When it comes to the tactical game of chess that is the 1500m, Jakub Holusa has the ultimate finishing move.
“There is something inside me, inside my body or mind,” says Jakub Holusa, trying to explain why he always finishes his races like a bullet train. “Maybe it’s from God and I was born with this, but I’m a big fighter. I never quit the race before the finish.”
Rewind through the biggest races of the 29-year-old’s career and whether they end in success or failure, you’ll notice a common trend: at the end, no one is moving faster. When others are fading, he is firing, as if Holusa has been hiding in the stands for much of the race, then jumped in to unleash hell with 100m to run.
But how – and why – does almost every race finish like this?
“We don’t train for it, but it’s something inside,” he says. “Running is painful, and the last lap is very painful, so I close my eyes and say: the faster you run the shorter the amount of time you’ll be in pain. I love the finish. It’s my biggest strength.”
“If you are dying, you have to push”
In those final, painful moments, Holusa draws on the approach taken by the godfather of distance-running, and a countryman of his, Emil Zatopek.
“The pain is always there,” says Holusa, “but like Zatopek said: if you are dying, you have to push.”
Zatopek passed away in 2000, when Holusa was just 12 years old, but the four-time Olympic champion left a lasting impact on the youngster.
These days friends of Holusa’s live in Zatopek’s old house in Prague, and when he visits he feels the remnants of greatness that lived within its walls.
“I sit in the same place where Emil sat for 20, 30 years and I really enjoy it,” says Holusa. “I believe some of his energy stays in that house, and I try to take some of it. For all Czech runners he’s a hero, but for me especially. He was a fighter, and this is what I love.”
About two years before Zatopek passed away, Holusa took his first steps as a runner in his hero’s footsteps, but back then the 10-year-old ran not around the track, but a forest – with a map and compass in hand.
“I started with orienteering,” he says. “It’s great for young children, the best kind of basic training.”
The Czech school system exposed Holusa to all manner of sports in the years after, and he dabbled in gymnastics, basketball and football before, at the age of 15, a teacher spotted his talent for running.
Back then he only ran a couple of times a week, but by the age of 17 things had become more serious, Holusa finishing seventh in the 2000m steeplechase at the IAAF World Youth Championships in 2005. Two years later he utilised his killer finish to win steeplechase gold at the European Junior Championships, and he then realised his speed was so good that he reconsidered his future.
“My body had a lot of muscle, so we knew that the steeplechase wasn’t my event,” he says. “After that we decided to prepare for 800 and 1500.”
Party in Prague
In 2012 Holusa finished second at the IAAF World Indoor Championships over 800m, though it was three years later when he truly caught the attention of the world – and made 15,000 Czechs lose their minds in Prague.
The pressure was heaped on Holusa’s shoulders, the home crowd demanding something to celebrate as hosts of the European Indoors, though with a lap to run in the 1500m final it looked like gold was long gone. Turkey’s Ilham Ozbilen stole a six-metre lead from the front, but the crowd screamed their support at Holusa, willing him to go in chase.
“I went up to second and the crowd was crazy, pushing me with their energy,” he recalls. “The noise was unbelievable.”
Around the final bend Holusa still had five metres to find, but that was when he kicked it into gear, reeling in the Turk and charging by with less than five metres to run to take gold. “It was a little bit lucky,” admits Holusa.
Of course, playing with tactical fire like that inevitably gets you burned on occasion. A year later Holusa was one of the main contenders in the men’s 1500m at the world indoors in Portland, but woke up on the day of the final feeling as flat as a punctured tyre.
“I didn’t feel good and all day I was thinking about finishing, not going for a medal,” he says. “This was a big mistake that might have cost me.”
In what was a painfully slow race – 800m was reached in 2:08, a crawl – Holusa ran towards the back, virtually asleep when Nick Willis and Matt Centrowitz struck for home in the final 300m. With 100m to go, Holusa was still only sixth, eight metres behind the leading pair, but then the jets were turned on, only this time it was a fraction too late.
Centrowitz took gold in 3:44.22, with Holusa arriving on his shoulder just as they crossed the line – forced to settle for silver just 0.08 behind.
“It was the biggest mistake of my running career,” says Holusa. “If I had been close to Centrowitz, I believe to this day I could have beaten him. With 150 to go I started my finish and it was so, so, so late, but every day is different and you always learn something.”
There are many advantages to having a kick as potent as Holusa’s, but it’s not all rosy. After all his rivals are well aware of his greatest strength, and as such how to neutralise it. Last year in the world 1500m final in London, the Kenyan duo Timothy Cheruiyot and Elijah Manangoi – the fastest athletes in the world in 2017 – began hammering just one lap into the race, forcing all those behind into a decision.
Holusa was one of those who decided to stay in the pack and not give chase, reserving his speed and hoping they came back on the final lap, which they didn’t.
He again unleashed a demonic kick in the final 200m, but it wasn’t enough. He came home fifth in 3:34.89, less than half a second outside the medals, and he couldn’t help wonder if he had left it too late.
“It was a fantastic result, but I know what my time was for the last 300,” says Holusa, who covered it far quicker than anyone in the race. “It’s a hard decision in the middle of the race: to try catch the Kenyans or stay comfortable and maybe they will die and you can attack. In that moment it was a bad mistake. Maybe I lost a medal, but that is running, and now it’s history.”
Land Down Under
Fifth was good, but Holusa is too good an athlete not to be fuelled by dreams of first.
For many years he had been coached by fellow Czech Josef Vedra, who built him into a world-class performer, but he knew after London it was time for a change. It was nothing to do with the training, but Holusa’s awareness that to reach the next level he needed to work alongside other world-class athletes.
“He was a really good coach but the problem was I was alone,” says Holusa. “It’s really difficult alone, and very hard mentally. If I want to beat the Kenyans and Americans I needed a strong group to work with.”
In the Autumn he approached Tomasz Lewandowski, brother and coach to Marcin Lewandowski, and for the last several months he has been working with the Poles on a daily basis. In December they flew to Australia for a stint of altitude training alongside Nic Bideau’s group, the Melbourne Track Club, at Falls Creek, where Holusa’s love for running was re-born.
In the idyllic mountain trails, he logged 180-200km (111-124 miles) a week, laying the foundation for a big year ahead. In Dusseldorf last week Holusa finished third in the 1500m in 3:39.54, just 0.04 off the world indoor qualifying standard, which he will take another crack at on the next stop of the IAAF World Indoor Tour in Torun, Poland on Thursday night.
Then, he hopes, all roads will lead to Birmingham, where Holusa will be readying his kick for the kind of finish that strikes fear into even his most accomplished rivals.
“If I make the world standard, I will be in really good shape in Birmingham,” he says. “With my skills and experience, everything is possible. If it’s fast or slow race, I’m ready.”
Words: Cathal Dennehy