It’s not often you see a US middle distance runner absolutely dominate a bunch of experienced Kenyans in a race. Turns out that if you throw a bit of ice and snow in to the equation and the whole thing changes, as US miler Garrett Heath proved at the Edinburgh XCountry last weekend.
“If it was a football or a rugby pitch, the game would be off. But as it’s cross country, we’re saying ‘bring it on’.”
Never have a race announcer's words been more true. And with them still ringing in their ears, off went the athletes in the 4km race at last Saturday's (Jan 10th) Edinburgh XCountry. Amongst the field of world and Olympic champions and medallists lining up at a windswept, sodden Holyrood Park was Garrett Heath, the surprise winner of last year's event.
His victory in 2014 came as such a shock that not even his new kit sponsors Brooks saw it coming. Having only started his contract days before the race, they thought he could get away with wearing an old vest without anyone noticing. But there he was, crossing the line in the wrong brand.
This year, however, nothing was left to chance. Fully kitted out, the 29-year-old Stanford University graduate stepped up to the line alongside the likes of Asbel Kiprop and Bernard Lagat. It was a horrible day; a mix of hail, snow, rain and ghastly winds resembled any runner’s worst nightmare.
2008 Olympic 1500m champion Kiprop led the pack during the first 2km, before Heath decided to take matters into his own hands early in the second lap.
Edinburgh's course had more obstacles than a 3000m steeplechase
Winning the race comfortably in 12:11, eight seconds ahead of second place, Heath was as puzzled as any as to why the Scottish turf brings out his best.
“I don’t know,” he tells SPIKES after the race. “There’s something about Edinburgh – the cold and the snow and the mud.
“After growing up in Minnesota, this is almost like a cross-country ski race – it would have certainly been cold enough today. Nobody wants to run in the cold, but I think I probably like it more than most people.”
His comparison might not be too far fetched, with the likes of Seb Coe recently calling for XC to be added to the Winter Olympics. And Heath has personal reasons to back Coe’s plans: alongside the six state titles in track and XC he collected during his high school years, he also won two in cross-country skiing.
Despite the obvious risk of injury, Heath still tries to keep up with his winter sports whenever possible. And in Edinburgh, his love of cold weather sports may have been the crucial factor.
“I wish I could say that was the reason why I won today,” he says, while Kiprop and co clinch on to cups of hot tea and coffee, trying to warm up.
“Sadly I didn’t get on the skis much over winter, only once in the off-season. I’ve lost too much upper body strength for skiing now. But today it certainly paid off.”
Heath and friends hitting the slopes over the holidays
While Edinburgh provided what for many XC is all about – mud, wind and ice – in March the world’s eyes will be turning towards Guiyang, China, for the world cross country championships. What the conditions will be like there is anyone's guess.
“Hopefully it’s going to be cold,” jokes Heath, who has his sights firmly set on the champs. “No seriously, I have no idea. I had never heard of the city before – it just shows my poor geography knowledge.
“But I did look it up on the map and saw it’s in the middle of the country. It will be an interesting experience either way, it’s always great to see a new country.”
Before heading out to China, it’s back to Albuquerque for the next month to join the rest of his training group at their altitude camp. There, the focus will be on training right and to qualify for the world cross.
Given the success he is enjoying in the XC, you'd think he'd want to stick at it. But Heath remains in two minds, the grass always looking greener on the other side (not hard when you've got conditions such as those in Holyrood).
“Right now I probably prefer cross-country, but each season I like the other one better. When I do XC, I want to do track and when I do track, I want to do XC. I wished the XC season was a bit longer than it is, because there’s not that many races once you get out of college anymore.
“I guess the Europeans have a little bit more than we do in the US, but in the US it’s usually just two races a year and that’s it. But I just love cross.”
For anyone to say those three words on a day like this, they must really mean it.