Olympians turn their gaze on 2022 targets and a change in focus after cross country outing
Jake Wightman admits he’s never going to be a top cross country runner, but though finishing 14th at last weekend’s Lindsays Scottish Short Course Championships perhaps wasn’t quite what he was looking for, his return to racing was all part of a plan designed to take him to the next level.
The 27-year-old is still coming to terms with the disappointment of his 10th place finish in the 1500m final in Tokyo but the learning experience of his first Olympics is already shaping his thinking for the next stage in his career.
After a three-week break following the end of the outdoor season, Wightman has been back in training for a month and made the journey north from his London home for a muddy 4km contest at Lanark Race Course with one thing in mind – building the strength he feels he needs to be able to compete with the best, given the way Jakob Ingebrigtsen and Timothy Cheruiyot have changed metric mile running in recent times.
There was no slow, tactical build-up to an all-out sprint from the Norwegian in Japan, rather a fast pace right from the off which brought with it an Olympic and European record of 3:28.32.
Wightman had clung on for as long as he could but ultimately saw Ingebrigtsen, Cheruiyot and fellow Briton and Edinburgh AC clubmate Josh Kerr take the medals.
It has given the European and Commonwealth medallist plenty of food for thought and a change of perspective. Rather than seeing himself as an 800m/1500m runner, now the plan is to head towards running 1500m and 5000m.
“Part of the reason for coming up here was that one of my biggest weaknesses is my strength over my racing and I want to get better at the longer stuff,” says Wightman. “A lot of that will come on the road but [cross country can help, too].
“I still probably haven’t come to terms with it [Tokyo],” he adds. “I still feel a bit gutted, thinking about it because I was in such good shape going into it and it wasn’t even a case of something going wrong on the day – I just probably wasn’t in the shape I needed to be over the longer stuff and in terms of my strength to be able to run my third race as quickly as that. It’s made me realise that I’m not quite where I need to be to match the strength of the likes of Jakob.
“The days of finishing with a 51 or 52-second last lap have gone so I need to start moving from being an 800m/1500m runner to more of a 1500m/5000m runner.”
Wightman’s journey to the final had gone well, coming third in his heat in 3:41.18 before winning his semi-final in 3:33.48 – his fastest time for 1500m this year.
When it came to the main event, he says: “If it had been a 3:32 or 3:33 race then I’d have hoped to have been there at the end but it was hard from the start and though I knew it wasn’t the way I wanted to run I am proud of myself with having gone with it for 1000m.
“It’s what I wanted to try and do and hopefully hang on but by doing that I ended up over-committing and not running very well. It’s a shame it happened on that stage.”
There will be plenty of high profile opportunities in 2022 to bounce back, though, and already thoughts are turning to 1500m ambitions at the World Championships in Oregon, as well as creating history for Scotland at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham.
“It’s nice to target the Commonwealths and try and win that – I don’t think we’ve had a Scottish [1500m] gold medallist,” says the man who won bronze at the Gold Coast Games of 2018.
Another Scottish Olympian with high hopes for 2022 was also in attendance in Lanark. Andrew Butchart fared a little better over the turf than his compatriot, winning the fifth Short Course title of his career as she showed few ill effects from the sleepless nights which have accompanied the arrival of his baby son, Max.
The two-time Olympic 5000m finalist will soon venture to Holland for a 15km road racing assignment at the Seven Hills event in Nijmegen, while it would not be a surprise to see him competing at the European Cross trials in Liverpool this month either.
“This was a big positive – I felt strong and I felt comfortable,” he says of cross country win, admitting that a reduction in overall mileage since becoming a father has not hampered his level of performance thus far.
Asked about his 2022 ambitions he simply says: “I think I’ll go for everything [World Championships, Commonwealth Games and European Championships]. I want to dabble in the 10,000m. I’ll eventually have to move up so I’ll do as much as I can and try and win as much as I can.”
Butchart is pleased just to be talking about running again, following a turbulent summer. A podcast comment he made about faking a PCR test very nearly saw him stopped from competing in Tokyo completely, but he was instead given a 12-month suspended ban and fined £5000. “I’m glad that book’s closed now,” he says.
There had been suggestions that the incident played its part in him being left off the list of athletes being funded by British Athletics for the coming year, a claim which was denied by former performance director Sara Symington.
Will the change in funding have a big impact?
“Not at all,” says Butchart. “In 2016 I wasn’t on funding and finished sixth in the Olympics. I like having my own team and being able to pick and choose who I work with.
“There are benefits [to being a funded athlete], of course, but it isn’t the be all and end all. I think that some athletes believe that if they’re not on funding then they’re no good but it’s not true. You love to run and that’s why you do it, not because you get a reward from the governing body.”