An in-depth interview with Charlton Debono: the three times National Champion in the 5000m and 10000m race, a National Record Holder in the Half Marathon at Valencia, Gozitan, a Biology and Chemistry Teacher who started athletics as middle-distance runner in the 800m.
Charlton, few people may recall that you started athletics running the 800m race. Your Personal best was 2mins 1 second and you had to battle it out against the likes of Matthew Croker, Neil Brimmer, Simon Spiteri and Dario Mangion. Do you still recall such races? Do you think that the 800 metres race is proving to be the cutting edge and the determining winning factor over your competitors? Your 120metre final sprint proved to be decisive in many races on the track, do you attribute it to the 800m races too?
First of all I would like to thank you very much for this great opportunity. I really appreciate it. Yes my first couple of years competing were always in the track mainly in the 800m race. I recall these races very vividly. I still love the 800m event even though now I haven’t raced it for years. I think that those years racing in middle distance gave me a very good solid base as a runner. I was never a sprinter but the 800m gave me a decent basic speed and a very good finishing kick which as you said has helped me win many races.
It is impressive to say the least that you swapped distance from 800m to 10000m in a rather short time and you stupefied us all with immediate encouraging results, a victory against Andrew Grech who at that time was unbeatable. Many thought it was a one off since you were new to the long distance running community but you kept repeating winning for years now. So far you only gave in to others twice if am not wrong. One to Andrew Grech and another to Simon Spiteri. What was your state of mind after these defeats? What went through your mind? Were there any specific mistakes or errors, prior or during the race that you think affected the outcome?
Like you said, in the past 3 athletic seasons I only finished in second place twice when racing nationally, winning all the other races. I am not a person who is discouraged easily and all I did after these two races was reflect deeply on the races and my preparation towards these races. I immediately realized tiny mistakes that I did in my preparation towards these races such as pre-race nutrition, I quickly corrected these things and was quickly back on track winning. I am a very positive person and I try to find something positive out of every situation. If anything these “bad” races motivated me to train harder and better and improve as an athlete. In fact, the race immediately after I finished second to Simon Spiteri in the Mountain Running National Championship, was the 5000m at the GSSE in San Marino where I broke the 15 minute barrier for the first time registering a huge personal best by 23 seconds in a time of 14.57 mins.
The long distance running
community is getting bigger and bigger but it’s not just in numbers but even in quality. Luke Micallef, Dillon Cassar, Andrew Grech and Stephan Azzopardi are all generating new enthusiasm in the road running races and this is positive. Which athlete do you fear most?
I agree with you, the number of runners and the level of long distance running has really improved and I am very happy about that. I love the competition. As an athlete, it is very difficult to improve your time results on your own. So I am actually very happy to be racing against these competitors because it is the only way to keep on improving as an athlete.
Being a Gozitan is quite problematic, especially when it comes for races. You need to catch an early ferry and sleep early the night before, do you think that you stand at a disadvantage or you don t make too much fuss about it?
It is quite a hassle for us Gozitans to come for a race. Basically we use up a whole morning or afternoon when coming to Malta for a race since we need several hours to travel to and from the racing venue. However, it never really bothered me much because I love running, especially racing. So the extra sacrifice that I have to do as a Gozitan, for me is worth it.
I recall about 10 years ago, that I used to come for the Gozo half marathon and the only Gozitan runner was Frank Muscat, a gentleman who really was consistent for countless years. Now thanks to Athletix Club, Gozitans are by far at their very best in terms of quantity and quality. What is the secret behind this new scenario? How come some 5 years ago, things were completely different? What was the breakthrough to such welcoming talents?
In the last few years, we have really grown as a club. We have increased in numbers, but not only that. We now also place well as a club especially during the road races. When I joined the club about 5 years ago, I was still running 800m races. The number of long distance gozitan runners was already increasing, however they were unattached to any club. When eventually I shifted to long distance running, I found a lot of support from these runners because I had no experience whatsoever when it came to road races. They were very happy when I was the first Gozitan ever to win the MAAA Road Running League and we all celebrated together. We became close as a running group and many of them joined the Gozo Athletix AC. We encourage and support one another as a club and we always welcome new upcoming runners who wish to join our club.
You are a teacher by profession, a biology and chemistry teacher to be more specific. How do you combine running with work? Do you think that Biology and Chemistry helps you too in knowing better the body, nervous system, digestive system, biomechanics etc?
I have been teaching now for the past 11 years. I started athletics briefly during my last years at University. However I started competing seriously in athletics about 7 years ago. Teaching is a job which can be easily be combined with my athletic life style. First of all it is not a manual labour, so my body is still fresh for training after work. And the hours are not too long which leaves me with ample time to train. Science subjects fascinate me. Science is all around us. Having a deep knowledge of Biology and Chemistry has definitely helped me in my athletics. A good knowledge of the body structures such as how the musculo-skeletal system and the circulatory system work is definitely helpful.
Your name has now been associated to almost each and every race on the MAAA calendar, your recovery is something remarkable and curious to many of us. Is there something particular, which helps you in this regard?
By nature, I do have a very fast recovery after sessions and races which is a huge advantage and that is why I race so often. However, I do have to also be careful not to overdo it by overtraining. Once again, having a good knowledge of how the body works is very helpful in this aspect.
One word which I dare describe you is that you’re Insatiable and I think being eager for more motivates you to dare more. You are the National Record holder of the half marathon which you improved twice, do you think you can go for other records in the 5k and 10k or do you think that they are unreachable?
As you said I am always eager for more races and for better results. I am very happy to have broken the Half Marathon National Record twice, but I am not done yet. One of my biggest wishes and targets is to break one of the long standing 5000m or 10,000m National records by Ricky Baldacchino.
As a Teacher, the obligatory question comes almost natural. Do you have Gozitan students who apart from being admirers are interested in embarking on athletics? Do you encourage them?
I do get many young athletes and students who admire me. The young ones are too shy to come and talk to me themselves. So I am often approached by their parents who tell me that their children follow me and my races and asking me for a photo. This gives me great joy and it is my pleasure to motive these young runners. They are the future of our club and athletics.
Athletix Ac under the Presidency of Adrian Farrugia seems to finally embrace athletics in the best way. Athletix is all for the seniors but even organises a Triangular meeting with Savio Athletic Club and La Salle on annual basis. What are your views on this? Are you eyeing someone who might really be an elite athlete or is still very early for such prevision?
I believe it is very important to create and organize these events such as the Triangular meetings which introduce these young new runners to their first friendly competitions. There are quite a few promising athletes. However, at such a young age it is a bit difficult to tell. It all depends on whether they will be committed to train hard and do the necessary sacrifices.
Are parents backing their athletes for training or they keep back because of studies? You managed to fulfil both your working career and your sports career so it’s doable. At what cost? What are the drawbacks, advantages and if going back what would you have done better?
I am sure that sports and school or work can easily go hand in hand with a bit of planning. I am a prime example of this. I have succeeded at being a teacher as well as in my athletics career because they were both a priority for me. However, everyone has his or her own priorities. Unfortunately, there are still a lot of parents who view sports as something unnecessary and as something which comes secondary. For these parents school, studying and going to private lessons are the priority. But I know for a fact that with proper time management, a student can improve both academically as well as in sports.
Charlton you embarked on running long distance races when you were not yet married. You got married a year or so ago, but things didn’t change, you kept on winning! What did you find different from living with your parents and now with your married life? What I can vouch is that you really have a supportive family which accompanies you even abroad and that is positive. At times, when we live with our parents we allow them to do all the house chores, maintenance, etc but now that you share your new home with your wife Joanna am sure you need to do much of these things yourself? Are you finding this a nuisance? A burden? Time consuming?
My family have always been supportive in my athletics. However, I attribute my continued success to the unconditional support of my dear wife. She has always encouraged me to keep following my dreams and has supported me in every way possible. Needless to say, she does many sacrifices with me and for me. Living with an athlete might not always be easy. Together we follow a healthy lifestyle and diet. We also train together most days of the week. Obviously my wife’s training is not as intense as mine. And she is nearly always there supporting me during my races too. I believe that in order to succeed in athletics, like in many other things, you need the support of the people around you. Without this support, I might have failed or it would have been much more difficult for me.
What are your main goals for the future?
In the near future, I will try my best to qualify for GSSE 2019 being held in Montenegro. That is my short term goal. I am always eager for more and more races and eager to keep bettering my times and try to reach and break records.
What do you think should be done to ameliorate local athletics?
Local athletics has improved a lot in the recent years. Nowadays there is a lot of awareness about the importance of exercise and a healthy lifestyle. There is a boom in long distance running and road racing with the number of people participating increasing drastically. The number of races being held has also increased. I believe that for local athletics to keep on improving, we need the deserved exposure by the media. I believe that just as every football match is covered by the media and on the sports news, so should each race that takes place in our country. Unfortunately this is not yet so. The exposure has increased during the last couple of years especially coverage on the newspapers, but I believe that there is much more that can be done.
Once again thank you for this opportunity and for all the support.