Adelaide's Finest wants it more than you do
On a rainy Adelaide afternoon in 2007, Max Stevens found himself lined up at his first school cross country event. Rain bucketing down, mud carpeting the course, Stevens made the most of a day off school. A 66th place finish not reflective of the fun Stevens had in his first competitive experience.
“It was pissing down with rain, it was muddy, it was windy, and it was freezing cold - but I just had the best day!”
Stevens’ interest in running grew similarly to many others, an enthusiastic junior footballer and cricketer, “Like everyone else, I thought I was going to play AFL and bat for the Australian cricket team for a very long time.”
Making the pilgrimage to Falls Creek in the summer of 2013, Stevens reflects on the period as one that spurned his love for competition and running culture.
“We just looked like the biggest rookies up there, we were getting belted by little kids in sessions.”
The trip provided Stevens an opportunity to brush shoulders with the elites of the sport, “At that time it was Gregson, Birmingham and Brett Robinson was just starting to go pretty well, seeing those guys run around, having a chat with a few of them, it put a bit of perspective on where I fit on the pecking order. What I was doing kind of didn’t matter that much.”
The reality check that comes with watching Australian representatives train discourages some, yet a new position on the running food chain encouraged Stevens to try new events and enjoy racing.
2013 saw Stevens move to Adam Didyk, joining the Team Tempo group. With a new weekly running structure building from 60 kilometres a week to 100 kilometres a week and more, Stevens improved gradually. Notably, Didyk immediately instilled a change in approach, “I think overall in South Australia, as a smaller state, you kind of go to Nationals as a junior, and it’s all about 'We’ve got to win the small states trophy.' You get caught up in 'oh yeah, Victoria, New South Wales & Queensland are just so much better.'"
Didyk deemed this approach unacceptable, making it clear to Stevens that his results would be dictated by his actions, not his home state.
Stevens persisted with steeplechase, progressing to the open national ranks, never finishing higher than 8th from 2013 - 2016. The transition from juniors to open racing claims many a victim, distracted by the rigours of study or work. Stevens readily admits that he never had distinctive thoughts of making a national team, focusing instead on improving across events from 800m to 10 kilometres.
Far from a fully fledged athletics nerd, Stevens is open about his approach to running “It doesn’t really phase me if I miss watching a Diamond League or something, sure I’ll go back and watch highlights, or check results here and there. I check in, I have an idea of what’s going on… but I think I’m just a competitor. I love winning. Even at training I’ll run best when I’m leading all the reps.”
Stevens’ development as a steeplechaser fascinates many, namely due to flutters of improvement across other distances. To those in the know, Stevens’ results never quite matched up, symptomatic of many Aussies in the event. When an athlete truly invests in steeplechase, alternate events tend to suffer due to scheduling priorities. 2017 brought on a different Stevens, racing to a 14:11.90 5000m personal best, finally breaking the 9 minute steeplechase barrier in a fourth place finish at the national championships.
As Stevens’ performances grew, his application and volume followed, as 130-140 kilometre weeks aided his search for an elusive national championship medal. A silver medal in 2018, coupled with breaking the 8:50 and 8:40 steeplechase time barriers, Stevens’ 8:39.30 was the fastest Australian time of 2018.
"2018 gave me the platform I needed to be able to look at myself as someone capable of making senior Australian teams. I'd learnt how to win too."
"Every steeple I ran, I felt I'd win it. But I wanted to go about it my own way. I remember laughing and joking in the call room amongst all the other tense guys - I just want to enjoy my running, be a good bloke, and win shit."
Stevens’ development in a typically unpopular event has been driven by his willingness to dictate races, taking full responsibility for his own results. Distance runners often ask for deeper fields, designing advantageous race plans where they’re rarely required to lead a race. Stevens dismisses this approach instantly, “It’s a front running event”, a tactic the 25-year old has employed in multiple state and national championships.
On the state of steeplechase in Australia, Stevens sternly asserts the difficulties the lack of depth pose. Whilst many Australian athletes are quick to claim this excuse, Stevens’ reference isn’t utilised as one; it’s a statement of fact, a call to arms. “We’ve got to support the steeple, it’s an event people basically wanted to get rid of, I think now that we have had success in it… You have a choice to make as an athlete, and you have to pick the steeple so that we get AA giving us more steeples in the future.”
Stevens is optimistic about the new era of Aussie steeplechase, happy to race the likes of Ben Buckingham (8:27.51), Princeton athlete Ed Trippas (8:33.90), new training partner Matthew Clarke (8:38.68) as well as the wily elder statesman James Nipperess (8:40.15 in 2019, 8:32.59pb).
"It doesn’t really phase me if I miss watching a Diamond League or something...I check in, I have an idea of what’s going on...but I think I’m just a competitor. I love winning. Even at training I’ll run best when I’m leading all the reps.”
In a year of experimentation, 2019 saw Stevens race at the iconic Payton Jordan Invitational at Stanford University, before heading to Flagstaff for an altitude block, and finishing his trip with Nashville's Music City Distance Classic. Payton Jordan is known for quick times and deep fields; in a field where 14 men broke 8:40, Stevens romped to a personal best of 8:29.48 whilst finishing 4th.
“Payton Jordan was just hectic, apart from an Olympics or Comm Games, there’s never been a group of guys that big, running at that pace in Australia. To be running around at 8:27 pace in a group of 20, going over a water jump was crazy. It took me a little while to find my bearings and feel comfortable.”
Entering 2020 in a positive space, Stevens holds a swathe of Oceania Championship bonus points to bolster his world ranking. To many, the ranking points system poses a complex problem, to Stevens the Olympic qualifying standard remains the simplest equation, “We just can’t leave it to chance, I’m going into 2020 saying “put it beyond doubt, run sub-8:22” - only 3 Australians that have done that, but I believe I’m capable of that.”
Stevens’ attitude is credited to Didyk’s unwavering commitment to success, constantly developing his young charge’s mental approach to the sport.
“I think the big change probably came back in 2017 where I started to shift my mindset. It was a bit of a kick up the arse after me being pretty happy with 3rd place in a 10k road race...and Adam just gave me a rocket for it - 'No, you’re never going to get anywhere if you’re just happy to let people run away from you'.”
Winning all domestic steeplechase races he entered in 2019 bar one, Stevens radiates a message of self-belief, “I think I want it more than the other guys, I think it’s that competitive edge - that’s probably the big difference I’ve got over the other guys.”
2020 excites Stevens, as Australian steeplechase nudges back toward Olympic qualification standard, “I believe Clarkey and Bucks are capable of that, and if Jordy Williamsz keeps at it, I think he could potentially do that too.”
Citing the 2016 Rio Olympics, Stevens has done his homework on what a major championship final takes - citing Don Cabral of the United States, 8th in Rio in 8:28 - “It’s not inconceivable that one of us five steeple guys can’t be top 8 at the Olympics next year.”