Julia Bleasdale: Cross-continental runner
The British Olympian has turned to state-of-the-art facilities in Ethiopia to go the extra mile
Thursday 03 January 2013
So what do you on Christmas Day – at the end of a year in which you have gone from 176th in the world at 5,000 metres and from way off the global scale at 10,000m to eighth place in the Olympic finals at both distances? A glass or two of bubbly with the turkey and trimmings?
Not for Julia Bleasdale. "I did a track session: four sets of 4x500m," she said today. "It looked reasonable on paper but at 2,750m it was not just the location that was breathtaking. Still, it was flattering to be one of the first to try out Bekele's new track."
This time last year Kenenisa Bekele, the world's fastest-ever 5,000m and 10,000m runner, was in Edinburgh, explaining that his fitness at the start of London Olympic year was not quite what it should have been because of the time he was spending overseeing the construction of a £900,000 track in Sululta, near Addis Ababa.
Twelve months on, the British athlete who made perhaps the biggest breakthrough in 2012 has been gaining the benefits of the state-of-the-art Ethiopian facility ahead of her appearance as Great Britain team captain in the women's 6km race at the Great Edinburgh International Cross-Country meeting at Holyrood Park tomorrow.
"It's a really awesome track and just perfect for endurance athletes," Bleasdale said, before packing her bags and preparing to make the trek from the Ethiopian capital to Edinburgh. "Bekele built it because he had calf problems using the other tracks in Addis."
It says much about Bleasdale that, instead of basking in the afterglow of her London Olympic breakthrough, she has spent the past seven weeks grafting away among the elite of world distance running, laying the foundations for 2013.
She has been based up the road from Bekele's new track at the Yaya African Athletics Village, a training complex part-owned by Haile Gebrselassie, the dual Olympic 10,000m champion and serial world-record breaker.
Having finally emerged at global level after years of injury, the 31-year-old from the Surrey Hills is determined to maintain her progress and close the gap on the east Africans who dominate women's distance running.
"I've been to Ethiopia before and fallen in love with the country and the running culture here," Bleasdale said. "After the Olympics I felt that it would be great to get back to running in the purest, simplest form.
"It felt the right time to come to this part of Africa, especially with Meseret Defar winning the 5,000m in London and Tirunesh Dibaba the 10,000m and another Ethiopian [Tiki Gelana] winning the women's marathon as well. I was thinking that, hopefully, it would help me progress to the next level.
"The first five weeks were a lot more about base training. In the last two weeks I've started to pick it up and do some more intense workouts. I've been fortunate to spend some time with Meseret Defar and Haile Gebrselassie – both fantastic role models. It's been fantastic inspiration. I just hope I can learn from them."
Bleasdale will get her first chance to show the benefits of her Ethiopian experience in the shadow of Arthur's Seat tomorrow. Defar is also in action, but in the short-course women's 3km invitation race. Bleasdale captains the British team against the US and Europe in the 6km event – which is being shown live by the BBC. "I'm really looking forward to it," she said.
"I'm very honoured to be captain of the GB team and it will be exciting to watch Defar race as well because she's become a friend. I've done two training runs with her out here. She's been very welcoming to me."
The pair met in the Olympic 5,000m final in London. Defar sprinted past Dibaba to regain a title she had first claimed in Athens in 2004. Bleasdale finished eighth, as she had done in the 10,000m final, won by Dibaba, a week earlier. In both instances she was the second non-African finisher, behind fellow Briton Jo Pavey.
They were outstanding performances from an athlete who had been on the national and international fringes since her university days studying engineering at Cambridge.
In 2012, Bleasdale improved her 5,000m personal best from 15min 44.00sec to 15:02.00 and her lifetime best at 10,000m from 34:20.77 to 30:55.33. The quantum leap came after linking up with the Australian coach Nic Bideau in the summer of 2011.
"Until 14 months out from the Games I had been self-coached," Bleasdale said. "I felt I needed that extra expertise and Nic has provided the perfect match.
"He knows my athletics history – the injuries I've had and so on – and he's provided me with a structured training programme that works for me. In the past I had constantly pushed myself to the limit and got injured.
"The other piece of the jigsaw is the tremendous support I've had from my partner, Kevin Nash – and also from my physio, Mark Buckingham, and Dr Steve Peters, the sports psychologist who's now working with UK Athletics." Nash was involved in London 2012 – managing the road courses used for the cycling races at the Olympics and Paralympics.
He was also on hand at Bekele's track on Christmas Day, standing with stopwatch and whistle, making sure Bleasdale hit her target times.
There was no turkey and trimmings to follow – or champagne either. "We went to a friend's house for a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony," Bleasdale said. "We wanted to embrace the local culture."
Training champion: The man from Melbourne
Nic Bideau, the coach behind Julia Bleasdale's success, is director of the Melbourne Track Club. A former coach and partner of Olympic 400m champion Cathy Freeman, he splits his time between guiding his elite training group in Melbourne and London.
Before injury curtailed his running career, Bideau, 52, was an Australian junior international middle-distance runner. He is a former training partner of New Zealand's John Walker and has guided Australians Craig Mottram and Benita Johnson to global championship medals. He is married to Sonia O'Sullivan, the former world 5,000m champion.
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