Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Coach Ken Green Talks About Jeff Hunt's Race-Making Beppu-Oita Debut

by Brett Larner

If Australian Jeff Hunt hadn't been in Sunday's Beppu-Oita Mainichi Marathon the results would not have been especially surprising or noteworthy. Kenyan Jonathan Kipkorir, the only man in the field to break 2:08 in 2009, outkicked Kenyan veteran Daniel Njenga, the only one with a 2:06 PB, for the win in 2:10:50, with relatively unknown Japanese first-timer Atsushi Ikawa running a gutsy race up front to finish close behind in 2:11:04. On the surface Hunt's 2:11:00 3rd place mark may not appear to add much to the equation, but what made him the defining element of this year's Beppu-Oita was the way he ran the race. Until 30 km Hunt sat far back in the second pack over a minute behind the leaders. By 40 km he was head to head with Kipkorir and Njenga for the win. It was a dramatic, gripping performance which showed that even in the 2:04-2:05 era a slower race can still be exciting.

A day after Beppu-Oita Hunt's coach Ken Green talked to JRN via email about Hunt's Australian marathon debut national record performance, their pre-race training and their future goals. Look for Hunt's own comments in part two of the interview later this week. If you enjoy this interview, click here for more information on JRNPremium's new subscription-only series of interviews. The first edition, part one of a two-part pre- and post-Tokyo Marathon interview with 2:08:40 man Arata Fujiwara, will be published at the end of this week.

Update: Jeff Hunt's interview has been added. Click here to read his side of the story.

JRN: How do you feel today?

KG: We feel very satisfied.

Why did you choose Beppu-Oita for Jeff's first marathon? He was in the general division rather than among the invited elites. How did that come about? Did you receive any assistance as a general division entrant? I imagine they treated him quite differently afterward.

The Beppu-Oita marathon has been a good hunting ground for Australians for many years. The date did fit with our training calendar. Between November and January Jeff spent a number of weeks training at Falls Creek in the Victorian highlands. I felt to get best value from the training-effect of such a camp a marathon only two or three weeks after he returned to Sydney was the best option.

Racing in Japan suits Australians as there are no time-zone issues and the flight is relatively short. The Beppu race seemed to fit a first time marathon attempt. It has been typically a 2:09-2:11 race so I felt such a race meant he was always a chance of being 'in the race' for a long time into the race, and would not necessarily get blown away as in a race set up to be 2:05 pace. Jeff's a great racer and I felt that if he could be in the race he was always going to be hard to beat.

Being in the general division was fine. I have been fortunate enough, over the years, to form a relationship with Derek Froude of Posso Sports. Derek was able to secure a start, a few nights accommodation and we have no problems with this. We are grateful for Derek's assistance. Perhaps next year we might both get invited. Jeff is not supported by any shoe company. Maybe ASICS or Mizuno might like to talk to me, ha ha!

Athletics Australia did contribute to Jeff's ticket from Sydney to Japan which we are very thankful for. It has been money well spent.

What was your impression of the event? Beppu-Oita is notorious for its wind and the long, banked highway stretch. That was the reason for the course change this year, to break up the effects and timing of the usual headwinds and of running off-balance. How did you feel about the course and conditions? Winner Jonathan Kipkorir said the winds were tough, but for much of the race it didn't look to be too windy on the TV broadcast.

Like all Japanese races the event was first class and as you'd expect well organised. On talking with Jeff he did not think the wind was too noticeable. The course was fine and we have no complaints.

Jeff was a top steepler and XC guy for a long time, including being national champion, then last year moved up somewhat with solid 28:19 10000 m and 1:02:44 half marathon performances. Now with a strong marathon debut behind him where do you see things going? Is the marathon the main career goal or was this an experiment?

I first started coaching Jeff as an 18-year-old. Steeple was his thing but he quickly realised he could expand his horizons, and yes, he is a fantastic cross-country runner. He will next tackle the World Cross Country in Poland, an experience that will help him develop and grow as a leading world distance athlete. I am a huge believer in cross country as a development event for aspiring middle-distance track athletes and marathon runners. Too many emerging Australians battle out too many road races. I think it's counter-productive to their long-term development. His 62:44 half-marathon and 28:19 track 10k have simply been part of his expansion as a 'distance-runner'. Jeff's marathon debut-performance did come from a belief that these previous races gave him. Jeff and I will look to improve his track 10k, perhaps 27:30/27:45 is plausible, but at a championship level the marathon is the goal - ultimately London 2012.

How long have you been planning this marathon debut? What were your expectations going in? How carefully had you planned strategy?

The marathon plan has been in place for 2 years. The July 2009 62:44 just gave us encouragement and reinforced we were on the right track. The 28:19 (December track 10k) had me believing 2:11-2:12 was in Jeff's capabilities, and first up. I did send Jeff a note that he read only on the morning of the marathon. I basically told him I believed 2:12 was possible if he ran a smart race, and if everything went really well he could break 2:11. Importantly I told him not to be afraid to win - run the race at 31 minutes per 10km up to 30km and if you are in the race at this point then run to win. Let the time then look after itself. I guess I was only 1 second off him running a 2:10 something.

Jeff's time, placing and the Australian marathon debut record were all great, but what really made his run noteworthy was the way he ran it. The guy who finished behind him, Atsushi Ikawa, was a 28:14 10000 m guy who was also debuting. He ran up in the front pack the whole time, made a few surges into the lead, and finished 4 seconds behind. With very similar track credentials to him Jeff instead sat patiently back in the 2nd pack, ran very steady 5 km splits, was over a minute behind the leaders at 30 km, then suddenly went from 3:08/km to 3:00. It's a common enough strategy to take it easy for the first 30 km and then go hard, but it's pretty rare to see it executed so well. I think the patience he showed and then the ferocity after 30 km really appealed to the Japanese audience. Again, how much of this was planned and how much of it was race-day momentum?

We practiced lifting the tempo in the middle of our twice weekly long-runs. We felt it was important we had a mind-set that we could roll home from 30k and be confident off around 66 minutes at half way that a negative split was doable. I believed Jeff could negative split if he felt good through half way. I believed being the first marathon Jeff had to back himself on one hand, but be clever at the same time. We studied the course and understood the second half just seemed faster, and the new course lent itself to a negative split strategy. Jeff executed the strategy perfectly. Perhaps with a little more experience he may have won. However, Kipkorir and Njenga are proven 2:07 runners, so maybe I'm being too ambitious. I don't mean to sound too assured but the plan was always to be aggressive after 30k. I believed he was in great shape and we just needed good weather and good competition.

To whatever extent the big move was planned, how did you incorporate that into your training and preparation for the race?

Jeff's training was geared to manage back-to-back 31 minute 10k splits. That's not to say we ran a lot of 31 minute 10k's, we just talked a lot about building strength, relaxing at 3:05 pace, and most importantly patience, patience, patience. We worked hard at belief that if we could run an even first 30k Jeff would be in a position to kick-down. He is gifted with a smooth relaxed rhythm and we just needed to do a lot of work to build fitness and strength so he could hold the rhythm for 2 hours +. A point to note is Jeff has not missed a weekly long run (other than for a race) for close to 2 years.

It doesn't happen very often that someone so far back so late in the race catches the leaders.

On speaking with Jeff he felt he was always in touch with the race. He was content at getting to 30k in 93 minutes but accepted 30k to 35k had to be solid and once he got on a roll his confidence built and he kept thinking he was capable of winning. It's my view talent, in athletes, manifests itself in many different ways. Jeff's talent is his belief in his training and in his ability to be competitive. He never gives up no matter how things are going. Discounting Jeff in a race is a dangerous thing to do as he has the capacity to surprise beyond expectations.

Jeff looked very strong, smooth and relaxed after passing 27:41 debutant Yu Mitsuya.

Jeff is a smooth-looking, relaxed, and smart racer. It is one of the key reasons why I felt long ago ultimately the marathon had to be his event. It was matter of coach and athlete being patient for a few years and choosing the right time to run the first marathon.

When he caught the leaders he tucked into the back of the pack.

One of our plans was to be anonymous and let the competitors forget about you.

The 15:24 split from 35 to 40 km after running 15:03 between 30 and 35 km disguises how fast Jeff actually ran from 35 to 39 km since he slowed way down and stayed behind the pack between 39 and 40 km. What can you say about that decision to cut the momentum and tuck in? Was there any thought of just trying to keep going by them?

We discussed this briefly. If we had the opportunity again Jeff perhaps would have kept going and not slowed up. Perhaps just a little more experience and things may have been different. But you're talking about two Kenyan 2:07 marathon runners. We can't change things. Kipkorir and Njenga finished 1st and 2nd, with Jeff 3rd. No complaints and we move-on.

Were you surprised by Jeff's result?

Not surprised at all. I did suggest to a couple of people and noted to Jeff he was capable of sub-2:12. If all went very well, even faster.

I'm great friends with Chris Wardlaw (former coach of Steve Moneghetti), and with Australia's leading athletics reporter Len Johnson. We had a discussion on the Saturday before the race and I mentioned if Jeff gets up feeling good, the weather okay, and the pacing good he could surprise a lot of people. Chris has a personal best himself of 2:11:55. I suggested his current Australian all-time ranking was under threat. Chris and Len have followed Jeff's career since I started coaching him almost 10 years ago and they were equally as confident a big breakthrough was on the cards.

The same day as Beppu-Oita Nikki Chapple had a big win at the Marugame Half Marathon. There's a lot of talk about momentum in the States and loss of it here in Japan. How do you think Sunday reflects on the current state and direction of Australian distance running? What kind of impact do you expect Jeff's run to have on the others in your training group, on your domestic competition and fellow Australians? On you personally? Again, what do you see for the future?

I have not followed Nikki's race too closely so it's hard to comment on her performance directly but 3rd all time Australian and 68 minutes for the half marathon is a fantastic run. She should be as equally as pleased as Jeff. The distance events in Australia have jumped to a new high especially over the past 3 or 4 years. One of Jeff's key training partners includes Jeremy Roff, a 3:34 1500m athlete who went to the recent Berlin World Champs. We also have two of the leading 20 year olds in the country in James Nipperess and Bridey Delaney, and a group of other leading Australians. I expect Jeff's performance will give the whole squad a huge lift. With the main track season in Australia just underway the timing could not be better.

I think Jeremy's 3:34 helped to motivate Jeff to think bigger and accept the possibilities. With Jeremy and Jeff training together several times a week they are a terrific foil for each other.

(c) 2010 Brett Larner
all rights reserved

4 comments:

TokyoRacer said...

Great interview, thanks. Glad you addressed the key question of whether he should have tucked in behind the leaders or gone by them. I, and I'm sure a lot of other viewers, were hoping he would just blow by them. When he didn't, I thought he probably lost a bit of momentum and that with about 2k to go Kipkorir and Djenga would kick and he would probably not be able to stay with them. Which is exactly what happened. I think he should have blasted by them, taking them by surprise and forcing them to start kicking before they were ready. He still might have lost to Kipkorir, but would have had a better chance, I think. Still, it was a tremendous and inspiring run.

Simon said...

This kind of info really adds extra depth to your coverage of Beppu-Oita - cheers. I had my own battles on the road Sunday morning so wasn't able to catch the race but the Twitter commentary creates a vivid picture. Loved the "White guy passes Mitsuya" tweet!

Shame about the latter btw. he looked gutted in the Sanspo photo gallery. Any word from Mitsuya or his coach about the race yet?

Brett Larner said...

Part II coming up soon.

I haven't seen much from the Mitsuya camp, just a one-sentence quote where he said, "My legs got really heavy and I just couldn't move forward anymore." Not a great debut although not really terrible either.

Interestingly enough, Ikawa is coached by the same guy who coached Inubushi to Japan's first 2:06.

Jesse Armijo said...

Great Interview!