Robinson getting ‘out there’ to get to the next level

Kildare athlete ran first sub-four minute mile ever run in Galway


He charged across the finishing line, pointed down at the clock, and the whole place went crazy. A record, surely, that would last a very long time. And with that Brother Colm O’Connell, the maker of champions, gave his typically modest nod of approval.

Fear not the obvious: this is not another recap of David Rudisha winning the 800 metres at last summer’s London Olympics, but rather Paul Robinson winning the mile at the Regional Sports Centre in Galway last Saturday. His time of 3:57.98 was no world record, but it was the first sub-four minute mile ever run in Galway, and in fact all of Connacht – thus conquering the last of the provinces, and providing Robinson with a sweet little aftertaste to his season.

Indeed the young athlete from Kildare probably upstaged Rudisha, too, not easily done, even if Rudisha wasn’t actually running on the day. There is still something magical about the sub-four minute mile, especially if it’s the first of its kind, and Rudisha was among those to shake Robinson’s hand afterwards, along with Br O’Connell, both men in town to promote the Galway-Kenyan run, an afternoon of mostly fun running and fund-raising for charity (one of Rudisha’s Kenyan running vests, which he wore in Olympics, selling for a tidy €3,700).

Later that evening, at a packed lecture hall at Galway University, the famous coach and his most famous athlete sat down with Paul Donovan, the Galway runner who once clocked 3:55.82 for the mile, and the questioning, inevitably, soon turned to the advantages of training in Kenya.

“I would hope there is potential there, to take this into the wider perspective,” said Br O’Connell, emphasising the Irish-Kenyan link. “I think this positivity can be harnessed a bit more, to get more Irish athletes to visit Kenya, if only on a social level at first. I can talk here, or lecture, or whatever, but nothing is as good as being on the ground out there in Kenya, getting the feeling for what is done. Mo Farah has visited many times, and I think more elite Irish athletes should consider it.”

Popular theory
This, it seemed, fits with the suddenly popular theory doing the rounds that Irish athletes aren’t putting themselves “out there”, in both the training and racing sense, and when they do qualify for major championships, they just smile at themselves in the mirror when exiting from their qualifying heat. Now that may be true in exceptional cases, but it’s certainly not the rule – Robinson at least providing ample evidence of how far “out there” he is willing to go.

At age 22, his CV is slowly gathering pace: born and raised in Kilcock, he enjoyed modest schoolboy success before finishing in the ranks with an Irish junior mile record of 4:00.93, and placing ninth in the World Junior 1,500 metres. Around the same time he linked up with Robert Denmead, the Tullamore-based coach with 20-years experience, and they chipped a few big chunks off his best times this summer, his 1:45.86 over 800m getting him to last month’s World Championships in Moscow, then his 3:35.22 over 1,500m – run in Rieti, Italy, last Sunday week – moving him to number six on the Irish all-time list (faster than the likes of Eamonn Coghlan, James Nolan and Niall Bruton).

None of this has happened by not putting himself “out there”: keen to look beyond the home horizon, and the DCU Athletics Academy which Robinson has been attending since leaving school, they agreed he would spend the last two winters training in Australia, under the tutelage of Nic Bideau at the Melbourne Track Club, and to compete as often as his body would allow.

Competed 25 times
Robinson competed 25 times this summer, which some coaches might argue is far too much, but blessed with a natural enthusiasm for racing, Robinson fits more with the old-school theory of the sport, which is that athletes train to race, not the other way round.

As for the World Championships in Moscow, qualifying for the 800m, not his specialist event, was always going to be more about getting “out there” for the experience, although Robinson was anything but satisfied after exiting in his qualifying heat. Instead, he met with Denmead that evening, and after agreeing they’d learnt more in those few days than possibly his entire career so far, they got loud and very animated about what Robinson needed to do “to get to the next level”.

Now, the last thing Br O’Connell was advocating was for any athlete, Irish or otherwise, to blindly copy the Kenyan training methods – especially given his principal coaching philosophy is the carefully nurturing progression of athletes, and definitely not the near-instant success sometimes demanded of athletes.

Denmead has nothing against training in Kenya, is open-minded enough to consider a great deal of what Br O’Connell preaches, particularly when it comes to altitude training, but there is a crucial difference between training at 8,000ft in Iten, and at 6,000ft in Font Romeu in France, where Robinson spent three weeks this summer. Altitude training only works if athletes are still able to train at that altitude, otherwise it entirely defeats the purpose.

Long-standing record
The only question now is how much further “out there” Robinson can go to get to the next level, or more specially, to break the impossibly long-standing Irish 1,500m record of 3:33.5, set by Ray Flynn 31 years ago. Robinson has never lifted a barbell in his life, preferring a punishing regime of push-ups, sit-ups, and extremely intense core muscle exercises.

He’ll keep begging, stealing or borrowing his way into more races too, although without Nic Bideau’s help that process wouldn’t even begin, and while it’s still a long way from the Regional Sports Centre in Galway to the Olympic Stadium, at least Robinson is putting himself out there.

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