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James Sullivan has been talking to Australian 800m runner Alexander Rowe, semi-finalist at the 2013 World Championships.

Alexander Rowe is an elite 800m runner from Melbourne, Australia. He finished 5th at the 2009 World Youth Championships in Bressanone, Italy. He claimed his first senior Australian National title in Sydney earlier this year and competed at the World Championships in Moscow, qualifying for the semi-finals. His current PB is 1:45.44, ranking him 8th on the Australian all-time list.

Alexander Rowe in action during the 800m heats in Moscow

James: Thank you for taking the time to talk to The Running Review. Easy question first, how did you first get involved in athletics?

Alexander: Thank you for having me. I played Aussie Rules Football in the winter and in 2006, at the end of our training sessions, the school athletics coach took 15 minutes of running. From there I started to develop a passion and started turning up to every running session I could.

James: Did you have a particular athletics idol growing up?

Alexander: I never had one definitive idol. However I remember watching the 2007 Melbourne Telstra A-Series meet and being inspired by Jeff Riseley and Craig Mottram in their victories in the 800m and 5000m respectively. I also looked up to Ryan Gregson and James Kaan through my teenage years as I used them as a barometer for my own progression and tried to replicate the performances and times they produced at my age. Even today, anyone that is better than me I look up to, as I try to learn anything I can from them in the hope that one day I can be of a similar standard.

James: What do you believe to be your strongest attribute with regards athletics, and what area do you feel you could improve on the most?

Alexander: I believe my dedication to the sport is my strongest attribute. As my coach Justin Rinaldi can confirm, I have never missed a session in the seven years we have been working together unless it has been due to injury. However, it’s ironic that our greatest strengths are often also our greatest weaknesses. Sometimes I become a little too obsessed and consumed with my training and competition. This can leave me a little stressed if I have had a bad race or training session, when it would be best to just let it go.

Semi-finalist at the 2013 World Championships

James: Would you describe yourself as a speed based or endurance based 800m runner?

Alexander: I was originally more of a speed based 800m runner in my younger years however I believe I am now more of a pure 800m runner; meaning that I can run an ok 400m and 1500m with neither being outstanding. Since beginning training with Justin, the plan was always to move into this ‘pure’ 800m runner model with the aim of each season being to improve both my speed and aerobic capacities.

James: You competed at the World Championships in Moscow last month, reaching the semi-finals. Can you put that experience into words? Were you satisfied with your performance?

Alexander: To reach the semi-finals was simply amazing. To have been on the verge of quitting the sport in 2011 with two consecutive stress fractures to finishing 13th in the world champs is something that makes me very appreciative and grateful. My life-long goal within athletics was to make an Australian team; so to have done that and also become a World Championship Semi-Finalist is a dream come true.

James: What do you believe to be the most important things you have learnt from your experience in Moscow which you can take forward into future major championships?

Alexander: I believe the lesson I have taken away from Moscow is that running is a pretty simple sport that is often over-complicated. Once I was out on the track in Moscow, my one and only conscious thought was to run those two laps as fast as I could and to forget everything else. Having said that, I obviously prepared well with a competent race plan, warm up, breakfast, sleep and all the other factors that allowed me to run quickly. As a result, I was in a fantastic place mentally as I was incredibly relaxed because I came to truly understand the meaning of the cliché that “you can only try your best”. Therefore going forward, I believe that I should not lose focus of the simple things and not worry about things over which I have no control.

James: Away from your own event, how did you enjoy the experience of being part of the Australian athletics team in Moscow?

Alexander: The team environment was incredible. I was definitely not expecting the strong team culture that existed amongst the group. The support from everyone, for everyone, was amazing as those that could make it out to watch our team-mates compete were always present and in voice. Everyone bonded really well together and I look forward to spending more time with the athletes that made up this fantastic group.

James: What other particular moments from your career to date stick in the memory?

Alexander: My personal best run in Belgium of 1:45.44 is something I’ll never forget. This was my first race of my 2013 European campaign with the goal being to qualify for Moscow. So to have run such a big personal best and secure qualification for my first senior national team just left me in pure ecstasy. In addition, to have done it in front of so many mates, my coach and the late Tom Kelly made the moment even more special.

My first senior national title earlier this year was also very memorable as I had finally achieved a goal that I had wanted to do for so long.

James: What would you describe as the most disappointing moment in your athletics career so far? What positives have you taken from it?

Alexander: The lowest point in my athletics career would have to be after I had suffered my second stress fracture of 2011. In March of that year I suffered a left tibial stress fracture and in late September suffered a right femoral stress fracture, around 15cm in length. I was so disappointed in my own body. I was only running 50km a week yet I was breaking down with stress fractures. At the same time, I was watching other middle distance runners whom were all completing a minimum of 80km a week and remaining injury free and I just couldn’t understand it. The consequence of the stress fractures has ensured that I truly appreciate everything in the sport. Everything from running fast and winning races, all the way down to the simple pleasure of putting on my shoes and going for an easy run. It has definitely given me a better perspective on the sport. It may sound like a cliché, but it has taught me that my running career can end at anytime, so you have to make the most of your opportunities, and enjoy the journey.

Representing Australia at the 2009 World Youth Championships

James: What are your goals for 2014?

Alexander: My first goal of 2014 is to remain injury free so I can continue to build on my strength and durability as an athlete, to ensure longevity within the sport. In terms of times and competition, I would love to break 1:45 and become just the 4th Australian to do so. Obviously I would like to break the Australian record at some stage, but realistically this may take another year or so. With regards to competition, I would like to defend my 800m National Championship Title, make the Commonwealth Games team, and then make the 800m final.

Off the track I have the ambition to gain a new sponsor after I was unfortunately let go by my previous one at the end of the Australian domestic season.

James: What would an average week of training be like in winter, specifically in terms of key sessions?

Alexander: An standard week would be as follows:

Monday – speed work

Tuesday – long hills

Wednesday – gym and 45 minute jog

Thursday – long track session (on grass)

Friday – gym and 30 minute jog

Saturday – threshold

Sunday – 60 minute jog

James: With regards to speed work, what do you consider to be the key sessions for an 800m runner?

Alexander: In my preparation for Moscow my speed sessions were much more geared towards a speed endurance approach (400m type session) with improvement on my top end speed being a product of this training. Following on from Moscow, Justin (my coach) and I have linked up with Steve Hooker to conduct Monday speed sessions which are very different to what we have done in the past. At the moment we are heavily focused on technique, with improving top end speed being the objective once I have improved technically. As they say, you have to learn how to walk before you can run. Therefore I guess we will see whether a greater focus on top end speed and technique is better than speed endurance this time next year! I hope it is the former!

James: What are your favourite and least favourite training sessions?

Alexander: My enjoyment for sessions is simply inversely proportional with the amount of distance covered. The shorter the session, the more fun it is. Pre-competition training sessions are definitely my favourite as they are not taxing and as you are usually fresh, you feel incredibly light and fluid. The long grinding nature of some kilometre repeats, threshold runs and long hills are always something I do not enjoy, which always makes winter challenging. But having said that you just have to suck it up and get on with it.

James: How important is core strength work for an 800m runner and how much emphasis do you put on it? What specific core strength exercises do you incorporate into your training?

Alexander: Currently I am trying to accumulate all the facts with regard to middle distance training that I can so that I can have a strong opinion supported by reason when I do hopefully move into coaching after my career. However, my opinion of this topic at the moment (with very limited knowledge) is that the ‘core’ muscles can be activated and improved with correct technique in other exercises such as deadlifts and squats. Consequently, I do not complete much specific ‘core’ training as I am getting this through other means and only use a few exercises such as double leg lowers to supplement my gym program.

James: You have competed in the AV Shield, Victoria’s primary inter-club competition, which caters for every athlete regardless of age or standard. How important has this competition been with regards broadening the appeal of track and field and getting more of the average Joe’s involved in the sport? Going forward, how can this appeal be increased?

Representing his club St. Kevin’s

Alexander: These competitions are the heart of athletics and is where all the Sally Pearsons and Steve Hookers of our sport originate from. Consequently, I believe that it is absolutely critical to be able to have big numbers so that any talent that is present will hopefully be identified. In terms of the appeal of the sport, sheer numbers is the game; the more people we have interested in the sport, the more interesting it appears to the public. Therefore we need to get people down to these local competitions and also to our tour meets to begin with. Participation rates amongst Little Athletics is incredible and why there is a significant a drop-out rate between here and seniors needs to be identified. Sending athletes to schools to talk with kids and give out tour meet tickets is another suggestion. This would help get more kids into the sport and get them down to the tour meets to hopefully inspire the next generation, just as I was inspired nearly seven years ago.

James: Athletics remains a minority sport in Australia with low spectator attendances and almost non-existent TV coverage, a problem further compounded by the recent withdrawal of QANTAS as the main sponsor of the Australian Athletics Tour. Where do believe the sport is at right now in Australia? What needs to be done to raise the profile of the sport?

Alexander: The sport has gone through tough times in the past and survived. To improve the profile of the sport more attention to the major tour meets is a necessity. As I previously said before, giving out these tickets to primary school students (where parents will still have to pay entry) would be a fantastic way to improve crowd numbers, revenue and the general atmosphere at these events. In addition to this, there is simply too much dead time at the athletics which seems to drain the energy of the crowd. We also need to continue to attract high profile International stars. How many people would Usain Bolt and Mo Farrah attract? How would their presence affect the performances of local athletes? I am sure AA know all this, have heard it all before, but things are just not that simple. There is an economic equation to everything, and I am sure it is the economics that makes a lot of decisions for AA. If we can fill these stadiums at the tour meets and make it a fun and attractive night, it will go some way to raising the profile of the sport.

James: Many Australian athletes have struggled with the track season in Europe and the major championships being at a different time to the Australian track season and can often peak three or four months too early. Has this been a concern for you and how do you manage this challenge?

Alexander: This was definitely something my coach and I considered as we had not done this before (peak for the Australian and European seasons). I believe the decision to not take any time off after the Australian season was the solution. My first week after the Australian season I spent having an easy week where I jogged most days, the second week was an introductory week (but still quite difficult) and then by the third week we were back to full training. Having said that, I was able to do this as I ended my Australian season with no injuries or niggles.

James: What are your views on drug taking in athletics? Have you ever suspected a competitor? How do you deal with the frustration that some opponents may not be playing by the rules?

Alexander: I have never suspected a competitor other than the rumours that I’ve heard which I don’t take much notice of anyway. I believe that the bans are nowhere near tough enough; if you are a clean athlete and have nothing to hide then you should be comfortable with the thought of a life-time ban for a first time offence.

To deal with the frustration that some athletes may be undertaking illegal measures to improve performance I just think about how they would never truly be able to enjoy their successes. Not only from a moral view but also due to the fact that they would always be so fearful of being caught.

James: If you were president of the IAAF for a day, what drastic changes would you make?

Alexander: I would definitely change the rule regarding the fact than an athlete can only display one sponsor on their competition uniform. We are one of the few sports that does this and it is just so backward. It crushes any other sponsorship ambitions that a company may have in an athlete and makes the dream of becoming a professional athlete almost impossible. Sponsors want a return on their investment and a company is certainly not going to invest their money if they cannot get any exposure from an athlete. Conversely from the athlete’s point of view, they work incredibly hard to be able to compete at such a world-class standard and should be rewarded with the chance to generate a fair income that is representative of the service they are providing.

James: That’s great Alexander. Thank you for your time and the very best of luck for 2014.

Alexander: Thank you for the opportunity James.

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