Stewy McSweyn loves the work
For any aspiring Australian runner, the road to track season fitness runs through Falls Creek, and has done for decades. The small town in Northeast Victoria sits at around 1,700m (5,500 feet) above sea level, making it one of the highest accessible training locations in the country.
Come January, the mountain will be crawling with juniors, club runners, and sub-elites, all trying to level up, and all eager to get some reps in if they can with the nation's best athletes.
But for now, on a Thursday morning in late November, the mountain is quiet. Unseasonably, the mountain is also blanketed in snow. In many parts of the world this unexpected white out would be big news, but in the southern half of Australia these weather events barely elicit more than a shoulder shrug.
Stewy McSweyn and his Melbourne Track Club teammates have been here for weeks, laying an early season foundation ahead of an important 2019. They’ll be here late into January as well, long after the recreational runners have had their fill and returned home.
As the snow continues to pile up outside, inside McSweyn and his MTC teammates go quietly about their preparations for another run. It’s -6 degrees, with a strong wind bringing the snow in sideways, but conditions warrant barely a second look from the group.
A coal miner doesn’t complain about the dark; they simply carry a lamp.
Spending long blocks of time training at Falls Creek requires unbreakable dedication and commitment. For McSweyn, the immediate priority is defending his Zátopek 10,000m title in Melbourne on December 13.
"Zátopek last year kick started a career best season for me, so I'm looking forward to kick starting my 2019 campaign there as well.
I'll need to be at my best to defend my title, but I'm fitter than I was last year and looking forward to the challenge."
On this day, in this weather, it's fitting that Emil Zátopek's name is being mentioned. The Czech phenom had an unwavering commitment to training. Whether it was running through deep snow in his military boots, or jogging up and down on the spot for hours on end while performing his duties as a sentry, Zátopek let nothing get in his way.
Freezing rain pelts McSweyn and his teammates in the face and wind lashes at their sides, but still they keep their heads up and eyes forward. After all, training is what they're here for.
Eighteen kilometers later, the group clocks off. Back to the lodge for breakfast, coffee, and a shower.
Now comes the hard part of the day, that period between the morning run and the afternoon run when there is nothing to do.
While the roads and trails around Falls Creek are quiet in November, and deserted when it’s snowing heavily, it’s the downtime that can be most isolating. There’s not much to do; catch a nap in your bunk, read a book, get a massage, or simply watch the clock until the afternoon run at 5:30pm. Not that McSweyn or his teammates are complaining. It’s part of the job.
“I actually love coming away on camp because even though you’re away from home and your family, this group feels like my second family.
When camp is over and I go home I really miss the group and miss being around everyone”.
As snow continues to pile up outside, McSweyn gets organised for his evening run. There is of course no question as to if or why he should go back out in the bad weather for an easy 30 minute run. It is scheduled, it must be completed.
Aside from the commitment, the sacrifice, and the hunger, the quality that stands out about this group of athletes is their honesty. With Coach Nic Bideau on his way to Japan to oversee a marathon, the athletes of MTC are accountable to themselves only. There’s no one waiting outside with a stopwatch and a clipboard, nor is there anyone madly refreshing their Strava profiles for confirmation the work has been done.
It is bitterly cold; if anything the conditions have worsened since the morning run. What's to be gained from a light 30 minute jog?
The proof of the work will show.
McSweyn has a huge period of opportunity in front of him over the next 18 months, everything ultimately aimed at the Tokyo Olympics in July 2020. Until then, there are thousands of kilometeres to be logged, hundreds of hours to spend quietly preparing in isolation, months at altitude, and not a single workout to be missed.