FOR the past few months, as I was steadily recovering from injury, I always said I would only try to defend my European 800 metres title if I was fit enough to do myself justice. Well, I’m fit enough now, so the next task is to ensure I get the chance to make that defence by being selected for the Great Britain team.
It will not be easy. At the trials in Birmingham this weekend, only the top two in each event are guaranteed selection – provided they have run the qualifying time of two minutes 00.50 seconds – for the European Championships in Zurich in August. Jessica Judd and I have already run inside the time, but there are a host of other contenders who will be desperate to displace us from those top two places.
So the competition will be cut-throat, especially as there are only two rounds – semi-finals tomorrow, then the final on Sunday. In terms of effort expended, that is easier than having heats, semi-finals then final over the three days, but it also means there is little or no margin for error.
If you find yourself in a first-round heat with some slower runners, you can rely on your speed to get out of trouble if you get boxed in, for example. But with just the two rounds, there will be no question of easing yourself through to the final.
I expect fast times in every semi-final, and I expect the races to be more suited to athletes who can change their pace. Although I include myself in that category, I’m well aware that I’m far from the only one who is capable of a quick finish. Jess recently ran just under two minutes and my new personal best is 2:00.09, but there is no way we can discount anyone whose personal best is around 2:02.00 or better.
They will have prepared to peak this weekend. Their whole season could well depend on getting it right at the trials, and they are not going to let such a big opportunity pass them by.
As well as the trials and the European Championships themselves, the same group of 800m runners will come up against each other in the Sainsbury’s Grand Prix in Glasgow next month and then in the Commonwealth Games just a couple of weeks later. The Grand Prix, in particular, is being billed as a Battle of Britain, because Jess, Laura Muir and myself are going head to head, but the reality is that the next couple of months will be one skirmish after another rather than a single battle.
What is more, such is the strength in depth in British women’s 800m running at the moment that there is no guarantee at all that one person will come out on top each time. We may all dream of supremacy, both at domestic level and on the international stage, but it is unrealistic to expect to achieve it time after time.
In fact, if we say there are six races in which the best British runners are all involved, it is quite possible we will get six different results. There are simply so many variables each time – weather, tactics, and each individual’s form and fitness, to name just a few – that it would be virtually impossible for one person to come out on top on every occasion.
If such a fierce level of competition sounds daunting, the positive side of it is that whoever goes on to represent Great Britain at the 800m in the European Championships must be in with a good chance of winning a medal. And the fact that the qualifying standards have been set so high has helped.
One advantage that myself and a couple of other athletes should have this weekend – and the harder the races the more that advantage could tell – is our experience of racing at big European meetings. Those meetings tend to be quite intimidating at first, not only because the races are of such a high standard, but also because you are unfamiliar with the whole set-up. That includes apparently minor but in fact intimidating aspects such as the fact you’re sitting next to our rivals at lunch, or on the bus from the hotel to the track, in an icy silence.
You gradually learn to deal with those distractions: to put them to one side and concentrate purely on your own race. And once you have absorbed that lesson, it means that taking part in domestic meetings, and even something like the Commonwealth Games, is not as terrifying as it could otherwise have been.
When you’re not terrified, you feel far more able to run aggressively and pro-actively – which is what I expect I’ll need to do this weekend. Having undergone several weeks of hard training, I haven’t run since I ran that personal best three weeks ago. I’m itching to get back out there again.