Celebrity Skin: James Ellington

Published: 30 April, 2012 - Featured in Skin Deep 211, May, 2012

Talent is a wily beast and can be tricky to pin down. Sometimes you can go years wondering what it is you’re good at; some of us might even feel we haven’t worked it out yet. Not James Ellington. He caught up with his talent at a young age – as you’d expect from someone who can run the 100 metres in just over ten seconds.

I realised I was quick from the age of about five or six,” he says in a deep drawl far removed from his speed on the track. Instead of taking part in the traditional school sports day disciplines of the Sudden Cold or the Lame Excuse, he’d get out there, run the races and win. “It was my favourite day of the year. I just loved running.”
His mum spotted his latent talent as well and encouraged him to do something with it, leading him towards training rather than pushing him, according to Ellington. “I was 14 and living in a troublesome area, so she probably led me into it to give me something to do.” The area in question was the Bellingham estate in Lewisham; does he think things might have taken a less edifying turn without running?

“I’m not sure. I was one of the most ambitious of my friends and always saw myself doing something different to the normal nine-to-five. But, if I hadn’t got into the running I could have gone down the path that a lot of my friends did, which was getting into trouble and not doing much good with their lives!”

On your marks

It’s all speculation, of course, because he took the path to the Crystal Palace National Sports Centre in October 1999 instead, where he met coach, John Powell. The veteran trainer already had an enviable reputation that even the 13-year-old Ellington had heard of on the grapevine. “I wanted to be part of a fast group I could look up to and run with, so I went down one evening and asked to join the group, and he said I could start that night.”

The running shoes duly went on and Ellington has never looked back, unless it was to see just how far behind the competition was. Cue a training montage and he was the under-15 national indoor champion within six months, going on to become the under-17 national outdoor champion, the English schools champion in his first year as a junior, as well as representing England in the European and World championships.

Not that it wasn’t challenging to begin with. “I’d never trained before so it was a shock to the system, I felt like throwing up and stuff,” he recalls, “but John kept telling me this is what you need to do, you’ve got the talent and if you train we can take your running further.”

Changing tracks

After the initial success, the road wasn’t always smooth. As he entered his 20s, Ellington felt the need for a change and left Powell for a different trainer. “I let other people influence me a bit, and it wasn’t for the best,” he admits. Injuries started to creep in and his form dipped. “I wasn’t running as fast; it was a bit too much. I realised I’d done the wrong thing so I went back to him and as soon as I did, things started improving!”

You need self-confidence and probably a dash of stubbornness to make it as a professional athlete, but while Ellington has the belief to recognise his ability, he didn’t allow pride-induced blindness to lead him the wrong way. He made the tough decision to return to Powell. “It was a big deal to go back. But every athlete who ever left John has never run fast again. They think the grass is greener but then they get injured, or you never see them again.

“When I left it was nothing personal, it was like a business decision and I thought I was doing the right thing for me. But I realised it wasn’t working and I didn’t have too much pride to go back. And we’re on the right path now.”

With the winning team back together, the pair focused on rebuilding an athlete who was “in pieces”. It worked, and according to Ellington last season “couldn’t really have gone better”. He’s secured a sponsor (see box out), has help from UK athletics, and now believes the world is his oyster.

And what about that rebuilding process? Did it involve lots of Rocky-style early mornings necking raw eggs and dragging tyres while a curmudgeonly old man bellowed at him? Again there’s that rumbling laugh. “He’s known me for over ten years now so he knows what to do with me in terms of training. Every athlete is different and a coach needs to know their athlete, know how they respond to different kinds of training.”

We can rebuild him

While Rocky Balboa might need battering into shape, Ellington explains that sprinters require more delicate fine-tuning. You don’t take a hammer to a Formula One car or make your racehorse drag a cart around, after all. “You need to load your training carefully throughout the week, leave in enough recovery time,” he says.

In practical terms, if we can go a bit Men’s Health for a moment, that means a mix of heavy weight sessions, cardio in the gym, core stability work, circuit training and work on the track. Ellington trains six days a week; this isn’t his job, it’s his entire life. “It’s hard even though I enjoy it, definitely! My friends who box or play football are like ‘it’s easy, you just get down the track and run’, but it’s not easy, it’s a whole body discipline. It’s amazing all the things that are involved in making you run fast.”

The end goal for all this work – and the reason we sat up to pay attention when we did – is to make it into the ultimate sports day… the London 2012 Olympics. While some members of the team qualify automatically due to points earned over various events, others, like Ellington, take part in national trials in June and must get sufficiently fast times and finish in the top two in their event to qualify. He’s already got the required qualifying times for the relay team (who he helped to gold in last year’s European Team Championships) and 200m, so now he just needs to come top two in the trials, as he puts it. He mentions this as if he’s planning a walk to the shops; is he pretty confident?

Another slow laugh. “Yeah.”

Ink and the athlete

All being well, when he lines up on the starting grid you’ll be able to pick him out not just by the Union Jack on his vest, but by the heavily inked arms and chest accompanying it. His first tattoo tale will be familiar to many: 18-year-old lad accompanies his mates to the studio to get their first ink and ends up getting something himself. “I thought ‘I want one’, and I wanted something I wouldn’t regret so I chose my sister’s name in a scroll on my right arm.”

But if we don’t know what it feels like to run the 100m in the time it takes to tie a shoelace, we’ll probably all know the feeling that arose a year later when he realised “it looked a bit lonely and I needed to get something around it.” He went back and bigger, welcoming a large Chinese dragon to his arm that represented how he looks after his sister. After that his mind was up and running with ideas for new pieces.

However, it meant a change of artist. “The first guy was good for the basics, but he wouldn’t have worked for other stuff,” says Ellington, who hunted around for the right person for the job until he saw a sleeve he liked on a man in the gym. On asking he discovered the work of Aaron at Crawley’s Inktrusion, and just like his coach back in the day, he’d found his man.

The partnership began with a Valkyrie on horseback. Ellington says he dismissed the idea of a sleeve to begin with, but chuckles at the recollection. “Sure enough I went back and got a pyramid with an all seeing eye, a Sphinx of wisdom, a revolutionary fist, a red star that says ‘victory loves preparation’ inside it, skulls, and now my whole left arm is covered.”

He took his time over the sleeve, because his tattoos are more than a whim. “I didn’t want to get a tattoo I couldn’t explain, not something for the sake of it. It’s important to me that it means something.”

Does getting ink need extra thought if your body is a carefully balanced running machine? Apparently, it does. He’s alright under the needle, but Ellington likes to plan his sessions carefully around his training. “After a long four-hour session I feel a bit flu-ey, a bit smashed to pieces. Your central nervous system is a bit run down – so I make sure not to get inked up when I’ve got an important training session coming up.”

Stars of track and field

Sportsmen and women often have ink, and for a variety of reasons. Not for him the ‘bleeding undead tribal skulls as intimidation’ approach beloved of many fighters, though. “It’s not about intimidation. For me they represent what I’m doing and what I’m about. If you get a tattoo for display purposes or to intimidate someone else, there’s going to come a time in your life when it doesn’t mean anything and you start regretting it.”

Regret seems to be something that James Ellington scrupulously avoids. Whether that’s dodging a nine-to-five life or turning his back on pride to rejoin his original trainer, he’s all about finding what works for him and sticking with it. No regrets. “It’s best to stick with what works for you on and off the track,” he says.

Off the track he gets involved with his local community, where he’s spent time coaching and mentoring young people to inspire them “to do what they want to do”. He wants to nudge all of us to be a little more active, too. “The gym’s not for everyone, but every little helps, going out for a walk or running around the park. At the end of the day being sat on your bum won’t be good for you or your tattoos. Tattoos look better on people who are in shape!” Ellington himself is currently in great shape for the summer.

As for his next bit of ink… we’ll have to see what the games bring. “My next tattoo will depend on what happens in the Olympics,” he says. “How I perform will have a strong influence on what I have next.” Whatever the outcome though, he’ll remain philosophical – all he needs to do is glance down at the words etched into his right forearm. “It reads ‘after the game, the king and the pawn go into the same box’,” he explains before heading back to the gym to continue his preparations. “I really like that.”

The tattoos

“I wanted to go mythological!” says Ellington, admitting that his body art has made him a walking motivational poster. Here’s a rundown of some of Ellington’s ink:

Valkyrie on horseback: “I did my research and found that the Valkyries watched over the Vikings, and that they only followed the strongest warriors; so that was like me in my athletics quest.”

All seeing eye: “I’m not a religious person, but it represents whatever’s out there that we don’t know about.”

Sphinx: “It’s inspired by a design I saw outside a temple.”

Revolutionary fist and star: “They symbolise doing what you want to do.”

Skulls: “They’re a bit of decoration, but they could also be my victims on the track!” [laughs]

Skulls and roses (right arm): “They represent the good and bad people you meet.”

Chest: “It’s ‘victorious’, in Latin” – which probably speaks for itself…

King of sponsorship

Ellington previously hit the headlines when injuries prevented him seeking sponsorship, so he came up with the novel idea of trying to secure funding by putting himself on eBay. “We did a brainstorming session with a friend in PR and I just said ‘oh, I might as well just put myself on eBay’.” The off-hand comment was a lightbulb moment.

“I put myself up and it went really well, I got lots of press and TV coverage,” he recalls. Alas, the winning bid turned out to be a hoax, “but I wasn’t disappointed because I knew I’d got the coverage to help me out.”

Sure enough, the exposure did the trick and attracted the attention of King of Shaves CEO, Will King, who messaged Ellington on Twitter at the start of the campaign.

“He said if I had any problems, to get in touch – so I did and he stuck to his word, stepped in and sponsored me.” With funding in place he could continue training.

Without it, things would have been very different. “People underestimate how important funding is. You have to have it to train full-time as a professional athlete. Now I’ve got the sponsorship it’s a weight off my shoulders.”


Text: Russ Thorne; Photography: Brooke Berlyn