DONEGAL NEWS SPORTS PERSONALITY OF THE MONTH – AUGUST
By Harry Walsh
EUROPEAN bronze medalist Mark English will draw the curtain on the most successful season of his fledgling career at the IAAF Continental Cup in Marrakech, Morocco, on Sunday evening.
The prestigious event, which takes place every four years, pits the best athletes from four continents against each another.
English (21) is the only Irish athlete selected to represent Europe where he will be joined in the 800m by Poland’s European champion Adam Kszczot.
Africa will be represented by Nijel Amos, the winner of the Diamond League Trophy and Mohammed Aman, the World Indoor Champion; Duane Solomon (USA) and Wesley Vazquez (PUR) will run for the Americas while the Asia-Pacific pairing of Abdulrahman Musaeb Bala (QAT) and Jeffrey Riseley (AUS) complete the eight-strong field.
English now hopes to take the Irish two-lap record before taking a well earned break from the sport.
Speaking to the Donegal News in his native Letterkenny on Friday last, the young Letterkenny athlete reflected back on a great year and looked ahead to next year’s World Championships and, hopefully, the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio.
Still on a high after winning European bronze last month, Mark also spoke of his desire to get back playing gaelic football when he retires from competitive athletics and of a more pressing need, an All-Ireland ticket.
“I would love to be in Croke Park on All-Ireland final Sunday but, as of yet, I’ve no ticket so here’s hoping,” he smiled.
The UCD medical student always said he had two big targets in 2014: to win a European medal and to break David Matthews’ 19-year-old mark of 1:44.82.
Reflecting back on the 800 metres final in the Letzigrund Stadium, English said that he ran the perfect race in winning bronze at the European Championships.
“It’s surreal really. Looking back on it now it seems a bit more clear now than it did in the aftermath – it’s just amazing – and the fact that my family and friends were there too made it that little bit more special,” he said.
Having achieved his aim of reaching the final, Mark explained that he was so relaxed in the build up to the race.
“No one had expected too much from me, especially after finishing fourth in the semi-final. On the way out to the stadium in the taxi with Andreas (Bube, the Danish athlete who finished fourth) I saw that he was as relaxed as me as was Adam (Kszczot, the winner) and it’s no coincidence that we took three of the first four places. We were all so relaxed,” he recalled.
Confident in the knowledge that pre-race favourite, Frenchman Pierre Bosse, would take out the pace in the final, Mark was able to plan his own race.
“I decided I would go out in 25 seconds and come round in 51 (seconds). I was able to predict that because Bosse takes it out pretty hard. It worked out perfectly and then in the last 200 I gave it my all,” he said.
“I thought I was second with ten metres to go when this guy (Artur Kuciapski) came from out of the blue, in a flash, but I was still delighted with third,” he said.
In winning bronze, Mark became just the fourth Irish middle distance male athlete to medal at the Europeans and the first since Mark Carroll, who also won bronze in the 5,000m in Budapest in 1998.
“There’s a bit more pressure on me to perform well now but I’ve always said that I’ll just take each competition as it comes. You just never know what’s going to come in the future with injury or loss of form so you have to enjoy it,” he said.
Mark’s two sisters Joanne and Michelle embraced him track side while parents Joe and Brigid looked down with pride from the stands that famous Friday evening in Zurich.
Within 48 hours he was helping Ireland’s 4x400m team smash the national record and take fifth in the European relay final.
“I went out with Declan Murray and Jason Harvey on the Friday night but we took it easy ahead of the relay which really put the icing on the cake,” he said.
Mark picked up a hamstring injury midway through his relay leg yet managed to keep his tempo going.
“That’s why I was so surprised to hear that I ran a 45 second split. That would be a huge personal best for me which was yet another positive on the back of running three races and then pulling the hamstring,” he said.
Last Sunday he travelled to Italy and ran in an IAAF Challenge meeting in Rieti and this week the focus switches to the Continental Cup.
“There’s good competition and I think it should be a good race. If it’s slow it will suit me and if it’s a fast race it should allow me to get close to the record,” he said.
“To break the Irish record I will have to be in top physiological shape. Everything will have to be in tip top shape. It will be a tough ask but I’ll give it a rattle,” he explained.
Whatever happens on Sunday evening, Mark will take a holiday and put the spikes to one side for at least four weeks.
He will use that time to decide whether or not to go looking for a new coach to replace his long-term coach at Letterkenny AC Teresa McDaid.
“I think I was right not to rush off and get a new coach before the Europeans because I knew that it would make little or no difference and they would take the credit when, in reality, it didn’t matter how good a coach you were you were never going to change things a month beforehand.
“I’ll take the next month or so to decide what to do. Do I get a new coach or do it by myself and bounce things off people like Nic (Bideau – his manager), my dad (Joe) and other people,” he said.
One man who won’t be in the running to become Mark’s new coach will be former international athlete Jerry Kiernan who finished in ninth place in the men’s marathon at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.
“For such an intelligent guy…. I don’t know. I’m a 400/800 metre athlete and he thinks I’m an 800/1500m runner. I would love to be that athlete. I could then run the New York Mile and other mile races here and there but I’m not. It’s been genetically decided by my muscle fibre types and energy systems and I train accordingly. It’s the tools I’ve been given.
“He mentioned that many of the 800m finalists (in Zurich) had much better endurance levels but Adam (winner) is also a 400/800m runner who’s pb for the 1,500m is 3:45 which isn’t great while the man who was second (Artur Kuciapski) is also a 400/800m man and they’re not doing huge mileage.
“We can’t handle big miles. We’ve fast twitch fibres and would do much damage to our bodies – I know, I’ve tried it in the past.
“Believe me I’m training pretty hard but in a different way to Jerry Kieran hard. Anyway, I don’t think I’ll be lectured by a man who couldn’t break 1:50 for the 800 metres,” he said.
Looking forward to 2015, Mark said that he had yet to finalise his schedule but with European Indoors, U23s and World Outdoors all in the calendar, plus second year medical exams, he admitted that something might have to give.
“The World outdoors is the main aim. My plan is to go there and go as far as I can. I’ll see what shape I’m in but would hope to get to the semi finals and, as the Europeans showed, anything can then happen,” he said.
Securing the Olympic qualifying time for Rio is also a target in 2015.
“If I don’t make the qualifying time I shouldn’t be going anyway,” he said.
Back in 2012, Mark was just 0.17 seconds outside the time which would have secured his participation in the 2012 London Olympics.
“There won’t be any excuses this time around. I will make the Olympic qualifying time if I’m fit and well. I’m motivated to make my first Olympics and would not want to bow out as an athlete not having made an Olympic Games,” he said.
There’s a confidence abut Mark English, one that comes from his running talent and great tactical intelligence.
“You have to be confident in this game and other people have to know you’re confident too. If competitors see a weakness they’ll laugh at you and box you about in races. You have to stand you’re own ground and let them know that you’re not going to be happy finishing second or third. You’re out there to win it and that’s the mindset for every race,” he explained.
That confidence will carry into next year in the knowledge that he added the scalps of Bosse, Lewandowski (the Olympic champion) and Bube in the European final.
“They’re three top quality guys who have won major medals in the past and I now know that, in future, if I get my tactics right I can beat them. It will stand me in good stead,” he said.
Fast forward a decade and Mark can picture himself lining out once more for Letterkenny Gaels once his athletics career is over.
“Steve Cram (athletics commentator on the BBC) mentioned the fact that I used to play for them. We made the U12 county final where we met St Eunan’s and it was a big deal at the time. We lost that final and Matthew Crawford who scored one the ‘Eunan’s goals has since died in a car crash. Our tactics were simple – get the ball into Barry McNamee (current Derry City player) and he would score.
“I love gaelic football even though there were always political decisions at play when it came to team selections whereas in athletics it’s more pure – you’re either the fastest or you’re not,” he said.
So where would be play should the Gaels require his services?
“Where ever my speed would be best used – probably in the half-forward line. It’s easier to use my speed in the gaelic and soccer is a bit more confined and you need a bit more skill,” he added.
In the meantime, he’ll come home from Morocco at the beginning of next week and immerse himself back in the books at UCD.
“I love the distraction (running) but this year will be a much harder test as I try to juggle the two,” he admitted.