A Melbourne summer spent preparing for battle in London
THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 7, 2019
“Did you see that cyclist punch me?”
“On the back straight just then. This bloke was abusing us for running in the bike lane and then he just swung his arm around as he rode past and hit me in the face.”
It’s early February, and a group of 4 athletes from Melbourne Track Club have just finished one of the first sessions in their build towards the 2019 London Marathon. Brit Charlotte Purdue, along with Sinead Diver, Brett Robinson, and Jack Rayner, have met early in the morning at Albert Park - where the Formula 1 Grand Prix will be held some six weeks later.
Jack explains the bizarre incident to me, but it's clear that by the time he's finished telling me about it, he probably won't ever give it another thought.
This is the first ‘big’ week of the build, with Robinson and Rayner just back from World XC Trials in Canberra (where they went 1-2). Today’s workout is 7x2km at marathon pace, with 2 minutes jog in between efforts. Robinson and Rayner average around 3:03 p/km for the efforts, while the ‘jog’ is at around 4:00 p/km. In the peak of Melbourne summer, on a humid morning, the only thing that makes this workout more impressive is the fact that Rayner withstood a surprise punch during his final effort.
View Jack Rayner's Strava workout here.
The London Marathon boasts arguably the deepest fields in the world on both the men's and women's sides.
For Sinead, it's a chance to race. Her 2:25:19 from Melbourne in October 2018 ranks her in the top half of the elite field on times, but Diver never raced in a field the quality of London. Her Melbourne Marathon was largely a time trial.
Jack Rayner goes into London untested at the marathon distance, but with a superb 2018 under his belt, punctuated by an incredible 1:01:01 in the inaugural Commonwealth Half Marathon Championships in Cardiff, a race he won with a devastating attack inside the final mile. Days before this block started, Rayner ran a 1:01:36 on a wet day in Marugame, Japan.
Brett's story is a little more complicated. An Olympic finalist, Robinson is one of Australia's finest 5,000m runners. After setting a 5,000m PB (13:15.91) in Europe in mid 2018, Robinson built towards the Fukuoka Marathon in December.
Unfortunately for Robinson, he had to drop out of the race around the 32km mark, citing a lack of muscle conditioning as one of the main reasons for his DNF.
TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 12, 2019
The session today is a Melbourne Track Club staple, 8x1km with 1 minute rest. Again, it's a strange morning in Melbourne; warm, humid, and with brief periods of heavy rain, as the group do their session at Olympic Park - an unusual, 507m oval shaped track.
It's a busy morning for a 3 lane track - as well as the MTC group, Rio Olympian Sam McEntee is training with promising athletes Matt Clarke and Jordan Gusman.
"This session is our bread and butter. You know you'll be getting an honest workout in without having to push yourself too hard."
Jack Rayner on the 8x1k reps
Sitting with Robinson before the others arrive for the session (it's best to just assume Jack will be late to everything), we talk about the Fukuoka experience.
"I spoke with Tsegay (Yemane Tsegay, 2nd place getter at Fukuoka) and with Hattori (Yuma Hattori, winner) and they both did a lot of 40km runs on road, which I hadn't.
It's something I spoke to Nic about. This prep I am doing some really long runs, but it’s probably more doing my hard sessions on the road, and doing 40km days over 2 runs with 20km or more at race pace."
"Even though the guys are so much faster than us, we warm up and cool down together. We all discuss the sessions and how we felt during them, it’s good to hear everyone else's thoughts.
Especially if you’ve had a bad one, you realise it’s because of the volume of training you’re doing."
"Jack and I work really well together. If there’s days where one of us is tired we help each other out to get through the session.
We’re not trying to drop each other, we’re trying to get through it together."
The work was done in the low 2:50's for the most part, Rayner and Robinson in lockstep throughout the session. This is not a new workout for anyone in the group; as such, there's not a lot of post-session chat. It's just a matter of going home and putting the legs up before they each do their afternoon jog.
You can check Brett's workout details on Strava here.
THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 21, 2019
"Brett's not coming, he's just taking a couple of days off. Should be ok in a day or two," Jack tells me as we meet in the carpark of a surf lifesaving club in Port Melbourne.
Sinead is also missing from the session; she's in Sydney to race the 5,000m National Championships this weekend.
The workouts get harder each week, and today's plan is for 6x3km with 2 minutes jog. Including 20 minutes warm up and the same cool down, Rayner will log 28.5km for the session, before heading out later in the afternoon for another 30 minute jog.
Sinead placed 3rd in torrid conditions in Sydney, unable to add to the 10,000m national title she earned in December.
Jack's 3km efforts were done at marathon pace (3:04p/km). You can check out his Strava activity here.
TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 26, 2019
The session is held at The Tan, a popular spot for recreational joggers in inner Melbourne. Brett isn't quite back to doing sessions, so today it's just Jack, Sinead, and Charlotte - who will head home to London in the next week.
Rayner's path to the marathon is an interesting one. While he dominated the domestic road scene in 2018, had the big win in Cardiff, and ran a 1:01:36 in Marugame in early February, his place in the elite field was a surprise to many.
But does the quiet kid from Melbourne's west feel confident about his debut?
"It's hard to be too confident about something so unknown to me but I'm definitely looking forward to the challenge."
MTC Coach Nic Bideau offers a rational argument for Rayner's foray into marathoning.
"Jack’s one of those guys who is hard to place. He’s a sub 4 minute miler, he’s outkicked Centro in a 5k, and he had that win in Cardiff.
What really made me think he could do it was when he came back from Cardiff he was a couple of days off the plane and he ran with Sinead for 37k (pacing her in the Melbourne Marathon). Now that was only 2:25 pace, but it gives an indication that he has an ability to store the glycogen.
He’s robust as well, nothing ever goes wrong with him in training, he’s always healthy and he can run a lot of races."
"There’s a lot of things that make me think he can do it. He’s a good athlete in all these other events, but maybe he’s an outstanding athlete in the marathon and I just think we should find out now."
Nic Bideau on Jack Rayner
"I don't want to go out aiming for a crazy fast time on debut and blow up.
I respect the distance and want to get to that finish line at Buckingham Palance knowing that I've given it my all."
FRIDAY, MARCH 8, 2019
Sinead is in Japan to pace the Nagoya Women's Marathon (where her friend and fellow Aussie Ellie Pashley clocks a 2:26:21, 8th fastest Australian all time), and Jack is battling a fever, but on a brighter note Brett has returned from his niggle.
Jordy Williamsz is back from a stint racing indoors in Europe and joins Brett on the bike for today's session - 8x1km on/off; the 'on' hovering just under 3:00p/km, the 'off' at 3:20p/km.
"I put big time goals on my last marathon and it didn’t work out, but I still want to run 2:08-2:09.
I at least want to go out at 2:10 pace and finish strong."
Like any world class athlete in 2019, Robinson is planning his life around the dream of making the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.
Bideau provides some perspective on Robinson's marathon tilt.
"He’s a finalist in the 5k. We know he’s capable of running in that event, and I don't think a couple of marathons now is going to make him any worse at the 5k. But he wants to excel in Tokyo, and he’s been to a 5k final and not had the race he’s wanted. So he wants to see how good he can be at the marathon."
The new Olympic standard from the IAAF is 2:11:30, a time only 16 Australian men have ever bettered.
"I do think my spot on the Olympic team will come in the marathon. I’d like to put in a performance that allows me to basically train and race whatever I want until Tokyo."
In addition to increasing the single day volume peaks for Robinson in this marathon preparation, Bideau points to fuelling as an area that has been looked at since Fukuoka.
"I'm not sure he was well enough fuelled last time. I was with him for a few days before the race and I don’t know if he was eating enough. He’s a thin guy, and often those really thin guys have trouble storing the glycogen for a marathon. He’s been working on that this time and hopefully he'll have a lot more in reserve when he gets to 32km."
Regardless of Robinson's performance in London, he plans to return to the track in 2019 - after a rest of course.
"Jack and I are going on holiday after London, and I'll probably stay in Europe and look at running some 5k or 10k races.
Hopefully I can go back and run the qualifier in the 5k and 10k and have some options. But, my goal is to run the marathon in Tokyo."
THURSDAY, MARCH 14, 2019
Sinead has returned from Japan, getting back into the work without missing a beat.
Unfortunately, Jack is still battling illness and won't be running. He will ultimately miss just over one week of workouts with what is later revealed as the flu.
To watch Brett run, or to look at his Strava files, you would never know he spent the best part of 2 weeks on the sidelines.
Today's workout is 10 x 1km on/off. The 'on' being around 2:55p/km for Brett, and the 'off' around 3:20p/km. With warm up and cool down added it's a 30km morning.
Brett is again joined by MTC teammate Jordy Williamsz on the bike, while Sinead has Bideau riding beside her.
"The number one thing for them, in their eyes, is that they come out of it with the Olympic qualifying time. But we still want them to compete."
SATURDAY, MARCH 30, 2019 - AARHUS, DENMARK
Robinson and Rayner are in Denmark representing Australia at the World Cross Country Championships. It's clear in the build up that Rayner isn't fully recovered from his illness, and despite giving his all on race day, he leaves Aarhus unsatisfied with his performance.
Robinson seems to rise to the occasion as a senior figure in the Australian team. He fights from the gun, and finishes in 30th position - the top Australian male.
"First non-African is pretty good, I guess."
"I’ve had a 28th place before so this was not my best result but I’m happy. I ran smart, and chose to take the hills easier to save myself for later."
It would be unfair to call this race a distraction, but in many ways it's just another workout for the pair in their preparation for London. The next day they are back to marathon training with a 2 hour run on what must be very heavy legs.
You can view Jack's Strava file from World Cross Country here.
Robinson and Rayner now head straight to the UK, basing themselves in Teddington, around 40 minutes out of central London.
Diver on the other hand is still in Melbourne putting the finishing touches on her campaign.
THURSDAY, APRIL 11, 2019
Today marks the last bit of threshold work for Sinead ahead of London. Early next week she will make the trip to join Robinson and Rayner in Teddington, a week and a half before race day.
While Diver's PB came from a time-trial like performance in the 2018 Melbourne Marathon (where Stewy McSweyn and Jack Rayner paced her for large parts of the race), London is a very different beast - and Diver knows it.
"My mindset is different for London, because it’s not just about me going at the pace I think I can go at. There isn’t a pace group for that either!
I want to make sure I run with a group and race the girls in that group. So it will be a lot different to Melbourne in that sense. We’ll see how strong I am at the back end."
Diver only transitioned fully to MTC late last year, and London will be the first full prep she's done under the guidance of Bideau. I ask Nic Bideau what he's observed since Diver switched over to MTC full time.
"Her goals have risen, and I think she’s learning a bit more about how to compete and get the best out of herself all the time, in training and racing.
If you want to go to the next level you have to bring that effort regularly and consistently."
"She’s in an environment where that’s being asked of her every day and she has flourished. She likes the challenge, she wants to give her best all the time."
WEDNESDAY, APRIL 24, 2019 - LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM
We're now just days out from a race that could change the careers of these three athletes forever.
For Sinead Diver, who is probably the most likely of the group to have a standout performance given her past results and the fact that she finally has someone to race, Sunday can't come soon enough.
"I'm excited and nervous, the same way I get before any big race. It is a little different, there's less pressure or expectation on me compared to Melbourne."
For anyone out there looking for a role model, you could do a lot worse than be taken in by Diver's story. Diver took up competitive running much later in life than most elite athletes (actually, I dare say later than every single elite athlete, male or female, in the field), and is a proud mother of two.
Bideau is confident in Diver's ability heading into London.
"Sinead’s unknown to a lot of people because she’s down here in Australia...people probably aren’t expecting her to be as competitive as I think she will be.
Sinead will surprise people with what she can do. She’s in great shape and she's in a good head space as well."
For Brett Robinson, reaching his time goals of sub 2:10 would likely catapult him inside the top 5 all time list for Australians (Lee Troop is currently #5 with 2:09:49). Bigger than that, it would all but guarantee him a spot in Tokyo.
This would be the ultimate triumph for someone who felt the full weight of the marathon on his shoulders in late 2018. To his credit, Robinson was remarkably open and honest about his shortcomings in Fukuoka, and this humility is one of the reasons why observers want to see him do well in London.
During a moment in the build up when Robinson wasn't running, he offered a very small glimpse into life in a marathon block. He remarked that his body felt fine when he was running, but when he wasn't running he was constantly sore, his body and quality of life in tatters. Heat packs were a normal part of being able to get out of bed, or to get in the car and drive to appointments. These are the moments we don't see; the sacrifices that enable him to pull on national kit in Denmark, or to line up in the elite field at the London Marathon.
Jack Rayner is a different story all together. While the general public probably see a quiet achiever, and his nearly 5,000 Strava followers marvel at the volume and intensity of his training, there's a lot more to him. He's a historian, not just of the sport, but he frequently pulls out spikes or flats from years gone by. As his moustache might give away, Rayner isn't taken by the latest trends; he has his own eye and treads his own path.
He's also a joker, and has a fair amount of 'mongrel' in him - which was on full display when he destroyed the Ugandan duo to win the 1/2 marathon in Cardiff.
If the race goes to plan (which to be fair is a big 'if' in a debut marathon), the 23 year old could earn his first Olympic birth, in an event he's only competed in once.
"Brett and I have logged a lot of miles together this year and it has been great. Brett has so much experience under his belt, I'm always learning something from him.
Hopefully it comes together on race day and we can both produce some decent results."
It's easy to get carried away and think about a return to the glory days of Australian marathoning - when Deeks and Mona were winning majors, but to do that would be a disservice to the rest of the current crop of Australian distance runners.
Maybe I'm too close to these athletes to make an unbiased comment, but it's hard not to be excited about race day. The result will reveal itself on Sunday, and success or failure will be judged swiftly by fans around the world. But whatever happens on the streets of London, the journey I've had the privilege of witnessing gives me hope for a return to the glory days of Australian marathoning.
Stay locked to TEMPO for the best race galleries from London as well as reactions from Brett, Jack, and Sinead.
Editor's Note: Images from the World XC Championships are courtesy of Phil Gale and Emmie Collinge, who were on assignment for TEMPO at the race. You can view that piece here.