To reach your full potential, one of, if not the most important factor is consistency – a sustained period of training, going through the motions, improving month on month and year on year.
During this time many will experience niggling injuries, maybe even a serious injury and that results in a year on the sidelines, but most will bounce back and get back right to it.
However, few will have had the unfortunate luck of Sam Stabler – injured every three to four months for as long as he can remember. “I’m feeling great, it’s 11 months injury free,” Stabler joyfully exclaims as a declaration to the longest period of injury free running he has ever experienced.
Now, 25, and after years of persistence the Leicestershire man is full of hopes and dreams at the prospect of finally earning his first British vest.
To turn that dream into reality he aims to finish in top four at the British trials for the European Cross Country Championships on Saturday afternoon in the mud at Sefton Park in Liverpool.
Stabler will line-up amongst a top field that includes multiple time GB internationals; Andy Butchart, Dewi Griffiths, Andy Vernon and Jonny Hay – so it will be no easy task. However, having already tasted victory in the opening race of the Cross Challenge series in Cardiff, he is confident.
“Winning in Cardiff wasn’t something I expected to do at the start of the cross country season, especially because I haven’t had a cross country season in a while – but thankfully my track speed came through at the end,” says Stabler, looking back on the October race in the Welsh capital.
It’s fair to say in recent years Stabler has been somewhat under the radar of the wider athletics audience in the UK – this can be credited to injury-plagued years and his time in the U.S. studying at Lamar University.
However, when fit, he has shown more than glimpses of his ability that were first on display as a 17-year-old with fourth (U17) at the English National Cross Country Championships.
The winner that day was a rival he will face again on Saturday, Jonny Hay, who has now progressed as a 17-year-old earn six GB vests at six European Cross Country Championships.
Three weeks on from Stabler’s win in Cardiff he swapped mud for road and won impressively at the Leeds Abbey Dash in 29:13. Still somewhat flying under the radar, he was the only leading male entry without his name on the race bib – having to settle for the lucky 208 instead.
The following week in a hard-fought battle with Southampton’s Mahamed Mahamed it was a runners-up spot at the second Cross Challenge race in Milton Keynes. It felt like a victory though, for Stabler, he had found a new level of consistency: “I have never really been able to run races back to back – especially 10k’s without imploding.
“I was really pleased with my performance, especially on the back of Leeds the week before. I think the last time I had back to back races I finished 3rd one week in 29 minutes and the next week I was 201st in 32 minutes.”
Looking back on his junior years, injuries and making the decision to move across to the America to attend university, he says: “Before I went to America I had a pretty good stretch of running – I was in the top eight under 17 but after that, I picked up quite a few different injuries. The first was a calf problem that kept me out for 3 months.
“Coming back from that the next injury was a knee problem. It was to do with tracking, which meant my inner thigh was too weak, and my knee cap moved around. It was a reoccurring injury so every time I experienced it, I had to have six to eight weeks off. In total, I had that injury about five times and every time a week was added to the recovery – so it was a frustrating time.
“That ruined years as an under 20 and my first year at Lamar University in Texas. After that, I was going okay at Lamar, but if I flew home I would either underperform because of the jet lag or pick up an Achilles niggle. When I ran my PBs in 2015 I think I missed about three months just before that by just stepping off the plane.”
While at Lamar in that first year, Stabler spent considerable time going through the motions on an underwater treadmill “with the knee problems and the calf issues” he was having.
“When running ‘normally’ with the calf issues, I could run for about two miles before cramping would set it. I would then have to stop and rest before I could run again,” he explains. “But with the underwater treadmill, it was strengthening my calves as well without putting too much weight on them. I was pretty much doing that every other day for as long as I could – it all demanded on how bored the athletics trainer got who had to watch me.
Stabler then credits the patience of coach Darren Gauson and his work with him during the last three years in Lamar. This patience played its part in his personal bests in 2015, included an indoors 7:53 for 3,000m and 13:30 over 5,000m at the Stanford Invitational.
Back in the UK
Optimism was in the air when Stabler returned home the following year. Both with his recent performances and a degree in Chemical Engineering promised a bright career away from athletics. However, those career plans were put on hold for 2016 with his focus solely on the first love.
“When I came home I didn’t work for a year. I lived off what savings I had and just trained,” he says looking back on his determined state of mind after returning to the UK. “But everything that could have gone wrong did and injuries resurfaced.” He shared some his training records from 2016 and it’s grim reading for any runner.
Finally, though, that dogged persistence was about to pay off, with things taking a turn for the better at the beginning of 2017. Under the guidance of Rob Denmark in Loughborough, the level of consistency long sought from the age of 17 is now a reality after 11 months injury free running. “We have just been taking things slow and gradual,” explains Stabler. “I’ve also been getting a regular sports massage and I think that, along with being sensible with training, has really paid off. If anything I have undertrained this year.”
There is also some room in 2017 for Stabler’s career outside of athletics, but he still doing his best to priorities his goals and ambitions in the sport. “Monday mornings I have a two-hour drive to just outside Grimsby. I run in the evening up there and then on Tuesday morning I have a session on my own about 6:00 am before work,” Stabler explains of the start of the week, where work does have to come first. “Then I work all day and drive home for my second run at 8:00pm, dinner and bed.
“Pretty much Wednesday, Thursday and Friday running comes first. Thankfully the main work I do on Monday and Tuesday is enough to pay the bills. The work the rest of the week is flexible around running,” referring to his coaching in schools and work at a local engineering firm.”
Before his recent notable cross country and road performances in 2017, he has back close to his 2015 best on the track – with 13:38.09 and 13:37.30 in May and July respectively.
“At this point in my life, I am happy with the routine because it gives me the time to prioritise a big part of my week to running. Right now it’s my priority, it’s what I love and I think I have a chance to do something with it.
“My 13:30 in 2015 was only 5 seconds off the 2016 Olympic time. So this year I hope to get to the low 13:20s, if not below that mark, he says. “And right now I’m not too far away from making a GB team and then hopefully I can have a shot at the next World Champs and Olympics.”
Back to the imminent battle on Saturday Stabler rightly believes he has as good a chance as anyone: “After Cardiff and my recent performances, I am going into it confident and hopefully, I will still be amongst the top four at the end. I reckon Dewi or Butchart will take the lead so I will try and stay as ominous as long as possible and just keep up.”