Athletics: Mackie discovers there is a longer life after sprinting

Jackson's golden words help Scot to bridge gulf from 100m to 400m
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The Independent Online

It was supposed to have been about the rediscovery of a 400m talent - one of them, at least. But then Cathy Freeman withdrew from the field for the women's 400m at Gateshead last Sunday, and drew up plans for retirement, and Katharine Merry ran three seconds short of her best. Instead, it was the discovery of a brand- new 400m talent that had the aficionados purring at the Norwich Union Super League meeting.

As Ian Mackie moved up on the outside in the final 60m of the men's race, he crossed the gap from novice to inter-national class as a quarter-miler. The former 100m man finished 0.12sec behind Daniel Caines, who has won world indoor gold and silver at the one-lap distance, and was just 0.01sec behind Avard Moncur, the Bahamian who happens to be the reigning world champion at 400m.

Mackie's time, 45.58sec, put him joint second fastest in the British rankings for the year, alongside Iwan Thomas, the former European and Commonwealth champion. It was a personal best by a margin of 0.55sec, and judging by the speed with which he was catching the four men ahead of him, there is clearly more to come from the 28-year-old Scot.

Colin Jackson will tell you there's a lot more to come. So will Frankie Fredericks. It was the Welsh high hurdler, now retired, and the Namibian speed merchant who spotted Mackie's potential as a 400m runner.

"I was away warm-weather training with them a few years ago, and when they saw me doing 300m repetitions on the track they both said to me, 'You'd be an amazing 400m runner'," Mackie reflected last week. "They both said, 'Look, you're perfectly suited for running 400s' - just because of the technique I have, the stride-length and the relaxation.

"I did have a good think about it, but I kept on trying to do the 100m and 200m. I thought, 'How on earth do you make the transition at world-class level from the sprints up to the quarter-mile? It was a really scary thought, but at the end of last year I'd had enough of the injuries from sprinting. I thought, 'If there's going to be a time to move up to 400, it's going to be now'."

In fact, Mackie had suffered so many injuries in the course of attempting to push his long-limbed frame through the explosive acts of sprinting and sprint training that he also thought of hanging up his spikes before he thought of turning to a distance that is more ideally suited to his style and physique.

"Last year I couldn't have got any lower," he said. "I had a problem with my heel, and at the Scottish Championships I came out of the blocks and I just couldn't run. I watched the Commonwealth Games and the European Championships on television and I was thinking, 'These are guys I've run against and beaten in the past and they're going on and doing great things'. I thought, 'Well, what's the point of me training for another winter and putting myself through all that really hard work for it all to go pear-shaped again?'

"But fortunately my fiancée, Erin, and my family got behind me - and my friends. Colin Jackson said to me, 'You cannot pack in. You've got an amazing gift there. You've got a fantastic talent. You've got to keep on going and don't give up.' That's what I decided to do, and thankfully it's been the right decision."

It has indeed. It has been six years since Mackie last raced for Britain in a major championship - he qualified for the 100m semi-finals at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, and reached the 100m quarter-finals at the World Championships in Athens the following year - but he heads for the Norwich Union AAA Championships at Birmingham next weekend on course for a 400m place at this year's World Championships in Paris next month. After just four senior races at the distance, the Dunfermline man needs to improve by a further 0.03sec to achieve the qualifying time, and to finish in the first two in the final to make the British team.

Not that he is taking anything for granted. "With the problems I've had in the past, I'm just taking it one race at a time," he said. "It's not going to be easy. There are three rounds to run and six or seven guys all capable of making the team."

Such caution is only natural. Back in 1997, Mackie was the sharpest of the new kids off the blocks in the wake of Linford Christie's retirement from international 100m running, winning the AAA title, recording two victories against Christie and clocking the second-fastest 150m time in history.

The following year, though, he pulled a hamstring while pushing a luggage trolley at Heathrow airport on the way to the European Championships in Budapest. It was typical of the ill-fortune that was to dog his attempts to assume the Christie mantle. As he battled injury after injury, he could only watch in frustration while a succession of British rivals made the big breakthrough at world level: Darren Campbell, Jason Gardener, Dwain Chambers... "And Mark Lewis-Francis," Mackie added. "Yeah, it really was frustrating, not being able to fulfil my potential as a 100m runner. But I'm a big believer in things happening for a reason, and the success I'm having now just goes to show that my talents have lain in the 400. It's just that I haven't really tapped into it."

Mackie has started tapping into it the hard way, with a Lottery grant that has been cut to £400 a month and funds so low he has been obliged to sell his beloved Audi Quattro S3. He is grateful, though, that his kit sponsors, Mizuno, have stood faithfully by him.

And, while Ian Mackie does not feature among the 156 athletes currently profiled on the UK Athletics website, "The Fife Flyer", as he was known at his sprinting peak, is rapidly making a name for himself all over again.