Not all athletes I know can talk about circadian rhythms and branched-chain amino acids and the recruiting of fast twitch muscle fibres – at least not in the same breath. Would all athletes even know what they were talking about?
So when Mark English sips on a glass of still water and talks about his training in these terms, there is no mistaking his elitism. Indeed his sense of what it means to be a professional athlete is so complete that it boldly defies the fact he’s only turned 22.
I met English this week for our first sit-down interview since he won the silver medal over 800 metres at the European Indoors in Prague last March. He’s been keeping busy though, just coming off two weeks of nightly cramming before morning and afternoon exams, while still making sure all his track work, gym sessions and recovery are fitted in and around whatever time remains.
That’s because as well as being one of the country’s top professional athletes right now, English also happens to be a full-time student of medicine at UCD. Not that he’d have it any other way. He refers to that broken record sound when explaining the need to have something else in his life other than training, eating and sleeping – and who could blame him? If there’s one thing worse than not having enough hours in the day, it’s having an hour too many.
Anyway, English is now ready for a running take-off – his summer schedule of races all aimed at peaking for the World Athletics Championships in Beijing at the end of August. He has real ambitions of making the 800m final in China, although that won’t make or break his ambitions to go even further at the Rio Olympics next summer. For now he’s happy to take each race as it comes.
Next Tuesday week, he’s back in the Czech Republic, at the Ostrava Grand Spike Meeting, where his opposition will include Kenya’s David Rudisha, still the world’s only 1.40-man over 800 metres, and surely one of the greatest athletes who has ever walked this earth.
English is not going there to make up the numbers. He believes he can beat Rudisha (the race is over 600m – his “perfect distance”) and even if he doesn’t, he’ll take whatever lessons come with it. Rio isn’t just a destination; it’s also a journey.
Yet had things been a little different, English might well have been preparing for Donegal’s Ulster football championship opener against Tyrone tomorrow afternoon. Like most youngsters growing up in Letterkenny, Gaelic football was where sporting dreams began and as well as playing with his school, St Eunan’s, English also spent a few seasons with Letterkenny Gaels (to the mild dismay of his father Joe, who had helped coach rival club St Eunan’s to a Donegal county title).
English certainly enjoyed it – especially the team camaraderie – and if his running talents hadn’t been spotted when winning the egg and spoon race at the local sports, then who knows, perhaps Jim McGuinness would have eventually spotted him too, clearly knowing an elite athlete when he sees one. Still, while English watched with considerable pride as McGuinness took Donegal football back to the highest mountain in 2012, there is no envy, and definitely no regret.
Given his fascination with physiology and the mechanics of the human engine, English watches Gaelic football with more than just a passing interest: it probably helps that his class-mate at UCD is Dublin footballer Jack McCaffrey, and they actually share more than just a passing interest in each other’s sport.
English recently provided McCaffrey with a pair of track spikes, to help maximise his sprinting technique: remember that next time McCaffrey goes on one of those searing runs from wing back.
“We would share some ideas alright,” says English, “and I’ve actually told Jack, a few times, that he would have made a great 800m runner. But he doesn’t seem to believe me.”
English also points to the belief of David Matthews – the man who still holds the Irish record over 800m, and now trainer to the Cork hurlers – that the level of fitness required to run a world-class 800m would be perfectly transferable to the modern intercounty footballer.
Olympic stadium Or should that be the other way round? Either way, and without sounding in any way elitist about it, English is glad he stuck with athletics, because as great as it would be to play in front of 80,000 people in Croke Park, it would never top running in front of the world in an Olympic stadium.
Soon, the subject of drugs came up, inevitably after the week that was in it. English believes that it is “vital” for the GAA to include drug testing, including blood analysis, even if he also believes it’s not in the culture of the GAA to go doping. That’s because drug testing is there, first and foremost, to protect that culture.
And it shouldn’t matter whether GAA players consider themselves elite athletes or not: drug testing for any athlete from any sport with even mildly professional aspirations should be embraced with respect and affability, not fear and loathing.
Instead, the reaction from some GAA players this week – and indeed some GAA commentators – has been distinctly amateurish.
It’s not all about understanding the difference between methamphetamine and methylhexaneamine – and whether or not your cough medicine contains levmethamfetamine; and no, players won’t have to lie down for the rest of the day after giving a blood sample for drug-testing purposes.
And if there is any fear among GAA players that their plastic beaker of chocolate protein shake may inadvertently contain some sort of banned substance, then prepare “to fail the stupidity test”, as English so aptly puts it. Because if there’s one thing worse than ‘acting’ like an elite athlete, it’s not being able to talk like one, too.