One of the toughest things about running is the sense that the job is never finished. There is always another race to complete, a quicker time to run or a better position to achieve. However, sometimes, just sometimes, you have that race where everything goes to plan. You sit down in your hotel room in the silence, long after the finish line and look at the results and smile. No matter how long you stare at the jumble of numbers in front of your eyes, trying to spot the negatives, few jump out. The World Half Marathon last weekend was one of those races.
It is no secret that there is currently fierce competition in Ireland to fill the three available marathon spots. With two of the athletes who have posted quicker marathons times named alongside me in the team, the race had an added degree of pressure. Ever since my agonising result at the Berlin marathon, I knew that I would have to fight for a position on the Olympic team. The build up to the race last weekend had been slow and measured. The London marathon has been my main goal since the turn of the year but the half marathon in Cardiff was a vital part of that plan. It was an additional chance to show the selectors the potential that I possess. Over the past six months I have had many doubts, or should that be fears, that I would never get the chance to show off my true talent in running. Running has given me so many days of frustration and annoyance, through either injury or lack of training that sometimes it is hard to remember the joys that a good run can bring. Indeed, there have been several moments where I have questioned whether all the sacrifice is worth the end result. However, this is 2016, an Olympic year, and so far things are going exactly to form.
I knew that I was in decent shape coming in to Cardiff. In February, I had won two local races, both against reasonably strong competition. However, with both races taking place in windy and wet conditions, I still had no fast time posted next to my name for 2016. A fortnight before the World Half Marathon, I had a 24 mile long Sunday run. With the rest of my squad busy with other commitments, it was a run I would have to do by myself. This would be as much mental training, as physical. Four laps of my local Bushy Park was the route. Again in gusty conditions, I ticked off the miles. The plan was for steady 5.20 miles. Passing through the halfway mark spot on pace, I was feeling extremely easy. Opening up the legs in the last six mile lap, and finishing with a 5.04 mile in a comfortable 2.07 dead, it was starting to hit me. I am actually in pretty good shape here.
The night before the race in Wales, I had my usual pre-race phonecall with my coach, Andy Hobdell. The startlist had been released and the competition was, as expected, world class. Going by personal bests, I was ranked thirtieth out of eighty eight competitors. Andy was blunt. ‘Last time in Copenhagen, you went out too easy and gave yourself too much work to do. I don’t want the same thing to happen again this year. Get out fast. Do your homework. Work out which group you are going to run with.’ I studied the startlist. I reckoned that a top twenty finish was realistic and would be a solid run, given my perceived level of fitness. The next morning, I had my list of five names. A potential group of runners who I could work together with, so that we would all drag each other round to a fast time.
The gun went off and the pace was blistering. Naively, I thought that the weather might have slowed down the Africans and that the start might have been slow with a gradual build up. After 600m, I found myself mid-pack in the second group beside a decent Scottish runner, Callum Hawkins. I realised that we were dropping too far back from the lead group. Amongst heavy breaths I said to him ‘Those two Japanese runners and French guy up there, that’s the group we want.’ ‘Too fast’ he replied. I had my first decision to make. With Andy’s words still prominent in my thoughts, I pushed on to the lead group. As we hit the mile mark in 4.28, I could feel the lactic building. The pace will settle, I told myself. It will settle. We covered another 800m and still the pace was relentless. Just as I made the decision to ease back to 4.40 pace, so did a Japanese and Eritrean runner. I had worked hard early on but this was the perfect group of three that I wanted.
And so we continued until mile ten. The three of us alternating who would sit in and who would surge forward, continuously pushing. We would spot a group of two runners up ahead, point to them and do a thumbs up. Despite the three of us not speaking a common language, we all understood what the other wanted to do. We continued to catch everyone we could see. At mile ten, the wind was increasing and the pace was beginning to drop. Having gone through a rough patch at mile six, I was now running comfortable. The pain that I had been expecting had still not hit and so I forged on. Almost immediately the group tore apart. The next mile I had an Ethiopian for company but I could tell he was struggling to hold on. Over the next mile, he drifted backwards and I was on my own. The weather was horrendous by now, with a combination of gales and lashing rain. There was no one else in sight ahead of me. All of a sudden as if from nowhere, Callum Hawkins appeared on my shoulder and passed me by. ‘I haven’t worked this hard to get beaten with a mile to go.’ I told myself inwardly. I surged forward, passing him again. This back and fro race within a race continued until about 600m to the finish line. It would have made sense for one of us to sit in and get a tow from the other athlete. However, we both wanted to win this race outright, on our own merit. With 600m to go I pushed hard up the final hill. There was no looking back at this point. It was head down, driving hard with the arms. Coming into the finishing straight, I knew I had an unassailable gap. Crossing the line, I was exhausted but content. I already knew that I was the second European after Mo Farah. I later found out that my 14th place meant that I was also the first athlete not born in Africa to cross the finish line. More importantly for me, I was well clear from any other Irish athlete.
Cardiff was a good day, but the job is not yet done. At least I have given the selectors something to seriously think about, regardless of what happens at the London marathon. However, I do not want to give the selectors a choice to make. I want to head in to the marathon and run a time that I believe reflects my current fitness. I am in the form of my life. I am fit and I am healthy. The next three weeks will be about recovering and maintaining my fitness. Hopefully London will go just as well as Cardiff and any doubts that the selectors may have about my ability to contend in Rio will be erased. For now though, it is time to forget all about selection or even the Olympics. My goal is, quite simply, to focus on getting to the startline in one piece.