Sonia O’Sullivan: Plotting Koko’s European success around familiar Teddington terrain

Germany’s Konstanze Klosterhalfen will be one of the favourites in Abbotstown on Sunday

Germany’s Konstanze Klosterhalfen  competing  in the women’s 10,000m final at the Tokyo Olympics. Photograph:   Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Germany’s Konstanze Klosterhalfen competing in the women’s 10,000m final at the Tokyo Olympics. Photograph: Patrick Smith/Getty Images

 

The original plan was to fly into Dublin this week and take in some of the build-up to Sunday’s European Cross-Country at Abbotstown. Then the plan changed and I’m back around my old training ground in Teddington in south-west London, looking after the final race preparations of Konstanze Klosterhalfen.

Klosterhalfen – or Koko, as she’s affectionately known – is one of the favourites in the women’s senior race on Sunday, showing that form by winning the German trial race in Pforzheim just last Sunday week, which she was required to run to secure her place on their team.

I have been coaching alongside Pete Julian and closely working with Koko since early June, when she first returned from injury and started back running on the perfectly manicured grass at Ronaldo field at Nike World headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon.

This was the beginning of a just an eight-week build up to the Tokyo Olympics, where Koko finished in eighth place over 10,000m, running 31:01.97, less than a second off her own national record. Interestingly for this Sunday in Dublin, she was also eight seconds and three places clear of Yasemin Can, the Kenyan runner now representing Turkey, who is looking to win a fifth women’s title in a row when she takes to the purpose-built course at Abottstown.

Now 24, Koko hadn’t raced cross-country in a few years. Still she’s no stranger to this event having won back-to-back European junior titles in 2015 and 2016, and then finished second to her German team-mate Alina Reh in the under-23 race in 2017. With Reh also back for the senior race this year, having finished second to Koko at the challenging course in Pforzeim just under two weeks ago, the German team will also be challenging for the team gold medal.

In recent years, since they changed it to just three athletes to score on a team, having three finishers inside the top 20, with at least one of those in the top 10, is usually enough to secure a team medal. The same goes for the Irish women, naturally, who won silver at the last staging of this event in Lisbon in 2019, 15 points behind Great Britain.

The bike is a great asset to be able to share my favourite routes with Koko, and it’s the only way to keep up with her anyway

Once Koko had travelled over to Europe from Portland, there was no way she could return before the championships, and with limited daylight hours in Europe at this time of year, and challenging underfoot conditions, I knew that Teddington would provide the perfect location for final preparations ahead of travelling into Dublin this weekend.

Back in the 1990s I spent many winter months in Teddington, and while the parks aren’t as perfect as they can be in summer time, they still offer the perfect mix of soft surfaces to prepare for what is expected in Dublin, particularly after Storm Barra passing through and dumping some considerable rain onto the course over the last few days.

The runners need to be acclimatised to the temperature as well as the running surface, but you also need to be able to get in some fast running on good ground, where you’re not slipping and sliding all over the place.

Some athletes are more suited to cross-country to others, only a bit like racing on a bike, once you’ve some experience at cross-country and you’re in good shape then you should be competitive no matter what the running surface.

I’ve been out accompanying Koko on a number of her training sessions this week, at the same time reliving many of my favourite running routes and sharing the memories with her. We started off at the Teddington cricket ground, which is perfectly manicured in summer, but tends to look and feels more like the rugby and football grounds it is converted to once winter comes.

Still the going is good, and you can get a good grip: the challenge is more about dealing with the wind, which can always whip through the open area of Bushy Park and the never-ending flow of dogs and their owners out for their daily walk.

Generally, I head out early for a run about, checking the course for the day’s session on my way back, giving some feedback on the surface and what shoes to wear. It’s also about trying to map out an accurate enough distance for the prescribed session and making sure Koko knows exactly what’s in store. The bike is a great asset to be able to share my favourite routes with Koko, and it’s the only way to keep up with her anyway.

Richmond Park is just a bit too far so to escape the monotony of the pancake-flat Bushy Park, we headed to Home Park last Saturday. This is essentially the back garden of Hampton Court Palace, a bit of a secret park really, entering through a side gate and out into a 750-acre expanse of grass and trails surrounding the golf course and home to a herd of 300 fallow deer.

Once the stopwatch started, we were off dodging dogs and weaving between Sunday strollers out for the morning exercise. It must have been quite the sight

It’s just like stepping out into the wild countryside and also backs on to the Thames River towpath, between Hampton Court and Kingston upon Thames. I can remember in 1998 running a tempo run along this very path in preparation for the European Championships in Budapest, where I ran and won my first ever 10,000m race on the track. As we exited onto the towpath, I was sharing this story with Koko, recalling how fast I felt I was running that day, and instinctively she got in her head that this is where she would like to do one of her last big sessions on the Sunday.

The day started cold and blustery, and after my own jaunt around Home Park, I wasn’t sure if the river route was such a good idea, with even cooler temperatures and likely wind off the river; only Koko had her mind made up and so we headed for the towpath. After an extensive warm-up, then stripped down to near race kit, she took off in similar temperatures expected on Sunday at Abottstown, and once the stopwatch started, we were off dodging dogs and weaving between Sunday strollers out for the morning exercise. It must have been quite the sight.

Moving so fast through people, I tried to keep pace on the bike while Koko’s feet barely touching the ground. It proved the perfect location for the final preparations, as no doubt there’ll be some traffic to navigate too when the gun off goes on Sunday.

The women’s race is last on Sunday’s programme, 8km of racing over what will be a well worn-in course at that point of the day. Ideally it won’t be too soft and churned up, although I still expect it to be fast from the gun. That’s the way Koko likes to run, and it’s been enjoyable sharing the preparations from the other side of things over the last week or so, sharing some experience and looking forward now to seeing how well she performs on the big day.

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