WHEN MARK ENGLISH looked up at the clock in London’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park on a sunny Saturday last July, the world seemed right again.
The LED display listed English in fourth place in the 800m at the Anniversary Games.
Nijel Amos, David Rudhisha and Adam Kszczot were ahead of him, but English clocked a season’s best 1:45.49 – he’d qualified for the 2016 Olympic Games.
The emotions ran high.
Few inside or indeed outside of the Stratford venue knew of the trauma he’d endured in the weeks leading up to the event.
In June, English finished last in the 800m at the European Under-23 Championships in Tallinn, having only finished third at the Cork City Sports just weeks beforehand.
A seventh-placed finish at a Diamond League meet in New York – in which he finished second, behind Rudisha, a year earlier – added to a worrying dip in form for the Letterkenny man.
The struggles with an abductor muscle injury that wouldn’t go away merely added to his frustration.
English’s mind was scrambled.
His grandfather, Pat English, passed away last May and in June two of his classmates at UCD – Lorcan Miller and Eimear Walsh – were among the six killed when a balcony on which they were standing collapsed in Berkeley, California.
After he won bronze at the European Championships in Zurich in 2014, English holidayed in Croatia with a group that included Miller and Walsh.
“That made me appreciate things,” he says of the tragedy.
“In one way it helped put the injury into perspective. All of a sudden it wasn’t doomsday anymore. It emphasised the point then about following the dreams and actually being able to do that.
“I had a lot of bad events in 2015. I started well with a European Indoor medal, but then there were the Berkeley deaths and my grandad died too.
“I just couldn’t get around things in time for the European Under-23s. That was my last event in underage and I wanted to do well.
“I sat down and reflected with dad and with my coach. We figured things out and eventually got the injury sorted.”
In London last July, English was in a loaded field and at a time when he was wondering just what the future held. It was one of those nights when things just fell into place.
The 22-year-old says: “When I looked up at that clock in London, that was one of the best feelings that I’ve ever had. ‘That’s it, I don’t have to worry about chasing times now’. It was such a relief.
“It meant so much more with everything that went on. I finally overcame the doubts about myself.
“That was actually the biggest satisfaction. I knew I was capable of running an Olympic standard, but it’s one thing to know it and another thing to actually do it.
“I had so many doubts. It was to the point of: ‘What the hell am I doing wrong here?’
“I was questioning everything. At the end up it was only a simple fix. I was out of alignment with an abductor muscle that was causing a lot of problems.
“I was questioning everything from my nutrition to my training to my sleep. London was such a relief.”
English is a fourth-year medical student at UCD and has been allowed to split his year’s study.
“I’ll finish this semester in March – UCD have been very good when anything clashes with races,” he says.
“The Medicine Programme Board have been excellent. Even to know that they’ll help out or reshedule certain things is great.
“It is tough, but with the year that’s in it I would have had too many regrets if I didn’t do this. And anyway, I seem to run better when I’ve something to distract me.”
English lives on campus at Belfield, trains at Morton Stadium in Santry and has begun using a new ‘state of the art’ facility in Blanchardstown for strength and conditioning purposes.
“I’ve ramped up the training now,” he says.
“I’m working on ten-day cycles then I take a break. I’d be training twice a day, most days, but then I’d be doing stuff like yoga, stretching or active recovery.”
When English was nearing completion of his Leaving Certificate at St Eunan’s College, the world was his oyster.
Marcus O’Sullivan, the former Irish middle distance runner, visited English with an offer to attend Villanova University in Pennsylvania. Were he to accept, English would have had to partake in cross country.
“Me and cross country don’t get on so that was the deciding factor,” he says.
“I got a letter then from UCD to say that I got the scholarship. I knew that would suit me down to the ground.”
English won a gold medal at the European Youth Olympic Trials in 2010 in Moscow, but he didn’t make the decision to go full-tilt at athletics until he was in transition year at St Eunan’s.
More specifically, when he won a silver medal at the All-Ireland Schools, finishing behind Brian Kelly from Knockbeg College, Carlow in the 800m.
“At that age I didn’t necessarily see myself being an athlete in a few years’ time,” English says.
“I dropped all the other sports, not because I didn’t love them, but because I felt then that they were counter-productive for my athletics development. I always felt that athletics helped the other sports, but they didn’t help athletics.
“Athletics is so pure and objective. You take complete responsibility for yourself.
“I had a lot of interest in other sports. The key was in not specialising too young. I was lucky, too, that I had no injuries.
“I raced against guys who were very talented, but who got injured at 17, 18 or 19 and never got to realise their potential. No pressure should ever be on any youngster to choose too early. They should be allowed to progress naturally.”
English opened his season by finishing second in the B race at the PSD Bank Meeting in Düsseldorf, Germany, coming home in 1:47.28, just behind winner Musaeb Balla from Qatar.
“Düsseldorf was a good rust buster,” says English, who will take part in a 500m in Stockholm next Wednesday and an 800m in Glasgow on Saturday-week.
“I felt strong the whole way through. That was the very positive thing to take.
“If I hadn’t slowed down I would’ve ran sub 1:46. My plan now is to keep a higher tempo over the second and third laps in Glasgow.
“In an 800m race, what kills the athlete running a fast time is slowing down and then speeding up again. If you go out hard, I think it’s better just to keep on going and suffer at the end.
“I’m very pleased with where I’m at. I’ve got no illness, injury or set back. I haven’t missed training since October. Hopefully I’ll see the fruits of that come the summer and I’ll be able to tolerate the rounds much better.”
English just missed out on qualification for the 2012 Olympic Games in London. He was just 17 hundredths of a second outside of the qualification time.
“I was gutted not to make London,” he says.
“Just because of the fact that it was in London, more than anything.
“It was as close to home as I’d get for an Olympics, but also because I knew how much it would stand to me with the amount of times people say it’s much different to any other race.
“You can’t think about all that. It’s just negative energy.
“I work on the positives. I can’t believe that everyone is cheating in my race. If you’re in that train of thought, you won’t work too well. I just try and stay positive. I’m basically out at Community Games and it’s all pure …”
English did compete at the World Championships in Beijing last year. He didn’t make the final, finishing fifth in his semi-final and coming 10th overall.
“I know now how the others race,” he says.
“I’ve seen them there and I have the experience of knowing what a 51-second 400m is like. I could judge the pace better after Beijing and it was great, too, being around the athletes and in general around the village.
“A lot of emotions will surround the Olympics and the biggest danger will be not letting my emotions get to me.
The biggest challenge in the Olympics is containing yourself.
“I just want to look back on the Olympics and regret nothing. I want to go close to a personal best.”
Upon returning from a training camp in Stellenbosch, South Africa, last month, English wrote a targeted time on a piece of paper and stuck it to his ceiling.
“I wake up every morning and see that. I’ve done that for a while now at the start of the season.”
“I’ll tell you when I get it.”Tags: