Stomach surgery and lack of motivation during lockdown threatened to derail Daniel Rowden’s career but the 800m man is one of the success stories of 2020

Daniel Rowden’s 2019 season was wiped out after he had surgery to fix a rare stomach disorder. Twelve months later the 800m runner faced the prospect of another season on the sidelines when coronavirus caused the Tokyo Olympics to be cancelled, leaving him disheartened and lacking motivation to train. Yet despite these hurdles he has emerged as one of the breakthrough stars of 2020 and in Zagreb on Tuesday (Sept 15) we could get more proof of just how talented he is.

Rowden out-kicked Jake Wightman to win the British 800m title in Manchester earlier this month. Since then Wightman has run a big PB of 1:44.18 to win in Ostrava and the duo are set to clash again at the Continental Tour Gold meeting in Zagreb this week. What’s more, the line-up includes teenage prodigy Max Burgin and Elliot Giles, plus the Swedish runner who narrowly beat Rowden to the European under-23 title in 2017 – Andreas Kramer.

Rowden goes into the race as one of five Brits who have run inside 1:45 this season. But he looks poised to improve his 1:44.74 PB.

“I would be semi-content with having finished at British Champs because the season has gone very well,” he says, “but I’ve known from the races I’ve done that there is more to come.

“Every race I’ve done so far has been 1:18 plus at 600m whereas it’d be nice to go through in high 1:16s or low 1:17s. So I don’t feel I’ve been fully tested yet this season.

“I’m going to Zagreb primarily to try to win but also hopefully run a bit quicker too. I think I’m capable of the low 1:44s or maybe even into the 1:43s. I just need to give my best and see.”

Rowden, who turned 23 last week, has endured a challenging past 18 months. In April last year he had surgery to solve a long-standing stomach issue and after spending five days in hospital he could barely walk without pain before eventually starting to jog eight weeks later and then, in the twilight of the season, pacing a couple of races at Watford and running a 4x400m relay leg for his club, Woodford Green with Essex Ladies.

Medics struggled to identify his problem for a few years until he joined the World Class Performance Programme and saw British Athletics doctor Noel Pollock, who thought the issue might be MALS (median arcuate ligament syndrome) and directed him to a specialist who then recommended surgery.

“With MALS the muscles in the bottom of your diaphragm wrap around your celiac artery and for some people they wrap around too tightly and can restrict the blood flow,” says Rowden who, like most people, had never heard of MALS until it was diagnosed. “When I was doing running such as tempo work, my gut wasn’t getting enough blood or oxygen and was giving me stomach pains.

“As well as taking out some of the muscle, I had some permanent artery damage so my celiac artery had to be opened up because the diameter had been compressed. It was quite a serious operation and was pretty tough.”

He continues: “My recovery was pretty awful at times especially in terms of my digestive system getting going again. Eventually I got back training. It was too late to get ready for the European Under-23 Champs, which I had hoped to try to win. I had hopes of going to the Worlds as well.

“After the operation every time I moved my core muscles it was very painful. I had to be taught how to get in and out of bed, how to walk and how to walk up and down stairs without hurting myself in the initial stages. But the hardest thing was probably my digestive system getting back to normal. When I ate after surgery there was a chance my body would reject it and I would throw up and that happened for quite a while.”

In September last year he switched training groups from long-time coach Richard Thurston to a thriving group run by former international Matt Yates. But he spent the autumn period largely cross-training after twisting his ankle.

Eventually he got some training under his belt on a British Athletics trip to South Africa at the start of this year. “It was my first ever training camp abroad and a great experience,” he says.

But then the pandemic struck and Rowden’s Olympic dreams were in tatters as the nation went into lockdown. “I found that pretty discouraging,” he admits.

Rowden lives near Epping Forest, where he does much of his steady running. He was able to run on a nearby track too. But he says: “Training was pretty non-existent for a while and in May I was running about 15 miles a week. I lost all motivation when the Olympics wasn’t happening. I was also into heavy revision to sit my university exams from home so my coach just told me to run when I feel like it and keep fit if I can.”

Rowden is studying for a degree in mechanical engineering at Imperial College London. In addition, religion is a big part of his life as a Christian and he is part of a busy church for students. His father’s side of the family is, he adds, more musical than sporty and he enjoys playing the piano to relax. His mother, meanwhile, is from Ghana and he has Ghanaian relatives in west Africa, Australia and the United States.

As a child he was a talented footballer and his route into athletics was fairly standard after he firstly showed talent at school before joining an athletics club aged 11 and running his first 800m that age in a modest 2:42.

At the age of 14 he got tickets to see the 800m semi-finals at the London Olympics and his imagination was fired by David Rudisha, who went on to break the world record in the final. Teenage triumphs included claiming an English Schools 800m title and he has continued to progress despite the bumpy last 18 months.

Once the lockdown eased this summer he began to find his form and started to enjoy training more. “In my new group I’ve been doing a lot more speedwork than I’d ever done before, which is what I really enjoy,” he says.

“It was also fun training with no pressure and having good times with the guys and good sessions and, if there was a terrible session, then not feeling too bad about it. It’s been a different kind of summer,” he adds, “but it seems to be paying off now.”

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