Above: James Preston running a New Zeaand under 20 record in the 800m at the 2016 World Under 20 Championships in Poland. Photo by Joosep Markesen / Getty Images.
Promising middle-distance talent James Preston has re-emerged to the competitive arena following an injury-riddled 2017. Here the Wellington-based two-lap athlete tells Steve Landells about his difficult journey and why he now believes he is a much-improved athlete.
Twenty months have passed since James Preston smashed the national junior 800m record at the IAAF World U20 Championships in Poland but the transformation he has undergone into a more professional runner during that period is light years apart.
Long-term injury plagued his development during a challenging 2017 but following an overhaul of his conditioning programme and overall approach to the sport a new athlete has emerged and 20-year-old goes into the New Zealand Championships which begin in Hamilton tomorrow optimistic of a prominent showing.
It was back in 2016 when James Preston, a former hockey player, emerged on to the scene as a middle-distance runner of some promise. After slashing three seconds from his 800m PB and attaining a World U20 qualification mark at the Porritt Classic in Hamilton he later excelled inside the Zdzislaw Krzyskowiak Stadium in Bydgoszcz to smash Jason Stewart’s national under 20 record to record 1:48.06 and finish seventh in a high-class semi-final.
My goal was to reach the final (in Poland) but I knew that was always going to be a tall order, especially given the quality of my semi-final,” he explains. “It was a very good learning experience to race against the best. As a measure of the quality of my semi-final I was up against Mostafa Smaili, who reached the World Indoor 800m final earlier this month and Andreas Kramer of Sweden, a European U23 gold medallist. It was cool to put myself up against guys of that calibre.”
Lighting a fire inside the Wellington Harrier AC athlete after a short break he returned to training later in 2016 highly motivated to prove his breakthrough year had not been a “one-off.”
Under the guidance of his coach Evan Cooper he was optimistic he could make his mark during the 2017 domestic campaign only to suffering a stress reaction to his left foot which was later diagnosed as a stress fracture, which was to bring an abrupt end to his competitive ambitions for the year.
“Personally it was frustrating,” he explains. “I think maybe I had trained a little too hard and my body couldn’t quite handle what I was throwing at it. I was also probably a bit naïve at the time in terms of what I needed to do to keep my body fit and healthy.”
It was a long road back to full recovery as he was sidelined for 17 weeks with the stress fracture. With weeks of “mind-numbingly boring” aqua-jogging and “super boring” work on the stationary bike the experience was not something he would wish to repeat in a hurry.
After undergoing an extensive run/walk programme he finally returned to full training in September/October as he sought a prominent showing during the 2018 domestic campaign.
Eight to nine months on the sidelines was a tough period for the Victoria University Building Science student but thanks to a combination of his coach, Evan, his parents and the support of Athletics NZ endurance coach Steve Willis – who helped “bind together” a team of medics around James – he has returned a stronger and wiser athlete.
“In terms of my running the bare bones of my training programme has remained the same – in that I run six times a week and carry out three workouts. However, where things have changed is that I now have a strength and conditioning coach – which I didn’t have prior to being injured - and I also work daily on prehab exercises with are set by my physio, Tim Dovbysh (and formerly overseen by Gill Stotter)
Carrying out “two to three times sessions a week” with a strength and conditioning coach Cameron Durno and with the additional input of regular pre-hab exercises has allowed James to strengthen the hip flexor and glute strength and several other areas – all of which has allowed to better withstand the stresses of training.
As has also further tapped into the benefits of being a part of the Pathway To Podium (P2P) programme and with the help of Athletics NZ High Performance Athlete Development Lead Tim Driesen has looked at other ways of improving has an athlete. He has sought nutritional advice and has become fascinated with improving his mental skills after working with HPSNZ sports psychologist Campbell Thompson.
“Once you go into sports psychology with an open mind there are many benefits,” he says. “It is not just about overcoming your nerves on a race day but also how to maximise your training. I think sports psychology is a hugely overlooked part of the sport.”
James also received another boost in 2017 after he and two dozen other young athletes from the Sport Wellington Performance Hub were given the opportunity to share some of Sir Peter Snell’s life-lessons during his visit to Te Papa museum for the unveiling of his personal Olympic memorabilia.
It was a great thrill for the former Scots College student to meet Sir Peter, the three-time former Olympic middle-distance champion, and he recalls one anecdote the Kiwi sporting icon told that day which matched his own experiences.
“He said that like me he too was a late starter to the sport and he didn’t believe in specialisation,” explains James, who only took up athletics seriously at 17 and was a former representative hockey player for Wellington.
Following the enforced 17-month competitive break, James finally returned to the competitive arena in January, where he claimed 800m victory in Whanganui (1:51.05) followed by success in Hastings (1:52.58). However, in his most recent 800m outing in Hamilton at the Porritt Classic he had to settle for second in 1:52.24 behind Michael Dawson.
So how would he assess his 800m return?
“It was tough coming back into racing and we were probably expecting a bit more,” he adds. “But it is a new style of racing for me. I always like to run in the middle of the pack and come home hard but in these races. it was more about taking it out from the front.”
In his last appearance over 1500m he hits his straps by hitting his pacing aim of 61-second laps for the first three laps to destroy his previous 1500m best by more than four-and-a-half seconds to record 3:46.60 at the Distance Carnival at AUT Millennium.
While still prioritising the 800m he has entered both the two-lap event and 1500m at the New Zealand Track & Field Championships which begin in Hamilton tomorrow. Facing strong fields in both events including the likes of Commonwealth Games-bound Brad Mathas, who seeks a seventh New Zealand 800m title, and five-time former 1500m champion Hamish Carson in the metric mile will not be easy, but the Wellingtonian has a very simple ambition.
“I just hope to go out there and execute my plans to the best of my ability because I am up against some very solid competition,” he explains. “If I achieve this I will be happy with the outcome.”
Beyond this domestic season, James intends to spend six weeks based in Belgium with the Athletics NZ endurance hub hopes where he is looking forward to being exposed to some top-quality opposition in Europe and to run some quick times.
However, in the longer-term he has some bigger goals. “I’m looking at the 2019 World Championships (in Doha) and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics,” he says. “It is a hard goal, but I think it is attainable if I do everything correctly and stay healthy.”
With what he has learned during a difficult period in the sport, don’t bet against it!