Athletes thrive on routine and a fixed goal to work towards but, as Verity Ockenden writes, the current elite landscape means that scenario is an exception rather than the rule
On August 9, in a mixed race at a British Milers’ Club regional meeting, I ran my fastest 5000m time since the 2021 Olympic Trials. The run of 15:21 was still a good 18 seconds shy of my personal best, but good enough for seventh in the UK this year.
I was delighted and, having shelled out on an altitude camp for the following three weeks to capitalise on such long-awaited fitness, I couldn’t wait to plan the next opportunity to show it off. It wasn’t just an opportunity that I wanted, but moreover desperately needed in order to make up for two seasons of lost ground and give myself a shot at selection for national teams again.
We soon found out, however, that finding the next race was going to be far a bigger headache than anticipated. Having played catch-up all season following months of injury rehab in the spring, I was finally coming into form just in time for the post World Championships lull in distance meets. The Berlin ISTAF was the only 5000m race we could find in September that would have other women aiming for similar splits and count towards the ever more influential World Athletics ranking system.
Even with the help of a paid manager who made multiple attempts to negotiate an entry there over the duration of my altitude camp, as far as we could decipher there simply wasn’t space in the meet for me. We were going to have to find a plan B, and fast, while I continued training blindly towards a short-term goal I could not pinpoint.
This is a common problem amongst professional athletes. Gone are the carefree amateur days of signing up to any race that suits you as long as you respect the entry standards, submission deadline and perhaps pay a small fee.
In those days we dreamed of becoming fast enough to run in Diamond Leagues and Continental Tours, but little did we know of the intricacies that lay behind gaining access to such events. Of course there are only so many days of the year and lanes on a track, plus competition for spots on the start line – as it should be in a flourishing sport – is ever fiercer.
However, I hear more and more stories by the day of talented athletes, Olympians even, hanging in limbo for weeks if not months, unable to secure their next race.
The consequences of such uncertain timelines are many, and though we become experts at navigating these curve balls through necessity, the career of an elite athlete has become more a game of poker than a true measure of athletics prowess.
While the newly established ranking system appeared at first to be a gift horse for those riding the cusp of making major championships, with ever harsher qualification standards and having taken a good look into the mouth of the beast, I’d say there are a few rotten teeth.
World Athletics defines it as a global system where “athletes score points based on a combination of result and place depending on the level of the competition in which the result is achieved. The ranking is then based on their average score over a certain number of competitions in a defined period of time.”
In theory, this should reward the athlete for the qualities beyond raw speed that make them a great racer; things such as tactical acumen, mental grit and a prolific consistency of performance. In practice, the inclusion of only certain races as part of this system unfortunately also makes it a measure of one’s networking ability and inevitably benefits those already at the top of the ladder the most.
If you’re unfortunate enough to get injured, working your way back on to that bottom rung proves extremely frustrating, even if you perform well at unrecognised races. Not only this, but the attribution of points based on who else shows up to a meet and the classification of said meet, means that those with inside information on start lists gain an advantage, not to mention that some athletes gain positively skewed rankings simply by picking their fights well.
I’ve often come to terms with this conundrum by simply telling myself that I have to run fast enough that none of it matters, so fast that I give selectors no choice. It seems a simple solution, but it’s never an easy one to actually execute.
How do you go about planning to succeed in a race when you don’t know when or where it will be, because your racing calendar lies in the hands of agent negotiations, dependent on the possibility of other athletes dropping out at the last minute?
It makes it difficult to work backwards from a goal and plan precise training strategies and peaks (particularly as a woman taking into account a menstrual cycle), it makes it difficult to maintain mental focus and motivation when said goals vanish inexplicably before your very eyes, and it also causes the extra logistical and financial stress of having to adjust accommodation and travel plans repeatedly at short notice. Not to mention the constant reluctance to make other life plans with friends or family because you know you’ll only have to cancel on them, again!
I’ve learned to ask, ask and ask again for updates from meet organisers, as obnoxious as it makes me feel, while simultaneously being capable of accepting, reacting and moving on as seamlessly as possible.
I’ve learned that, as much as I love being able to commit wholeheartedly to a Plan A, I should always have a smart Plan B in my back pocket. When opportunity does present itself, I intend to grab it with both hands.
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