Monday 11 December 2017

English refusing to compromise in push to deliver on potential

Mark English going through his paces at the UCD Institute for Sport and Health and, below, sitting on the track in Rio last year after finishing fifth in the 800m semi-final at the Olympics. Photo by Cody Glenn/Sportsfile
Mark English going through his paces at the UCD Institute for Sport and Health and, below, sitting on the track in Rio last year after finishing fifth in the 800m semi-final at the Olympics. Photo by Cody Glenn/Sportsfile

Cathal Dennehy

There is one slight problem with the gift of talent - and Mark English knows it well. In a realm like Irish athletics, typically starved of major success, ability like his can become a public commodity - a rare asset which is corralled and critiqued at every turn.

Ever since his teenage days, when the perception took hold that English was a light trainer, he could hear the distant voices of dissent.

English reacts after a 5th place finish in the semi-finals of the Men's 800m during the 2016 Rio Summer Olympic Games. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
English reacts after a 5th place finish in the semi-finals of the Men's 800m during the 2016 Rio Summer Olympic Games. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

At 24, though, he's been on the beat long enough to know how far talent alone can take him, and just how much graft is needed thereafter.

He knows some people think he doesn't run enough miles, or that he's foolish to be coached by someone 5,000 miles away, or that despite his two European medals, he has barely scratched the surface of his talent. He knows, and he doesn't care.

"I'm not concerned what other people think," he says. "I'm not in the game for that. I'm in it to see how far I can push my body."

The 800m, his event, sits in a grey area between distance-running and sprinting, aerobic and anaerobic.

Some of the greats like Peter Snell or Steve Ovett would log over 100 miles a week. But others like Alberto Juantorena or Seb Coe rarely did more than 50, prioritising speed and power by hammering themselves on the track or in the gym. English is in the latter camp.

"The old school of thought that you need to blast out 100 miles a week is not really true," he says.

Puzzle

At the same time, there's a reason he wouldn't be seen dead on a cross country course, and it's because endurance remains the missing piece of his puzzle.

For Steve Magness, who coaches him remotely from Houston, Texas, it has been a point of emphasis this year. It hasn't been done by slogging 15-mile runs, however, but through countless reps of two or five or 10 minutes, with barely enough recovery to draw breath.

Back in May, English scored his best results yet during physiological treadmill testing, and in recent weeks it translated to the track. The Letterkenny, Co Donegal native finished second at the Stockholm Diamond League in 1:45.42, then yesterday earned maximum points for Ireland at the European Team Championships when outsprinting European silver medallist Andreas Bube.

And yet he knows what the stats say, the same things his critics say - that his lifetime best was run at the age of 20, and here he is, four years on, no faster.

That time, 1:44.84, is just 0.02 seconds off David Matthews' Irish record, which everyone thought was kaput once English showed up on the scene.

"It's not that I'm p*ssed off I don't have it, but I know I can do it," he says. "I knew back in 2012, 2013 that I had a low 1:44 in me, possibly a 1:43."

As English highlights, though, chasing times is trickier these days with fewer fast races on the circuit. This is why, when he looks ahead, only one place lights up in his mind: London.

It's where, five years ago, English was forced to sit in the stands when the Olympics came to town, denied a place because he only had a B-standard, not deemed enough by the Olympic Council of Ireland for the 19-year-old to make the inexpensive trip across the water.

In July that year, he finished fifth in the World Junior final in Barcelona, but in London he watched, wondering what might have been, as the 1-2 from the junior race took silver and bronze medals behind David Rudisha's world record of 1:40.91.

In Rio, of course, English finally got his shot, but it wasn't what he imagined.

"There were a lot of empty seats," he says. "With it being an Olympic Games, though, I was still able to find that adrenaline when I got out there."

In the end, he reflects with pride on his semi-final exit, given he missed three months' training last year through injury.

"In the days after I wished I'd done better," he says, "but I came a long way from where I was."

He went to Newcastle shortly after, losing to Rudisha by a single step over 500m, and buoyed by that he told his coach he wanted no more than two weeks' rest before getting back training for 2017.

But this year hasn't exactly been smooth sailing. A fourth-year medical student at UCD, English had to balance training with six weeks of exhausting placements at two Dublin hospitals in April and May, and this month he has dealt with a nerve problem in his left quad which has meant a loss of power in that leg.

He's working to get it right in time for London, and will run his final prep race at the Irish Nationals on July 23. After that, he'll spend a couple of weeks training in Salzburg, Austria, the city that spawned the original prodigy in Mozart, where there'll be no rhythm to move to but his own.

"It's an area where athletics is alien to everybody so you can get lost," says English, "a serene environment."

The perfect place to get his mind and body right ahead of the World Championships, to do things the way they've always been done - his way.

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