Kris Jones raced at the weekend in the Scottish Inter-District. He won, perhaps no great shock to many neutral observer but it was significant nonetheless.
Kris hasn’t raced since last summer’s Olympic 10,000m trials. That day in June the Welshman ran 28.23.50, fifth Brit and crucially well under the Commonwealth Games standard. Since fast 10,000 m races are difficult to come by, he tells me that Birmingham felt like his last shot at getting under the 28.30 he required.
Recovering from long-term injury
Little did Kris know that just a few weeks later problems started to emerge. A stress reaction on his femur.
“I went for a scan and I had swelling on the bone tissue. I tried to read up as much as you can and it [bone injuries] tends to be if you’ve got risk factors. Big changes in your training, issues with not getting enough energy, being deficient in certain nutrients and we were going through everything. I had blood tests and it seemed there wasn’t any factor associated with it.”
Weeks off and little signs of improvement, Kris remembered something about a run after the 10,000 m race. Like he often does running in the mountains and through the forests Kris had been bitten by a tick, removing it like he always does. It is a regular occurrence in his life as a top-level orienteer. But unlike most ticks, this one carried Lyme’s disease.
A test confirmed as much and Kris, aided by antibiotics, walked the tightrope of hoping to avoid some of the disease’s worst effects. Chronic fatigue for months, years on end. Anything like that and Kris’s place with the elite would likely be over.
Fortunately for Kris it isn’t and his showing over the weekend confirms as much.
Orienteering – A family affair for Kris Jones
Whilst his life at the sharp end of UK athletics has been a more recent phenomenon, Kris’s success in orienteering dates far longer.
“I first started orienteering when I was about 11-12, just locally in Swansea. My dad did it and he took the whole family along. It’s quite a good sport for that because you can all go out and do your own race and there’s different levels of difficulty. The kids do shorter, easier courses and the parents do more difficult courses.
I got involved in running through that. I’d join my dad for a run. I thought if I can get better at running I’ll get better at orienteering and it was always that way around. I was making county teams, Abertawe schools, West Wales but I was more interested in the orienteering.”
It wasn’t long before Kris started making international teams, being picked for British Orienteering in the 2008 European Youth Orienteering champs, where he enjoyed an up and down weekend:
“I was entered for the long distance, relay and a sprint distance. I think it would be a 70-minute race, a 30-minute race and a 15-minute race.
I think I might have been disqualified in the long distance. I punched the wrong checkpoint. I think I ran quite well in the relay, and I won the sprint.”
Three races in a weekend might seem a lot to those involved in athletics but for orienteers it’s part of the beauty of the sport.
“I quite enjoyed that aspect that you could always race. As soon as you’ve done a race you were on to the next one. It’s a little bit less physically intense than running but it’s difficult because you have to navigate. You’re kind of running at a threshold level and you quite often see orienteers racing really frequently because of that.”
Sticking with the sprints
Kris began to realise the sprint distance was the event for him, aided both by how it suited his strengths and his ability to train.
“To train for orienteering you need to have lots of good terrain. We don’t have lots of it in the UK, concentrated pockets of good terrain.
Quite a lot of people I grew up with orienteering have ended up moving to Scandinavia because they have a huge amount more forest than we do. It’s a much bigger sport out there, so there’s a lot more support in terms of clubs and races and things like that. I never really got on that path to move somewhere with lots of terrain.
The exception is the sprint distance. It’s a 15-minute race and it tends to be quite simple navigation.
The difficulty of the sprint is that you are running at potentially 3 minutes per kilometer. You’re running really fast. The navigation isn’t difficult but some of the decisions are. You’re deciding between two different route choices and if you run an extra 100-metres that’s an extra 20 seconds on your race time. In a 15-minute race that could be the difference between winning a medal or not.
We’ve got loads of really great sprint terrain in the UK. We’ve got lots of towns. Lots of old towns or council estates tend to be like a labyrinth.”
Success came quite quickly for Kris, winning World Junior silver in the Sprint Distance in 2010. Three years later he was 16th in the senior edition in Finland.
In tandem with orienteering progress his running also improved, though Kris will admit it was constant consistent progression rather than huge breakthroughs that helped.
15.19 for 5k aged 20, 19th in the BUCS XC in his third year as an undergraduate at Sheffield Hallam, a move to Loughborough for his Masters took it up another rung as did his PHD a year or so later.
“From 2010 to 2015 it was a little bit better each year but I was still in elite sport, improving. I felt like I was an athlete. I wasn’t running fast times on the track or anything but I was GB for British Orienteering and I had aims of getting selected for the World Champs or trying to improve my result there.
Those things keep you moderated, because I think the temptation is to think I’ve got all this motivation to be really good and I’m going to do it all, go really hard but it’s the consistency.
The only way you build consistency is being a step back.”
Speaking to Kris he makes it sound so easy, gradual improvements but achievable ones too. Their mind-boggling nature comes from the fact they appear to have no ceiling.
“I’ve always looked at the next step so it’s been quite a few stages where I’ve surprised myself. I ran the Scottish 5k champs on the track and I wanted to run a good deal under 15. I sort of thought I could run 14.45 or 14.40 and I ran 14.20. There’s been a few occasions where that’s happened.”
That was 2016, a year in which he also made significant breakthroughs in orienteering. Fourth in the World Champs in three different events. The sprint, the sprint relay, and the relay.
Steadily Kris was making the rise to the very best, both in the UK as an athlete and the world in orienteering. 14.20 became 14.03 on the road in 2017, 13.45 on the track in 2018, significant improvements that enabled a further step-change moment in orienteering.
In 2018 Kris won bronze in the European Champs in Ticino, Switzerland. In a Euro-centric sport, the result really does allow him to say he is one of the finest on the planet.
It’s progress that puts Kris in a well-earned but enviable position as an athlete who would count himself mightily unlucky not to be in Wales’ Commonwealth team. And it should serve inspiration for anyone out their ploughing their own path, taking it one day at a time.
“No-one would have picked at school that I would potentially be in the frame to run for Wales in the Commonwealth Games. I do the same as anyone in a running club. I’m training in my spare time. I buy my own shoes. It’s essentially a hobby, I just spend an awful lot more time doing it.
I think the Commonwealth games you see a lot more of those athletes. Those are the stories that every time the Commonwealth Games come around I almost latch on to.
In Glasgow it was Steve Way. He was a smoker, overweight and then he’s running in the Commonwealth Games for England. In Australia it was Robbie Simpson.
No-one would have picked me for it. No-one would have said watching Swansea Harriers in 2006, you wouldn’t have said that’s the one.
I’ve run European Cross Champs. I’ve run World Half Marathon Champs. I see the Commonwealth Games as the biggest.”
Kris’s win on Saturday will be a welcome relief, one that gets him rolling into the spring with a double on the horizon. The World Orienteering Champs in June and the Commonwealths in August.
With a career of hard graft and challenging moments behind him it’s a summer many years in the making.
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Featured image by Bobby Gavin.