From Engineering to Endorphins – My time as a student athlete

George Marshall

‘Inspiring exceptional people to do exceptional things’ – the cheery motto on a bench at the track at Maiden Castle taunts me as I once again battle through another one of the many training sessions I have done with Durham University Athletics Club since arriving as a fresher in 2019. From the outside, it looks like torture, just a group of people seemingly in agony running around in circles, but this is one of the highlights of my week, with some of my favourite memories from my time at Durham coming from training and racing with this team of people. 

Too fast for the camera – during Durham City Run Festival’s 10k race
Image courtesy of DUAXC 

Chasing personal bests with DUAXC

Since getting into athletics back in my school days, I have taken part in countless races all over the country, from half marathons in blistering heat to freezing cross country slogs through ankle deep mud, and I have developed an enduring addiction to chasing new personal bests (PBs). Coming to uni, I wanted to continue chasing PBs and found that Durham University Athletics and Cross Country Club (DUAXC) offered me and many others the perfect opportunity to improve our athletic ability in a friendly and welcoming environment, so I signed up for the trial session and then officially joined the club a week later.  

DUAXC has two training groups: the sprint squad who train for shorter distance track events and the cross-country group. Each group trains twice a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays. There are additional sessions on other days but the majority of DUAXC members attend these two weekly sessions. I have been a part of the cross country group in my time at university, which trains for events ranging from 3k to 10k that occur throughout the academic year. A few examples of typical sessions that the cross country group do are as follows: 

  • 10 x 3 minutes hard running with 1 minute jogging recovery
  • 12 x 400m hard effort on the track with 1 minute standing recovery
  • 8 x hill sprints up Observatory Hill

The University Athletics Club also has a partnership with the local club, Durham City Harriers (DCH), which allows members of DUAXC to race for DCH in local races, which I did throughout my final year to maximise my time as a student athlete. 

A delicate balancing act

Being a student athlete is a delicate balancing act of training, competing, going on socials, and actually doing your degree. As an Engineering student, I had a large amount of contact hours due to lectures and lab time which was a significant challenge, especially in my first year as I often felt overwhelmed by the amount of work that is expected at a university level in comparison to school. However, by creating thorough timetables at the beginning of each term, I was able to manage my time effectively to allow me to work at my degree whilst simultaneously managing my commitments to the athletics club.  

A snapshot of my weekly timetable

Plenty of travel opportunities

Another challenge associated with being a student athlete is managing trips away to represent the university at different competitions. I have travelled to Edinburgh, London, Swansea, the Isle of Man, Manchester, and Leeds, to race against other students in many different events. A personal highlight of this was travelling to Manchester in 2022 for a cross country relay race where Durham University came second in a very close race against Birmingham University, our best performance at this event since 2019. It was challenging to keep on top of work whilst travelling to compete for the uni – however, by working at train stations, on trains, on buses, and even on boats, I was able to keep pace with the Engineering department and the deadlines that they kept us to. 

A coastal run

Durham City Run Festival 2023

At the time of writing this article, I’m approaching the end of my time at Durham, and I have been ticking off the final items from my Durham bucket list. One of the last points on that list is the Durham City Running Festival (DCRF), a series of races that run through the city seeing all the historic sites across the 5k and 10k race routes. In my previous years at Durham, I have been unable to take part in this event due to the COVID-19 pandemic cancelling many athletics events in both 2020 and 2021, but athletics events have made a return in a big way since 2022 and the DCRF is one of many highlights in the North East’s athletic calendar. 

My training for the DCRF primarily involved taking part in the same DUAXC sessions which I usually attend each week, whilst also doing some longer runs (about 10 miles) to maintain my aerobic base. Long runs are a staple of any middle to long distance athlete, and around Durham you are spoilt for choice with a variety of scenic routes such as runs out to Finchale Priory and Sunderland Bridge which are personal favourites of mine. These long runs are often done in groups as running with others of a similar ability is a great way to motivate yourself to keep going and long social runs are a great way to build a strong team environment. 

DCRF, despite some rain across the three days, was an excellent event that offered a chance for some high-quality racing with runners of all abilities competing to either chase a personal best or simply enjoy the scenery. I was able to put my DUAXC training to good use by battling with the lead pack for some of the race and was able to finish 6th in the 10k overall with a time of 34:15. As well as this, I also signed up for the ‘Run Like A Legend’ mile time trial where I was able to set the fastest time of the day, completing the 1,609 metre circuit in a personal best of 4 minutes 53 seconds.

Overall, I strongly encourage those of you interested in any sport (not just cross country) to try and get involved with sports at university, be that competing for your college or for Durham. In my experience, university is the perfect time to experiment with new sports or come back to ones that you have taken a break from, and you won’t regret giving it a try – you might even be like me and find that you’re not half bad at some of them.

Discover more 

George Marshall

I’m George, and I have very recently come to the end of my studies in the Engineering Department. I was in John Snow College and have been very involved with University Athletics and Cross Country, competing across the UK and training regularly around my degree commitments.

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