Mark English intent on making another push for the podium
The Donegal man knows from experience what it takes to deliver on the big occasion
Mark English winning a sixth national indoor title in the men’s 800m at the recent National Senior Indoor ChampionshipsChampionships at the National Indoor Arena, Dublin. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho
You know what every athlete says about making a championship final: anything can happen!
For Mark English, what happened the last two times he made a championships 800 metres final – and in quick succession – was that he won a medal, bronze and then silver, reflecting an upward trajectory which began with his schoolboy days in Donegal.
At age 21 his natural running talent, coupled with his great tactical intelligence, was suddenly starting to shine on the major stage: first, when winning 800m bronze at the 2014 European Championships in Zurich, then just over six months later when winning silver at the 2015 European Indoors in Prague.
Then, gradually before suddenly, he began to drop off, injury playing a big part, not that English ever once doubted himself. Criticism passes, talent remains, and exactly four years on since making that last final in Prague, English has arrived in Glasgow with a firm eye on making another European Indoor final.
After that, as they say, anything can happen.
Only things are a little different for English this time. He may be the one Irish team member to have already won a European Indoor medal, but much of the thrill now comes from being the best he can be, not worrying about what anybody else says or thinks about his medal prospects.
“Medals aren’t the be-all-and-end-all for me now,” English explained, announcing his 2019 comeback when running 1:46.92 to win the Athlone International on February 13th, four days before winning a sixth National indoor title.
“My sister had a baby boy recently so I’m an uncle now, there’s things in life that take over, and put the whole athletics thing into perspective a bit.
“But yes, it’s a nice return to form, though I did run 1:45 in 2017, with an injury. This year the injuries have stayed away, so quite happy with that. I’ve also made some mechanical adjustments to my form, over the winter, and that’s helped, and it does show, in terms of efficiency.
“Fitness is definitely as good as it’s ever been, if not better. Getting in the 10, 12-mile runs every weekend, hitting 6,10 to 6.15 per mile, and I think runs at that pace show in my fitness. It’s harder to know about the speed. But I’d be hopeful of going out there and battle for a place in the final.”
He’s also in his final few weeks of his medical degree at UCD, another distraction in itself, although English has always been careful not to make excuses for anything. What is certain is that something wasn’t right last August when, four years after the making the medal podium in Zurich, he trailed off to finish last in his 800m heat at the European Championships in Berlin, running 1:48.98.
“I’d love to be back in that final, running for a medal,” English told us in Berlin. “We’d all love to be. It’s not easy competition, the top-10 have all run under 1:45 this year, but I know I’m good enough to get back out there, compete for medals again.”
Now here he is, still only 25, his 1:46.92 from Athlone ranking him fifth fastest in Glasgow. What will get him into that final however won’t be that time, but his experience, and no one on the Irish teams boasts more of that precious asset.
At those 2014 European Championships in Zurich, remember, English made a properly stacked 800n final, defying any lack of experience to win bronze, becoming just the sixth Irish man in the long history of those championships to make the podium, also Ireland’s first medal in any major outdoor 800m.
Victory there went to Adam Kszczot from Poland, already a master of the event, who ran a season best of 1:44.15 to strike gold; English’s 1:45.03 equalled his season’s best, among those left behind being gold medal favourite Pierre-Ambroise Bosse from France, who three years later won the World Championship gold medal in London.
Roll on just over six months and English stepped up another gear, winning European Indoor silver, again after negotiating the tricky qualifying rounds. Still only 21, what stood out about that performance was his own self-belief in a typically thrilling finish and desperately close indoor race.
English found himself chasing hard around the final bend in order to seal that medal, and while he couldn’t catch Marcin Lewandowski from Poland, there was no self-doubt: “I was worried that you were worried,” English told us afterwards, again demonstrating he had the both tactical brain and courage to believe in himself.
In no way were these easy championship medals, and it wouldn’t be easy to kick on again from there: his 2015 outdoor season was still highly encouraging, English falling just two places short of making the World Championship final in Beijing, still ranked eighth fastest with his 1:45.55 from his semi-final the best Irish performance on the track in Beijing.
By 2016 things suddenly hit a plateau, injury impeding his Rio Olympic preparations (it was sustained while running around UCD, where’s he spent his academic life without the services of an on-campus running track). Again, he stuck to his own self-beliefs, still working with US-based coach Steve Magness at the University of Houston, sticking with his own motivations too.
“I don’t really know if I have to prove anything to anyone, because the only people who say things are a small minority. The vast majority of people have supported me through hard times and good times. So I don’t think it’s spurred me on. I was motivated, regardless.
“And athletics has always been a part of my life, a great way to keep fit, along with nutrition, sleep. And it will always be a part of my life.”
As will those two championship medals that English has already won.
Irish Team, European Indoors
Cillin Greene 400m (Galway City Harriers AC)
Mark English 800m (UCD AC)
Zak Curran 800m (DSD AC)
Molly Scott 60m (St. L. O’Toole AC)
Ciara Neville 60m (Emerald AC)
Phil Healy 400m (Bandon AC)
Sophie Becker 400m (St. Joseph’s AC)
Siofra Cleirigh Buttner 800m (DSD AC)
Ciara Mageean 1,500m (UCD AC)
Sommer Lecky High Jump (Finn Vally AC)
Friday schedule: Irish in action
10.20 400m M R1 (Thomas Barr, Cillin Greene)
11.10 800m W R1 (Siofra Cleirigh Buttner)
12.30 3,000m M R1 (Sean Tobin, John Travers)
13.00 400m W R1 (Phil Healy, Sophie Becker)
19.06 High Jump W Q (Sommer Lecky)
19.10 1,500m W R1 (Ciara Mageean)
19.48 800m M R1 (Mark English, Zak Curran, Conal Kirk)
20.36 400m W SF
20.55 400m M SF
21.40 3,000m W Final