We go inside the Nike Zoom Camp for emerging athletes
Most Australian athletics careers are born on Saturday mornings, when the Weet-Bix and cartoons make way for lacing up and running around with mates at the local Little Aths. Little Aths is chaotic at best in the early years, the focus generally on the tuck shop first and the results a distant second (if at all).
Eventually, those who enjoy it and show some aptitude end up outperforming their peers, and a career as a runner beckons. Athletes that are still flourishing in the sport throughout high school will naturally gravitate toward training groups in their area, often studying under the tutelage of an established local coach.
A few athletes will move cities or travel long distances to be under the coach they feel can give them the best shot at ‘making it’. Some will work remotely with a top tier coach, while a local mentor oversees their sessions. A comparative handful will make the leap to the US college system, an environment where athletes have the ultimate support network at their disposal. It’s a very different environment to anything we have here in Australia, and there are scores of success stories from those who have come back from college ready to launch successful professional careers.
In early August, Nike Running put together a two day camp for young athletes to gain access to the knowledge and guidance of some of Australia’s greatest ever talents. Guided by Steve Moneghetti and Ben St. Lawrence, the camp provided athletes from around the country with an opportunity to connect with their peers and to learn more about the realities of running professionally. It signals a clear intention to invest in the future of Austalian running, by arming our talent with tools they've never had before.
Moneghetti has spent a lifetime in athletics, is arguably our most successful marathoner ever, and runners all around the world test themselves every day with the famous Mona Fartlek workout.
The story of Ben St Lawrence has been told many times. A young talent who strayed from the sport to pursue a life outside of running, St Lawrence returned to running 4-5 years later, and eventually made Olympic teams, won a national championship, and broke the Australian record for the 10,000m (27:24.95), a record which still stands today.
The camp officially began with a workout in Sydney’s Centennial Park on Saturday morning, after a get-to-know-you dinner the night before. Eighteen athletes from across Australia, ranging in ages from 17-25, were eager to put in a solid session on the first morning.
Centennial Park is not just one of the most well known running tracks in Australia, it’s a proving ground. National record holders, Olympians, and other champions have all used Centennial Park as their measuring stick. Locally referred to as ‘the white fence’, the 3.5 kilometre dirt track is steeped in history.
The main session is a warm up lap, followed by a lap at threshold, 8 x 300m hill repeats, and another lap at threshold (for reference Matt Clarke logged 21.7km for the session).
The groups split during the first threshold block, and some runners do a different workout, but importantly St Lawrence is right there in the middle of the pack running shoulder-to-shoulder with the young group.
This is not his first time around the white fence. St Lawrence famously achieved all of his best results while working full time in the financial sector, and would often do sessions at Centennial Park.
"For years I would choose where to live based on how long it would take to run to Centennial, with my best effort being a unit on Cook Rd that took me only 90 sec to be amongst the grass, trees and dirt of Centennial. Now as a coach I love the endless variety of sessions that can be dreamed up utilising the mixed terrain. It’s a beautiful, peaceful place - and without it I don’t think I could comfortably live in the city as a runner".
"Centennial Park is the beating heart of the Sydney running scene, every step run in there seems to energise, oxygenate and invigorate. I’ve logged so many miles in there over the past 12 years that I could probably navigate with my eyes closed.
From solo recovery runs to intense group sessions around the hallowed ‘White Fence’, it can cater to everything".
Ben St Lawrence
It was great to have a bunch of strong runners from different groups coming together to train. I do a lot of my training solo, so it helped having a group with me.
Post session, it was time to transfer out of Sydney to the idyllic Palm Beach, to a set up that would allow the athletes to focus entirely on the opportunity in front of them.
They didn’t yet know it, but they were in for two days of a completely immersive running experience. An in-house chef, masseurs, and guidance from some of Australia’s best current and former athletes.
Names in Australian athletics don’t get much bigger than Steve Moneghetti, so when he was on hand to welcome the runners to the house, you could hear a pin drop. If that wasn’t enough, Moneghetti was joined by 1500m champ Linden Hall and 800m star Luke Mathews, who would both be on-hand to speak with the runners all weekend.
To hear Moneghetti speak at length about his experiences in the sport, from winning Berlin in 1990, to Tokyo in 1994 and everything after, is invaluable for a group of athletes who are on the cusp of launching their careers. Some of the group had been in large US college programs, and one runner, Zach Facioni was due to leave just two days after camp to start his college career at Wake Forest. There are more established athletes such as Jack Rayner, who is part of the Melbourne Track Club and has already spent large blocks overseas. Others, such as 17 year old Keely Small, have the world at their feet.
Moneghetti’s message is clear. You can have all the talent in the world, but it comes down to working hard and acting on the opportunities that come your way if you want to reach your potential.
“What you guys have right now is a huge opportunity. I never had anything like this when I was coming up. I used to see other runners at races around the place but that was it. We never got to spend time together and certainly didn’t get access to have people like Benny, Linden, or Luke”.
When you’re young and imagining the path your career will take, it’s common to think of it as a positive, linear trajectory. Each success builds on the one before it, and provided you work hard and stay disciplined you’ll reap the rewards.
Of course, that’s not always how things work, and few people know this better than Linden Hall. The 27 year old 1500m runner is an Olympian, Australian record holder, and national champion. But the ride hasn’t been easy. Long droughts between PB’s (nearly 5 years at one point), a disappointing first year of college at Florida State, and an inability to run fast at important times (i.e. national championships) were all part of Hall’s career path.
Now, fresh off breaking the national record in the 1500m and the mile, as well as a gutsy 4th place at the Commonwealth Games, and Hall is a pin-up for hanging tough and grinding it out.
"Perseverance is really important in our sport, being prepared for the highs and lows; they're inevitable really, and I think as runners we can bond over that. Everyone goes through some low points.
I've also had some great opportunities; a collegiate running career in the NCAA, travelling the world for competitions, being part of the Nike family, and I've met so many amazing people along the way".
800m star Luke Mathews has had a very different path, but not without its own highs and lows. A promising junior, Mathews at one point questioned why he was running, before rediscovering his love for the sport in late 2015.
Mathews says "The start of 2015 was one of the hardest periods in my career. I had just started my first season as a senior athlete, and was slowly beginning to fall in love with the sport after a few disappointing results. When coming to that cross roads, I sat down with my mum and discussed what I wanted to do with my athletics, what I wanted to achieve, and if there really was a life away from athletics.
Eventually, I decided I would persist because the positives of athletics certainly outweighed the negatives.
Fast forward a year and a half and I was representing Australia for two events at the Rio 2016 Olympics".
"The start of 2015 was one of the hardest periods in my career.
Fast forward a year and a half and I was representing Australia for two events at the Rio 2016 Olympics".
Late on Saturday afternoon we hit a shakeout run, an easy 6km loop to the lighthouse for sunset. After the morning workout at Centennial Park, everyone treats this like a social cruise. A few of the runners are lacing up the Pegasus Turbo for the first time, Nike’s latest performance innovation and a shoe designed partly in response to the training needs of Eliud Kipchoge.
The shakeout run is an all-in affair; Linden and Luke are anonymous faces in the pack, as are Steve Moneghetti and Ben St Lawrence. At one point as we climb the final uphill stretch to the lighthouse, I hear Moneghetti ribbing me, offering to carry my camera so I can go a bit faster (At 56 years old, Moneghetti ran a 32:59 for the 10k at Gold Coast in early July).
It's a great opportunity to loosen up after sensory overload throughout the day.
The evening is spent on massage, dinner, and assessing who is doing what for tomorrow's Sunday long run. It's time for another quick word from Steve Moneghetti, a man who firmly understands the value of a Sunday long run.
"Tomorrow morning we get up and we do our long run. We go to church. That's what runners do, whether you're elite or an up and coming junior or you're a recreational runner.
So relax tonight, watch a movie, but when you wake up in the morning be ready to run".
One final treat for the evening was the chance to check out Moneghetti's training log from 1994, the year he won the Tokyo Marathon. For young Sydney runner Ed Goddard, Mona's training diary was compelling reading.
"It's pretty inspiring to see the work of someone you look up to, and the value they put on complexity of individual components in order to make up a block of training.
It highlights that working smartly and with dedication is the only way to achieve long term success".
As Sunday dawns, there’s an obvious excitement in the house. No matter what you tell yourself, this isn’t the usual Sunday long run. Despite all the connections that happened over shared experiences that happened yesterday, runners bond best over a long run.
"On Sunday mornings, we run long. It’s what we’ve always done, and it’s what we’ll always do. I’m not sure when that rule was written, but it is strictly adhered to across the country. To a runner, a Sunday Long run is what the whole week is built around. Miss it and you’re left with a feeling of emptiness. Get through a good one and it can make all other areas of your life seem insignificant.
I can’t remember them all, but I will never forget the best and the worst of my long runs with various people in different locations around the world. It was vital for the success of Zoom Camp that we were able to get out and run long on Sunday, and I’m hoping that this will be a run that they won’t forget in a hurry".
St Lawrence has put together a stunning run route from The Basin Campground in the Ku-Ring-Gai Chase National Park. Ku-Ring-Gai Chase is a site of significant Aboriginal history, with several rock paintings and engravings highlighted throughout the park.
To get to Ku-Ring-Gai Chase National Park requires a winding, inland drive of approximately 40 minutes...or a 3 minute ride in a high speed boat.
Once again, St Lawrence is right there at the pointy end of the run with the guys looking to push two hours. Not everyone will do the same run today; many are on specific programs that will see them run anything from 45 minutes to 90.
The run route itself rises from the beach high into the national park, starting with a brutal 1km climb.
Every few minutes another group of runners stream along The Basin Track, a loosely packed gravel road bathed in sunshine. It's idyllic; a beautiful setting for a long run and the type of route you remember for months if not years to come.
Post run, everyone is keen to refuel before settling in to a stretching session led by Nike Run Club Coach Matty Abel.
Abel explains that as young runners increase their volume, there are a lot of 1%'ers that add up to keep bodies feeling fresh and keep injuries at bay.
"These 1%'ers are like compound interest. Spending time warming up correctly, stretching, foam rolling, hydrating, sleeping enough, these things and more all multiply over time.
These are easy things to skip and not do well, however if done correctly over time they will add up and give you the edge on race day".
As the athletes pack their bags and get ready for the drive back to the airport, it's hard to know what the future holds.
Moneghetti summed it up best on Saturday afternoon when he addressed the group.
"A couple of you will go on to be superstars of the sport. A few more will be big names and have successful careers, and you know what? Some of you will probably be out of the sport and off pursuing other things in the next few years.
And that's fine, that's life. All we can do is present the opportunities to you but you have to decide which path you want to follow in life".
Indeed, we don't know what will happen to this group. But each of them will return to their home training environment better prepared for the next stage of their careers.
From rubbing shoulders with some of Australia's greatest ever runners, to forming friendships with peers and learning more about how to care for their bodies, there's no doubt the Zoom Camp has left its mark on our next generation of talent.
Editor's Note: TEMPO travelled to Zoom Camp as guests of Nike.