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"I'm Hoping That I Can Be That Next Chapter in the History Books" - Newmade Marathoner Jeff Hunt in His Own Words

by Brett Larner

Jeff Hunt ran the Australian marathon debut national record last Sunday at the Beppu-Oita Mainichi Marathon, finishing 3rd in 2:11:00. With a race both patient and aggressive he won respect across Japan. Yesterday JRN featured Hunt's coach Ken Green talking about Hunt's performance and training from the coach's perspective. Today we bring you Jeff's own views and recollections.

Next week JRN will introduce its new JRNPremium subscription series of interviews with athletes, coaches, agents and others in the Japanese running world. The series begins with 2:08:40 marathoner Arata Fujiwara ahead of his return to the Tokyo Marathon later this month. Part two will be a follow-up interview with Fujiwara the day after Tokyo. For more information, click here.

JRN: How do you feel?

JH: Surprisingly, I’m physically very good. Emotionally, I’m very, very happy and pleased with the result.

What was your impression of the event? Beppu-Oita is notorious for its wind and the long, banked highway stretch. 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.

It is a fantastic event. I loved it. Who wouldn’t love it if they ran 2:11 and came 3rd on debut?? Derek Froude (Posso Sports) was the man for the job of getting me into the race. As far as Ken and I were concerned, the first hurdle was getting into the race. We weren’t worried about whether or not I was “invited,” I just wanted to get into the race and run. I wanted to race regardless of the support I did, or did not, get. Derek managed to score some accommodation with the organizers, which helped immensely, and for which I could hardly thank them, or him, enough. I also received some assistance from Athletics Australia for my flights over, again lessening the cost involved.

The organizers treated me the same as all the invited athletes, and made the trip so easy and relaxed. No special treatment after the race as they had already been very hospitable to begin with. I did not need to worry about anything. If I needed help, they’d provide it. The Japanese are very, very friendly people. Karla and Mako (our interpreters/chaperones) were very funny girls who made the trip fun for all.

The course itself is fantastic, rolling roads and a fantastic crowd. The course change for the wind side of things didn’t really matter this year. Brendan Reilly (a manager from US) said to myself, Martin Dent, and Brett Cartwright on the start line “Run fast today. The conditions may not be like this for another 10 years.” It was excellent conditions, perfect temperature and minimal wind. I barely felt it. It was the kind of conditions you should be able to run fast in.

You were a top steepler and XC guy for a long time, 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 you where do you see things going? Is the marathon your main career goal or was this an experiment?

The Olympics have always been my dream. From the time I started running in high school, I wanted to go to the Olympics. I had no idea how to get there, but I knew I wanted to go. As well as I’ve performed in cross country, or as fast as I’ve run on the track, I think I should now refer to myself as a marathoner. I have only done one, but I really feel that I can make it my event. I’ve performed very well on track and over cross country, but the marathon, I feel, is my future and where I hold the most potential. Australia has a great history of marathon runners and we need someone to pick up where Mona and Deek [Steve Moneghetti and Rob de Castella] left off. I’m hoping that I can be that next chapter in the history books.

Next up, I will be running my first World Cross Country in Poland on 28th March. I’m sure that will be an experience, and I hope I perform there as well as I have here. I will still compete over cross country and on the track, it's just that now my focus has shifted to the roads. I don’t think there’ll be any more 1500m races for me, but a couple of tens and fives will be on order. My 5000m PB is way too slow.

How long have you been planning this marathon debut? What were your expectations going in? How carefully had you planned your strategy? Do you care to say anything specific about your training?

I had never planned on running a marathon. I have never had an interest until the last 6-12 months. I tried bargaining with Ken over the years on what I had to do before I would tackle one, but I ran out of bargaining chips, and had to concede. But, upon reflection of my training diary, it looks as though Ken has been priming me for a marathon for around 2-3 years.

Expectations were to run fast enough to make the Commonwealth Games team. After all, you never know what can happen to you at 30km. Our strategy was 3:06 per kilometre (31mins for every 10km), but most importantly to race the group I was in, and to not run alone. I seem to perform better when I “just race” and don’t worry about time.

There has been nothing spectacular about my training. I ran consistent 160-170km weeks for 8-9 months, with a few 180km+ weeks over the 5 weeks I spent at altitude. I learnt to run relaxed at pace, and that I think is the key to running fast, it feels effortless.

Your time, placing and the Australian marathon debut record were all great, but what really made your run noteworthy was the way you ran it. The guy who finished behind you, 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 you. With very similar track credentials to him you instead sat patiently back in the 2nd pack, ran very steady 5 km splits, were 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 you 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?

Ken and I had planned to close the last 10-12km solid, but how solid depended on what my body was feeling like at the time. We never set a pace to pick it up to, and if I was in the lead pack already, to leave it until much later.

I had actually been running in behind the 2nd group pacers. They had been hitting 3:07/3:08 like clockwork. They did an excellent job. I had to hold myself back at only 15km into the race. Ken had told me to be patient until 30km, but I wanted the pacers to go faster because I felt really, really good. I had believed from 15km in that I could catch the lead pack, and I really wanted to catch them. When I accelerated at 27km, I never thought that I could accelerate that much. Running that next 3km in not much over 9:00, then 30-35km in 15:03, I surprised even myself at how I could still be relaxed whilst upping the pace so much. I was just using the runners coming back as targets on my way up. Closing the last 100m was probably the hardest part, just because I was almost there but not quite.

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

It has been incorporated by just picking up the pace towards the end of my Sunday long run and Wednesday run. I also just tried to run everything with a relaxed technique and rhythm. Whenever I tried to run fast, I just made sure I was relaxed. You can’t run fast when you’re tense.

The sessions incorporated were just longer, such as Mona Fartlek (20mins fast/slow), 6 x Mile, and longish runs with 15-20mins in the middle at marathon pace. One thing that is very important, especially for the marathon, is that I have not missed a long run in something like 18months-2years. Even I have been surprised at that.

But as well as it was planned, I may not have been able to pull it off. Fortunately, I did, and executed it pretty well for a great result.

It doesn’t happen very often that someone so far back so late in the race catches the leaders. At what point did you think you could catch the lead pack? At what point did you know it was going to happen? Anything you want to say about your mindset between 36 km, when you passed 27:41 10000 m marathon debutant Yu Mitsuya, and 39 km when you caught the lead group, would be much appreciated. As soon as you passed Mitsuya you had a dedicated camera bike with you and the announcers were rapt. Did you pick up on the change in atmosphere or feel any more pressure from having the motorcycle there?

I started thinking I could catch the lead pack when we were only at 15km. I realised that the front guys were not running as fast as they were meant to, so I started thinking really positive. By 25km, I really wanted to catch them. By the time I had reach 35km, I knew that I would get there. It was a matter of how quick do I get there. I remember Geb's interview where he said the guys that caught him in Dubai caught him too quick to be able to kick again. So I was cautious to a degree.

I didn’t even notice that the motorbike was still with me. I was just focused solely on the lead pack that was now under 200m up the road. I was just driving, pushing my way forward with a determination that I don’t think that I have ever had. I made sure I held form, and just kept pushing. I never took my eyes off that lead pack. I kept the pace going, and then just slotted in behind them for a short recovery before the push for home.

You looked very strong, smooth and relaxed after passing Mitsuya. How did it feel in that section, both physically and in terms of knowing you were hitting the hardest part of you first marathon so well?

The entire race I felt magic. I was worried about “the wall” you apparently hit between 30-35km but it never came. I felt really really good even when running faster in the “hardest section” of a marathon. My fiancée put it well by saying it was “blissful ignorance” that had me feeling so good.

When you caught the leaders you tucked into the back of the pack. It didn’t look like anyone realized you were there for a while until Nakamoto, Ikawa and Njenga all looked back. Did you feel any reaction?

I did. I kind of smiled as if to say, “Yeah boys, I just caught you, and I’m feeling great” As I had approached them, I toyed with going straight past or tucking in. Ultimately I thought my best chance was to relax for a kilometre or two, and go with the kick.

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

If it had been my second marathon I would have just blown past them, and caught them by surprise. It may have worked well on Sunday, but I wasn’t willing to take that chance, because the wheels could have easily fallen off at 40km. After all, it was my debut. I knew that I could lift again if I had a rest, so I rested. Not to mention that having never run the course, or seen the closing stages, I could have suffered. I also had to respect the guys that have PBs in the 2:06/2:07 bracket.

During that km in the pack were you feeling tired and resting up? You seemed pretty alert, and the second Ethiopian Chala Lemi took off from the front row at 40.2 km and Kenyan Daniel Njenga went after him you cut to the right in the back row and went after him too. What do you remember about that moment?

No, I felt great. I was really settled and calm. I did, at one stage there, think, “I can’t believe I’m in the lead pack now.” But then that changed to thoughts of glory. I really thought I had a chance to win. I remember feeling the tension in the air between them all. Everyone seemed to be afraid not to go to early. I just knew whatever happened, I had to go with it.

2:07:31 marathoner Jonathan Kipkorir went with you and you passed Lemi together. At the same time 2:06:16 guy Njenga shot out into the lead. How did you feel being in a 2 km last dash against guys with credentials like that? You were just a stride or two from closing the gap to Njenga when Kipkorir caught him and they really started hitting it hard. Did you think you still had a shot? Njenga was looking back over his shoulder on the last lap of the track.

Njenga caught me a bit by surprise, and his acceleration was amazing. But I thought he’s going hard early, I may get him. In the end it was pretty close. A last 2km dash with guys who have previously ran under 2:08:00 was exhilarating. I never stopped thinking I had a chance to win until we reached the last 100m and I ran out of time. I never stopped fighting. Even though those guys had run pretty fast before, I never thought for a second that I couldn’t beat them.

The same day that you ran your 2:11:00 Nikki Chapple had a big win at the Marugame Half Marathon. There’s lots 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 your run to have on your teammates and training partners, on your domestic competition and fellow Australians? On you personally? Again, what do you see for the future?

Distance running in Australia is going mental. 4 years ago, before the Melbourne Commonwealth Games, we had, in some cases, less people qualified in event than there were spaces. It would seem that this time around, we will have more qualifiers than spots, which will make decisions for selectors nice and tough.

I’m already aware of the impact I had on my training partners. For once, they were actually happy to hear me go on and on about something. Haha. I think that the flow-on effect will be positive to all our athletes. My training is no secret, it is a tried and true method. They will see what I have been able to run, and see that the training is not revolutionary, but it works.

I think the effect on my competition will be to stop them from dismissing me before races begin. You never know how well I will perform. I am not a training machine, but I can pull it all together on race day. I will always fight to the death, and I like to think that I’m pretty good tactically.

This race has made me realise that yes I can be competitive internationally, just not on the track as I thought I would. The marathon is a tough event, and it takes its toll on your body. I got lucky by feeling good all the way, but I have to respect the distance each time, because there’s always the chance of a bad day.

Hopefully, I see many Australian national teams, with growing successes as I gain experience. I also think that because I didn’t start “proper” training until I was almost 20 years old it means that I will be able to have a long career like some of the greats.

Update: To cap off JRN's Jeff Hunt week, here's a video interview with him back in Australia courtesy of The Runner's Tribe.

(c) 2010 Brett Larner
all rights reserved


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