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Track and field isn’t a game. It’s not like rugby or tennis, it’s not something that you ‘play’. Track and field is high performance. It is sport in its purest, simplest form.
In the 100m the margin between glittering success and heartbreak is often 0.01 of a second, a moment that defines your aptitude as an athlete and ability to perform under the pressure of public scrutiny. It’s a sport that taps into your deepest competitive instinct. One that demands total focus and commitment and necessitates sacrifice. To me there is nothing particularly fun about athletics at the world class level, only satisfaction and defeat. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy it, I do, but I never did as a kid. Individual sports never came naturally to me. I wanted the triumph without the bitterness of disaster. I had to learn to love the accountability it demands and to accept that the natural obverse to elation in success is the loneliness of standing on the track, looking at the scoreboard and realising that the moment you’ve spent the year preparing for has slipped away and you only have yourself to blame.
My experience at the World Championships in Doha this year left me bitter. After a year rehabbing an achilles issue after the Commonwealth Games, I’d finally made some progress on the Australian circuit. I ran a personal best in March, 10.08 seconds, which made me the third fastest Australian in history and qualified me for Doha. A few weeks later I’d lost the national title I was the favourite to win and my international campaign was suddenly crippled by a knee injury that lasted months. I missed scheduled trips to Japan, China and Europe. I pulled out of races in favour of rehabilitation. It was a grinding process that became lonely and frustrating. I saw no reward for the twelve training sessions a week I was doing. The hope of healing before Worlds started to vanish, I struggled to see myself getting on the plane and I felt like I was treading water and going nowhere.
After five cortisone injections and a dramatic change of programming, things started to turn around. I finally found my feet in a last-ditch attempt to get to Doha and suddenly I found myself in Zagreb, Croatia, lining up against the reigning world champion Justin Gatlin. The next day I moved to the Australian team camp in Gavirate, Italy, to finish my preparation for the Championships. I caught a stomach bug and lost three kilograms, ten days out from my heat and was stuck in a small Austrian town, trapped in my motel room with no one to talk to. I fell victim to the stress of my own perfectionism and tried desperately to regain the weight I had lost. I recovered and put together some decent training sessions, but the long year of rehab began to wear me down. I went to Doha and the climate struck me with force. 41 degrees and 80% humidity. We were barely allowed to leave the team hotel before sundown.
On the first day of the Championships I lined up against Andre Degrasse and Justin Gatlin in my heat. They had 21 Olympic and World medals between them, including gold at both majors. I wasn’t intimidated, seeing these guys in real life made me realise how human they are, that they are fallible and able to be defeated. They seemed every bit as vulnerable as anyone else. I stood behind the blocks, focussed, confident; but when the gun went, I felt like I had nothing in the tank. I could feel my race unravelling from the first stride. Those ten seconds seemed like an eternity, I looked at the scoreboard and realised I’d run my worst race in years. I’d finished 40th, well outside my capability. I’d let the most important moment of my year slip away, nearly 1300 hours of training wasted in ten seconds.
At the 2018 Commonwealth Games I finished 9th. I missed the 100m final by 0.001 of a second. In the post-race interview the journalist probed me vaguely “you must be gutted mate?” I shrugged and responded candidly “I just should have run faster”. The truth is that you don’t run the 100m without accepting that you might win or lose by 0.001, that’s just the nature of the sport. The sting of loss is alleviated ever so slightly by the possibility that next time you might be the one to get the rub of the green. Doha was different, I was bitter. When I saw the result I walked straight off the track, refused to talk to any media or staff, left the stadium and went back to the team hotel as quickly as I could. It was the first time since I was a child that I struggled to keep my composure in competition. I felt like I was devolving back to the competitive ten-year-old who flipped the monopoly board at home after having to pay rent on Boardwalk twice in a row.
I was furious at myself for underperforming, I was shocked that I’d fallen so short of my own expectation and I was questioning why? For days I saw nothing but red, my temperament not helped by the 25 AUD pricing of beer in Doha. My year felt invalidated and I wondered which metric had faltered. Was it my fitness or technique? Maybe my strength or weight or body fat percentage? It wasn’t until the flight home that the emptiness of the situation hit me. I sat in my seat, reflecting. I have what sports psychologists describe as a very stoic personality type, but on that flight I realised that I’d become the one thing I never wanted to be in the sport, a lane filler. I went to the bathroom and cried for the first time I could remember.
In track and field there’s always next year, whether it’s an Olympics, Worlds or Commonwealth Games. In a sport that demands selfishness it’s so easy to fall into the bubble of thinking that the world revolves around you, that your problems are significant. Sport can be tough and I’ve always found college to be a powerful grounding force. As a fourth year, most of my mates left college last year. I make an effort to see a group of them every week at the same time at an iconic Surry Hills establishment. Being with those guys lets me put my own life into perspective. People who are on track to win the university medal, run multi-million-dollar start-ups, train for triathlons and work full time in a range of industries. After my best performances on the track I’ve been given a curt congratulations and after my worst, brief commiserations. Results are week to week on the track and the only certainty is that in triumph or disaster the conversation will always move quickly on to someone else who is equally passionate about their own interests. It’s refreshing. That’s what I’ve come to love about Drews, that it forces you outside of your bubble.
I’ll take a few weeks break from training. 2020 looms as a big year and I need some time to refresh ahead of the surmountable challenge that is Olympic qualification. That process will involve travel to Japan, China and Europe as I chase the qualifying standard and the further deference of my law degree. The routine of training will call me soon enough, it’s an incredibly addictive thing, but until then God knows I’m looking forward to Formal.