BY CHRIS MCNULTY
WHEN Mark English says that he wants a place on the podium at next year’s European Championships, he doesn’t flinch.
Getting a nugget around his neck next August is his big goal and the 20-year old Letterkenny man makes no apologies for his lofty targets.
It’s just the way he is.
There’s substance to it, though. This remember, is an athlete who won gold at the European Youth Olympic Trials in 2010 and who last month set a stunning new personal best, going 1:44.84 in the 800m at a Diamond League meet in London. English had powered to a 1:45.32 the previous week at the Morton Games. Quite simply, this is the hot property of Irish athletics right now.
“I like to aim high,” he says.
“That’s the only way you’ll reach the top. That’s the way I’ve achieved my goals in the past and I think that mindset can work in the future, too.
“I’m definitely capable. I want to get into the habit of winning races next year. That’s what it’s about.”
English is just two hundreths of a second off the Irish 800m record of David Matthews. He’s aiming for a pb at a meet in Rieti on Sunday-week and could well break the barrier. Ironically, it was in Rieti that Matthews set his 1:44.82 time in 1995.
“I’ll give it a lash,” English says. “I know I’m in good shape.
“My aims in relation to times have been achieved for this year. I already set a target for 1:45.2 and I got that. I think I can do 1:43 next year. If I look at the people who are running 1:42, they have no skill sets that I don’t have. I can go as quick as they can over 400m. There’s no reason, with a lot of training, that I can’t step up to do a 1:42 in time. I’d say that it’ll take a few years yet before I master it.”
At the recent World Championships in Moscow, English didn’t qualify from his heat. Like all the best ones do, he knew immediately where he’d gone wrong and, crucially, how he could do things differently.
He says: “I’d be in contention at the top. I’d probably go at the outside of lane 1. It’s worth sacrificing a bit of time to put yourself in that position. I was too naive to think that, if I sat behind the Kenyan, I’d get through. I thought he’d be going for the top three. You can’t just focus on one person, you’ve got to take everyone into consideration.”
English has had a frustrating season at times, with a chest infection resulting in a disappointing performance at the European Under 23 Championships.
“I did a session before I went out and I was flying,” he says.
“My speed was there and I thought I’d be fine. I did about 54 seconds on the first lap which was perfect, but I just didn’t have the strength. I needed strength and endurance because the speed was there.
“I went out to the Morton games and after two or three runs, I was back at it again. It catapulted from that.”
He admits that he was ‘shocked myself’ at how he bounced back with those blistering times.
“When you’re in a Diamond League race, tagging along at the back of the field, it’s a lot easier than people think. You can stream in behind guys and you save a lot of energy. I had a lot left with 200m to go and I just kicked on.
“Maybe it was the race fitness that I was lacking. It’s good to know that I had only one bad tactical race this year. People think that about the U23 race, but I was actually perfectly positioned in it. I was on the shoulder of the leader the whole way. It was a mixed season: One race I had a bad tactic and the other race I wasn’t fit for. Hopefully now I can string everything together for next year.”
English will try to peak twice in 2014 – first for the World Indoors in Bydgoszcz, Poland in March and the big one in Zurich, the European Championships, in August.
He has been king of the continent before, back in 2010 when he won the 1,000m at the European Youth Olympic Trials in Moscow.
“I remember coming up the home straight and that feeling of knowing that you’re better than everyone in Europe…” he says and the glint in the eye tells it all.
“I want to get back to winning on a European level.”
Athletics is in the blood. His aunt, Bernie, medalled at the FISEC Games back in the 70s; sisters Michelle and Joanne have both worn the Irish singlet; dad Joe can still be seen on the local 5k circuit.
Mark’s talents were always there, but he knew his calling had come when he competed at the All-Ireland Schools Championships while he was a transition year student at St Eunan’s College.
“I was up against a guy called Brian Kelly, a really talented guy who never really realised his potential in the last couple of years and I came second to him, but I had such speed left in the last 200m,” he says.
“I knew that if I had a solid winter before that I’d have been able to beat him. I said then that I’d go back to the drawing board and see what I could do.”
The following year, English won the same event.
He keeps his pre-race routine simple with a light meal three and a half hours before the event and will ‘grab a coffee to get a bit of caffeine’. At the stadium he usually does a ten-minute warm-up routine. Headphones on, this is when English goes to that mysterious place sportspeople call ‘the zone’.
His music choice?
“A bit of jazz.”
He says: “None of the lads appreciate the music I listen to. Mum was a music teacher, so maybe I have a musical gene. It’s just before races. I like music to chill out to.
“It’s relaxing and takes my mind off what’s to come. I need distractions like that before a race.”
These days, English is doing a lot of speed work. It’s a six days a week business, with Friday his only ‘rest’ day, sometimes he’ll do two sessions a day.
“People often mis-interperet what I do as being too little, but I just make sure I don’t over train,” he says.
“I know what my body’s capable of. I had an injury before that was from over training at underage level and I’ve pulled a hamstring twice. I know what I can do.”
Before next year’s European Championships, English wants to have built up his own strength as he eyes up a field in which he believes he can be competitive.
“If you look at the guys who have made the 800m finals at the last few Championships, they’ve all got really good pbs at 1,500m, with the exception of Michael Rimmer from GB, who doesn’t really do 1,500,” he says.
“Lewandowski from Poland tried to move up this year and was doing around 3:35. Ayanleh Souleiman from Djibouti is a 1,500m runner too.
“It’s good to run a once-off race in 1:43 or whatever, but unless you can back that up, it’s useless come a Championship. I want to be able to do that in a Championship.”
Rio and the Olympic Games in 2016 are on the horizon, too, but, for now, English remains focussed on only the pages on the 2014 calendar.
He was within touching distance of a place at London last year, but just missed out.
“It was pretty close…seven or eight hundreths of a second,” he says.
“Looking back, I’d have been lucky to get to a semi-final, but the experience that I would have got would have been really beneficial. There’s no race like that in an Olympics and even just being around the different athletes would have been an experience.”
Fifth in a loaded 800m final in Barcelona last autumn, English is at home on the big stage. After his win in Moscow in 2010, he qualified for the World Youth Olympics, but that event in Singapore is not one of his more memorable days, finishing eighth ‘in a race I don’t like to re-live’ having been outside in baking 37 degrees for 45 minutes beforehand.
English is one of a number of talented middle distance athletes to have emerged at Letterkenny AC. Darren McBrearty, Ruairi Finnegan and Danny Mooney have all hit the high notes, too.
“When you put a group of talented athletes together, they’ll raise the bar for each other – you don’t want to be the worst in your own town!” he says about the crop of athletes who have taken their field by storm.
“When I was racing against Darren, none of us liked to be second best. That spurred him on to run 1:47 indoors and it definitely spurred me on.
“Teresa is a great coach too. She always had us down training together and that stimulated the race environment.
“Those rivalries are what the sport needs. Paul Robinson and I are pushing each other on the whole time. Not just for us, but to encourage people to come down and watch the races. It’s a good boost for the profile of the sport.
“Rivalries far outweigh the runs in Diamond League. For example, people want to see ‘this guy against that guy’ rather than ‘how fast he can run’. To Joe Soap down the street, that means nothing.”
A physiotherapy student at UCD, he’s a UCD AC athlete now as part of his scholarship.
“I don’t devote all my time to athletics. It’s 50 per cent of my life. That’s not to say I won’t go pro in the next few years to concentrate on it totally if things start to stagnate a bit. I think it’s good to have the study – it makes sure I get up in the morning!”
Facilities are a source of frustration for many Irish athletes, like the time in 2012 when Derval O’Rourke had to pay €10 to train at the ALSAA complex in Dublin. A lack of facilities, though, is not something you’ll hear English complaining about. If anything, his take is a refreshing one.
“There’s a guy, Vebjørn Rodal, who won the 1996 Olympics and he used to train through tunnels in the mountains,” he says.
“There’s definitely a school of thought for saying that you don’t need good facilities to be a good athlete. Look at the Kenyans – they train on a dirt track and David Rudisha is running 1:40.
“Facilities are what you make of them, I suppose. They’ll not make an athlete. You still need that inner drive and determination. That’s over-looked.
“I just get out every day and want to be the best.”
This is John's first trip to the World Championships where he will come up against full-time professionals.