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Feature07 Feb 2019

Tiernan comes full circle


Australian distance runner Patrick Tiernan (© Getty Images)

Two years ago, Patrick Tiernan went to the IAAF World Cross Country Championships Kampala 2017 as a young man on the rise.

It was an impression confirmed by results. Tiernan finished 13th in the Ugandan capital, capping off a stellar few months which had seen him win the NCAA cross-country title – the first Australian winner of the US collegiate championship since Al Lawrence in 1960 – and then the Zatopek 10,000m in Melbourne.

This burst of impressive form in turn followed Tiernan’s making the Australian Olympic team for Rio, where his competitive 13:28.48 in the heats of the 5000m left him a couple of seconds, and places, short of the final.

Since that sunny day in east Africa, however, things have not quite gone to plan. Now, having been selected to represent Australia in Aarhus, Tiernan returns to the World Cross Country Championships looking once again to boost his career with a strong performance.

Aarhus, in fact, will be Tiernan’s first cross-country race since Kampala, but he says this is more a matter of circumstance than intent.

“There’s not too much (cross-country) here,” he says of his US base in Philadelphia, “aside from US club and championship races, which I’m not eligible for.

Competing for Villanova University, Patrick Tiernan of Australia wins the 2016 NCAA cross country title


“But the World Cross Country has been a goal since I ran the last one,” Tiernan continues. “I’ve always really enjoyed cross-country and representing your country is something you really want to do when the chance arises.”

The lack of cross-country races aside, Tiernan says he is really enjoying being back in Philadelphia, near where he did his collegiate degree at Villanova University and under the guidance of Marcus O’Sullivan. He is now doing post-graduate studies in pursuit of a master of science degree in analytics. Mathematics is another passion he has always enjoyed.

“I’m loving where I am. I’ve got a couple of guys to run with a few days a week. It makes Sundays (long-run day) easier; doing 25km by yourself can be pretty tough.”

2018 a learning curve

With a home Commonwealth Games, Tiernan believes he probably spent too much time in Australia last year, a year he now describes as “a big learning curve.” He was beaten in the 2017 Zatopek race by Stewart McSweyn and ran himself out of Commonwealth selection at 5000m with an overly aggressive run in high humidity at the selection trials.

The Games were a disappointment, too, Tiernan blowing up badly in the final laps of the 10,000m to finish almost two minutes behind the gold medallist, Joshua Cheptegei of Uganda. Adding insult to injury, the Australian was then disqualified for a lane infringement.

The pain hit hard. “You want to be able to perform at a home championships,” says Tiernan. “I didn’t do that.”

When things didn’t pick up in the post-Games aftermath, Tiernan decided it was time for a break. “I had some time away, just went travelling with my girlfriend.” When he resumed, Tiernan took things quietly. “Through October and November I was just running, getting kilometres into my legs, going along slowly.”

Returning to form

The goal, Tiernan adds, was to come back fresh. Because he is US-based, he was given an exemption from the Australian selection trial, but showed his fitness – and his recovery – with a 1:01:22 PB at the Houston Half Marathon the weekend before the trials.

McSweyn was also given an exemption but is also named in the team of six for the senior men’s race in Aarhus. Brett Robinson won the trial from Jack Rayner, with the next two finishers, Harry Summers and Jack Bruce, completing what looks like a strong men’s line-up.

Patrick Tiernan competes at the Zatopek 10k


McSweyn (53rd) and Rayner (40th) were both scoring members of the Australian team which finished eighth two years ago. Robinson, also there but unable to run on the day due to injury, finished inside the top 30 at the previous two editions in Guiyang and Bydgoszcz. Bruce finished 23rd, 19th and 13th at consecutive NCAA Championships for Arkansas while the mercurial Summers is capable of similar performances.

“It’s a great team,” says Tiernan. “It’s exciting to be able to compete well as a team.”

Tiernan has not had a close look at the innovative Aarhus course yet, but likes what he has seen and the sound of what he has heard.

“I heard it’s pretty tough, which is what cross-country should be.”

He is well grounded in what cross-country should be, Tiernan says. “A lot of races here (the US) are run on golf courses. People think that makes them easy, but the weather makes US winter races tough.”

Aarhus certainly offers a challenging course and could well have weather to match. “The tougher the conditions, the more you’ll see the strength runners come into it,” Tiernan says. He hopes the location will boost participation, too. “I’m hearing a lot of people want to do it. It’s great to have the best runners in the world compete.”

Len Johnson for the IAAF