Sonia O’Sullivan: Have Athletics Ireland done their homework ahead of the world championships?

A holding camp shouldn’t mean being cooped up all day, and the Irish camp is in the middle of nowhere

Countless times over the past year I have driven up and down the road from Portland to Eugene. Each time you discover a little more, explore things around you and work out how you might help the athletes get around and navigate things when the World Championships begin here on Friday week.

It’s the first time the Championships are being staged in United States and it’s getting close to showtime.

Eugene may seem a somewhat unlikely venue — up here in Oregon in the Pacific Northwest — although it’s long been known as Track Town USA, and when the world’s best athletes start to arrive it’s going to get busy and a lot more crowded.

It will feel good to have a little hometown advantage, even if just some familiarity and on the ground knowledge. This is the stuff athletes love, not having to go searching for the best spots to run and relax, exactly what I would be thinking about if I were still competing here.

It’s some peace of mind when you can be pointed in the right direction to escape from the village and stadium bubble, which can be overwhelming at a time when all you want to do is relax and prepare for each round of the biggest competition this year — and the biggest anywhere outside the Olympics.

When I first learned that the Irish team would be coming out this week for a holding camp in Vida up the McKenzie river Valley, one hour east of Eugene, I was excited to get in touch and offer any local advice or knowledge that would benefit the athletes.

I know the resort area and it’s certainly a lovely part of Oregon, a beautiful track close by, only there’s more to the life of an athlete in these final days of preparation than eating and sleeping and training. Especially when you’re, what’s politely described as, out in the middle of nowhere.

There needs to be some escape time, and this is what I wanted to point out to the Irish team, what to expect on arrival so they could be fully prepared. In many ways without a car it will be like the Olympic isolation bubble all over again, and when you are in the holding zone waiting for the competition to begin these can be long days and empty hours to fill.

I actually asked a friend if there would be a few cars available to the team and he scoffed, pointing out maybe I should be team manager, then all these necessary extras would be accounted for.

I also offered my help to check out some useful training trails and routes, as not all athletes will want to be restricted to the track every day, especially when half the events where Irish athletes will compete fall into the endurance category. Access to a good running surface over a long distance will be essential.

These are some of the things they can control and manage and be familiar with, to quickly recreate the daily routine without too much change. A holding camp shouldn’t mean being cooped up all day.

All of this is manageable when you have someone on the ground looking at things through the eyes of an athlete, but I’m not sure Athletics Ireland have done the homework as much as they need to on this one.

I sent on a detailed message of my initial observations to the Irish team management, and did receive a thank you, then that was that. But I would have expected to receive a few more queries, what exactly to pass on to the athletes so that they would know what to expect on arrival.

It’s always been a thing for Irish people to connect all over the world and help each other out, so it’s disappointing to me that there was no follow-up. All this is about is wanting to see the Irish team comfortable on arrival in the holding camp, prepared to give their best possible performance on this properly world stage.

It’s not an easy trip to the west coast of United States; it takes time to adjust to the change in time zone, temperature and environment. The last thing you want is to be left stressed and uneasy having to adapt to life in the woods, where the closest supermarket is about an hour away.

Why the supermarket? In my recent experience around athletes whenever they get to a track meet all they want to do is find the closest supermarket and coffee shop.

These are some of the things they can control and manage and be familiar with, to quickly recreate the daily routine without too much change. A holding camp shouldn’t mean being cooped up all day.

I have been in touch with a couple of individual coaches of Irish athletes competing here, as I know they will value any insight and what to expect and what to ask for as soon as they arrive. Simple things like bug spray being essential in the woods at this time of year, where’s the closest coffee shop, and where can you get a good steady run in on a fast, flat even surface that’s not a track?

After the Prefontaine meeting in Eugene on May 28th, I took a drive out to McKenzie river resort. I’d also been to the community track before, a central meeting spot for locals and a track that had some world-class athletes chase times in 2020 and 2021 when there were limited track meets taking place.

Part of what I remember was the long drive in the dark to get back to Eugene, and the athletes warming up on the outside lanes as there were no obvious safe places to run.

In the countryside setting there are no real edges on the roads that you would feel safe running or walking, so everyone will need to be dropped off and picked up, and not everyone will want to run at the same time. These are some of the small things that need to be considered when you have a team of athletes in the final preparations for a major championship.

I’m sure the McKenzie river resort will be attractive in the sunshine and the Irish flag flying at the entrance, but it’s still a campground in the middle of the woods with nowhere to go if you wake in the early morning and need to while away a few hours as you adapt to the time difference.

Whenever I was out for a run or a bike ride, I only thought of what an athlete might want and kept some notes. In my experience there comes a time when an athlete needs what an athlete needs, and some local insight and knowledge can be a big help with that. I’m still open to sharing any more information, knowing what I know about Eugene and knowing too you need to be demanding of high standards if you expect to deliver high standards.