Mark English can go to where no Irish 800 metre runner has gone before
Donegal 21-year-old is confident he is in best shape of his life for European Championships
ark English, who is ranked fourth best in Europe heading into next weeks’s 800m championship. He clocked the time running second to world champion David Rudisha in June. Photograph Ian MacNicol/Inpho
There is a scene in the recent BBC documentary about David Rudisha – 100 Seconds to Beat the World – where Seb Coe talks about running the 800 metres at a major championship.
“You simply cannot go in underprepared,” he says, “because it is also the most unforgiving distance. Events unfold so quickly, and you’re running effectively 80 per cent of the distance without the ability to absorb enough oxygen.
“I’ve likened it to the killing zone.”
You don’t have to be a sports scientist to understand what Coe is talking about, how the body organs respond to oxygen deprivation, especially the brain. Indeed Coe frequently found himself in the killing zone, including the 800m at the Moscow Olympics in 1980, where he’d prepared for every eventually except losing.
There, coming off the final bend, he found himself several metres adrift of his great rival Steve Ovett, and just couldn’t absorb sufficient oxygen to run past in time for the finish. “As for the race, it was a shambles, a catalogue of unforced errors,” Coe later recalled. “I compounded more middle-distance sins in the space of 1½ minutes than I had done in my whole career.”
After several tactical blunders, especially at the 2009 World Championships in Berlin, he decided his physical ability would take charge. The rest is athletics history – Rudisha becoming the first man to lead an Olympic 800m from gun to tape, in London 2012, clocking 1:40.91 in the process, the first and still only sub-1:41.
Mark English is no David Rudisha – not yet, anyway, nor is anyone else – although he clearly has the ability to go where no Irish 800m runner has gone before. Physically, he’s already demonstrated that, when, as a youngster in Donegal, he broke underage records all the way up through the ranks, his Irish junior record of 1:45.77, set in 2012, faster than Marcus O’Sullivan ran as a senior.
That same summer, after falling just 0.17 short of the London Olympic qualifying time, English went to the World Juniors in Barcelona, a little underprepared due to a hamstring injury, and finished a respectable fifth.
How respectable? Gold and silver that day went to Nigel Amos of Botswana and Timothy Kitum of Kenya – who a month later won Olympic silver and bronze behind Rudisha.
Last summer, English lowered his best again, running 1:44.84 in his Diamond League debut in London. Only David Matthews has run quicker, with his national record of 1:44.82, dating back to 1995. Everyone expects English to break that record, including Matthews, although this summer, English has been working more on tactics than times, all geared towards next week’s European Championships in Zurich.
“Like before the Diamond League in New York, in June, all I was thinking was top three or nothing. That was drilled into my head, so I never allowed myself to sit too far back, hoping things might open out over the last 300m. I wanted to put myself into the top three or four from the start, then really go for it over the last 200m.”
Which is exactly what English did – finishing second to none other than Rudisha, his 1:45.03 from that day still ranking him fourth best in Europe going into Zurich.
There are three heavy-hitters head of him, including the Frenchman Pierre-Ambrose Bosse, who clocked 1:42.53 in Monaco last month, and the 2010 European champion, Marcin Lewandowski from Poland, who ran 1:44.24 in Monaco.
What they and everyone else will have to worry about first are next Tuesday’s heats; then, presumably, the three semi-finals a day later, where only the top two will be guaranteed a place in next Friday’s final.
Which is why English knows Zurich will present a thorough examination of his physical and tactical ability: it’s one thing executing perfect tactics at the Morton Games; it’s a lot different when championship positions are at stake.
“Yeah, it’s obviously about doing my very best, but I definitely want to make the final, and believe I can. The semi-finals will be very interesting, because they can be ruthless, and very different races, that suit different people. I’m ranked fourth, but the first thing is to make that final. But I also feel a lot more confident about my racing.
“I got a very good winter of training, and managed to avoid illness and injury all summer, which again had brought a new level of consistency to my training, allowed me to get back-to- back sessions done, to keep building, rather than breaking down and trying to build back up again.
“And I think I’ve more been more aggressive in my races too, and that also comes with confidence. So it’s all these little things coming together, really. That’s been the difference so far this year.”
There are other subtle differences. English always had a great maturity about him, and after scoring 530 points in his Leaving Cert at St Eunan’s in Letterkenny, had the confidence to turn down a scholarship at Villanova, sensing their need for him to run cross-country wouldn’t serve his higher goals. Then, after starting psychology at DCU, he switched to physiotherapy in UCD, then switched again, to medicine, still enjoying the demands that study brings.
He’s also parted with his coach, Teresa McDaid, who he still credits enormously for guiding him through his development years at Letterkenny AC, and, if you believe the story, was first informed of his talent after he won the egg and spoon race at his school sports.
He’s still shopping around for a new coach, yet feels perfectly informed about what he needs to do in Zurich, especially with the memory of Moscow last summer still fresh in his mind. There, in his first senior championships, English figured he’d sit in and kick with the Kenyan, Jeremiah Mutai. Instead, Mutai choked, and by the time English realised this it was too late – his fourth place finish was not enough to progress to the semi-finals.
“Look, it was a vital lesson, the only pity being I didn’t get it sooner. I honestly thought the tactic would work for me, because I tried it at the World Juniors and got away with it. But you don’t get away with it so easy at senior level. And right now there’s no point in me rushing into a new coach, because it won’t change anything for Zurich, or make me go out and run 1:43. It’s about form next year on, but there are plenty of people I’m taking advice from right now, like my dad, or my agent Nic Bideau, and I know as well it’s my decision what best way to run this.”
There is another subtle difference about English this year. Last month, he ran 46.56 seconds for 400 metres at the Belfast International, almost a second quicker than 2013, and that, he says, is a truer marker of his 800m potential.
“Yes, Bosse is running very well, and it is important to know who is. But at the same time I won’t look at the start list for my heat until the night before, and I’d be more interested in their best for 400m times. You might be able to run 1:42 in a time-trial type of race, but it doesn’t matter as much in the championships.
“Most of the training I do is 400-metre pace, anyway. Because you do need to be able to run that. Amos is a 45-second man. Obviously Rudisha is too. I really need to match them, or do better, over 400m. That’s what is required to run 1:43. And I think that’s definitely possible for me. If you dedicate half your life to this you want to be running 1:43. Not 1:46. You either go for the top, or don’t go at all.”
And 1:43 means running straight into the killing zone.