Daisy Gladstone introduces us to Lan O'Connor, the new Chair of the Serpentine Running Club.
At the September AGM, Fraser Johnson handed on the mantle of Honorary Chair to Lan O’Connor. Lan is a familiar figure to many triathletes in the club, but not everyone will know how she got involved with Serpentine. So, I went digging for some more details.
Lan joined the club in 2011 to support a friend who was training for the Royal Parks half marathon. She had previously had positive experiences running in our popular New Year’s Day 10k race, where it struck her that “the club members seemed to be a happy mob, so I thought why not?” And when Lan heard about the triathlon squads, she dived right in!
Lan played hockey at school before picking up volleyball at university, which she describes as “fast and furious”, gaining club colours for the sport. Not that she was without athletic prowess. Before joining Serpentine, she won a medal at the Irish national schools athletics championships for the 100m. Now that this knowledge is public, I hope we see our Chair out on the track this summer. Lan describes herself as an “accidental runner” with a focus on team sports. Nevertheless, she often made the podium even when she’d signed up for races at the last minute, and was “happy enough with that for a while”. Across the different sports she’s tried, Lan’s particularly enjoyed meeting like-minded people, who in turn “make the highs higher and the lows more manageable.”
Triathlon was a sport Lan believed “only super macho guys did”. Then she met a friend at work who told her she did triathlon “on a commuter bike, swimming breaststroke as she didn’t like to get her hair wet, and jogging”. Suddenly it didn’t seem so macho after all. In 2010, Lan signed up for a super sprint triathlon at Dorney Lake in an end of line £20 wetsuit. She now recognises it was a windsailing wetsuit “totally unsuitable for swimming”. Perhaps not surprisingly, she found the swim “a bit of a nightmare”. It taught her what she considers to be a key lesson from triathlon: “in the face of adversity, keep going, it will be over soon”. And keep going Lan did, determined to give triathlon another go and get it right next time. A year later she was in Beijing representing Ireland at the ITU World Championships. She modestly describes it as having “found a niche”, but I would describe it as a meteoric rise!
I asked Lan about her favourite race, to which her excellent answer was “any race I have won outright”. That sounds pretty good to me too, even if she stressed there aren’t many of them. In triathlon, men and women often compete in the same wave so you can be unsure of your position in the pack until towards the end of the race. Hence Lan’s reaction to being the outright winner of the 2016 London Triathlon Super Sprint:
“Nobody was more surprised than me! I think I’m proudest of that win as I was behind throughout the swim and bike, only getting to the front going into the run. When I saw no bikes in transition I realised that I was in the lead, which meant I was suddenly being chased rather than chasing. I ran scared to the tape!”
Three months into her new role, Lan has discovered that there is a lot more to being Chair than she expected. But like any athlete facing a new challenge it has spurred her on to try and achieve a huge amount during her tenure – starting right away with changing the title from Chairman to Chair. More broadly, Lan would like to find a way of recognising some of the “amazing athletes training, coaching and racing today” in a kind of Serpentine hall of fame, underlining the club’s rich history and raising its current profile. The website refresh is also high on her agenda, already under development by a team of members led by Tony Gould. They are not only looking to refresh and add functionality, enabling the site to support a number of other initiatives, but there is also the less glamorous but equally vital updating of web code and increasing data security. It is a massive and multi-faceted project.
The triathlon side of things is also due a refresh after the triathlon squads were disbanded a few years ago. Lan and the committee are considering new ways of strengthening the community of triathletes within the club, both through the training offered and events, for example the Ocean Lava Montenegro trip in May (spaces still available!). But it’s not just triathletes Lan is interested in. She acknowledges the great number of “tribes and groups” operating within the club, organising a multitude of events like the trail running trip this Christmas. Lan attributes this diversity to “what makes this club a great club”.
Lan is also keen to look at the way the club is managed in order to both broaden participation and reduce the load on committee members. Possible ideas include rotation of committee members, more delegation and team involvement, giving members greater input into the direction of the club. If anyone has any thoughts on that front, or would like to be involved in the management of the club in some way, Lan is keen to hear from you! You can contact Lan at email@example.com
I asked Lan what challenges she thought Serpentine faced. She acknowledges we have lost members in recent years but, we remain a huge club and “a really vibrant group of people”. She’s keen to find a way to grow the membership again, looking at ways to collaborate with other clubs and organisations who have been inspired by, and adapted, some of Serpentine’s training approaches. Now perhaps we could learn from them. Lan is also interested in where the club fits in the digital/tribal world. In the wake of the boom in online coaching tools like Zwift and Strava, as well as “exercise ‘tribes’” like BMF and parkrun, the triathlon and running training landscape has been transformed. Although she doesn’t have the answer, she makes the key point that “none of those outfits comes anywhere near Serpentine for cake quality”.
True to her roots, Lan’s training recommendation would be a trip to Dublin: “Great hill runs, incredible biking on smooth roads in the Dublin Mountains and free sea swimming – with seals”, As evidence, Lan sent us gorgeous photos of her Christmas trip home. A bit closer for Serpies, Lan also has a favourite Surrey Hills “Legbuster 90km” and a traffic-light-free 20km time trail ride, including secret coffee stops. So, if you haven’t already introduced yourself, why not pick her brains next time you see her!
I asked Lan if training for and competing in triathlon had taught her anything which she carries into her life outside of sport. Referring to the coaching she does, she responded, “I’m constantly reminded that listening, observing and communication are hugely important if you want to achieve anything for your athletes. You never stop learning. I think that’s true in sport, work or life in general.”
It’s a sentiment which seems pertinent to her role as Chair. I hope everyone has the chance to meet with her to share their ideas for, and experiences with, Serpentine in the coming months.
Daisy Gladstone enjoys running and organising in equal measure, so if you haven’t met her on a run then you might have seen her at a Cross Country fixture or the Summer League clutching her clipboard.