Britain’s Nick Goolab tells Paul Halford about how he is starting to solve the equation for athletic success
For maths tutor Nick Goolab, eradicating confidence issues plus a move up in distance has recently added up to a major breakthrough.
The Belgrave Harrier ran 13:33.48 for 5000m in Oordegem, Belgium, at the end of last month. Coupled with making the British team for the European Indoor Championships at 3000m in March and the European Team Championships at 5000m, this year has seen the former mile specialist’s career prospects multiply.
During the indoor season he took 15 seconds from his 3000m PB to go to 7:53.82, that time being a marked advance on his 1500m lifetime best of 3:44.76.
It was not that Goolab ever lacked the ability to be, as he is now, knocking on the door of reaching the World Championships 5000m qualifying standard. But the missing link – the x in the equation for success – was the belief in himself.
The 27-year-old was the English National junior cross-country champion in 2009 and 2010. He made the GB junior team for the World Cross and the highlight of his under-20 career was silver at the Euro Cross in 2009, losing out on gold by just a second in Dublin.
However, his first years as a senior failed to produce further improvement. His junior PBs of 3:49.78 and 8:15.27 for 1500m and 3000m respectively were taken to just 3:46 and 8:14 before last year.
Then, having started training under coach Craig Winrow in 2015, he moved up to 3:44.76 and 8:08.01, but still clearly had more to offer. Goolab explains the problem had been psychological in nature.
“Up until this winter in races I’d be doubting myself every step of the way,” says the Londoner, who claims to have no confidence issues outside of the sport. “I’d tell myself I was rubbish and that caused a lot of problems in races: I’d fall apart, I’d be terrified of getting on the start line.
“If you’re in a pack and you start to feel them pulling away from you, all of a sudden you have no urge to fight whatsoever. It’s just an automatic decision in your head: ‘I’m rubbish, awful.’
“You succumb to it and automatically slow down. That affected me quite a lot.”
Trying to analyse the root of the problem, he adds: “As a junior, everything went my way. In races I could do whatever I wanted, when I wanted and still get a good result.
“But, as a senior, it’s a bit different and, when people pull away from you, it’s, ‘I’m no good, I shouldn’t be here’. You get into a cycle of trying to prove things and, when it doesn’t work out, it reinforces the thought that you are terrible. It was a vicious cycle.”
So bad was the situation that he says: “I think this year has been one of the first when I haven’t thought about quitting [the sport]. It was the repetitive situation where I thought, ‘You’re no good at this, so why carry on?’”
So what led to the radical change? “Training with Craig and with the group, I’ve become more confident and more comfortable in racing situations. That’s been the big difference.
“Physically there was nothing wrong with me, but I just didn’t have the faith in myself and that’s what happens – you can’t handle it in races.”
The new-found self-assurance was seen at the Müller Indoor Grand Prix in Birmingham in February. There, in front of thousands of spectators and a national television audience, he lined up with the likes of Mo Farah and Olympic seventh-placer Albert Rop over 5000m.
“Physically there was nothing wrong with me, but I just didn’t have the faith in myself and that’s what happens – you can’t handle it in races”
Goolab confused many onlookers when, a few laps in, he passed Farah and sprinted off well ahead of the group. He was in fact chasing the European Indoor Championships 3000m qualifying standard of 7:53.00 and timekeepers were at the ready at the interim point.
Although he was 0.82 seconds outside, his four-second PB proved to be enough for the selectors as he was inside the organisers’ standard.
It was a big moment for Goolab. He says: “The 3km in Birmingham really changed the way that I look at myself. When I was in that company I felt really comfortable.
“Up until when I had to start sprinting, I was feeling pretty good and I was thinking, ‘I could actually maybe try and carry on to 5km’. That was the turning point when I thought I’d like to try a 5km in the summer.”
Moving on to Belgium he knew he was in good shape, having won the 3000m at the Loughborough International in May in 7:57.64. However, of racing the distance seriously for the first time, he admits: “I didn’t know what to expect. I just wanted to go through 3km in eight minutes-ish.”
Going through in 8:02, the maths graduate had no problem in working out he was on target to be within a second of the qualifying time for London 2017 (13:22.60).
“I thought, ‘Yes, it’s going to happen’,” he recalls. “But my next lap was 66 and I thought, ‘You’re over, just get to the finish’.”
He held himself together well, though, and his time puts him third on the UK rankings for this year behind Farah and Andy Butchart.
However, making up those 11 seconds required will be difficult because of a lack of suitable 5000m races, concedes Goolab.
“Craig’s looked around and there isn’t anything before the deadline (July 9), so realistically it’s probably not going to happen. But for me just to know that I can go through 3km in eight minutes and not fall apart is a big step and gives me a lot of encouragement for future 5000s.”
One other big thing has changed for the former British Universities cross country champion: whisper it quietly, but he believes giving up the mud has been a positive ingredient in his improvement.
Flying in the face of comments from several greats of years gone by such as Seb Coe, he says: “I found, when I was running well over cross country, you’d run well from October to March and by the time the track season comes around you’re finished, tired, no wheels, no pace. I thought, ‘What do I want? Do I want a future in cross-country running or the track? I thought I’d focus on one.”
It was in cross country that he first found most of his early success, although he was not instantly a hit on the national scene.
He started running after doing a ‘bleep’ test at school, reaching level 12 as an 11-year-old. It was this that led to his teacher putting him into a local cross country event where he placed fourth. He was spotted there by his first club, Ealing, Southall and Middlesex.
“I wasn’t that good as a kid, just because I didn’t taking the training very seriously,” he says. “It wasn’t until I turned 16 I started doing more training and started to improve quite a bit.”
Of course, now the training isn’t a problem – despite having to fit in his maths tutoring work around it. His lessons surely do not contain any trickier equations to solve than the apparent mystery of his own lack of improvement until this year. However, it seems he has finally found the formula for success.
» This interview was first published in the June 8 edition of AW magazine, which is available to buy and read digitally here and includes Nick Goolab’s training diary