The Zoom Question & Answer with GB&NI International middle distance athlete Neil Gourley was hosted by Olympian Lynne Macdougall, who posed questions forwarded by club members. Croy Thomson with the report of the event.
Willing as ever to give back to the club where he began his running career, Neil kindly joined us in the immediate aftermath of the 2021 European Indoor Championships, in Torun, Poland. Three days previously, he had reached his 1500 final in considerable style, winning his heat ahead of eventual gold medallist Jakob Ingebrigtsen, but a twelfth-place performance in the final left him, in his own words, ‘fuming’. Regardless, Neil remained as good as his word to his club and fulfilled his commitment to GN, fronting up like the true gentleman and sportsman he is, and direct from Torun treated a great turn-out of attendees to a typically honest, insightful and informative hour’s chat, covering a broad range of aspects of top-class distance running.
How did you start out in athletics?
“It all began when one of my teachers, Mrs Thomson at Merrylee Primary, spotted me doing quite well in a school fun run. She suggested I go along to Giffnock North. I felt pretty good about that, because some of my friends had been ‘scouted’ by football clubs, and here was me being scouted too, for an athletics club!
I duly went along to Giffnock North, where Coach Clare Stevenson made it fun, with drills and my first races. The drills remain a strong memory, such as trying to run without using my arms. I did okay in my first race, and I stuck at it.”
Were you always the fastest athlete?
“Not really – I was usually there or there abouts, and I got better, but nothing special. Other guys were more physically developed than me. I made it into the top ten in Scotland … I just kept plugging away, I felt I was doing quite well and I was happy to plug away for the club.
Under Coach Gordon Lockie, I started to treat the sport more seriously, and I felt I could get better. The training group was competitive and Gordon was great at getting us ready to compete. [Neil’s group included Jack Walker, Max Lott and Grant Muir –between them they set and still hold two Scottish age-group 3×800 relay records; Neil became a National U17 XC Champion; Grant holds the national U17 3k outdoor track record.]
I was fortunate to develop physically around the ages of 16 to 17, and I started winning at Scottish national level, which previously I hadn’t thought about. Thanks go to Gordon for giving us so much of his time and encouragement.”
How would you describe the club’s contribution to helping you become an international athlete?
“I would be nowhere near where I am, without the club. The club got me to a level where I could see where I could go on to. I was in a great young team and it was good fun, seeing if we could make YAL Finals in Birmingham and so on. I miss that club and team experience, it helped me love the sport.”
Why did you go to America, and why did you choose Virginia Tech as the University to go to?
[Neil attended Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University in Blackburg, Virginia, for five years, earning a degree in Mechanical Engineering, as well as competing for the University athletics squad.]
“I’d noticed that Chris O’Hare [highly successful Edinburgh AC middle distance athlete] was doing good stuff at University of Tulsa in Oklahoma. He was a pioneer for middle-distance runners back in Scotland. I saw how well he was doing, and I felt, what a great stepping stone for progress, to be in a place where sport is well accommodated [within an academic context]. It’s tougher to do that here in Scotland, though it can be done and it’s not impossible, it’s do-able.
I tracked down a coach whose methods I agreed with, with a good programme, and I had a list of universities that offer engineering degrees. I then heard, by chance from a student friend, about Virginia Tech. I checked them out, thought, “This looks like the place.” The university people were very forthcoming, and the coach shared my views on how to improve. He’s a serious guy, and very knowledgeable. He has an impressive team record on producing great athletes.
I’d recommend staying open to all avenues on choosing your way forward, when considering colleges, and find out all you can about them. Don’t just hope all will be okay. Find out for yourself.”
Lynne: “That it all worked out so successfully is a tribute to your hard work in researching the universities.”
Having left the Collegiate system, how do you set goals, and what happens if you don’t achieve them?
“I don’t set myself up for particular times or medals. My US coach knew of my aspirations to race back in Scotland and Britain, and we took a three- or four-year view down the line. Coach Thomas had his Collegiate aims, but was always supportive of my goals beyond the Collegiate, for example, me being available to run for GB.”
“US Collegiate athletics is a highly competitive place to learn – a good thing.”
What’s your Coach’s approach to training?[Neil’s training has built up over the years ‘til now, at age 26, he has a challenging weekly schedule incorporating threshold running, track session and hills. Here Neil goes into a rough breakdown of an average week. My notes are incomplete, but details include the following. Remember, this is for an experienced, elite athlete.]
- In winter we might do 80 miles a week, tops.
- Mondays a controlled session based on 1k reps, using heart rate monitor to dictate effort.
- Tuesdays 70 minute run
- Wednesday mornings hills e.g. 3x 1200 m, 3x800m, 3x300m
“I’m not the best on hills, but I like it when I’m not the best in the group, it gives me people to chase.”
- Wednesday afternoons 6 reps on the track. “Two sessions in one day is not for young athletes! It takes years of training to be able to cope with it.”
- Thursdays easy run.
- Fridays a long tempo effort, starting out at six-minute mile pace, then faster.
- Saturdays long run.
- Sundays – day of rest.
“That’s slightly unusual in that most runners will probably take a Friday or a Monday off.”
What is your least favourite session, and your favourite?
“My least favourite session is the long tempo run. Always find that a challenge. My favourite is 6x300m, with each 300 formed from 100m in 14 seconds, the next 100 in 13 seconds, then the third 100 in 12 seconds. It’s about accelerating and changing pace. We do a lot of changing pace within reps, which gets you used to racing, when you have to respond to other runner’s moves, or being able to throw in some switches of pace of your own.
How do you keep motivated during Covid lockdown?
“Well, everything did get different. In Arizona, we still had access to a track and we’re fortunate that endurance training can be done almost anywhere. There’s no need for equipment or facilities.
I stayed eager to train hard and make up ground on people who are better than me. The one-year postponement of the Olympics is a chance to work on perceived weaknesses … for instance, I could not cope with Cheruiyot in the Doha final [Timothy Cheruiyot of Kenya won the World Championships 1500 metres in Qatar in 3:29.26, in October 2019. Neil was 11th in the final in 3:37.72 after 3:36.69 in the Semi-Final and 3:36.31 in the Qualifying Round].
“Lockdown is an opportunity to work on strengths and weaknesses.”
What’s your race day routine?
“I’m not superstitious, I don’t have a perfect meal for pre-race. I’d advise you to eat well normally, eat well all the time. Go for a mix of proteins, carbs, fat. Mashed potato is good.
Race day breakfast might be porridge, peanut butter, fruit, toast, eggs. There will be a 15-minute jog including four or five sets of fast strides, to wake my body up. You have to discover what works for you as an individual.
Lunch might be a turkey and avocado sandwich. It’s all trial and error, figure it out as you go, work out when you should eat and what.
I’d also say that, on race days, try not to fret or worry. Switch off. There’s plenty of time to relax, be natural and don’t focus too hard on the race. Don’t change stuff wildly. Relax.”
Do you get nervous before races?
“I’m less nervous now than when I was young, when every race was important! Experience helps. Nerves can help, they can be a useful tool – they help you find an extra gear. Nerves mean you care, you’re alive, it’s great, I’m getting ready, I want to do well, I know I’m doing sport for good reasons.”
Tell us about race tactics.
“I’ll need to write a book about tactics one day! They differ. In time trials, I try to relax once I’m in a good position [in the bunch of runners]. You only need to be in a good place once. It’s all about timing. Try not to be in an outside lane, you’re running further than necessary. Being out in front can work, at the right pace for you. Try to control your energy.[Neil has said elsewhere that in the Torun 1500 indoor final, he made one mistake – at the very start – then had to spend too much energy trying to get to where he should have been.]
How do you stay motivated during a race?
“When I was younger, during races I’d be asking myself, ‘Why am I doing this? This hurts!” Often, I try to focus on the people at home and in the stand, who want me to do well. I know that if I fight hard, I’ll feel good when I see them.”
What’s the atmosphere like in Torun, where there’s no crowd in the stadium?
“It’s not a big deal, really. When you’re racing it’s a blur anyway. I do like a crowd, though.”
Tell us about recovering after races.
“Sleep is a great recovery engine. But if you’re talking about recovering in the immediate aftermath of races, then I have a 24-hour rule [Neil allows himself 24 hours to feel good after a successful race, or to get upset over a bad performance: after that it’s forget it, either way, you’re back to work.].
“On Friday night I was fuming! [Neil made one mistake right at the start of the 1500 final and ended up 11th having gone into the race as a medal contender.]. I believe I am at the same level as Jakob Ingebrigtsen and Marcin Lewandowski [the pre-race favourites] and I made a mistake. I have to stay sharper on the start line, use the elbows. I was a bit passive, I should have been more authoritative.
I arrived with high hopes and left with disappointment. But there is no time to brood. I have to get ready for my Tokyo attempt [Tokyo Summer Olympics start 23rd July 2021]. I’m taking confidence in feeling in my best-ever condition. That was the worst mistake I’ve made in my 26 years, but I’ll refocus.” [I’d say Neil is already refocused, going by his positive demeanour throughout.]
What advice would you give young athletes and what’s the best advice you’ve had in your career?
The hours around training make a real difference. Work hard in training, have a good attitude to training. Fact is, you don’t get better in training … you’re actually breaking down your body! It’s the other hours that matter, in determining whether the adaptation you’re aiming for in training actually happens. It is those hours that set you apart as the better athlete.
Get ten hours sleep a night. Eat well, eat your vegetables, protein and so on. It all helps your body recover. I eat plenty! When I was young, I couldn’t eat enough. When you burn energy at high levels you have to reload. When I’m at home, the family food bill skyrockets, as my parents will tell you. I’d like to thank my mum for spoiling me when I’m at home, she never gets the credit for all she does.”
What are your plans going forward?
“It’s an Olympic year, so the aim is to be in the Olympic 1500 Final. First step towards that is to make the GB&NI team. Right now, I’ll be heading back to Oregon soon – it’s warmer there, and sunnier!”[Eugene, in the State of Oregon, is known as Tracktown USA, and the University of Oregon’s Hayward Field Stadium will host the World Championships 2022. The talented and charismatic American distance runner Steve Prefontaine* trained and raced in Eugene in the 1970s.]
What’s the Torun Gingerbread Mascot all about? We thought it was a slice of toast.
“Yes, we weren’t sure about the Torun gingerbread man, but it’s a local delicacy apparently. I see my father is requesting gingerbread.”
Lynne: “Thank you Neil, for inspiring everyone with all your efforts, especially in encouraging the kids. It means a lot to us, particularly in the way you conduct yourself. We all were excited to watch the racing. Thank you.”
THANKS ALSO to Lynne for being an expert question-master and to Gerry Duggan, Graham Dunn and Clare Stevenson for seamlessly assembling this international production. Some 42 invitations were accepted, and we estimate about 100 people attended in total. Thank you all for dropping in. See you in Tokyo!
These notes are not comprehensive. They are based on a true event on Sunday 7th March 2021, recorded as a handwritten transcript intended only as reference. The Q&A video was recorded in full and should be available soon. No gingerbread was harmed in the making of these notes. End. CT
*”To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift.” – Steve Prefontaine, US Olympian.
Thanks as ever to Croy Thomson for this important record for our Club Archives
Neil Gourleyfor his “typically honest, insightful and informative hour’s chat”