and coaching. It’s challenging, but he seems to manage it pretty well.”

For his part, Spence believes Pashley has adapted well to their unique relationship. “It’s been a fantastic journey.

“Ellie is independent, smart enough to make adjustments on the fly. She doesn’t need someone telling her what to do every minute of the day.”

This is perhaps best illustrated by how Doha worked out. Pashley’s “Thank God I’m not running the marathon” moment carried over into her first run. “My first run outside, I was pretty worried.”

But she adapted quickly. Spence arrived on race eve and was able to share the 10,000 warm-up with his athlete. A 3km jog on the cooler indoor warm-up track and some strides.

“Julian was there with us,” says Pashely. “We then put ice vests on . . . and left them on until just before the race started. We had a chat before the race, then I went to the call room and he went into the stadium to watch.”

A few moments of normalcy, then, in what is a far from normal athlete-coach relationship.

Len Johnson for the IAAF