The British under-23 half-marathon record-holder is re-evaluating his goals after clocking 28:00.5 for 10km on the track during lockdown

In the absence of traditional competition so far this summer, Jake Smith has described a recent 10,000m time trial as “like it was the Olympics for me” and he produced a performance to suit the occasion.

Paced by his friends and ‘Llanishen Street Distance Project’ housemates, Cardiff-based Smith stormed to a time of 28:00.5 on Rhondda AC’s new King George V track in the Welsh town of Tonypandy, with a live stream of the action having been watched thousands of times.

It is the latest in a string of impressive performances by the 22-year-old, who now has the postponed Tokyo Olympics in his sights. After a fourth-place finish at the Great South Run in October, he went on to break the British under-23 half-marathon record with 62:02 in France the following month and then took another two seconds off that mark at the Vitality Big Half in London in March. That 62:00 run for third place in the UK capital also won him a first senior GB vest but his ambition of pulling it on will have to wait until hopefully later this year at the rescheduled World Half Marathon Championships in Poland.

With that global target moved due to the coronavirus pandemic, Smith went into lockdown determined to make the most of the extra training time. Having a goal was important, he says, so he focused on a fast 10,000m.

“The first plan was to do it on July 10 but I was in the best shape I had ever been in and I wanted to do it sooner,” explains Smith, who ran his official PB of 29:01.08 at the European U23 Championships in Sweden last summer.

“I went into it exactly like a race. I shortened my long run on the Sunday, the day before I only did four miles and the day of the time trial I went for a three-mile jog in the morning and then just sat there all day waiting to get to the track.

“I was really nervous. I properly treated it like a race but the great thing was that I was with my best mates and they kept it so chilled.”

Those friends took it in turns to pace him at different points, with James Heneghan and John Howorth alternating 800m efforts and Ciaran Lewis joining in for anything from 400m to two laps.

“I couldn’t have done it without them,” says Smith, who has just finished his third year sport development studies at Cardiff Metropolitan University and is applying to do a strength and conditioning master’s degree.

“Having the boys really did help. When I crossed the line I was like ‘wow, I didn’t expect that’. I couldn’t have appreciated it more.”

However, the James Thie-coached runner admits that his first reaction on seeing his time was one of slight disappointment.

“When I crossed that line and saw I hadn’t broken 28 minutes, first instinct I was gutted because I was so close,” he says. “But I sat down after and looked at the time I had run – apparently four years ago it was the Olympic (qualification) time I ran and I have run 20 seconds under the European time and 30 or 40 seconds under the Commonwealth time so I just want to see how fast I can go in the next few years.”

Another positive has been the responses he has received from other athletes since, he adds.

“A lot of people have messaged me saying they had lost motivation but after watching the time trial they have got back into training,” he says.

“I wanted to try and inspire people and people have been so nice to me about it and saying it was a great run and stuff like that, I just really enjoyed it.”

The enforced change to his training has even shaped how he might plan his competition build-up in future, he admits.

“I think this lockdown has really helped me. We’ve just been training as hard as we can,” he says, giving credit to coach Thie.

“When you have a summer season and you are racing every week or twice a week, your body gets so tired and the fact that we haven’t raced and have just trained, our bodies are less tired so I could go into this time trial like a proper race, like it was the Olympics for me basically, and I wasn’t tired at all.

“I have actually really enjoyed lockdown training because I think I’m a lot stronger than I would have been if lockdown hadn’t have happened.

“I followed the lockdown rules so when they said you’re only allowed out once, I actually bought a cross trainer and a turbo bike and introduced cross training into my schedule,” he adds.

“Normally I’m on about 100 miles a week but I brought it down and did about 70-80 miles of running and then about 20-30 of cross training and I absolutely loved it. It was just a change and was really nice.

“I went based off heart rate and because it’s low impact it reduces the likelihood of injury so I do think in the build up for my World Half, I’m going to introduce some cross training again.”

From Bermuda to Britain

Smith was born in Bermuda where coincidentally his parents were coached by former national 800m record-holder Steve Burgess, who Smith describes as having been close with his current coach Thie.

The family moved to Hong Kong when Smith was a couple of years old and he took part in a variety of sports as he grew up, including football, rugby and hockey as well as running.

“My mum and dad were good runners and they just enjoyed going out for runs,” Smith explains. “Where we lived in Hong Kong was in the countryside with all the mountains so they would take me on loads of runs and I got into it. I went into the cross country team and when I was 16 or 17 I dropped the other sports and concentrated on running.”

It was around that time that the family moved to Devon in England and it was on the mountains that Smith made his GB team debut.

“I think mountain running is probably the hardest thing I have ever done!” laughs Smith, who formed part of the junior squad at the 2016 European Mountain Running Championships in Arco, Italy.

“That’s actually where I met Ciaran and he told me about Cardiff Met. I had been thinking about potentially going to America but when I did the mountain running and spoke to Ciaran and James Thie it just worked really well.”

His half-marathon career had started even earlier, however, as he ran 72:54 as an under-17 in Amsterdam in 2014.

“Our family all wanted to go to Amsterdam, my dad and my uncle did the marathon so I thought I’d give the half a go!” he says.

Six years later, the Cardiff and Axe Valley athlete has taken almost 13 minutes off that time. Reflecting on his Big Half performance, he says: “Some of the training sessions I had to do were extremely tough but they did pay off. I wanted to concentrate on the Big Half with the expectation of getting into the World Half team.

“The only thing was, because World Half was only a month after Big Half, I didn’t want to run anywhere close to my PB because for me, being quite young, I don’t feel like I have the experience to come back after a month and run another half-marathon.

“When Chris Thompson took out the first mile in like 4:25, I had to go with it. I was like ‘this is going to be a long way now!’ I ran 62:00 and broke my PB. The last 10 miles was a solo run basically because I just saw Chris and Kenenisa Bekele up ahead. When I crossed the line I was like ‘I am very, very tired now’!”

Pandemic permitting, his attention now turns back to the world event, scheduled for October 17.

“You just don’t know when the races are going to be,” Smith says, looking ahead to the next few months. “The only idea I have is either doing a time trial again, because I do think they are really handy, or potentially the British Championships, if it’s on.

“I’m just going to try and create as best I can a perfect training block for the World Half. At the World Half I would love to run 61 minutes low.

“It’s the best competition to run something quick at.”

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