Checking out the main contenders for the 2020 Zatopek
Australian track fans, and Melbourne track fans in particular, look forward to Zatopek every year as one of the best nights of racing on the domestic calendar. Typically held in December, the event wasn’t held in 2020 because of the ever-present coronavirus - however the 2020 event has been saved, and will now be held on January 26th (with the 2021 event still planned for December).
So to be clear - this is the 2020 Zatopek, held in 2021 - and the 2021 Zatopek will be held later in the year.
With that, and because it has been so long since we’ve had high quality track racing in Australia, here’s our preview of the Zatopek:10.
Disclaimer - at the time of writing (Monday, January 18th) most border restrictions around entering Victoria have been dropped and travellers can apply for permits. We're assuming no athletes will miss out on competing due to travel complications - but who knows what the future holds.
I'm glad this is the last race of the program (scheduled for 7:40pm) because it should be the best contest of the night.
First up, let’s talk about the reigning champ, Gen Gregson. Gen won the 2019 edition of this race at Box Hill in 32:47.83 in a tight contest with her training partner Andrea Seccafien (32:48.30). Gen’s only opportunity to race a 10,000m since then was in the QLD State Championships in August, which she also won, this time in 32:59.83.
Gen of course is known for the steeplechase, holding the Australian record in the event (9:14.28), as well as being a two-time Olympian (London 2012, Rio 2016). Gen has also had some success on the roads in recent years, winning a number of domestic races - in 2019 Gen won the Burnie Ten (10k) and the Noosa Bolt (5k), and in 2020 won the Launceston 10 (and set the fastest time ever recorded at The Tan, for those who missed it), just to name a few.
I asked Gen about her preparation for the race, "I'm coming in as fit as I've ever been before. I've strung together about 18 months uninjured now and it's starting to show.
"I've got high expectations for Zatopek, and hopefully the time shows that."
It’s no surprise that Gregson has been able to transition from the steeple to longer 10,000m racing so well - she regularly trains with not only Andrea Seccafien (Canadian 5,000m Olympian, and national record holder in the half marathon), but also with Sinead Diver.
Gregson’s 32:47.83 PR is not reflective of her ability here - that was a tactical battle between her and Seccafien on a warm night at Box Hill in 2019 - I would suggest Gen will be looking for a faster race here, and while the entry list doesn’t have any official pacers, it’s not hard to figure out who they might be.
Now, let's go down the entry list in alphabetical order and look at some of the other main contenders.
From Adelaide, former University of Washington athlete Isobel Batt-Doyle. Batt-Doyle has been in good form in South Australia over the past 6 months - she set a 5000m PR of 15:26.48 in December, and ran a 32:13.04 for 10,000m back in October in a mixed race. Izzi also raced the Launceston Ten in December, finishing 3rd just 9 seconds behind Gen Gregson (Rose Davies, who is also in this race, finished 2nd).
You get the sense the time is now for Batt-Doyle - every Olympic cycle we see a couple of athletes grab hold of opportunities and it feels like Batt-Doyle is keen to make the most of her chances to race against the best in Australia.
Rose Davies is an exciting athlete. 3rd behind Gregson and Seccafien in the last edition of Zatopek, she was just 19 years old at the time. In February 2020 Davies ran her 5,000m PR at the Melbourne Track Classic in 15:30.15. As already mentioned, she had a great day at the Launceston 10, finishing 2nd to Gen Gregson in 32:00.
I don’t know whether it will be 2022, or 2023 or ‘24, but I get the sense that one day Rose Davies will win this race.
Next up is marathon gun Sinead Diver. Calling her a marathoner is probably a disservice to her overall ability because Sinead is truly an elite 10,000m runner - setting her 31:25.49 PR at the 2019 World Championships in Doha, where she finished 14th. Sinead won the 10,000m National Championship in 2018, finishing 2nd in this race to Japan’s Hitomi Niiya.
Speaking with Diver after training this week, she admits she's happy to be back feeling race fit. "I finally feel like I'm back to fitness after London. I'm excited for the race - it will be my first track race since Doha."
Sinead is less likely to have the same kick that an athlete like Gregson or Batt-Doyle possesses, but obviously has shown countless times that she has the speed endurance required for a strong 10,000m (i.e. Doha 2019). So if there are others prepared to go with her and share the work on the front, there's a definite chance she pulls the pack along to a fast time.
"We're going to try and run the Olympic standard (31:25), so it's all about getting as many of us under that time as possible, so I don't think it will be a tactical race."
Ellie Pashley is another marathoner who has a lot more range than that label suggests. Ellie finished one place ahead of Sinead in the Doha World Championships 10,000m (13th place, in 31:18.89 - good enough for an Olympic qualification), and goes into this race as the only athlete with the time.
Ellie is also one of the only athletes who has raced on the track recently - last week running a 5,000m in Bendigo in 16:08. It’s hard to gauge too much from this one - Ellie was solo for much of the race and running into a strong headwind on the finishing straight.
It’s hard to know what’s in this race for Ellie. She’s currently the only athlete with the time qualifier, so her position for Tokyo looks good. Can three women in this field dip under 31:25, or better yet, dip under Ellie’s 31:18? Only 3 Australian women have ever gone faster than 31:18, so it's improbable that 3 do it in one race and knock Ellie out of her spot.
The other big contender in this one is Andrea Seccafien. As already mentioned, Seccafien is a Canadian Olympian who lives in Melbourne. Seccafien already has the qualifying time for the 5,000m - she ran 14:59.95 in Doha, and in early 2020 ran a 1:09:38 half marathon in Marugame, Japan to set a new Canadian national record.
These times show a great range from Seccafien - she’s certainly quicker than her 10,000m PR suggests (32:48.30 from Zatopek 2019 - in fairness Seccafien has barely raced at the distance). I'm absolutely certain Seccafien will play a key role in how this race plays out - she'll be one of the ones driving the pace early and if they're all in a pack with a couple of laps to go I expect her to be aggressive.
I think the top 5 will probably be Gen Gregson, Andrea Seccafien, Ellie Pashley, Izzi Batt-Doyle, and Sinead Diver - I don't think that's saying a lot, unless of course someone from outside this group is in the top 5!
This race is not so much about who wins as it is about getting a qualifying time, so I do expect it to be an honest pace - we've already heard from several athletes that they'll be working together to make sure it's quick. We’re likely to see a couple of the younger competitors take on pace duties for the first half of the race, and from there it's really about seeing who sticks to their word and takes a few laps on the front - and also who's capable and who's having a bad day.
I spoke to Gen Gregson about how she sees the race unfolding. "We've all agreed that we're basically helping one another to run as fast as possible. You never know when the next opportunity to run fast will be."
Box Hill isn't a slow track - I think most athletes would prefer this meet be held at Box Hill instead of Lakeside, so I do think we could see some athletes dip under 31:25, which would be a huge thrill for a Melbourne crowd starved of high quality racing. Only 4 Australian women have ever gone under 31:25, so this could be an historic evening.
I think anytime the name ‘Stewart McSweyn’ appears on a domestic start list it becomes a very short conversation, and if he races then he wins, however - I would be surprised to see McSweyn line up here. Whispers around town a month ago were that he wouldn’t be racing, and I haven’t heard anything since that suggests otherwise. I think McSweyn is someone who needs a high level of motivation to race, and I don’t see what he gets from this race - I don’t think the circumstances will allow him to reclaim his national record here.
Let’s assume he doesn’t race for the sake of this preview.
I don’t see the same level of depth in the men’s field as I do in the women’s - you can make legitimate cases for any of 5 women to win that race, where I think there are 3 main contenders on the men’s side - maybe 2. While there are absolutely some classy athletes lining up in the men’s race, I just see a clear gap between the top couple and the rest of the field.
I think the race will be a battle between training partners and friends, Jack Rayner and Brett Robinson. I think Dave McNeill and Sam McEntee should be involved in proceedings as long as anyone, but don't see anyone challenging Rayner and Robinson.
Let’s look at Jack first. He doesn’t have a heap of recent form to go on, racing only once in 2020 - the Launceston 10 in December. His performance there was impressive - leading from the gun for a solo victory in 28:48. Since then, he’s had a few weeks of training in Melbourne in December, and has been at Falls Creek since the start of January.
I’ve watched Jack train a number of times over that period, and while it can be a bit of a fools game to make predictions based on watching training, one thing for certain is that he is fit, and has had an uninterrupted block of training for the last 3 months.
By contrast, his MTC teammate and friend Brett Robinson has opted to stay in Melbourne to train over January. We’ve got a bit more recent history on Robinson - he of course raced the London Marathon in October (dropping out around 36km), before returning to Australia via quarantine, and then winning the Launceston Half Marathon in December in 61:38. In February 2020 he set a new national record in the half marathon, running 59:57 in Marugame, Japan.
"We don't get to race a lot in Melbourne, so to race here in front of your training partners and everyone you know, it means a lot if you can win Zatopek.
It's also one of the biggest races on the Australian calendar."
Like Rayner, Robinson doesn’t race a lot on the track these days - but we mustn’t forget his background, finishing 14th in the Olympic final of the 5,000m in Rio (he also won the Zatopek in 2014).
So, in a head-to-head battle between Rayner and Robinson, who wins? By all reports Jack has had the better lead-in (Brett missed a few days earlier this month with illness - not covid), stringing together a great block at Falls Creek. And while Robinson has the edge on Rayner at longer distances - Brett isn’t just the national record holder in the half marathon, he’s also got a 2:10:55 marathon PR, Jack should have the ability to go with any moves through the middle of the race.
It could come down to who ends up doing most of the work. I don’t see a lot of help coming from the field in this race, so if either athlete gets stuck sitting on the front for a large portion of the race, it could be their undoing.
Speaking to Robinson earlier this week, he's confident of a good time but knows he won't get a lot of help up front.
"I think we'll go sub 28. We probably need one more person to push the pace to go 27:30, but I know Dave, Jack, and myself are all keen to push it and we're all at a similar level so it should be a close race."