What Does It Take To Win World XC? A Lot Of Miles
By Jonathan Gault
May 21, 2015
Two months ago when LetsRun.com’s Robert Johnson was at the World Cross-Country Championships in Guiyang, China, Sonia O’Sullivan gave him a copy of her training log from March 1998 – the month leading up to her double victory at World Cross-Country Championships in Marrakech, Morocco that year. With spring marathon season, the World Relays, big domestic track meets such as the Penn/Drake Relays, the Payton Jordan Invitational, and the start of the Diamond League season, we haven’t had time to focus on anything outside of races recently. With some downtime this week before the schedule ramps up again, we thought we’d share this neat document with you and some inside details about O’Sullivan’s wins.
Shooting for a return to the top
O’Sullivan, an Irishwoman who attended Villanova, spent the early 1990s establishing herself as one of the best distance runners on planet Earth. During her time at Villanova, she won five NCAA titles and set the world indoor record for 5,000 meters in 1991 (15:17.28). By August 1995, the 25-year-old O’Sullivan was on top of the world, setting a meet record of 14:46.47 to win the 5,000 at the World Championships in Gothenburg.
O’Sullivan entered 1996 as the favorite for gold at the Atlanta Olympics, and though she entered the Olympics unbeaten on the year, she battled an upset stomach on the day of the 5,000 final and failed to finish the race. Three days later, she was 10th in her 1500 heat and failed to advance to the final. The meet was a “complete failure,” according to O’Sullivan.
The next year, she took a step in the right direction by taking silver in the 3,000 at World Indoors, but again she disappointed in the championship portion of the outdoor season, finishing eighth in the 1500 final after a poor tactical race and failing to qualify for the final in the 5,000, an event she had won in dominant fashion just two years earlier. She was so upset after her 1500 race that she began to cry in the mixed zone following the race.
“I was trying really hard in 1997 to prove that I was still a world-class athlete,” O’Sullivan said. “I changed coaches (from her agent Kim McDonald to Alan Storey) and wasn’t really communicating properly with my manager so there was lots of tension in the air and when there is tension it’s hard to relax and you need relaxation and confidence in the team around you to be able to run fast and compete.”
O’Sullivan’s Reebok contract expired at the end of 1997 and with her stock trending downward, she was left with a choice: take a one-year, guaranteed payment offer from adidas, or a two-year deal from Nike that offered less money guaranteed but several lucrative performance bonuses. O’Sullivan bet on herself and took the Nike deal.
“I wanted to earn my payment and not be rewarded until I felt I deserved to be paid again as a professional athlete,” O’Sullivan said. “I knew I was training well and truly believed that I could be the best in the world once again and challenge for a medal at the Olympics in Sydney 2000, which would be my third Olympic games (she wound up taking silver in the 5,000).”
With a new contract in hand but no global track championships in 1998, O’Sullivan and Storey circled the World Cross Country Championships — scheduled for March 21-22 in Marrakesh, Morocco — on their calendars as the race O’Sullivan would focus on. A win there would prove that the 28-year-old O’Sullivan remained a global force.
But first, O’Sullivan had to decide which race she was going to run. Since the first IAAF World Cross Country Championships in 1973, there had only been two races: the men’s race and the women’s race. It was beautifully simple: throw the world’s best distance runners, from 1500 meters to the marathon, in the same race, and the winner could lay claim to the title of Greatest Runner Alive.
However, in 1998 the IAAF announced that it would be shifting to a four-race format, with short and long races for each gender (for the women, the distances would be 4k and 8k). In January, O’Sullivan was training at altitude in Falls Creek in Australia’s Victorian Alps with a group of athletes that included Steve Moneghetti and Lee Troop when she received a call from Storey. O’Sullivan had just put in her first-ever week at altitude, and Storey wanted to find out how she was adjusting. But he also wanted to discuss which race she would run at World XC. O’Sullivan was still debating between the two when Storey told her on the phone that day that “everyone knows the real race is the long course.”
That settled things.
“Without any discussion, I wasn’t going to argue with that statement: I was running the long race,” O’Sullivan said. “So once my mind was made up, then I was focused on the long race.”
O’Sullivan’s buildup included several weeks of 100+ miles, climbing as high as 118 during the first week of March, though in reality, that total was probably a little low. O’Sullivan calculated her mileage based on 7:00/mile pace on her easy days, though Storey estimated that O’Sullivan’s easy pace was closer to 6:30/mile. Her goal in any buildup was always to get to 100 miles per week and then focus on running those miles more efficiently. By the end of the cycle, 100-mile weeks were “routine and became easy to me.”
Her high-mileage approach had been born just over four years earlier after the 1993 World Championships in Stuggart, where Chinese women (now strongly suspected of using performance-enhancing drugs) swept the 1500, 3,000 and 10,000 titles, going 1-2-3 in the 3,000. A month later, China’s Wang Junxia smashed the world records at 3,000 (8:06.11) and 10,000 (29:31.78) while countrywoman Qu Yunxia claimed the 1500 world record, running 3:50.46. Having been denied two gold medals by the Chinese (O’Sullivan was second in the 1500 and fourth in the 3,000) and hearing rumors that her Chinese foes were logging as much as 160 miles per week, O’Sullivan realized that she needed to increase her volume and settled on 100 as a good number to aim for.
As the calendar turned to March, everything was falling into place. O’Sullivan’s tuneup races had gone well — an 8:45 3,000 on February 21 in Auckland in a race she won by 200 meters, followed by a 15:03 5,000 victory four days later in Melbourne — and her workouts were going well, as evidenced by the “felt good” comments sprinkled throughout the first two weeks of March. Perhaps most importantly, she and Storey had developed the rhythm that they previously had lacked. One of the secretly difficult things about being a professional runner is being able to completely place your faith in your coach. It’s especially difficult for athletes such as O’Sullivan, who have enjoyed tremendous success in the past under different coaches.
“Alan Storey started coaching me towards the end of 1996,” O’Sullivan said. “In 1997, we were getting used to this coaching arrangement and after an unsuccessful World Championships, I agreed to listen more to Alan and put behind me what I used to do before rather than complicating things by referring back to my earlier training methods.”
Back at sea level in Australia, O’Sullivan completed a session of 10×800 with 30 seconds’ rest averaging 2:31 on March 3 and knew afterwards that she was in great shape.
“My confidence was pretty high after this session,” O’Sullivan said. “I couldn’t believe how relaxed I was and how easy the session felt.”
She also incorporated two gym sessions that week — a staple of her regimen — which consisted of a 5-kilogram dumbbell routine featuring lots of sit-up and body weight exercises. On gym days, O’Sullivan would conclude her easy run at the gym, work out for 30-40 minutes and finish off by running home, which took about 20 minutes.
On March 12, O’Sullivan traveled to London, her training base for most of the year.
“In London, I trained with Alan Storey’s group at Kingsmeadow track,” O’Sullivan said. “It was an eclectic group of runners, including Gary Staines, Rob Denmark, Dave Heath, Anthony Whiteman and many club runners who worked all day but we all met at the track at 7 p.m. for the most important session of the week. It was a very relaxed group. We ran around the roads, and mixed with the various levels of athlete, as no doubt we would always fragment into different groups as the session went on. I was a full-time athlete but I waited until 7 p.m. at night because I would never get the same session done by myself in the daytime. (I) really enjoyed the group training and the less intense approach due to the mix of athletes that turned up every Tuesday evening.”
Those Tuesday sessions were always an adventure as Storey wouldn’t tell his athletes what the day’s workout would be until they had finished their warmups. On Tuesday, March 17, 1998, it happened to be 6×800 with 30 seconds’ rest, followed by 2×800 (with more rest) and 4×200. The workout showed that O’Sullivan was fit, as she ran between 2:26-2:30 for the first set of 800, 2:16 and 2:18 on the second set and averaged 31 seconds on the 200s. But more than that, it was evidence of just how strong O’Sullivan was at that point — and how little of a taper she required. World XC was only four days away (she wound up running 87 miles the week of the race) and yet O’Sullivan had no problem running a workout with 4.5 miles of volume — and this was in addition to a 42-minute run that morning. Even the day before the race, O’Sullivan was still logging mileage, running for 40 minutes in the morning and supplementing it with 20 minutes in the evening for a total of nine miles.
A Historic Sweep
African runners had claimed the last four World XC titles on the women’s side and with hot temperatures on race day, many expected that streak to continue. The conditions didn’t faze O’Sullivan, however, she had spent the winter (Australian summer) training Down Under, so she was accustomed to running in the heat.
Even with all those miles of base training, O’Sullivan still had terrific speed (3:58.85 1500 pb) and left it to the rest of the field to drop her, knowing that she could prevail in a kick.
“In the long race, the main thing for me was to keep up and stay relaxed for as long as possible, and when I felt I was still strong and ready to push hard while others started to drop off I would make my final move and sprint as fast as I could to the finish,” O’Sullivan said. “When the finish line was in sight, there was just myself, Paula [Radcliffe] and Gete Wami remaining, I was confident of outsprinting both the closer we got to the finish line. As we turned the corner, an official directed us back to run another lap of the course rather than run in to the finishing straight. I started my sprint as I was confident it was the last lap — we heard the bell and I hadn’t miscounted — so I sprinted parallel to the finishing straight remembering from my jog on the course the night before that there was a little gap in the fence just before the finish line. I nipped through the gap and everyone followed me.”
Just as she had planned, O’Sullivan sprinted away from the competition to win the 8k race in 25:39, three seconds ahead of Radcliffe in second. The win was special for O’Sullivan, even more so than her world title on the track in Gothenburg three years earlier, which she viewed as more of a formality than anything else given her fitness.
“I had really been through a roller coaster the previous two years, so to be able to get back out and transform the form I knew I had in training to winning a World Championship race was so satisfying and gave me a lot of confidence ahead of the European track season. I knew I was back and ready to be a factor on the track again.”
And that was that. O’Sullivan went back to her hotel and was basking in the glow of victory while lounging around the pool with McDonald and American Bob Kennedy. Both were under the impression that she was running the next day’s 4k race and even though O’Sullivan had no plans to do so, once the thought got in her mind, it seemed like an appealing option. Her name had been on the start list anyway, so she quickly informed Athletics Ireland not to scratch her. The double attempt was on.
There were a few obstacles before she could get to the start line, however. She had to wash out her Jasaris, which were still muddy from that morning’s race, and had to wash her sweaty singlet as well. Additionally, in the post-race excitement following her victory, O’Sullivan had left her phone in the call-room tent and had no way of getting in contact with Storey. On the walk to the course the next morning, McDonald let her borrow his phone and she was finally able to call Storey, who voiced his concern. Storey was worried that the confidence O’Sullivan had earned the day before — which had taken two years to rebuild — might be thrown away by a disappointing performance in the 4k race. O’Sullivan assured him that that was not the way she was approaching the race, likening it to a tennis player who wins the singles tournament and enters the doubles competition as a bonus.
“I assured him no matter what the result I would accept it and not be disappointed as I felt I there was no one in the race I couldn’t at least keep up with and I couldn’t tell how I would feel until actually back in the race again.”
After she was dropped just 800 meters into the race, it looked like O’Sullivan might have made a mistake.
“A slight panic set in,” O’Sullivan said. “‘Did I make the right decision?’ Then I realized this was a tactic to scare me. I had to relax and realize this pace could not be maintained by Anita Weyermann (Switzerland) and Kutre Dulecha (Ethiopia).”
Regaining her confidence, O’Sullivan led the chase pack and caught Weyermann and Dulecha at the 3k mark. Sensing that they were tiring, O’Sullivan blew right by them rather than waiting until the end to sprint away and wound up winning the short race by 14 seconds (she ran 12:20 to runner-up Zahra Ouaziz‘s 12:34). She had become the first person to sweep the long/short races at World XC; in the nine years of the long/short format, Tirunesh Dibaba is the only other woman to accomplish the feat.
Despite two World Championship races in two days, O’Sullivan’s work wasn’t done after the race on Sunday morning. After a short cooldown with McDonald after the race, she went for a 50-minute run later that day to calm herself down. Winning both races made O’Sullivan a woman in demand and taking some time to run by herself allowed her to relax. Running as relaxation was to become a theme over the next few weeks as O’Sullivan’s schedule was suddenly very hectic.
After the race, she traveled to Ireland to celebrate her victory with her friends and family and from there flew to Portland to be feted as Nike’s newest world champion. Then it was off to Stanford to check out a training camp run by McDonald before flying to Philadelphia to spend some time with friends from her Villanova days. O’Sullivan’s mileage didn’t suffer at all despite flying over 9,000 miles in two weeks, running 101 the week after the race (!!!) and 95 the week after that.
“I was really excited to be the World Cross Country champion, so was on a bit of a high so couldn’t stop running,” O’Sullivan said. “Because I was running easy and relaxed it didn’t feel like training hard. I was just enjoying running …I’m sure at the time I was also relaxed with my diet, so enjoying some desserts and foods that I would have restricted during the previous months’ training, so in a way I felt I was on a rest as mentally I wasn’t training hard.”
- O’Sullivan on the lack of tempos in her buildup: “At that time, tempos were not a huge part of my training. I added more tempo runs in after 2000 when I started to run some half marathons and experimented a little with the marathon.”
- On tapering: “I often ran [back to the hotel] from track races all over Europe to supplement the taper and easy few days before a race, as if you are continually tapering when running races throughout the summer season, then the fitness levels gradually start to decrease. It was always a challenge to work out the route back to hotel from stadiums all over Europe and then try to recruit other athletes to join me on the run home.”
- On the state of World XC: “The World Cross Country is definitely not what it used to be, there is so much domination by African athletes that many European athletes have been scared away. It’s hard to line up in a race if you don’t believe you can be competitive and then when you are there without a team it can be a lonely place and athletes can easily lose heart in what they are trying to achieve.
“America and Australia and Great Britain until this year are a few of the non-African countries to maintain the commitment and belief in cross country running, particularly at world level. European countries need to reassess how they treat the World Cross Country and get back to supporting this event. It’s at the perfect time in the year to point winter training towards and test yourself against the best and push beyond any limits you will ever experience in training. I think the team aspect is really important to encourage athletes who may not believe they can achieve World Championship qualifying standards. It gives them the chance to represent [their] country, run at the World Championships and be inspired to aspire to greater things that you will never do if you don’t get to experience this level of competition. It also helps build the depth and quality of distance running standards in each country.”
- On the changes she’d make to World XC: “I think one way to improve the number of countries competing is to incorporate a continental cup within the World Cross Country where athletes run for their own country but continental teams are also selected with only one representative per country allowed on the continental team. This would give incentive to athletes from countries not sending full teams to be a part of a team and reason to run their best. An athlete can count on their country and continental team if their country sends a team. There should be prize money for these teams also to increase the incentive as often athletes may weigh up financial gains and losses by running WXC.
“The key thing is to recreate the desire of athletes to want to run in the WXC and see the value it leads to later in the season. The important thing is the love of sport shines through this simplest form of the sport that is strong in many countries at primary and secondary school levels around the world and to help with the continuation of cross country at senior level to help improve the importance of the WXC in an athlete’s year.”
During her illustrious career, Sonia O’Sullivan set PBs of 2:00.69 for 800, 2:34.66 for 1000, 3:58.85 for 1500, 4:17.25 for the mile, 5:25.36 for 2000 (still the WR), 8:21.64 for 3k, 9:19.56 for 2 miles, 14:41.02 for 5000, 30:47.59 for 10,000, 67:19 for 13.1 and 2:29:01 for 26.2. She still is the Irish record holder at at every distance from 1k through the half-marathon. While in college at Villanova, she was a 5-time NCAA individual champ (XC in 1991 and 1992, 3000 indoors and out in 1990, indoor 5000 in 1991). In addition to her two world xc titles, she also won an Olympic silver in the 5000 in 2000, and was the world champion in the 5000 in 1995 as well as silver medallist in the 1500 in 1993. She also was three time European champion and two-time European silver medallist.