Above: Jake Robertson leading the Commonwealth Games 10,000m final in the early stages of the race. Photo by Alisha Lovrich / Temposhot.
Jake Robertson has come off the back of the best period in his career. Steve Landells chats the Kiwi distance running star about his marathon debut, setting national records and competing at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games.
Sometimes athletics is such a simple sport. Work on a dedicated pre-hab programme, set up a smart medical support network, eat the right foods, devote yourself to adequate requisite rest and stick to the training plan and success will follow.
This has certainly been the approach of Jake Robertson, who after several years of injury struggles has put together the best six weeks of his career with two national records (in 10,000m and marathon) as well as matching the New Zealand half-marathon record of his twin brother Zane.
Since finishing ninth and seventh over 5000m and 10,000m at the 2014 Commonwealth Games, Jake’s career was derailed by a succession of injuries. In 2015 he completed only one race - when winning the New Zealand 5000m title - on a rare trip back to the land of his birth from his adopted homeland of Kenya. In 2016 he did not muster one competitive performance as injuries continued to take their grip.
Something needed to change. Always a curious learner, Jake connected with UK-based Professor Nick Webborn to install an effective daily pre-hab routine of stretching and activation work. Starting the programme in late-2016 he put together an injury-free stint of training and triumphed in the 2017 Lisbon Half Marathon in a personal best of 60:01.
“Since I have started the pre-hab, it has kept the injuries away and improved my mobility,” he says. “It took some time to get used to but the longer I have done it, the more my body has responded.”
On top of this and to keep his body in tune he undergoes twice-weekly massage sessions with the help of Spanish physio Marc Roig, who works with some of the leading Kenyan runners including the world’s number one marathoner Eliud Kipchoge.
With a healthy body, the self-coached Jake has been able to fully implement his training plan. Leading a group in Iten of around eight to ten athletes he believes the marathon training in the countdown to his 42.2km debut at Lake Biwa in Japan could not have gone better.
“You have to be confident in the decisions you make,” says Jake, who draws his training expertise from a range of sources. “The weather in Kenya (which is very rainy) means you have to be flexible and you have to change your schedule to fit. I never believe I know everything when it comes to training. I’m always learning from others.”
Two particular training sessions proved key in preparing for the marathoner. One was his fortnightly 40km run – which has completed at an altitude of more than 2000m in 2:13.
The other was a 5x3km session with a 1km recovery. Each rep was completed in between 8:30-8:50 with the 1km recovery at a rapid pace of between 3:10-3:30.
Intending to make his marathon debut in December in Fukuoka, Japan his plans changed after an unfortunate incident when moving from his rental apartment to a new home in Iten.
“About three weeks before (Fukuoka Marathon) I dropped a cabinet which slid on my Achilles, which caused a problem to flare up,” he explains. “Having ten days off so close to the marathon was not how I wanted to debut, so I made the call not to compete.”
Instead he put in place a new plan to compete at the Houston Half-marathon in January which he won by equalling his personal best of 60:01 before preparing for the Lake Biwa Marathon in Japan in early March.
Lifted by his performance in Texas he was disappointed to face hot conditions of 19c for the noon start of the Lake Biwa Marathon – which he says impacted on the speed of the run.
He crossed the finish line third in a time of 2:08:26 to smash Rod Dixon’s 35-year-old national record but expressed mixed emotions with the performance.
“I made some tactical errors between 32-35km and around 37km I hit a bit of a wall,” he says. “I tried to maintain the pace between 32-35km, but they (the Kenyan duo of Joseph Ndirangu and Albert Korir who finished first and second) were content to sit on me instead of sharing the pace. I then started swerving to get them off my back but that is too aggressive in the marathon and it wasted energy.
“I was satisfied to finish the race on my debut in what might be considered a respectable time, but I wasn’t happy to finish third. I only became aware of the New Zealand record about 30 minutes after the race. To be honest, I hadn’t thought too much about it because I was aiming to set a time relevant for this day and age.”
He opted to return to the track in the 10,000m at the Commonwealth Games but was unsure of how he would recover from his marathon exertions.
Adopting a thoroughly professional approach to recovery, he rested for three days post-Lake Biwa before re-starting jogging. At the end of March he proved he had bounced back well from his marathon debut by racing to victory in the 10km Crescent City Classic in New Orleans to match his twin brother Zane’s national record for the distance of 27:28.
Maintaining a strict diet despite the temptations of food available in the Games Village he was nonetheless “mentally tired” on the day of the 10,000m final in Gold Coast.
For much of the race he was in the mix for a medal only to be outgunned on the final two laps, where had to settle for fifth – albeit by chipping 2.77secs from his sibling’s national record – to record 27:30.90.
“I had mixed emotions,” he says of his display in Australia. “I knew I’d held on to something respectable (since the marathon) and I first knew I had broken Zane’s record in the mixed zone, which was great. Yet I felt I could have given more. When they (the opposition) went for it with two laps to go, I maybe felt I could have run two of them down for a bronze medal. I made up some of the gap on the final lap but because everyone was travelling at the same speed over the last 200m, I couldn’t catch them.”
Celebrating post-race with a spicy chicken pizza in the Games Village he is now looking forward to taking some time off by flying out to New Zealand for the first time since 2015 with his fiancée Magdalene Masai before plotting the second phase of his year, which he hopes will include another marathon.
“I have a few options available to me, and I am looking at the marathon majors of Chicago, New York or Berlin,” he adds. “If Berlin is not possible, then I’ll maybe race the Great North Run (half-marathon) again.
“I’m still only aged 28, so I feel I have many more years left in the marathon,” he says. “I think over time it will be the event I will be best at, although I still haven’t pushed my limits in the half marathon.”