One week until race day and I am standing outside the Southwark Athletics Track in inner city London. We have been standing outside it for over an hour now. To my left is Deon Kenzie, bedecked in green and gold. A World Record holder, never a gold medallist. A man that this time around has his sights firmly set on becoming World Champion. To my right is Philo Saunders. A warrior of distance running, tasked with guiding Deon and I to World Championship success. In front, are a group of local runners. We all stand under a nearby tree, green leaves glistening in the dusk. From high above water is falling. It runs down my face, seeping through my clothes. My teeth chatter in the cold. Finally, someone arrives and the gates open. Once on the track my feet dance a merry dance. My hardened body, white and shimmering with sweat, launches forward, propelling itself through puddles, hurling through the bends. I was ready. Ready for anything. Nothing could stop me!
In the preceding weeks, I had toiled on the towering hills through Greensborough, Eltham and Research in Melbourne. Running up to 140km a week, training twice a day nearly every day. The winter had made the going tough and made me tougher in the process. Each day it would seem as if my legs were screaming, pleading the question of when this relentless pummelling would cease.
After the winter, came the European summer. I spent just over a week in Cologne in Germany with Deon. We ran through its famed parks and ancient university grounds. A cavalry of Aussie athletes joined us, utilising the city as a base camp including my amazing girlfriend Sarah Walsh, many soon-to-be IPC World Champions and a large quantity of able-bodied athletes still chasing qualifiers for the IAAF World Championships. It was here that the sharpening of weaponry took place. Each day, every session, was a sign that something special was on the horizon.
The next stop was Brussels, Belgium. A short but necessary detour on our journey to London. It was here that we were to smooth out any kinks in the armoury. I had many. My last competitive race was many months before, a DNF due to visual fatigue. This time around, I was physically primed. Tactically, I suffered. I made mistakes. Still, I managed a 3:49.41 for 1500m. Nearly a PB and only 1-second outside the World Record. Also racing in Brussels, Philo ran his first 3:45 for the year and Kiwi Olympic medallist Nick Willis was still chasing an IAAF World qualifier, helped by the pacing of Aussie Jordan Gusman. Sadly, this meet would spell the end of one my teammates World Championship hopes for 2017. T46 (Arm Amputee) 1500m World Record holder Michael Roeger, suffering from a niggling injury, struggled in his race. It was the catalyst for his heartbreaking decision to withdraw only days later. This year was not his year, but one year will be. I have no doubt.
By the time we arrived in London the hard work was done. The hours of punishing the body and pushing its limits were over. The final days are about meticulous preparation and careful execution. After a week of tapering, resting the body, I felt like a compressed spring waiting to be thrust into action. In the opening days of the Championship I was incredibly proud to witness Sarah’s 4th place in the T44 (Leg Amputee) Long Jump and Deon’s heat win and eventual Silver medal in the T38 (Cerebral Palsy) 800m, with his main event the 1500m still to come.
When I woke on race day, I felt a calm wash over me. I went about my routine as usual. I ate breakfast, I stretched, I ate an early lunch and a late lunch. I slept for an hour and even did homework in between. The bus left at 5pm, three hours before my race. On the bus, we talked as normal, Philo, Deon and Roegs – all the distance boys together as one. At the warm up track, the main stadium looms as an awe inspiring mass above. I hear the calls of the Neofitou clan, friends who have travelled from their holiday in Greece. Mum, Dad, my sister Elsie, my coaches back home Max Balchin and Lyn Davis and my Gran and Pa (there first time overseas) would be in the crowd too. I experienced then, the first flutter of the heart. The first nerves.
I ran through my usual pre-race warm up routine, 3 kilometres of jogging, drills and strides. I had never felt like this before a race. Calm, relaxed, legs firing. We walked to the call room under the London stadium. “You’re ready. You can beat these guys.” Philo’s last words to me.
In the call room, I assessed the situation. Across from me, I heard the familiar Canadian accent of Guillaume Ouellet, a medallist in the 5000m only days before and a good friend. Also in front was the unpredictable Moroccan pair, 5000m Champion Yousef Benibrahim and Paralympic Marathon Champion El Amin Chentouf – always a threat. I was flanked, as if choreographed, by the charismatic twin Algerian Baka brothers. Abdellatif on one side, Paralympic Champion, World Record holder and defending World Champion – he was the undisputed favourite. On the other side, his less accomplished brother Fouad, 4th in Rio but an 800m specialist (soon-to-be World 800m Champion). The other contenders, the unknown Koskei of Kenya, Aloui the Tunisian, Wietecki the Pole and Bereziuk the Ukrainian. We had all worked hard for this moment, the question now… Who had worked the hardest of all? I had done everything in my power, now it was time to race.
When the gun went, my legs flowed forth. The only major bump came in the first fifty metres. I regathered, unperturbed through the first lap in 64, a pedestrian pace for this level. After two laps, I sensed someone had forged ahead, I would later find out it was Koskei, the Kenyan. The fireworks had begun.
Entering the home stretch for the penultimate time, I sat eighth moving into seventh. At the bell, I was fifth and composed. My legs stretched out down the backstraight, a single file line led by Wietecki. My entire being was all consumed by the ensuing battle at hands, my mind focussed on the four runners ahead. Around the last bend, the Baka brothers made their move. I never saw it. I rocketed into the straight, sling shotting into the Bronze medal position. My arms pumped and my legs worked like pistons. I was flying and a medal was beckoning. This was it, the last effort of a long campaign, the final strides. Finally, I saw the line and I was over it. The race was run.
When I crossed the line, I knew I had won Bronze. I knew, but could not comprehend. My mind was a chaotic sea of oblivion. I ran to where I knew my Aussie teammates waited in the stands. They wrapped me in the flag, hugged me and shouted with me. Then to where my family sat. The people who have stuck by me my whole life, the people that always believed. This medal was for them.
In the days after I had the opportunity to reflect and look ahead. I had never expected a medal. This changed only one thing. I had always dreamt big, always believed I would one day ascend to the top of this mountain. The only change was that this made it more real. It broadened my view of what was possible for me. My sights now turned to the future. Over summer, there is the possible opportunity of qualifying for an IAAF (Able-Bodied) World Juniors and attacking the Vision-Impaired 1500m World Record of 3:48.29 held by Abdellatif Baka, the World Champion of my race. On the other hand the long term is still somewhat of a mystery and I like it this way. One thing for certain, I’m only beginning!
The final night of competition produced the final moment worth noting. Deon Kenzie, one of the most hard working and dedicated athletes I have ever met left it all out on the track to become the World Champion in the T38 (Cerebral Palsy) 1500m. I had run countless kilometres through the mountains of Flagstaff and the streets of London and Cologne with him in the lead up. He had always had my back when I was struggling to see on runs and ultimately was the reason I arrived in London in one piece. Deon winning his first world title was the perfect end to a perfect few weeks!
5 Key Session leading up to London 2017 (My race was on the 19th July)
July 15 (London): 2x400m-3x300m-4x200m (1-2min recovery) in 62-59-44-43-43-28-27-26-26 “Last session before the race with Philo at the warm up track.”
July 11 (London): 2x(500m (60s rest), 300m (30s rest), 200m) in 74-43-28 & 71-43-27 “This is the session in the rain mentioned in the opening paragraph with Philo and Deon.”
July 4 (Cologne): 6x300m (3min recovery cycle) in 41.3-40.8-40.7-41.5-42.5-42.8 “First session off the plane with Deon.”
June 27 (Melbourne): 2x(5x200m alternating speed – rest is 30s after slow rep and 60s after fast rep) in 30.1-27.3-29.5-27.2-29.3 & 26.6-29.3-26.9-29.7-26.8 “Last speed session at home with Jarrod Woods.”
June 8 (Melbourne): 600m (6min rest), 500m (5min), 400m (4′), 300m (3′), 200m in 1:30-71-55-42-27 “With Jarrod Woods”