English thriving on less-is-more approach

 

ATHLETICS:We should be glad he wasn’t lost to Gaelic football, but what’s Ireland’s most promising athlete doing at a university that doesn’t even have a running track?

I WAS having coffee in UCD this week with Ireland’s most promising athlete when it suddenly struck me, that for all this talk of young talent being lost to other sports, such as Gaelic football, sometimes the reverse holds true.

Mark English has snagged a ticket for Croke Park tomorrow, will stand on Hill 16 cheering Donegal in their quest to win a first All-Ireland since 1992. At age 19, English wasn’t even born back then, yet grew up on stories of that fleetingly magical era, for a while possibly fancied himself following in their footsteps.

He played with Letterkenny Gaels, enjoyed every moment of it, and knows several members of the current Donegal team: Colm McFadden teaches in his old school, St Eunan’s, and he’s met Rory Kavanagh a few times too. If things were different and English hadn’t been spotted winning the egg and spoon race at his school sports then who knows, perhaps Jim McGuinness would have eventually spotted him too, clearly knowing a good engine when he sees one?

“Aye, I loved it,” he says. “The team spirit. Just loved kicking the ball. And I’d loved to have played on, but it’s not really possible to combine Gaelic football with running, is it? Too much risk of an injury.”

English is telling me this with exceptional politeness and modesty. We’re sitting in the UCD Student Centre cafe, and why English is studying here and not at any American university of his choice is the first thing I want to know. As he explains himself and his training, why starting into a four-year BSc in physiotherapy is so important to him, his potential becomes even greater – as does the relief that at least he wasn’t lost to Gaelic football.

Last May, English won the 800 metres at the Flanders International meeting in Oordegem, Belgium, in a time of 1:45.77. How fast is that? It improved his own Irish junior record by over a second, for starters, turned out to be the fastest junior time in Europe in 2012, and fast enough to jettison him into fifth spot on the Irish all-time senior list, forcing Marcus O’Sullivan, with his best of 1:45.87, down to sixth. It was also just .17 shy of the Olympic A-standard of 1:45.60 (and we’ll come to that in a bit).

English looked poised for further breakthrough, until he tore his hamstring, at the start of June – just over a month before his big target of the summer, the World Junior Championships in Barcelona. He didn’t run for three weeks, managed one proper track session, then went to Barcelona and made the 800 metres final, finishing fifth, in 1:46.02.

How respectable is that? The winner, Nigel Amos of Botswana, ran a championship record of 1:43.79, and second place went to Timothy Kitum of Kenya, in 1:44.56. Less than a month later, inside London’s Olympic Stadium, Amos was the man chasing home David Rudisha’s world record run of 1:40.91, winning the silver medal in 1:41.73, with Kitum winning the bronze in 1:42.53.

That English was able to mix it with such company was of little surprise to anyone who has followed English’s progress in recent years, including Marcus O’Sullivan himself, now head coach at Villanova University, the original stop on the American scholarship trail. In the summer of 2011, O’Sullivan travelled to English’s home in Letterkenny, personally offering a full scholarship at Villanova, with all the facilities, support and back-up that came with it.

By then, English was already Irish schoolboy champion, senior indoor champion, and had already exhibited his brilliantly astute racing tactics by winning the European Youth Olympic Trials, in Moscow, over 1,000m. English listened carefully, thought at length about O’Sullivan’s offer, and in the end decided to stay in Ireland. It wasn’t just that he’d rather stay closer to family and friends, but feared he might end up adding to the burn-out statistics, particularly evident in those who had followed the American scholarship trail.

“And I have no desire to run cross country,” he tells me, “which I would have to run, if I’d gone to America. Of course it’s still attractive, even the American lifestyle. We actually got to race at the Millrose Games, last year, best week of my life, so maybe it is something I’ll try in a few more years, but not right now. I wanted to get a good degree too, one that’s recognised in Ireland.”

So after scoring 530 points in his Leaving Cert, last year, English was initially drawn to DCU, to study psychology: he liked the place, but unfortunately not the course – so when the chance came to start over in UCD this year, through Ad Astra Athlete Scholarship programme, he had the courage to make the jump across the city: so far so good, but what’s Ireland’s most promising athlete doing at a university that doesn’t even have a running track, preferring to dig it up last year to build a car park, then actually doing nothing whatsoever with it since?

“It’s not ideal,” he says, still politely, “and I think what we’ll do is get a taxi down to the track in Irishtown, by Ringsend. And I’d love an indoor track, which would be great, and hopefully the one in Athlone will be ready very soon.”

If English sounds a little flippant about the facilities it’s because he’s never been hung up on them – all he’s ever known are the basic yet perfectly-sufficient facilities offered by Letterkenny Athletic Club, where his running career first took off, under the carefully nurturing eye of Teresa McDaid, who still coaches him and rest of this talented young Donegal crop that includes Ruairí Finnegan, Danny Mooney, and Dan King.

McDaid is devoted to the “less=more” school of training, pure quality over casual quantity, which English proves when outlining his current training schedule. He hasn’t trained yet that day, might go for a bit of jog in the evening, if he feels like it, but then he’s only easing himself back into it after an end-of-season break. He focuses on two key training sessions a week, typically some low intensity intervals on the track (such as 4x400 metres), maybe a tempo run, or some fartlek (a method that blends continuous training with interval training). Three days a week he runs between 35-40 minutes, always followed by half a dozen strides, fairly flat out. Friday is always rest day, and on Sunday, during the winter months, he would do his only long run “maybe 50 minutes”. English has never trained twice in a day, doesn’t do weights, although does some strength and conditioning exercises, using his own weight.

Believe me, this is very basic, minimal training – with such enormous scope for improvement that English may only be scratching the surface of his potential. When I ask who inspires him he answers “Seb Coe” without hesitation – the only surprise being Coe was long retired before English was even born: “Aye, yeah, but I’ve watched lots of his races on YouTube.” And how fast can he run? “I’d like to get that Irish record (the 1.44.82 that David Matthews ran in 1995). And I think 1:43 is definitely possible.”

So to the big bold question of how he feels about missing out on the Olympics, not just by .17, but that he could have been sent, on a B standard: “It was hard,” he says, still in a polite way, “because I think the whole experience of the Olympics, the village, all that, is not something you can get anywhere else, not even a World Championships. So I think they could have done the selection a little differently, but I’m not whinging about it either. I was trying for the A standard, just missed it.”

It’s a fair and selfless reflection, but it later struck me, why all this talk of young talent being lost to other sports, such as Gaelic football, will more often than not hold true.

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