13 May Centre Stage /// James Wilkinson ready for his breakthrough year

Despite opening his season with a 5000m PB and a sound steeplechase performance at the Mt SAC Relays and Payton Jordan Invitational a couple of weeks ago, James Wilkinson left the US not completely satisfied with the way things had panned out.

Though generally happy with his performances across the pond, the GB international’s modest appraisal of his races hints at the belief that there’s a lot more to come this year.

Over the past few years I’ve ran at a good standard but I’ve not made that breakthrough to senior international championships. The positives are that it’s a fairly good opener and there are some clear things to work on.

Wilkinson’s early opener came off the back of a pretty successful winter. Pre-Christmas, the Leeds City man grabbed a medal at the European XC Championships for the second successive year, taking bronze in the U23 category.

2013 got off to a good start with a 7:57 for 3k indoors at the Birmingham Grand Prix in February followed by an impressive 7th in tough conditions at the English National XC in Sunderland just one week later. Wilkinson chose not to be considered for the World XC after his eighth place finish at the trials in mid-March and instead turned his attentions towards his US venture.

The Mt SAC Relays on April 19th – billed as ‘where the world’s best athletes compete’ – was a resounding success. Running in the 5000m, James left with a huge twelve second PB and dipped with seeming ease under the fourteen minute mark for the first time.

During the 5k I felt great for the majority of the race. I felt like I’d ran a smart race until about three laps to go. From here I faded and lost ten seconds or so from the front. This was a bit of them speeding up and also me slowing a little. I knew that this was how the race would go; however I couldn’t do anything about it! Frustrating but a PB boded well enough for the steeplechase.

With a 13:52.63 in the bag, Wilkinson quite rightly thought his 3k steeplechase best could be bettered at the Payton Jordan Invitational on April 28th. Unfortunately, though the race panned out similarly, the result was not quite to the same PB proportions as nine days before.

The steeplechase was more disappointing. I never got involved as I would have liked and as a result I was always just off the front guys. This made it difficult to respond to any moves and as a result I had a similar situation as the 5k, the front sped up and I slowed down. The races were ok, not exactly what I wanted but a decent start to my season.

Although the US has become a popular destination for many British athletes, Wilko’s only previous experience of the States was on a family holiday ten years ago.

James regretted not going out to Mt SAC or Stanford last spring to have a go at running the qualifying standards for London 2012. After struggling to get into the real high quality races necessary to put himself in the frame for a home Olympics, Wilkinson and his coach Phillip Townsend decided they wouldn’t make the same mistake twice and so got in touch with some fellow Brits this year to work out the feasibility of a trip to the States.

Over the winter I’d been talking to quite a few different people about going out to the USA to race. Eventually I managed to sort out tagging onto a trip, which Jonny Mellor and some other Liverpool Harriers had organised. This was a huge help; it made the trip much more enjoyable and cost effective.

Wilkinson’s first dip of the toe across the pond proved to be a successful and educational experience from a personal perspective and he also came back with tips that UK meets would do well to take on board.

I had heard a lot about how good the races were and they certainly lived up to their reputation. The meetings are setup so that you have every chance to run fast. It does help that the weather and conditions are perfect. The main difference, which I think we could learn a lot from, is running the main (‘A’) races at the end of the meeting. This gives the best opportunity for ideal conditions as well as slowly building the atmosphere to the highest quality races at the end of the meeting.

2012 was a learning curve for Wilkinson. He ended the year 4th in the UK steeplechase rankings and finished 8th in his semi-final at the European Athletics Championships in June.

With the success he has already enjoyed over the winter, the subtle changes he and his coach have made to his training are already bearing fruit.

We are always trying to analyse my training and races both throughout the season, as well as after the season has finished. We haven’t made any drastic changes; it has been more steeplechase-specific changes (ie hurdling) and then some longer term changes. These have been more to do with my tempo/threshold running and longer distance work.

The small changes seem to be making all the difference at the moment as James continues his progression towards qualification for a senior international track championship.

The twenty year old’s current 3k steeplechase best is 8:34 and with the World Championships standards set at 8:26/8:32, James is determined to take down his PB further and make the plane to Moscow in three months’ time.

Qualification for the World Championships is definitely still the aim this year. As I’ve mentioned, I’ve had a few years where I haven’t knocked as much time off my PB as I would have liked. Hopefully this season is going to prove to be the breakthrough year.

By Chris Rainsford