Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Comeback kid finds himself in the company of legends

It is six weeks now since Chris Thompson overtook the legends of British long-distance running. Competing in the 10,000m in the Payton Jordan Cardinal Invitational meeting at Stanford University in California on 1 May, he recorded 27min 29.61sec, nudging past Brendan Foster and Dave Bedford in the UK all-time ranking lists for the 25-lap distance.

"My dad e-mailed me after the race, saying that he remembered Dave Bedford when he ran his world record 27:30, watching him throw up afterwards on TV," the affable one-time teenage prodigy from the Aldershot, Farnham and District Athletics Club reflects. "He said: 'I just can't believe my son's beaten that.' Nor can I, when you put it like that."

It is little wonder that Thompson is in such a state of disorientation. Back in 2003 he won the 5,000m title at the European Under-23 Championships at Bydgoszcz in Poland, edging out his close friend Mo Farah, but since then his progress has been hamstrung by a frustrating succession of injuries. When the 29-year-old lines up for the 3,000m at the European Team Championships in Bergen next weekend it will be his first track race in a Great Britain vest since the European Championships in Gothenburg in 2006.

After four years in the international wilderness, the native Cumbrian (raised mainly at Fleet in Hampshire but a lifetime devotee of his home-town football team, AFC Barrow) stands second in the European rankings at 10,000m – just below Farah, who clocked 27:28.26 in Marseille last weekend to ease him out of third place on the British all-time list, behind Jon Brown (27:18.14) and Eamonn Martin (27:23.06). It is a promising place to be, six weeks away from the major event of the summer season: the European Championships in Barcelona. For all of Britain's rich tradition in 10,000m running, no one from these shores has ever won the men's 10,000m title at the European Championships.

"Really?" Thompson says. "I do know that the last one was won in 28:10 but this time I think it's going to take something really special to win it. I just really hope it's me or Mo. If Britain has never won it before, that would make it even sweeter."

Life right now is sweet enough for Thompson. He is living with his girlfriend, Jemma Simpson, the World Championship 800m semi-finalist, inside an altitude simulation tent provided by UK Athletics in a house near the domestic governing body's High Performance Centre at Loughborough University. "There's a machine that pumps nitrogen into the tent to simulate the altitude you want to be at," he says. "You've got to try to stay in it 12 hours a day to get the effect, which is a bit difficult when you've got to fit in your training and other stuff."

The benefits remain to be seen but Thompson is undoubtedly reaping the rewards of a dual coaching environment. On home soil he is guided by his long-term coach, John Nuttall, who is the UK Athletics event coach for endurance, and 1994 Commonwealth 5,000m bronze medallist. But the Loughborough graduate has clearly thrived from linking up with Simpson's coach, Mark Rowland, holder of the British 3,000m steeplechase record since his bronze-medal run at the Seoul Olympics in 1988, at the Oregon Track Club at Eugene in the United States.

"John has helped me through a lot and he's priceless to me," Thompson says. "Mark has definitely added another dimension to me, both in my training and as a person. He has a real knack and talent for the way he applies training for each athlete. I actually would put the word 'genius' with him as a coach. He couldn't have built me up better for the race in Stanford.

"I said to Jemma after the race: 'If I get hit by a lorry tomorrow and never run again I'll be happy.' After everything I've been through over the years, I just wanted to give myself a shot at running decent again. If I'd put a good load of training together and hadn't run well, I would have put my hand up and said: 'You know what, I was not that good.' And I'd have walked away without any regrets.

"Whatever I do from now, I'll have a smile on my face. Running so well in Stanford has blown my mind. I don't feel like an also-ran any more. I feel like I could potentially do stuff on a European and maybe a world stage." Like Carolina Kluft, Yelena Isinbayeva and Blanka Vlasic perhaps.

They were all winners at the European Under-23 Championships in Bydgoszcz seven years ago – the same as Chris Thompson. "Blimey!" he exclaimed. "Isinbayeva! I did not realise that. Crikey, my name's amongst legends...It's a shame I wasn't a legend myself, really." Maybe so, but there is still time yet for the 29-year-old comeback kid.