Sonia O’Sullivan: Indoor running on the fast track to Glasgow
Irish team includes a number of athletes who will have a chance to get amongst the medals
Phil Healy in action at the National Senior Indoor Championships. So far this season Healy, Ciara Mageean and Mark English have shown consistency, building positive momentum each time they race. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho
The arena is smaller. The number of athletes competing is smaller. The track is smaller too, an oval 200 metres that’s exactly half the size of the outdoor version.
There are also a smaller number of events, but still there will be no shortage of quality or quantity at the European Indoor Athletics Championships, set for the next three days, Friday through to Sunday, at the Emirates Arena in Glasgow.
It’s a compact arena that holds just 5,000 spectators, showcasing some 637 athletes, competing across 26 events. And from a total of 49 European countries, all but two represented, giving it a proper championship feel. (Russian track and field, unlike in other sports, still suspended by the IAAF for doping offences).
It’s also a compact program that will see non-stop sessions across the three days of action, all finals in the evening sessions. That’s makes it 78 medals up for grabs, so just 13 per cent of the athletes will get to return home with a medal of some colour. There is no prize money, and of course no medal for fourth place.
Still the interest in the 2019 championships is probably stronger than it’s ever been. The European Indoor Championships first took place in 1970, these being the 35th edition, and there have definitely been some ebbing and flowing down through the years. For a variety of reasons these championships haven’t always ranked highly on an athlete’s priority list for the year.
It often depends on the outdoor championships coming up later in the year, which are typically weighted more important in an athlete’s annual plan. With the main outdoor championships of 2019 not coming until the end of September, in far off Doha, Qatar, it’s easy to see that Glasgow is getting a little more priority than usual.
For many years indoor running has also played second fiddle to the outdoor season – namely the European Championships, the World Championships, or the Olympics. That won’t ever completely change but there are other reasons why indoor running is growing in popularity.
During my competitive days, indoor running was in some ways more of a novelty. At least that’s definitely how I remember it. Only in recent years indoor running seems to be regaining some of the attraction it had in the 1980s, when the US indoor track meets that rolled off the tongue of every sports fan; the Millrose Games, The Meadowlands, the Sunkist Invitational in Los Angeles.
It seemed to be mostly about the indoor mile as well, or maybe that’s just my memories of Ray Flynn, Eamonn Coghlan, Marcus O’Sullivan, Frank O’Mara tearing up the US indoor tracks, when it was 11 laps to the mile on the old steeped wooden tracks, more like what you would see in a cycling velodrome.
This was a different type of indoor running, and those tight old wooden tracks are probably what so often gave one the impression that indoor running is slower than outdoors.
In recent years the IAAF World Indoor Track Tour, which was set up in 2016, has a greater focus on fast times and fast tracks. With just one event in the US, the rest in Europe have also become more popular in an athlete’s schedule. And when looking to run fast times, these athletes are more likely to compete at the European and World Indoor Championships, which take place every two years, on alternate years.
This year, the World Indoor track tour stopped off in Boston, Germany, Poland, Spain and the UK. It makes sense for a lot of athletes to race indoors on fast tracks during the cold winter months, to help stay fast, and stay motivated. The myth that running indoors is usually slower than outdoors is also being broken and now athletes are realising that it can actually be even faster to run indoors.
The tracks are built for fast running: a standard 200m lap, banked at an angle that tends to sweep the athlete around the track. It can almost feel like you’re a spinning top, once you reach the maximum effort you can maintain consistently, actually making it feel a little harder to slow down. The time check every lap also helping to keep the pace up, less likely to drop too many seconds as can happen outdoors over 400m laps.
There is a lot more technical and tactical aspects to running indoors, especially in the shorter events such as the 400m and 800m. Still the environment is controlled, the temperature steady, there is no wind, and there are less variables to manage – all of which lends itself to athletes pushing the barriers and running fast times.
Only last weekend a number of US athletes got together in Boston to chase down qualifying times over 5,000m for those outdoor World Championships. The idea was to get the qualifying time out of the way early, then it becomes easier to focus on a better racing and training plan leading to the World Championships in late September, knowing the qualifying time is already in the bag.
The other thing that makes the European Indoor Championships more attractive this weekend is the match-up races that are not just about fast times and runaway winners. The women’s 1,500m has defending champion Laura Muir, competing at home in Scotland, up against defending silver medallist Konstanze Klosterhalfen of Germany, and also returning is 2017 bronze medallist Sofia Ennaoui from Poland. That’s most likely the race of the championships, matched perhaps by the 3,000m showdown between Muir and Klosterhalfen, both of whom have run fast times this season, only yet to race each other.
The Ingebrigtsen brothers from Norway will no doubt attract plenty of star attention too, with 18-year old Jakob doing the 1,500m only, with older brother Filip, while oldest sibling Henrik also looks to join the party over 3,000m.
Most of the indoor track season has so far been limited to live stream viewing online, but these smaller tracks, full stadiums with spectators so close to the action means the indoor revival looks set to continue.
The Irish team of 16 athletes in Glasgow features a number who have chances to get amongst the medals. So far this season Phil Healy, Ciara Mageean and Mark English have shown consistency, building positive momentum each time they race. They’ve all been here before and know what it takes to get to the finals, one step at a time before getting the chance to chase medals.
To have an interest across nine events over three days is a positive sign for Irish athletics, only with the smaller fields and those small tracks to get into the finals the fastest runners won’t have it all their own way.
Much more than outdoors, everything can change in an indoor championship race, gaps open up and opportunities arise. Sometimes positive performances may not equate to medals, but when the quality and standard is rising, like it will be in Glasgow, it’s still the chance for Irish athletes to shine.