At 23:00 tonight, the athletics action of the Tokyo Olympics will come to a close, 800km to the north of the Tokyo Olympic Stadium, as 106 athletes take to the streets of Sapporo to race 26.2 miles. Yes, it is the marathon.
Featuring a stellar lineup including Eliud Kipchoge, reigning World Champion Lelisa Desisa and 2020 London Marathon winner Shura Kitata, there is scope for fireworks. The line up also includes three Brits in Callum Hawkins, Ben Connor and Chris Thompson.
Sunday will be an Olympic debut for Ben, a second Olympic marathon for Callum and a second Games for Chris after racing over 10,000m in 2012. They each have their own story and goals, and I was lucky enough to exclusively spoke to all three; Callum and Ben from Sapporo, and Chris before he left for Japan.
It is fair to say that Callum Hawkins knows how to deliver his best at a championships. He has finished ninth at the Rio Olympics, fourth at the London World Championships and fourth again at the Doha World Championships, just six seconds shy of a medal in a race he was leading with two kilometres to go.
It’s been a relatively quiet year for the Scotsman, having acted as a pacemaker at the Olympic Trials in Kew Gardens (his place in Tokyo pre-selected in advance) before running a 69:18 half marathon three days later. It has not been the perfect build up, but confidence has been growing as race day approaches:
“I’m feeling pretty good, I’ve done some little tune up sessions the last few days, a few minutes effort, and it’s been pretty good. My build up has been going ok, a few niggles here and there so maybe not quite the best build up I’ve ever had, but I feel in pretty good shape. Since coming to Japan things have been turning around, so I’m fairly happy with how things have been going”.
A step onto the podium?
His ability to perform when it matters most is not in doubt, particularly following those hugely impressive fourth placed finishes at the last two editions of the World Championships. I asked Callum whether improving his finishing position to take a spot on the podium is something firmly in his mind for Sunday’s race:
“It’s going to be tough and all dependent on the conditions. Since Doha I have been gearing up to do whatever I can to try and get a medal. I’ve been ninth before at the Olympics, so I’ve been in the top ten, so the next stage would be to try and go for a medal.
Compared to the World Championships, it’s going to be a much stronger field. I could put in a similar performance [to Doha] and finish outside the top ten. It’s going to be pretty tough, and really depends on how things go. Hopefully there will be a couple of people that will underestimate it and wreak a bit of havoc and that will open up opportunities”.
Turning up the Heat
Handily, Callum mentioned the conditions before I did. He unfortunately struggled in the heat at the 2018 Commonwealth Games in the Gold Coast, collapsing at the side of the road in incredibly distressing scenes on TV for those watching at home.
However, this was something he worked on significantly in the run up to Doha, building a make shift temperature room in his shed. The lessons learned from both, he feels, will provide invaluable experience in Sapporo:
“Yeah, I definitely learned a lot in those two. I think when you look at it that the conditions could be pretty similar to Gold Coast. With Doha, the only thing was the humidity luckily dropped for us compared to the women, but I think a big factor here will be the sun and whether that will be out or not.
It is something that they don’t mention when they talk about forecasts, they just mention the temperature and the actual humidity, but the sun probably adds five to ten degrees depending on where you are”.
Our careers may have gone down quite different avenues since, but sixteen years ago Callum and I stood on the same start line, as 12 year olds, at the 2005 Mini London Marathon. Like most people at that age, we both had childhood dreams of going to the Olympics, but only one of us had those dreams realised.
Callum’s philosophy means it’s not something he has thought too much about:
“I always wanted to make an Olympics but, I still can’t do it now, I can’t think that far ahead! I let my dad do all the thinking and I just focus on what I’m doing tomorrow or what I’m having for dinner! It’s both a curse and a blessing, it means I don’t get too hung up on things”.
Callum has fond memories of Japan, something you’d might expect for someone who’s two fastest half marathons were run in the country at the Kagawa Marugame International Half Marathon. COVID has limited the opportunities for those at the Olympics to experience the country, something Callum particularly feels:
“We’ve just been stuck in a hotel, we can only really go to training and back to the hotel. It’s a real shame as I’ve been to Japan a couple of times and it’s a place I always enjoy, it’s just a great place. I’m missing out on trying all the food again, the food is possibly the best part of Japan!
Hopefully all things go well and can have a big celebration after, a big celebration on the plane and an even bigger one when back home!”.
Here is hoping we can all join in a big celebration by the end of the race!
Not only is Ben Connor about to make his Olympic debut, it is only his third race over the distance in his career. That might sound concerning on first sight, especially given the tough conditions expected, but a notable fact for you – for Peres Jepchirchir and Molly Seidel, the gold and bronze medallists in the women’s marathon, Sapporo was the third marathon of their careers. Experience does not always win.
He ran the qualifier in his debut over 26.2 miles, at last year’s London Marathon in what was a superb performance in mightily unpleasant conditions, to cross the line in 2:11:20, ten seconds ahead of the qualifying standard. It was quite a race for him:
“It was an experience, that’s for sure. In went in there with the standard as the aim, anything under 2:11:30 was just what is was, and I just got under with the ten seconds. It was mad really, because the marathon is different to any other event, it was something I’d never really experienced before in terms of the pure fatigue towards the end and nothing being in the legs. They were completely empty by about 25 miles, up to there I was still ok but after that I was just hanging on for dear life and crawling across the line!
It was certainly an experience, but I got that one out of the way which was a big thing. I was fortunate to just knock under the time, because if it had been eleven seconds slower I think I would have been very disappointed”.
Racing well in a Championship style
This meant, for the Olympic Trials at Kew Gardens in March, his job was simple yet also the one with the most at stake; finish in the top two and, regardless of time, a ticket for the plane to Japan will be his. That was no easy ask, as anyone who has run a marathon knows, and Ben took me through the race and emotions that followed.
“Kew was weird, because I felt like a lot of people were saying going into the race that I had it the easiest because I had the time and after Johnny Mellor unfortunately pulled out it was only me going into the race with the time.
Pressure is a good thing, so that’s not bad, but I felt like all the pressure was on me to deliver on the day. But with the marathon, before you beat anybody else you’ve got to beat the distance, so it was not just a case of being in the top two, I had to run 26.2 miles first and I knew how I felt in London.
It was a relief more than anything else, that’s what I felt when I crossed the finish line. It was a weird emotion, but it was definitely a relief rather than an immediate burst of excitement”.
Ben’s speed on the road is no fluke or surprise, with his 60:55 for third in last year’s Antrim Coast Half Marathon (behind Mo Farah and Marc Scott) putting him fifth on the British all-time list. These were backed up with 61:34 at the Barcelona Half Marathon and 28:10 at the 10K Valencia Ibercaja earlier in 2020.
After periods of training in Spain and Font Romeu, this is something Ben is looking to take into Sunday’s race:
“I feel in really good shape, but we’ll just have to see as the conditions here are very different to the two races I did in London! That’s a whole new factor that we’ve got to look at but I’ve got myself in good shape and that’s the main thing.
It sounds really boring but there’s no targets as such. Obviously I’ve got some things in my head of what I’ll be happy with and what I won’t be happy with, but firstly it’s just getting round and seeing how I do that. I want to finish as high up as I possibly can, but I need to get through the conditions.
As I said before, for the marathon you’ve just got to beat the distance and that’s even bigger here because you’ve got the distance and the conditions. Getting through that to halfway or even 20 miles feeling as good as you possibly can will be good, but I know you’re not going to feel fantastic no matter how fast or easy you go out”.
Whilst he may be playing his cards close to his chest in terms of race goals and targets, Ben was not shy to stress how he will make the most of the opportunity in front of him:
“I am just looking forward to getting onto the start line, racing and putting on an Olympic vest and Olympic number. Obviously it’s going to be a world class field, it’s going to be such high quality and an incredible field, so just to stand on that start line with those guys and think ‘I belong here’. I want to go out and make the most of it and enjoy the opportunity”.
Age is Just a Number
It is fair to say Chris Thompson is no stranger to the international stage. He first donned a British vest at the World Junior Championships 23 years ago and, since then, has raced on the track at the 2012 Olympics, three European Championships, a Commonwealth Games with a 5000m and 10,000m double, European XC Championships and a host of junior-level competitions.
Until THAT race in Kew Gardens, his marathon debut at London in 2014 remained his PB and the only time he had run under the Olympic qualifying time.
You don’t need me to tell you what happened on that Friday morning in Kew, other than in winning the race in a new lifetime best of 2:10.52, Chris guaranteed his spot at his second Olympics. It was one of the best races – and post-race celebrations – that I have ever seen. There is no one better to run you through the race than the man himself.
“There’s kind of three phases to the race. I was still managing my own emotions, thirty minutes in I was still trying to calm myself down. I hadn’t had a hard session since Theo’s birth and I was still riding in that adrenaline that I needed to come down from.
Once I realised that the race was a bit hot for me, I knew I needed to run my own race, and I was watching the Olympics disappear [as the lead group moved ahead]. I didn’t feel particularly in control, I can’t control them, I can only control myself. At that point I said there’s nothing I can do, I just have to get myself through the next hour as best I can and we’ll see where the land lies.
Running your own race
There was a moment just before Callum Hawkins dropped out I could see a gap between him and the athletes, and that was the first sign. I knew I wasn’t running slowly and it was the first time I though, oh, something’s happening. Within five minutes I was on the back of them and it just escalated.
The speed in which it turned I think added to my confidence of, wow, I can do this, because they came back so quickly. Because it happened so suddenly it was like I was riding this high, and then I just turned in my mind.
It was one of the most ruthless mindsets I’ve ever entered in my life; every decision I made just seemed to work, it was a surreal kind of utopian moment of the fitness I had was working, I worked the race well, I could control the race and I could see the Olympics becoming a possibility. I had no doubt in my mind in the last ten minutes.
I refused to accept I’d done it until when I started pumping the arms. I was just thinking ‘just get there!’. I still get emotional thinking about it, it’s hard to not go back to there and not well up. It just felt impossible to do it, but I did it. I can’t go there without feeling emotional about it”.
After a disappointing performance in London in 2012, Chris is fully committed to ensuring his second Olympic experience is as positive as it can be.
“2012 was weird because I truly believed I was going to medal that year. I was believing and trying to, and that came with a lot of stress. I got injured and it became more of a burden. This time I am determined to enjoy it.
I can’t wait to get out and race now. I’m starting to get those chills of ‘wow, I’m going to compete at the Olympics’. It’s amazing. It’s different now because I am a dad, I’m not under any illusions, I am very much there as an underdog and I am going to do my best to enjoy it, but if there’s an opportunity mark my words I am going to take it”.
One of the nicest guys in the sport, who I hope gets the race that he deserves. You can watch all three run at 23:00 Saturday night, UK time.