Is running a team sport? It is a question that regularly raises its head. To those not involved with the sport, it appears to be a strange concept. Surely, it is an individual activity. It is down to the athlete themselves, no-one else, to cover the distance in whatever time they are capable. And yet, ask most people who know the sport of athletics and they will tell you that, beyond any doubt, there is clearly a team element involved. Whether it be pacing in races, cheering from the sidelines or helping with one of the thousand other elements required for an optimum run, in my mind, it is clear. I would not have the personal bests or championship history that I do, if it were not for the team I have around me. Therefore, when I was offered the opportunity to become part of the new first professional athletics team ‘NNRunning’, I jumped at the chance.
The list of my teammates in the NNRunning team is a world-class array of runners. There are several Olympic and World Championship medallists and I feel immensely privileged to be associated with them, even if only in a small way. While it has never been said, I feel an expectation. There is an added incentive for me to do well. The NNRunning team has standards. Standards that are set at the very highest of current human capabilities. While I may not be setting any world records soon, I want to do my best. I want to represent NNRunning to my best, and show the owners, that their belief in asking me to be part of their team was not misplaced.
After a hit and miss month of training in March, through a combination of illness and the subsequent recovery period, training was slowly beginning to improve. The NNRunning team was officially launched at the start of April in Rotterdam. Following the launch, my first involvement was to help pace some of my teammates in the Rotterdam marathon, a few days later. Having not raced since the Beppu marathon, nine weeks previously, the nerves were mounting. With several big names in the athletic world having attended the team launch, I was keen to do a good pacing job and not disappoint. With the pace set at 4.54 per mile, I only managed to reach the ten mile mark before my lack of fitness began to show. In my mind, as soon as you cannot hold the set pace, it is best to stop. Nothing is worse in a marathon than a slowing and surging pacemaker, disrupting the rhythm of the group. I was embarrassed and my confidence was low. I had wanted to help my teammates and go for several miles further but quite simply, my fitness had not yet returned.
I returned home from Rotterdam eager to push on and get back to the standard of running that I want. However, a fortnight later I found myself on a plane flying back to the beautiful country of Japan. This time it was for the Gifu half marathon. After my run in Rotterdam, I was hoping for a solid performance. The plan was to see how far under 63 minutes I would be able to run. As I warmed up on the morning of the race, my body had other plans. I felt like I should be nowhere else except curled up in a bed. I was struggling to break nine minute miles and everything felt very flat. I went through the standard motions of my warm up, as I always do. I was hoping that this was one of those races where I feel horrible during the warm up and then exceed expectations in the race. Sadly, it was not. I started with a 4.44 mile but I was working hard. The next mile was a 4.55, followed by a 5.15. Soon I was hitting 5.30 miling and there was nothing I could do to go faster. What followed was easily my worst hour of running in the past four years, if not ever. I stumbled across the line, not in pain or exhaustion, but simply just feeling tired. For the second time this year, I found myself flying home from halfway across the world with feelings of immense disappointment and frustration. The boost in confidence that I had been hoping for had not occurred. Quite the opposite.
And so, here I am at the end of April. While my confidence is low at the moment, I have to believe that this is rock bottom. Training has been improving and yet I still have nothing to show for it. On the afternoon of the Japanese race, I was watching the London marathon, tracking the Irish athletes as they wound their way through the city streets. Watching my training partner, Kevin Seaward cross the finish line a mere eight seconds outside from the World Championship qualification time was tough. I knew he was in fantastic shape going in to the race but that is the cruelty of marathon running. On the flip side, was the delight of watching Sean Hehir cross the line as the first Irish athlete, booking his place on the World Championships team, alongside Mick Clohisey and myself. It is a strong team and all eyes are now firmly switching towards the Championship marathon on the 6th August in London. All I can say is, at least they aren’t in Japan!