Athletics: East regains bearings for new surge towards summit

Despite stumbling at first hurdle, Commonwealth gold medal winner has class to join middle-distance ranks of Cram and Coe
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Michael East's face told the story of his race at Newcastle's Exhibition Park. It was covered in mud from where he had landed after falling at the start of the Great North cross-country 4km event.

Michael East's face told the story of his race at Newcastle's Exhibition Park. It was covered in mud from where he had landed after falling at the start of the Great North cross-country 4km event.

As he watched the field departing last Saturday, East could have been forgiven for writing off his first competition since the summer in which he had established himself as Britain's fastest-rising middle-distance runner by earning England's most unlikely gold medal of the Commonwealth Games at 1500 metres and then making the European Championship final. Instead, he picked himself up and worked his way towards the front to finish sixth.

East was left feeling frustrated, but the event at least confirmed his level of fitness as he looks forward to a season which will climax with the IAAF World Championship in Paris. "I'm in really good nick,'' he said this week, despite suffering from a cold which has caused him to withdraw from tomorrow's Belfast cross-country race as a precaution. "My training has been going well and I was really looking forward to racing in Newcastle. At the end of last season I was exhausted, so to get my hunger back for running is great.''

This fresh-faced 24-year-old from Portsmouth has come a very long way in a short time. In winning the Commonwealth 1500m title in Manchester, East joined a select list of English winners, which includes David Moorcroft, now chief executive of UK Athletics, BBC commentator Steve Cram and Great North director Peter Elliott, who was the last gold medallist from these shores in Auckland 12 years ago.

Considering that several of his opponents, including Kenya's William Chirchir and fellow Englishman Anthony Whiteman, had personal bests more than five seconds faster than his, East's late surge to victory, in a far from exceptional 3min 37.35sec, was an enormous turn-up.

East was surprised even to be running; before the Games had got under way he took the precaution of buying tickets for himself and his wife, Claire. "I knew I was always going to be fighting to get into the Commonwealth team, let alone the European Championships,'' he said.

By chance, tickets for the latter event had been sorted out earlier in the year. Claire, a geography teacher, won a lucky seat competition watching her husband compete in his first indoor meeting at Cardiff, the prize being a trip for two to the Championships in Munich.

East's success last year followed his decision to make Mark Rowland, the former Olympic 3000m steeplechase bronze-medallist, his coach, and he has now left his office job with the sportswear manufacturers Saucony to go full time with the help of Lottery funding and a two-year deal with Nike.

East reflects with some bemusement upon a year which has been memorable, if not entirely free of difficulty. "I've heard some comments that what I did in Manchester was a fluke, a flash in the pan,'' he said. "Some people have implied I am a one-race wonder. I don't actually think that's the case. People are entitled to their opinions, but I'm happy to be getting on with what I'm doing. It is more annoying for my family and friends. They know what's going on, and they'll tell me whether I need to get my feet back on the ground.''

It was the manner of East's victory in Manchester which impressed observers such as Cram, who did the 800m and 1500m double in Edinburgh in 1986, and Seb Coe, who earned a couple of Olympic 1500m golds in his time but never quite managed a Commonwealth title.

"East is not a quick runner, but he has championship craft,'' commented Cram. "A situation opened up in his Commonwealth Games race and he took the chance. That is what big championship running is all about.'' Coe concurred, saying: "Winning a medal in a big championship is having on board that mental computer which feeds in the information and tells you what to do in the race. East did what he had to do extremely well in Manchester.''

Unfortunately for East, his preparations for Munich soon afterwards were less than ideal. First, his spikes and kit went missing at the airport for 24 hours. Then, more embarrassingly, he was given cause to fret over a stray comment that made its way into a newspaper report which was less than complimentary to Lord Coe. "Smarmy'' was one of the words involved.

As luck wouldn't have it, Coe was one of the first people East encountered in Munich as he visited the Nike hospitality tent. "It was really very, very awkward,'' he recalled. "I was there with Claire, and I just carried on with what I was doing. Seb had his head down, he didn't really want to know. I wrote him a letter soon afterwards and I hope that the whole thing is behind us now.''

Given that East first brought himself to general notice by winning the European Indoor 1500m bronze in Vienna last March – clearly, indoor running suits him – you might expect him to be laying firm plans for the World Indoor Championships two months hence, especially as they take place in Birmingham.

East has not ruled out running there, but he may choose instead to contest the 4km event at the World Cross-country Championships in Lausanne on 29 and 30 March. "Cross-country is where it all began for me,'' he said, pointing out that he earned his first international vest at cross-country as a 15-year-old.

However, it turns out, Michael East is a name that is likely to be a key one in British middle-distance running for many years. "I know that there's more to come,'' he says.