It is easy to see 2021 as a breakout year for Luke Duffy. A senior GB vest, Euro-Cross relay gold, three second personal bests in both the 800 (1.49.56) and 1500m (3.42.33). By most standards it was an impressive jump. But when you put it in context it suggests there’s plenty left to come.
For three-quarters of 2021 Luke had no coach. The passing of George Gandy in October 2020 left the Loughborough Head of Endurance position vacant for more than a year.
“I ended up waiting and saying whoever they hire (as Head of Endurance) I’m going to get them to coach me but they never hired anyone. I ended up doing the group sessions which were literally just Gandy’s sessions. Gandy was coaching me from beyond the grave. And doing my own runs and tempos and race prep which didn’t really work. It only really worked in that I was running a lot.
I ended up peaking at random times, having a really good run one week and a rubbish one the next. I managed to pb over everything but I didn’t have as big a year as I would have liked.”
“I’d rather be exceptional at one event than good at loads.”
Luke knew finding the right fit in a coach was crucial:
“I’m probably quite difficult to coach if you’re more laid-back. The coaches I’ve had in the past that have worked for me have always been strong characters which I respected quite a lot. I took their opinion very seriously.”
Luke’s housemate is his long-time Midlands rival Josh Lay, who in early 2021 started training under Matt Yates and the Run Yard group. Other members include Dan Rowden, Ossama Meslek, Sean Molloy and Yusuf Bizimana (when back from the States).
Luke remembers Josh linking up with Matt:
“Josh was really banged up at the time he went to Matt. He was injured the whole winter. I saw it worked for him. Josh ran 3.56 for the mile off probably five weeks training.”
Matt decided that Luke could be someone who would fit well in the Run Yard group and after a few conversations the pair began working together in October 2021.
Luke noted some clear immediate changes to his training:
“Before, in 2021 and 2020, it’s been plenty of easy running, a session Tuesday that isn’t necessarily that hard just high volume. Tempo Thursday, grass session Saturday, long run Sunday. Repeat that every seven days.
Matt doesn’t really see it like that. He doesn’t really work in seven-day cycles. There are sessions that are there every week. Tuesday will always be a session but then it will be either Thursday or Friday or sometimes a double session Friday.
In between it wouldn’t necessarily be loads of easy double running. It might be an easy run and then a bike or a cross trainer and stuff like that. He’ll throw bike sessions in there and obviously gym. That’s been a lot different. A lot more specific to 1500m running.
I’ve noticed this past few weeks there’s many different ways to skin a cat. You don’t have to go and run a 100-mile a week and do these sessions, do this thing. There’s plenty of other ways to do it.”
A changed mindset
The biggest change for Luke, however, hasn’t been physical:
“Another massive difference I’ve noticed is around racing, race day, the lead up to races. There’s a clear view of what needs to be done in the race. You can visualize it and in the race you can be more present if you have a plan.
Last season I’d be on the start line thinking I’m going to sit in the pack and get round and hopefully I’ll run a certain time. We went to Liverpool for the European Cross-Country trial. We walked the course on the day and he took me through every part of the course. What we needed to do on every exact part of the course.
It took a lot of pressure off myself. Let me just tick the boxes of the goals I’ve set for the whole race. Move up at a certain point, at this position. It took the mental side out of it really.”
“No-one’s had that kind of faith in me.”
Luke notes his training prior to Liverpool wasn’t exceptional.
“The times I was doing weren’t necessarily amazing. But to have Matt who had such faith in me. “You should make the top two, we’re going to try and win it”.
No-ones had that kind of faith in me in the past and therefore I haven’t had the faith in myself. Running’s very mental so if you have faith in yourself it can be the extra 1% you need.”
Luke finished second, booking his place in Dublin but after a brief hug it was back to business. He remembers Matt’s instructions:
“Put your trainers on and go and do some strides up on the path. I was like no, there was no way I could do that. I was absolutely knackered. That’s the kind of coach I need really, someone with a bit more of an elite mindset.”
Luke’s 2021 success didn’t come completely out of the blue. He was a youth with serious pedigree. Aged 16 he earned Commonwealth Youth bronze in the 1500m. To do so he ran 3.49. No under 17 in the UK got within three seconds of him that year.
“I was a kid. I’d been running for two, three years. I wasn’t even training that much. Everything was just coming so easy to me. The Bahamas year was probably a gift and a curse. It was great to have that but it knocked me back for a couple of years because nothing ever lived up to that. I thought I’ve made it here. I was getting awards and kit drops and stuff like that. Everything was going great and I just thought I’m the best. I can do what I want.”
Luke realized over the next couple of years he couldn’t, getting overtaken in his later years of school and making negligible improvements to his times. What once had been a source of great joy became something quite destructive.
“It was very taxing on my mental health, the way I saw myself. It was like a downward spiral. This snowball effect to where I’d have one bad result and I’d go and train really, really hard for a week, thinking that week of really hard training is going to make me better.
I’d actually just show up to the next race even more tired and run even worse. I’d get to the next race and go this is the race. It’s all or nothing now. I’d end up being on the start line just dreading it, not enjoying being at a race because I put so much pressure on myself.”
Managing youth athletes expectations.
Luke ultimately has come out the other side. When I put to him why it was that so many junior athletes don’t he said youth coaches have a part to play:
“A lot of these coaches are just there to set your sessions and they don’t really know how dangerous it can be. When they’re all buzzing about their athlete winning English Schools Junior Boys or running 4.06 at U15s and they (the athlete) walk around thinking they’re a god for 4.06 at that age. They don’t realise that’s not a good time but it’s good for your age. It doesn’t mean anything if you don’t continue to progress.
For me, if you ran 3.49 at 16 I can’t go up to a selector and go ‘look at me I ran that at 16 and no-one else ran that when they were 16’. So unless that progression keeps going it’s irrelevant how fast you ran when you were younger. I think a lot of club coaches don’t have that outlook. I was lucky my club coach, Richard Massey, always had a big emphasis on me being good when I was 18-19.”
Reconnecting with athletics
Luke’s love for athletics rekindled at Loughborough, learning to enjoy rather than endure the sport. He is keen to give Gandy the credit:
“My mindset of athletics changed a lot under him. I could never really thank him enough. He definitely saved my career in a way (what career I’ve got) in terms of my mindset, my outlook. Moving to Loughborough was a massive breath of fresh air to me.
Because when you’re in sixth form and training on your own, every race is like “this is it”. Your whole life revolves around it. Whereas you get to uni and you get to a race and think if I run bad, who cares? I’ve got a night out afterwards with all my mates or I don’t want to drop out of this race because then I’ll feel bad on the night out tonight.
I’ll get the piss taken out of me at training or whatever. It took a massive stress out of it going to university and the frustrations definitely went away.”
Duffy is clearly in a good place and better for the difficult few years he got through. What that means for 2022? Well Yates has high ambitions, ones Duffy won’t completely reveal just yet.
But one he will is the Commonwealth Games 1500m for Northern Ireland, an eligibility he has through his paternal Irish grandparents. 3.39.60 is the standard and it’s one for which the pair both believe Luke is capable.
“The vague goal is just to step up a level. To go from making the final of U23s to a new level. There’s a few levels before you get to the top and I’d like to move up a few rungs of the ladder.
Say if I run 3.38. Matt’s got some bigger goals but I’m not going to go there. If I ran 3.38 I’m one really good winter away from running 3.34, 3.35. When you run 3.34 you’re there. You’re making teams so just get in that position to have another breakthrough the following year. That’s got to be a target.”
It’s been a good first few months at the Run Yard and after a training stint in South Africa we’ll see Luke likely in the British Indoor Champs. Continue the progression and it’s a face we could be seeing much more of in the years to come.
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Featured image by Mark Hookway.