DERVAL O'ROURKE: The inside track on European Athletics Indoor Championships in Prague

GREEN DREAMS: Mark English is one of Ireland's big hopes at the  European Indoor Championships in Prague this weekend.

People regularly ask me about indoor running and whether or not racing indoors is a good plan. In my opinion the simple answer is yes, indoors is always a great plan.

Even more so for a sprinter or technical eventer. In the world of Track and Field medals are the main way to make a career and increase your stock. Indoor running offers an opportunity to win a European medal every two years.

Unless I was injured it always seemed like the logical decision to race indoors. I wanted to add to my medal count any chance I got.

The indoor season is short, it runs from late January and culminates in an indoor championship in early March. It’s the perfect mid-point in a yearly cycle to test whether or not an athlete has ‘wintered well’. I always felt anxious to race indoors and let the results give me an indication of the shape I was in. For me the whole point of training hard in winter was to be able to get out and race.

The racing was a reward for evenings spent slogging out winter lactic sessions in the rain!

Some of my best results came from indoor athletics. I won a world indoor title and picked up two European bronze medals. One of the main differences between indoor and outdoor running is the stadiums are smaller, meaning the crowd are closer to the action. I always thrived off the atmosphere indoors. I almost felt like the crowd were right next to my lane willing me on, it was an incredible buzz.

This weekend is an opportunity for athletes to take their chance to perform, which is essentially what the sport of athletics is all about. Without the major championships, I think the sport would be incredibly boring. Seeing athletes in their national vests fighting it out for a top three result is the best kind of racing.

There are a few athletes I’m excited about watching in Prague, where I’m working for RTÉ at the Championships. There is something special about watching a crowd roar on one of their national heroes and that is exactly what will happen in the men’s 400m. Czech athlete Paval Maslak is the favourite and a local lad. He has the fastest time in the world this year, 45.27.

Maslak is tremendous to watch. His slight build makes it look like he is gliding around the two laps. It’s hard to imagine any of the other entries will spoil the hometown party.

There is Irish interest in the men’s 400m. Dara Kervick is getting in the blocks ranked 11th in Europe but he is on an upwards curve. He ran a very solid 46.53 to win the national title in Athlone two weeks ago. He’ll be looking to make a semi-final and if he runs up to his capabilities, a final won’t be too far away. If Kervick is looking for inspiration he can take some from fellow countryman David Gillick, twice the European Indoor champion.

I’m incredibly excited about the women’s 800m in Prague. The main reason is British athlete Jenny Meadows. There has been a huge amount of coverage of alleged doping in Russia in recent months and Jenny Meadows is one of those worst affected. Meadows has been denied a potential six major international medals by proven or alleged drug cheats. On top of that she suffered a major achilles injury that ended any chance of her competing to win a medal at her home Olympics in London. Lost medals to drugs cheats and major injury in track means lost funding and earnings — it’s a tough reality of the sport.

Meadows will toe the line in Prague as the favourite for the gold. She holds the fastest time in the world this year. An interesting challenger comes in the form of Czeck athlete Zusana Hejnova. She is far better known as a 400m hurdles specialist, having won World, European and Olympic medals in the shorter event. Her coach made the decision that she would run the 800 meters in Prague instead of the shorter 400m race. I’m curious to see if she can challenge Meadows and give the home crowd a reason to scream for her.

Ciara Everard will line up for Ireland in the women’s 800m. Two years ago she made the final at these championships and she is capable of repeating that performance but it won’t be an easy task. She’ll need to execute her race plan perfectly.

The men’s 800m will be the best chance that Ireland has of securing a medal at these championships. Last summer Mark English claimed bronze at the European Outdoors in Zurich. His greatest attribute is that he is a championship runner.

He doesn’t appear to get fazed by the occasion. There is a distinct difference between going to a championship as a potential medallist and going to a championship as a proven medallist. I always felt really confident at the European Indoors because I had medals on my CV. I felt that experience would stand to me when the pressure came on.

I think English is the same. He delivered a medal last summer in a hugely competitive European Outdoor 800m final. The statistics make the task look straight forward, he is ranked third in Europe. But the statistics are never a guarantee.

The 800m favourite was Adam Kszczot from Poland, a proven medallist but he is now out through illness. English goes in to the men’s 800m ranked third on time after his 1:47.17 in Birmingham. I’m hoping he can be in a showdown for gold.

One of the biggest moments in this championship could come from a young British athlete with bucket loads of talent, Katarina Johnson Thomson — or KJT as she is known. KJT has slipped into the role of multi-eventer supreme since Jessica Ennis-Hill has been absent from the track through injury and motherhood. They were huge shoes to fill but she has done it effortlessly.

There are two numbers that I believe will be very relevant for KJT in the pentathlon on Friday, 4,965 and 5,013. These are the numbers that represent the British and World records. I’ve been watching her results closely in the past few weeks and I believe she could produce something very special in Prague. If she does break the British and world record it will set up an intriguing battle between KJT and Jessica Ennis-Hill during the summer.

Another athlete with numbers on his mind will be French pole vaulter Renaud Lavillenie. He holds the Indoor world record at 6.16m and if everything goes to plan he looks set to attempt even higher this weekend. His brother Valentin, five years his junior, will also be hoping to get on the podium.

Renaud Lavillenie is the type of athlete that lives and breathes his event. In his back garden he has built a pole-vault run up and put in landing mats. He climbs a tree to change the heights he practices at, I’m hoping the tree is higher than 6.16 metres and that Prague sees something really special in the pole vault.

My final athlete of interest this weekend is Irish hurdler, Gerard O’Donnell. He has made huge improvements this season to claim his place on the Irish team. He goes into this championship with a time of 7.73 seconds — he will need to run close to that time to make the semi-final and faster to make a final. This is his first major championship and he’ll need to use all that adrenalin to nail a great race.

I’m looking forward to seeing if he can find a faster time in Prague. Maybe I’m biased but it’s always good to see the green vest line up in sprint hurdles.


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