A Rollercoaster Breakthrough Season

 

11655398_933526716689418_45185047_nLet me start with a bit of a cliché. On the track, this year has been a complete rollercoaster ride. It’s well known, of course, that athletics is all about the highs and the lows and that’s never been truer for me this year. Between January and now an up and down wave like pattern has developed, charting both the feel good, high points and the tough-to-take low points of the season.

In February I was making some solid progress and running significant PBs on the track competing for Virginia Tech University in the American collegiate system – the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletics Association). One of the biggest goals our team had for that indoor season was to qualify a DMR (Distance Medley Relay) team for the NCAA National Indoor Championships in Fayetteville, Arkansas as we felt we had a group of guys good enough to do some real damage at the national championships. The DMR is very much an American event which was actually included in the World Relay Championships in the Bahamas this year. It consists of 4 legs: 1200m, 400m, 800m and 1600m and has a reputation for being both unpredictable and thrilling for spectators. At the end of February we took a squad to compete at a low key athletics meeting in North Carolina to try to post a time that would qualify us for nationals in the event. This was our final opportunity to run a time which would elevate us to be ranked in the top 12 teams nationally – the requirement for NCAA qualification. We would have to do it the hard way – from the front and against the clock, but we were up for it. We knew we had it in us to run the time. I led off the team in the 1200m leg, splitting 2:55 putting us well on our way and Tommy Curtin, our anchor leg, ran an impressive 4:00 mile split which was enough to qualify us for the NCAA championships ranked 6th in the country. We were elated with this performance! We’d be going to Fayetteville with a great chance of a podium position as the first half dozen teams had very similar qualifying times. What an opportunity.

Let’s not forget what I said about the rollercoaster experience I’ve had this season though. With every high point in athletics there is usually at least one equally low point. We’d soon find this out all too well at the National Championships 3 weeks later in Arkansas. We’d had a change in our team line up from our qualification run which meant that I was going to run the anchor leg (1600m) and Juan Campos, who was coming into the best form of his life, would lead off on the 1200m leg. If we could get to the last leg in touch with the leaders we felt there was a great chance we would be a real threat to anyone that day. This would mean the first 3 legs would have to be perfect. Roughly 5 minutes where everything went smoothly – in what are notoriously messy races with 12 teams lined up on a tight indoor track. Things however went smoothly for a total of about 30 seconds. At the end of the very first 200m lap, Juan, a normally smart and astute racer, crashed to the floor of the famous Randal Tyson Track Centre. Unable to recover fully, our team was out of the race before it really began. I started my leg 100m behind the leaders with no chance of challenging for anything resembling a good finish and ran poorly anyway – lacking in any motivation or adrenaline that had been there in abundance prior to the fall. We  finished 11th out of 12 feeling completely gutted. So much preparation had gone into this day and we had nothing whatsoever to show for it. Perspective, however, was granted in the form of the only team that we would finish ahead of that day. The University of Alabama’s lead off leg, Matt Airola, another guy that fell dramatically on the first leg of the race, we would later learn had ruptured his Achilles tendon and would be out of action for months. So as we sat around after the race feeling sorry for ourselves we were reminded that although we felt that we were right at the bottom of the metaphorical rollercoaster, things can always be worse.

After the indoor season I took a break from racing long enough to build back up some fitness to see me through the forthcoming outdoor season. With the exception of one hopeless 5k which I ran as a test of fitness after having had a cold, I was making really solid progress in the early stages of the outdoor season and even managed to finish 2nd in my conference championship 1500m in Tallahassee, Florida beating 7 or 8 guys that had already run 3:42 or better that season. This was result I was really chuffed with considering I had only run 3:44 by that point. Conference Championships in America are a little bit like each individual league in European football which then makes Nationals a bit like the American collegiate track and field’s equivalent of the Champions League.

Qualifying for this NCAA Championship in the outdoor season was my no. 1 goal for the season. I would have the opportunity to do that at the Regional meet in Jacksonville, Florida at the end of May. In order to qualify for regionals an athlete has to be in the top 48 in their region (basically either the whole of East or West USA) for their respective event based on rankings, which I was at the time. In order to advance further – on to nationals – I would have to race in two qualifying rounds to be one of only a total of 12 able to advance. A big task but, nevertheless, one that both my coach and I felt was achievable. The first round of regionals came and during the race I felt awful. In the last 300m – usually the strongest part of my race – I felt completely flat and only just sneaked into the next round as a fastest loser. I wasn’t panicking at that point though. I knew that often I recover well between rounds and that, with a day’s rest, I could bounce back and run like I had been running all season. The next round came and I was lined up against a strong field, but nothing I didn’t feel I could handle on my day. I just needed to feel like myself again and I’d be fine. I’d beaten a lot of the field before and a top 5 place would guarantee the opportunity to compete at Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon – the king of all athletics venues in the US – at the NCAA Championships. I was feeling great that day and ready to go.

It’s quite funny how vividly you often remember bad races in this sport as you run them through your head again and again. This particular race I may never forget. In fact I learned more about championship 1500m running during this weekend than I probably had in the past few years. Coming into the last lap I remember being shocked at just how fresh I felt. Despite sitting a little off the front I knew I had enough gas left in the tank to kick down the leaders and book my spot to nationals. I then moved up gradually on the inside and with 150m to go I was sitting in about 7th in a very tight pack and was full of running – I was going to do it! However, to move up I’d used the inside line to make up ground and what I didn’t realise at the time was how bad a position I had actually found myself in. With someone directly in front and two people directly to my right I was completely boxed. Still though, I’d seen this before and the gap almost always opens up on the home stretch. But then something I definitely hadn’t seen before happened. A line of four athletes directly in front of me were kicking for home exactly side by side with about 80m to go. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I was ready to blow by them but had nowhere to go. It was far too late to swing out into lane four or five. I was sitting in lane one with all the energy in the world left and nowhere to use it. All the way down the home straight I was willing the smallest gap to open that I could get through. Surely it would open. Surely someone would pull away. Surely someone would ‘die’ down the home stretch. No such luck. I crossed the line bewildered and devastated with what had just happened. Had I just not been physically up to it on the day I would have been disappointed but would have much more easily accepted the outcome.  However, I’d felt brilliant on the day and had so much left to give. It was no use to me though. My naivety had cost me dearly and I would not be running at the 2015 NCAA Outdoor Championships – missing out by nine hundredths of a second. For as long as I compete I never want to be in that situation again. I was beyond frustrated and verging on despondency afterwards that evening. In fact, embarrassingly, I’m not exaggerating when I say that I was in tears on the phone to my dad later that night. Once again, I’d hit the bottom of the damn rollercoaster ride that my season was becoming.

After I’d regrouped a bit after the race I had a chat with my coach, who was nothing but supportive, and he suggested that I travel with the team to Oregon anyway and race in a high calibre track event in Portland, Oregon (where Mo Farah lives and trains). This meet was taking place on the same weekend as NCAA’s and would be a great chance for me to seek redemption in the form of running a new personal best. I hadn’t done myself justice this season and needed to prove to myself as much as anyone that I was in great shape and ready to lower my PB significantly. I’d also had to change my goals for the season. There was now only one option that would rescue my own opinion of my season – to qualify for the European U23 Championships and thereby win my first GB vest. To do this though I’d have to meet the tough selection criteria imposed by British Athletics. The only way to guarantee selection would be to run under the qualifying standard of 3:42.00 and to win the English Championships and GB trial in Bedford. The first part, however, would be pretty daunting in itself. I’d have to drop nearly three seconds from my PB. A big leap in terms of 1500m running, especially considering how flat I’d been feeling in training after my disappointment at Regionals. The intervals I was doing in training just didn’t feel as comfortable as they had done three weeks previously. In all honesty, that week before my race in Portland I was convinced I’d blown my season. I came off what was supposed to be a straightforward track session feeling completely spent and useless. The only thing keeping my head up at that point was knowing how hard I’d worked in the lead up to this point and knowing how consistently high a level I had maintained my training at. Surely it wasn’t all to be in vain.

The night of the Portland Track Classic rolled around and for the first time in two weeks I felt like I had some real pop in my legs again. My coach had assured me that I’d feel good by the time this race came around but I had seriously doubted it. I had spent the past couple of weeks feeling pessimistic about my training and my fitness. However, as is the case 99.9% of the time, Coach Thomas was right. My legs felt light again. Maybe I could actually do this.

I lined up against a field made up of both high quality collegiate athletes and some professionals as well and we were taken through 800m by a superb pace-making job in 1:58 – exactly what I wanted. It was on! I don’t remember much from the race apart from hearing my coach getting really animated when I got to the last 200m shouting ‘PUNCH THE LAST 150!’.  So I did! I had been patient in a tight pack and made a strong move from 9th to 4th in the final straight and crossed the line up to my eyeballs in the pain that all middle distance runners know only too well. My head was spinning and I was struggling for breath, but all I wanted to know was what the clock said. Had I done enough? The next few minutes were filled with another experience all middle distance runners know all too well. People telling you what time ‘they had you at.’ A notoriously subjective piece of information that should always be taken with a pinch of salt. A couple of people had said 3:41 and one had even said 3:40, but that is never enough. Often hand timing is at least half a second off the actual time. I was desperate to hear the official result. I had to wait a hell of a long twenty minutes before I finally was told by an official that I’d been clocked at 3:41.14. Brilliant! Game on. Part one completed. Having the PB was fantastic but I wasn’t actually all that interested in that part of it. I had run the qualifying time and now had a chance to represent my country if I could take care of part two of the selection criteria: win the trials.

A big turnaround was required of me if I was going to get this done. I had to begin travelling back from Oregon on Sunday night and not arrive back home in Glasgow until Tuesday morning. The 1500m heats at the British U23 trials were on the following Saturday morning in Bedford. I’d have to try to eat and sleep well enough to recover from all the racing and travelling I’d done. I didn’t though. My sleeping pattern was all over the place that week because of the eight hour time difference from the west coast of America. This was compounded by my most naïve mistake of the season. I thought it would be a reasonable idea to room with my dad in a hotel in Bedford. The man who just so happens to be the loudest snoring mammal on the planet! Now don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t be where I am today, especially in sport, if it wasn’t for my dad. I can’t begin to cover all the things that both he and my mum have done to help me pursue my goals and dreams in athletics but wow, that man makes a racket when he’s asleep! This did not help my race preparations one bit. I got through my heat on the Saturday feeling particularly jaded. But, with the aid of some ear plugs, felt a bit more refreshed the next day after a slightly less disturbed night of sleep.

I went into Sunday’s final that weekend with an unusually high degree of confidence despite my less than ideal preparation. It wasn’t really a question of if I was going to win. It was how. I figured that since it was such a windy day it would be a slow race as nobody would want to lead and, going on previous experience, someone would go for it with 400m to go. Sure enough, this was exactly how it played out. Cameron Boyek, my fellow Scot, an athlete who had already ran 3:40 this year and who I had great respect for, kicked hard with about 350 to go but I was right on his shoulder. Right where I had planned to be. Most people who watched that race would think that because I passed Boyek with about 80m to go would say that I won the race in the last 100m. I would beg to differ though. I won that race by letting him take on the stiff headwind on the back straight with 300m to go. I knew I had to wait to make my move to give me the best chance of winning. I did and my patience paid off when I was able to punch the air in celebration at the line after a 52 second closing lap, a feeling I will never forget. I’d actually achieved it. I had done all the selectors had asked of me and I’d punched my ticket to Tallinn in Estonia – the host city of the 2015 European U23 Championships. At this point, I didn’t think things could possibly get any better than that for me this year. I thought the rollercoaster I’d been on had reached its ultimate peak. I’d achieved something I’d been striving for my entire athletics career – a GB vest. However, I was wrong. The best was yet to come.

To be perfectly honest, at this point I was just happy that I had made the team. I had given precious little thought to how I could actually perform at the championships because, admittedly, it hadn’t been my priority at the beginning of the season. As the championships in Tallinn drew nearer however, I began to develop a really strong desire to do everything I could to represent my country well. As Jim Telfer, the legendary Scottish and British Lions coach was credited as saying “I’m not interested in those who want the jersey; I’m only interested in those who want to win in the jersey”. This is the attitude I needed to take into these championships if I wanted to do me, and all those who have supported me, proud. There was no way I was just going to be a tourist on this trip. I’d give it everything I had because I know how many others would give everything to be offered the opportunity I had been given. Taking it for granted was not an option.

I expected to feel a bit intimidated by my first major international championships. The hotel was bustling with big teams from all over Europe, I was recognising faces I’d seen at Diamond League events and there was a very serious mood about all the athletes I came across in the first couple of days. Intimidated though I was not, I actually found myself relishing being in a similar team environment, albeit at a higher level than that I’ve grown to love from my time at Virginia Tech and I was thriving in the anxious buzz that was surrounding the whole event.

 

Come the day of the heats, I was fully ready to grasp the chance to show what I was made of. I planned to stay close to the front in my heat but not try to lead until the latter stages of the race. However, I always feel getting hung up on a race plan can do more harm than good. You’ve got to race in the situation that’s in front of you and not the situation you wanted to be in. This was true of my heat where I had been sitting in second place as the pace started to slow after 500m. A Serbian athlete who had taken it out had second thoughts and the race slowed. I wasn’t comfortable with that at all. If nobody was even challenging for the front I was going to grab the race by the horns and control it myself. This allowed me to stay out of trouble and be in charge of how the race played out. I wound the race up over the last lap and despite being passed by three people with 200 to go, I didn’t panic and was able to close hard enough to comfortably finish third, with the top four automatically making it through to the final two days later. Job done! Or was it? If I was to perform well in the final I would have to do what I would usually call ‘out-recovering’ the competition. Something that I feel athletes often overlook. My coach will often tell me after a race that the ‘recovery clock is ticking’ meaning that every second that I waste when I should be focusing on recovering between rounds is vital. For example, usually I will meticulously go through a cool down routine that involves stretching, strides, a light massage and an ice bath immediately after my race. This combined with taking on a high quality source of protein and vitamin C would help me ‘out-recover’ some people that might have just jogged around for ten minutes after their race.

 

The great thing about taking care of all the small things in between rounds is that you can have the absolute confidence that you couldn’t have done any more to be ready for the following race. Any doubts you can eliminate when you line up on the starting line are always worth eliminating. You’ve got enough to worry about anyway. Speaking of doubts and worries, years ago I would have expected coming into the final, the biggest race of my life to date, to be on the verge of throwing up with nervousness. This though is something I’ve learned to control. I find the absolutely best way to do this is to focus on how big an opportunity you have in front of you instead of going through all the ‘what ifs.’ If that doesn’t work I’ll think of all the people that are supporting me and willing me to do well that day. A lot of people like to focus on proving doubters or ‘haters’ wrong, but to be honest I have no time for that kind of attitude. I’ll always be far more eager to prove supporters right than doubters wrong. But that’s just me. To each his own.

 

Anyway, back to the championships. Lining up for that final, despite the fact that it was the biggest  and highest quality race I’d ever been involved in, I wasn’t all that nervous having employed the techniques I’ve just discussed. I was determined but relaxed. A combination that takes a bit of practice getting right, but you must have a sufficiency of each to perform well. The gun was fired and the next few minutes of racing were some of the most physical I’ve ever come across. Jostling, loose elbows and wide surges were all pretty commonplace and to be honest I didn’t make all the right decisions in the race. However, with 400m to go I found myself in a decent spot before being checked from both the inside and the outside. This cost me a lot of the progress I’d made through the field but I still had plenty left and started moving through gears down the back stretch, before being cut up again  at 200m to go. Still though, I knew I had more to give and knew a good finish was still on the cards. I was still in 7th place and remained that way until 100m to go but then the race opened up. I finally had clear track to use and gave it all I had. The whole way down that straight it seemed certain I was going to end up 4th. For all my effort I was going to end up in everyone’s least favourite position. I was driving to the line when I noticed that the Italian who was in third had begun to slow, thinking his third place was secure. I could sense he was easing up, convinced he’d won a medal. He’d done so just too early though. He hadn’t seen me coming two lanes to his right and I inched past him on the line. The look on his face after we both crossed the line is something both he and I will probably never forget. He had the look of a man that had just been robbed blind. In this case he had. However I did hold plenty of sympathy for him because in much the same way as I had learned from mistakes in May at the NCAA Regional Championships, he too will have learned a valuable lesson. In fact I met him later that night, and being the nice chap that he was, he actually bought me a drink as a ‘thank you’ because he will never make that particular mistake again. I of course then reciprocated the kind gesture by buying him the next round as a ‘thank you’ for allowing me to own certain piece of round, bronze hardware that could so easily having been sitting on his bedside table now instead of mine. As every coach tells you, ‘Always run through the line!’

 

Standing on the podium and seeing your national flag raised as a result of your efforts truly is a special feeling and one that I’m hugely motivated to experience again on a higher level. It was something that if you told me last year would happen, while I was struggling with glandular fever and then a hip injury, I might have laughed in your face. Yet there I was, trying to act cool and composed but ending up grinning like a cheeky schoolboy on the rostrum. The hard graft was worth it. I had now reached a high point on the rollercoaster of my year that I could never have imagined would be there. Here’s to climbing even higher in years to come!

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