It’s been another busy day for 2021 Olympian Phil Norman. As a pole tester for Openreach, the Barnstaple resident spends his days climbing wooden poles checking for sign of rot and decay.
A physically demanding role, as his profession ends so another starts. Returning home, Norman heads out for his run, almost always alone on the North Devon coast. He then attends to two-year-old Jamie and heads to bed for another reset to the cycle.
Today he kindly affords an interruption to the routine as we check in from other sides of the country.
A time to reset
The eighth fastest British 3000m steeplechaser of all-time enters 2024 on the back of a first proper pause in the eight years since he started taking the sport seriously again aged 25.
“The last few seasons had been training hard, chasing times, trying to make teams. It’s just kind of rinse and repeat. And I’ve had a few setbacks with not making teams and things like that.
I picked up an injury, mid to late February, knee bursitis and that was ongoing for quite a few weeks. Then we had a family holiday planned to America at the end of April, I just thought, well, I just want to enjoy this, be able to go on that holiday, enjoy that.
Let’s take this year as just enjoying the running again, take the pressure off, not worry about making the teams. Maybe just focus on a bit of quicker 800, 1500 sort of work. I felt like at the time I was just sort of pushing and pushing and not quite sure why I was really. The main thing was just to kind of reset this year.”
Norman would be excused for thinking he needed some time off. In 2022 the Woodford Green Essex Ladies athlete had geared his season around a home Commonwealth Games.
“I knew it was the only chance I was going to get really to run in front of family in a major championships at home.”
Running 8:26 in late May the Englishman was almost nine full seconds inside his governing body’s qualifying standard. He had also beaten every Brit he’d raced, every serious challenger to his spot.
In Norman’s eyes, and many neutral observers too, his place was booked for Birmingham.
The Woodford Green Essex Ladies athlete was out in Turku for the Paavo Nurmi Games waiting on his phone when the selection came:
“There was a lot of other Brits out there and they had their call saying you’re being selected. I didn’t get a call and had my race to do. It wasn’t until a few hours after I had done my race that I got the call to say you haven’t been selected.”
England Athletics said team size had meant they had to prioritize medal contenders. In the steeplechase they would be taking just one man, Zak Seddon. He was an athlete Norman had beaten for the second time that season just two weeks before.
A better seasons best was cited as the reason for the choice but the selection came in June, at a point when Norman, then working full-time, was just two races into his campaign.
The Commonwealth Games steeplechase when it arrived, like many events that year, was a sad affair. Nine men in a straight final with the eventual fourth-placer John Gay four seconds outside Norman’s own season best.
The Devonian regrouped impressively when he did get the chance. Negotiating the heats Norman finished ninth in a competitive European Champs final . You get the sense, however, in his eyes it didn’t make up for missing out on a home games one month before.
Running on the periphery
It would be fair for the Barnstaple man to feel he spends his life on the periphery. Outside the established set-ups of large training groups with high profile coaches in constant dialogue with governing bodies.
Almost every session, easy or hard, alone to his own thoughts.
Why me? Why again?
It isn’t the first time Norman has been overlooked for teams, but you get the sense he is able to look at it a little differently.
Norman isn’t left thinking what if.
It is less than ten years ago that he lay on a beach. Then almost seven years since he had last laid his hands on some spikes, he had better claims to be a footballer. Yet as he sat down, reading a copy of Mo Farah’s autobiography, a thought nagged at him:
“I just felt like I owed it to myself to see what I could achieve. I’d seen other athletes that I used to race against. I’ll pick up one, James Wilkinson. We used to race a lot. We had pretty similar times that we had run and we were very close back when we were racing English Schools.
He went on to Commies and I think he ran 8:22. I remember seeing that thinking, you know what, maybe that’s what I’d have been able to achieve. And at the time I was just like, I’ve still got time on my side. I don’t want to go a few years down the line and just be one of those people that did something at junior level.
I don’t want to be saying, ‘I could have done that!’.
I want to be the person saying, ‘I did that.'”
One year at a time
Norman made the decision to recommit.
“The first few months were really tough. It was really humbling. I came back to my old coach and there’s teenagers there. They’re beating me. And I just feel so unfit, you’ve just got that burn in your throat.”
Norman took two years to better his time as teenager, almost three before he broke nine minutes:
“It wasn’t like I come back and instantly I was dropping these quick times. It took a long time. I never thought about the Olympics. I just thought one year at a time, just keep pushing.”
Just making the British Champs was the initial goal. One so sought after that when he achieved it by running 8:42 in 2017 he was willing to run injured just to take part. He eventually finished 12 seconds down on the rest of the field.
In 2018 Norman was 28 when he had once of his biggest breakthroughs, by then under the tutelage of new coach Tomaz Plibersek.
Chasing the European Championship standard of 8:32 and racing abroad for the first time in Huelva, he went out like a rocket:
“I had a lot of adrenaline. I got caught up going through the first half very, very quick. I think I was well inside 8:30, maybe close to 8:25 pace through the first 1500m. I think it’s the most lactic I’ve ever had in a steeplechase race.
I remember just climbing over the last water jump and the last barrier and did 8.35, which at the time was another huge PB.”
Seven seconds to be precise. A few weeks later he finished sixth in his second British Champs. An upward trajectory but one that was playing catch up to ever higher qualifying marks.
On the cusp
The world of the steeplechase was moving fast. The standard for the 2019 World Championships set at 8:29.00, Norman set out in search of a six second improvement. A tall ask given he was now five years into his return.
In spite of this by May he was on the doorstep. 8:29.37 in Oordegem he had three more months to find the standard.
That timeframe was shrunk dramatically by injury but as August ended he had returned to some form, winning silver at the British Champs to, time-permitting, allow himself on the plane to Doha.
Two more desperate attempts. Solo for half the race in Tonbridge he ran 8:29.54. Four days later in Zagreb 8:29.93. Agonisingly short once more.
British Athletics turned down his subsequent invitation based on World Rankings.
“I was hoping that British athletics would be able to see past, just those 0.3 of a second and accept the invite. There was nothing in the policy to say, you need to run a certain time. They just deemed whether you were a potential medallist.
But you look at that policy, you think, well, who’s really going to have medal potential if they haven’t run the qualifying time?”
Czech-mate to Norman
All eyes instead turned to Tokyo. The qualifying standard had reached another level. Norman needed seven further seconds at the age of 30 to realise the 8:22 required.
Norman’s story is now beginning to follow a familiar pattern. Six further seconds found in Finland when racing resumed after the COVID-19 shutdown, Norman was still a fraction outside the necessary mark.
A first British title, some tonic but not a full reprieve for an athlete now committed to one thing only. Fulfilling an Olympic dream.
Norman embarked on an unpaid sabbatical from work.
In 2021 along came his season opener in Ostrava. Up front Getnet Wale. Ignore him, Norman thought to himself.
“What I needed to do is just focus on my own race, at these other guys, other Europeans in there. I could race against those guys.”
The group passed through halfway there or thereabouts.
“I took the lead just saying, look guys let’s keep pushing this. We need to work here to make sure we stay on track and get this time.”
The laps ticked by. The bell rang.
“Stay composed, don’t go crazy here. I can’t make any mistakes. Just keep your rhythm going, make sure you just get over that last water jump.” He thought to himself.
The hazard comes, he plants his foot and he looks up. The water jump behind him, one final barrier in front.
Osama Zoghlami a few steps ahead, Norman negotiates the final barrier and senses he is catching. He passes the Italian and looks to the clock.
“I knew that it was well inside 8.22. There wasn’t any question in my mind if I had run the time or not, I knew straight away, I looked across, I was like I’ve done it!”
Too good to ignore
8:20.83 the fastest British steeplechaser for almost 30 years. Eighth on the all-time list. Over a second inside the qualifying time.
“I couldn’t believe it, all that pressure was off. It was hard to explain really just the feeling of such a weight lifting off me.
I’d took a big gamble really going into it because, I was taking time off work completely unpaid. So I felt like I put a lot of pressure on myself to qualify for the Olympics.
I’d put it out there like this is what I’m trying to do. It wasn’t any secret that I was going out there and trying to get the time. To get that time, first race and just put the race together and set out what I had wanted to achieve was just incredible.”
Norman had left no room for selector discretion. He had earnt his spot in Tokyo.
It would be easy to think that Norman’s subsequent appearance in an Olympic Games would be the fitting final chapter to his comeback. But he doesn’t see it that way.
“I felt like I had unfinished business at the Olympic Games. Since I was a kid, it was always a goal of mine to represent GB at the Olympics. But due to how I performed there, I came back and I was like, it was incredible, being at the Olympics. But part of me, I felt like I had to sort of let myself down a bit.
It’s hard to say I let myself down. I picked up an injury prior to the games, which impacted my preparation massively. I wasn’t able to train properly out there. I wasn’t able to acclimatize to the heat. And I think more than anything, it just affects you more mentally. You just don’t feel like you’re ready to compete at that level.
The way that my heat was run, it was just incredibly quick. It was the fastest heat ever in the Olympic Games. So yeah, I just struggled with that early pace.
I felt like, I’d made a major championships, got to the Olympics, but I hadn’t competed how I wanted to.
So for me, I wanted to, right that wrong, get to the next champs and put in a performance that I was proud of, happy with. I wanted to show that I belonged at that level.”
Stepping up once more
It’s that attitude that leaves Norman accepting rather than daunted by the Paris Olympic Games standard of 8:15.
“Obviously it’s a super quick time. There’s not many people in history in Britain that have run that time (Ed- only three have).
But I look across the other guys in Europe that I’ve raced in the past and I’ve seen those guys do it. They’re no different to me. That time’s there for a reason. If you’re running that time, then you’re going to be there and competitive at the Olympics, which is what I want to do.
I don’t want to just be there and run again. I want to be there and be able to compete. So for me, like that 8.15, that’s where I need to be.
I see it as an achievable goal. I’m not going to say, yeah, I’m going to do it and it’s easy. It’s going to be very hard. I’m going to have to be able to get consistent training in, but I believe if I put everything together and get the right races, do what I need to do, that it is achievable.”
When Norman ran 8:20 in Ostrava he finished second that day. Four of the athletes behind him have since gone on to run under the qualifying mark.
Norman once more will take a sabbatical from work ahead of a second Olympic tilt. Once more he will aim to remove the selectors discretion.
This Devonian, ploughing his own path, in the solitude of his own thoughts, hopes to make himself too difficult to ignore.
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Featured image by Mark Hookway.