Got my kicks for free

Anger. Disappointment. Frustration. Relief. It is hard to accurately describe my feelings after racing late last Saturday night. Having flown to America to compete over twenty five laps of the infamous Cobb track at Stanford, I had committed a lot of time and money for this one race. The plan was to break twenty eight minutes for the first time and in doing so, achieve the 2016 Olympic qualifying time, in addition to a Northern Irish record. Sadly, the plan did not come to fruition and after several days of pre-race preparation in America, I faced the prospect of a long journey home and some tough questions to be asked.

The month of April was as perfect as I could have hoped, in terms of training. I got down to my ideal racing weight, was smashing each session and becoming stronger in the gym. There was not a thing I would have changed about the previous four weeks. I had committed myself fully to the training, with few distractions. I had sacrificed many evenings out with friends in preparation and anticipation of what I might possibly achieve in Stanford. As I boarded the plane to America, I was full of optimism. If I had a near perfect race, breaking twenty eight minutes was possible, only a solid race and running sub 28.15 was likely. A Northern Irish record of 28.32 was, in my mind, a certainty. Going by the training I had done, I was confident that I could run sub twenty nine minutes in a time trial on my own, if I so desired.

I arrived in Stanford five days before the race. With the eight hour time difference, the first two days were dedicated to recovery, composed of five mile runs, no quicker than eight minute mile pace. I would finish each run at the world class gym facilities on the Stanford campus. Every piece of gym equipment imaginable was present, often in numerous quantities. Never have I seen a gym so large or as well equipped. Each wall was dotted with action photos of previous alumni….Tiger Woods, John McEnroe, Ryan Hall. They had all passed through this gym. Having time to relax between the runs, I explored the campus grounds. Beside the track were the tennis courts, which would be well capable of hosting a tennis open championships. One hundred metres away was the 50m swimming pool, complete with diving pool and practice pool. A short walk round the corner and the Stanford Cardinal’s football stadium stands block out the sunlight. Add in the perfectly maintained hockey pitches, soccer pitches and baseball diamonds, among others, and it is easy to see why Stanford is world renowned amongst the sporting elite. Dotted beside each sporting facility were three tall boulders, each inscribed with the names of previous Stanford Olympians in the chosen sport. It was an impressive list. I wonder how many my old alma mater, Queen’s University Belfast, can boast.

As in 2014, the race was to take place at ten o’clock on Saturday evening. With fifty seven entrants in the 10,000m, the race was to be divided into an A and B race. Last year, Stanford was my first ever track 10,000m and so it was a struggle to be placed in the A race. This year, I was confident that I had improved sufficiently to be competitive in the A race, if only I was given the chance. Forty eight hours before the race, they announced the heats. The organisers clearly did not feel as confident in my ability as I was. I was seeded in the B race. It felt like a kick in the stomach. I had spent a large amount of money and time to travel half way across the world, only to be told that I would not be racing in the race that I wanted. It was clear in my mind, if I was to have any chance of breaking twenty eight minutes, I needed to be in the A race. Emails were sent and after a chat with the organiser, I had to resign myself to the fact that things would not be changed. I was to compete in the B race.

From dreaming of possibilities one moment, to hard hitting reality the next. As much as I wanted to stay positive, I told myself that the trip was a waste of time. Without the fast pace of the A race to pull me along, I knew that my goal was not achievable or realistic. I had lost the race two days before I even got anywhere near the startline. After a long chat with the coach, we tried to put an optimistic spin on things. There was still much to race for. Firstly, it would be a good race to win, and a Northern Irish record was still up for grabs. I tried to turn my mindset around. Honestly though, I was annoyed, or rather perhaps more frustrated, that I would not get a chance to prove how fit I was on a world stage, in front of the watching athletic elite.

I had the splits all planned out. I still had to believe that if we went through halfway in under 14.10 pace, there might still be a chance of picking it up in the second half. I knew if I was to do that, I would have to run the majority of the second half on my own, without any assistance. As we came round to the end of the first lap, the clock read 70 seconds high. Damnit, the pacemaker was already two seconds down on the expected 68 second pace. I tried not to panic, maybe he will pick it up over the next few laps. The second lap was another 70 and then a 69. As I sat right behind him in second, I was staring at the clock every 200m. We were miles off my splits. I would not break 28 minutes tonight. My head went down. What am I doing here? The question repeated itself over and over in my mind. As we passed halfway in 14.16, I wanted nothing more than just to finish the race. I could not have cared less about what time I was running nor who was passing me by. I still don’t know what my official time crossing the line was. I believe it was around the 29.15 mark but honestly, it could have been 30.15 and I would still feel the same. I crossed the finish line caught up in a sense of regret and disappointment. I knew that I had not performed to my physical best, hampered by my negative mental attitude, a thought that annoyed me even further. As I took off my spikes, I faced the prospect of a long journey home alone.

The race video can be found at the following link: http://www.flotrack.org/coverage/252167-Payton-Jordan-Invitational-2015/video/769053-Mens-10k-H02#.VeDVx62FPIU.

And that is where I am now. Very rarely in running do I through in the towel. Never before have I had a race where I was so fed up with running and so glad to just simply complete the required number of laps. You always read in books about how running is a certain percentage physical and an another portion mental, but never have I noticed it so acutely. I know I was not in the right frame of mind for racing, once I found out that I was not to be in the A race. The question now is, where do I go from here? And there really is only one option. To race again, and soon. I know I am fit, fitter than I have ever been in my life. I now just have to find a race in which I can prove it to everyone else. One positive to take from Stanford, is that I have returned home injury free, something that could not be said last year. At least with my body still in one piece, I will have the chance to race again on another day

The take home message for me this month is simple. No matter what the distance, you are never going to run your best when your mind is not prepared. I was ready to race something special in Stanford but things were not to be. It would be easy to find an excuse. To say, perhaps it was jetlag, or perhaps it was because the race was so late at night or even that I was not fit enough. In reality, I know that the most likely reason is simply that I was not ready mentally. It is easy to overthink running, to start questioning training, to slip off the rails. But then I remember, one bad race does not define an athlete. And if I go smash a qualifying time in my next race, Stanford will long be forgotten. For now, however, the pain and embarrassment is still raw. I am keen to bounce back and prove my fitness. Next year, I don’t want to be able to give them the option of putting me in the B race. And in order to do that, the only way is to keep training and keep racing. For that is the only place where real answers can be found.

From Resus to Rio

Subscribe for updates on my upcoming book which will be available to buy following the Rio Olympics 2016