Tom Mortimer breaks the news that once more his achilles has let him down. For two years now the Stroud AC athlete has battled against inflammation. Ten days out from the World Road Running Championships, it has afflicted him again.
It’s been a testing couple of years for Mortimer.
The 7:38 3000m man opened 2023 in Potchefstroom, South Africa watching on as his Loughborough teammates laid the early ground work for a championship summer.
Mortimer managed a session in the final few days of the camp. Then ten months away from racing competitively, Mortimer had grown used to swapping efforts on the track for his Watt bike.
The 24-year-old began to get competitive, discovery cycling’s world of FTP’s and personal bests. It’s a world I don’t know. I offer a question, how do you assess fitness on a bike?
“There’s 20 minute power tests. I did one of them last year, just to see sort of where I’d be. And I think I did 409 watts, which I was pretty chuffed with.”
I venture to the internet, a well-known fool proof source of assessing athletic fitness. By almost all metrics, however, it’s some pretty punchy numbers.
Two hours on the bike in the gym each morning for much of the last year, more where light and weather allowed.
“I think I always knew as well, like with the bike especially, I’m keeping in shape. So I wasn’t panicking about being out of shape when I got back, which is quite nice.”
An Iberian return
Six weeks after returning from South Africa, Mortimer headed to Spain, to the modest town of Laredo, sandwiched between Bilbao and Santander. Thanks to Berihu Aregawi’s time-bending 26:33, the Cantabrian town can now call itself the fastest on the planet.
Third place that day was Mortimer, a strong lean from second. His season opener of 28:17 remains the third fastest time by a Brit this year for a road 10km. Quite nuts when you consider where he was but six weeks before. It was also his first race in a year.
Momentum looked to be continuing into the summer. Respite from the achilles tendinopathy allowed Mortimer to string together some sessions and look positively towards the outdoor season.
The Loughborough athlete, currently taking a masters around his training, opened his track season at the BUCS Outdoor Champs 5000m.
Hitting the front early Mortimer shook off the challenge of Zakariya Mahamed at 3k, before solo-ing the rest of the race to a new Championship record of 13:45, a mark that had stood since 1985.
It was like he’d never been away:
“In May, I was absolutely flying and I thought maybe I could run like a 13.10, that sort of thing.”
Three weeks later, Mortimer headed to Karlsruhe, aiming to improve on his 13:28 clocking from the European Team Championships in 2021.
“I ended up running 13.33 in Germany. I thought that was going to be the race I could do it. But in the end, the pace just sort of wasn’t there. And I think a few of the guys didn’t turn up, that sort of thing.”
Watching the race back four months later, Mortimer did exactly the same as three weeks prior. Callum Elson paced the pack through one mile but before 3k Mortimer was all alone. He ended up winning the race by almost ten seconds. A solid win but a frustrating time given the weeks that would follow.
“I ended up with a little bit of an abductor problem. So I missed three weeks after that, sort of early June. I never quite got back to it.
And I feel like since then, I guess just racing a lot, like I’ve not been able to come out of a race and get straight back in the training like I was in previous years, so every race has sort of broken the training up a little bit and I’ve been steadily sort of falling from that fitness.”
2023 in review
To the untrained eye, Mortimer has had a decent return in 2023. Improving his personal best to 13:25 in late July, earlier in the month he took 5000m bronze at the British Champs. A dominant course record win in the Home Counties International in August and second at the British 5k Champs in Gateshead.
A year of steady steps with a positive eye on the future.
British Athletics’ selection policy, however, requires more than just progress. Mortimer’s 2024 will centre around a Paris Olympics tilt, most likely over the 5000m but potentially the 10,000m too.
To make it he must run 13:05 or 27:00. Miss it and for now British Athletics are clear, no athlete will go. The Budapest World Championships featured no British men over either distance.
At Mortimer’s best his 5000m world ranking of 50 would have seen him receive an invite to the World Champs. Jack Buckner and his colleagues are adamant, at present these will not be accepted.
Mortimer is philosophical about the challenge:
“It’s not the most inspiring to see no 5k guys at the major championships.
But in other ways, I guess it just makes it simple. You’ve got to run that time. You’ve got to go to champs and come top two and that’s sort of set in stone.
So I can see both sides to it, but maybe that time seems a little bit unrealistic. Obviously if you’re running 13:05, you’re up there. Even at Worlds. You almost need the stepping stone in between.”
Junior experience as the building blocks?
Back in 2018, the then 19-year-old travelled to Tampere, Finland for the World Junior Champs:
“I didn’t quite have the (qualifying) time. Obviously I went and got absolutely battered by some younger Kenyan blokes. And you think was that as worthwhile as maybe taking me to a senior World Champs, and then you get that experience when you’re already close sort of thing?”
In a pool of limited resources, it begs the question which is the best way to spend that money. Mortimer is modest in describing his World Junior experience. Though he did finish 16th, ahead of him that day was a who’s who of global distance running.Embed from Getty Images
Commonwealth Games 5000m bronze Edward Pingua took the title, 2022 10,000m world silver medallist Stanley Mburu the runner’s up spot and then a host that need no introduction. Jakob Ingebritgsen, Selemon Barega, Jacob Kiplimo, world championship medallist Oscar Chelimo one of the least decorated of the trailing pack.
Like Mo Farah’s exit in the heats of Bejiing 2008, it gave Mortimer a glimpse of just how much it took to compete at the elite level. An early introduction outside a comfort zone that perhaps can grow softer with every win on the domestic circuit.
Three years later Mortimer broke one of British athletics longest standing junior records. Steve Ovett’s 7:41.3 U23 3000m record had stood for almost 44 years. Wearing his Stroud AC top, Mortimer took almost three seconds off it. 7:38.73.
How much Tampere and experiences like that helped shape that? Well that’s a matter of speculation.
Learning from his mistakes
A major influence on the career of Mortimer is the late great George Gandy. Arriving to Loughborough in 2019, Mortimer followed his guidance at first from a distance:
“I was with George probably the first three years of Uni, although I think he only thought I was with him for the third year. I was following, the emails, the program at the start of each week. I’d follow that and then I’d be checking with him about races, that sort of thing. But I think he fully coached me in the third year.
George was brilliant. He sort of let you almost learn from your own mistakes. I think it was nice being able to learn those lessons myself of things like overtraining or just smashing sessions as well. He’d let you make mistakes and then talk about it with you afterwards.”
Blessed with half a century in coaching, Gandy had coached the likes of Seb Coe, Jon Brown to successive Olympic fourth places and a name familiar to this conversation:
“I remember George always telling me about Jack Buckner and the sort of training he was hitting and maybe some of his tactics. So it was really nice to be able to see where you were compared to them, which was pretty cool.”
Buckner won European 5000m gold under his tutelage.
“I think there are a few sessions where you could see I was getting there. I think that was the six by five minutes in the winter we do. That’s a classic George session off a minute on the track. Comparing the times to that, I could see myself creeping close to what some of Gandy’s guys were doing.”
And now in 2023 Mortimer is faced with a much more present reminder of just what it takes. He shares a house with 800m world medallist Ben Pattinson.
Now coached by Chris and Sonia McGeorge, Mortimer heads towards his 25th birthday with his eyes wide open. Built by experience, chastened by injury, once Mortimer’s achilles releases the handbrake, who knows how far he can go?
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Featured image of Tom Mortimer courtesy of Mark Hookway.