Ryan Gregson on Running in Rio: The 60 Seconds That Changed His Life

After years of frustration, a beleaguered 1500m runner makes a stunning climb down the backstretch in a semi-final at the Rio Olympics.

Standing at the start line of the Olympic 1500m semi-final with 50,000 people in the stadium, I was nervous but trying to stay relaxed, keep my heart rate up and conserve my energy. The more you stress and overthink a race, the worse you will run. What’s hard about the 1500m is that it’s so tactical. You will have three or four different race plans – one plan if the race is fast, another if the race is slow, and a different one depending on whether you finish at the front or the back of the pack. At the same time, when the shot goes off, you also have to stay open-minded because the race can unfold in different ways and you have to react accordingly. But I was nervous because so many things had led up to this moment.

I came onto the scene as a very strong junior, showing a lot of promise. When I was 20, I broke the Australian 1500m record by running 3:31. But between the ages of 20 and 25, I suffered five stress fractures in various parts of my body. Every time I picked up a little momentum, I was confused by my body. It was hard. The only thing that kept me in the sport was the fact that I ran really fast when I was 20. I was just desperate to get that taste of success back.

Because of my injuries, I continued racing for Australia for years when I wasn’t at my best. My ability was a double edged sword because I was able to make the team with limited preparation, but then I would crumble again. I was building a house on shaky foundations and stuck in this hurt loop year after year. So when I was about to turn 25, I made a promise to break the cycle and do whatever it took to stay healthy. In 2015, I played it safe. I took the big competitions off the table and didn’t go overboard. I focused on coming back slowly from my injury and being able to train non-stop to make sure I’m in good shape in 2016.

It was difficult, because I was doing performances that were below me. But I knew I had to string together some consistency to get stronger in the long run. It worked too because it led to a great 2016 and I reached the Olympic semi-finals. The last Aussie to clinch a place in the final was in 1976. So yeah, there was a lot to do in that race.

When the gun went off the race started at a medium pace and I rode straight onto the rails and sat in the back, out of all the scrambling that can waste precious energy. Running so close to the rail, I was running exactly 400m each lap. When everyone is together, if you are on the outside, you can run an extra seven meters per lap. I hoped that after the first laps the gaps would widen and that I would continue to advance on the rail. But over the turns, nothing opened. At the bell, I was in last position. But I still felt good and knew I had plenty of running left. When I heard the bell, I thought, you just gotta go.

At that point, you are on autopilot. It’s like an out of body experience. You start moving so fast, almost 50 seconds for the last 400m. I waited until I got to the back straight with 300m to go – still in 12th place – because I didn’t want to run too wide in the corners. That’s when I really pinned my ears back. I would have taken four people on the backstretch, four on the 200-100m corner, then went down the straight to finish in fourth place to qualify.

(From L) Australian Ryan Gregson, American Matt Centrowitz, Kenyan Asbel Kiprop, Djiboutian Ayanleh Souleiman and Spaniard David Bustos compete in the first heat of the men’s 1500m in the athletics event at the Games Rio 2016 Olympics at the Olympic Stadium in Rio de Janeiro on August 16, 2016. Image: AFP / PEDRO UGARTE via Getty Images.
Australian Ryan Gregson, American Matt Centrowitz, Canadian Charles Philibert-Thiboutot, British Chris O’Hare, Kenyan Asbel Kiprop, Moroccan Fouad Elkaam, Djiboutian Ayanleh Souleiman and Spaniard David Bustos take part in the first men’s 1500m heat during the Rio 2016 Olympic Games athletics event at the Olympic Stadium in Rio de Janeiro on August 16, 2016. Image: AFP / PEDRO UGARTE via Getty Images.

My overriding emotion was relief – relief that things had gone my way after struggling for so many years. I had finally done something I could be really proud of. Track and field is a tough sport and the rewards are few. But on the biggest stage, I got to run one of my best races. Qualifying for the Olympic final was like a reward for all the sacrifices I had made.

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