The elite 5000 meters was a fantastic race, as Justyn McKnight and Sam McEntee battled to the finish in a fine 13:17 on a cold and windy night in Palo Alto, California. Here’s how Sam McEntee went from a college runner to an elite athlete, in this fine piece by Cathal Dennehy.
For many distance runners, the landscape of life after college is a wasteland – an empty scene where there is no visible route from where you are to where you want to be.
Sam McEntee knows this, but the 25-year-old Australian is one of the fortunate few to have had a path mapped out for him, thanks to two world-class coaches who nudged him in the right direction at a pivotal point in life.
It was May 2015, and McEntee, a middle distance talent plying his trade at Villanova, was coming to the end of his collegiate career. Three years earlier, it seemed he had endless options available for the future after clocking a PB of 3:36.81 at the age of just 21.
But the only predictable thing in life is that it’s utterly unpredictable, and after being eliminated in the heats the 1500m at the NCAA Regional Championships in Jacksonville, Florida, he faced the daunting decision every athlete must when the safety net of a scholarship disappears: what next?
Marcus O’Sullivan had guided him through his time at Villanova, but the Irishman could see that his progress was stagnating in Philadelphia. “He knew I was a bit flat and he said you’ve got to get out of here,” recalls McEntee. “He said to ask yourself if you really want it and if so, go and get to that next stage.”
The next step was an obvious one, as it is for most promising Australians with an aerobic engine. As soon as McEntee got knocked out of NCAA regionals in Florida, he picked up the phone to Nic Bideau, the coach, manager and driving force behind the Melbourne Track Club.
“Nic was over in London at the time and he said to change my flight and get over there as soon as I could,” recalls McEntee. “You’d struggle to find someone as influential in Australian athletics as him. He’s been in the game for 25 to 30 years, knows a lot of people on the world circuit, and he knows what it takes to get to that top level.”
McEntee ran a series of races around Europe that summer before returning to Australia, setting up a training base in Melbourne and adjusting to his new life, where he knew the path to global championships would involve a lot more mileage than he was used to.
“Oh man,” says McEntee, when asked how training has changed from college life under O’Sullivan to life as a professional under Bideau. “Marcus is one of the best coaches out there. I was a really low mileage guy before and he brought me on, but once I moved on I knew there would be a lot of hard work and extra mileage.
“Nic’s tough, but he’s good. It’s been a lot harder than I wanted but I really enjoy the challenge, and that’s one thing I’ve learned to love – getting as much out of myself as I can.”
In 2016, McEntee finally surrendered to the belief – long held by both O’Sullivan and Bideau – that he was better suited to the 5K than 1500, and in Stanford last May, he smashed his personal best to run 13:20.72 and qualify for the Olympic Games.
In Rio, a summer bout of plantar fasciitis left him well off his best and McEntee was eliminated after finishing 18th in his 5000m heat in 13:50.55, but the experience was nonetheless a positive one.
“It was awesome,” he says. “The race was tough going as I had pretty average training going in and I knew I wasn’t going to be at my best but it was my first Olympics, so I don’t think I was ready to set the world on fire.
“I tried to take in as much as I could of the experience – running next to Mo [Farah] thinking: ‘he’s the best. If you want to be as good as him it’s going to take a lot.'”
Ahead of 2017, McEntee continued to creep up his weekly mileage, training everywhere from his sea-level base in Melbourne to the group’s favoured altitude locations in Falls Creek, Australia, and more recently in Mount Laguna, California.
That was where he came from last Friday night to compete at the Payton Jordan Invitational in Stanford, where he slashed another three seconds off his 5000m PB to finish second in 13:17.55, his last lap a swift 59.06 seconds.
“I took it over at 800 [to run] and it’s normally not my cup of tea to do that, but I really wanted that world standard and I really wanted a PB,” he says. “It’s something I don’t do often but I’m pretty proud of myself for having a crack.”
It made him the first Australian qualifier for the men’s 5000m at the World Championships in London and moved him to eighth on the Australian all-time list, but what’s perhaps most promising is that McEntee feels there’s more in the tank.
His typical mileage hovers around 90 miles a week, but he figures he’s only banked 10 weeks above that in the past two years as he continues to adjusts to the lengthier workouts prescribed by Bideau.
“The sessions had a lot more volume than I would do in college, and it’s three sessions a week now instead of two in college, so the key was to be able to handle the volume in sessions before I increase the overall mileage.”
It can be exhausting, no doubt, but the results are starting to speak for themselves.
“Sometimes you think: ‘fuck, this is so hard’, but Nic is really good and this race showed it works,” said McEntee. “I haven’t been that consistent for very long – it’s only been a couple of months.”
His next race will be at one of his old stomping grounds in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, on May 17, where he hopes to rewrite his 1500m PB in a race paced by Nick Willis. After that he’ll relocate to Europe for the summer, training at MTC’s base in Teddington, England.
Along with athletes like Collis Birmigham, Patrick Tiernan, Genevieve LaCaze, Ryan Gregson and Brett Robinson, McEntee is part of a widespread resurgence in Australian distance running, and he believes the best is yet to come.
“We’re not quite on the same level as the Americans in middle-distance events – obviously we’re a much smaller country – but we’ve got as much fight as they do and we want it as much as them. The results will come in the next year or two.”
Life as a low-13-minute 5000m runner is far from lucrative, with sparse money available either through sponsorship or prize money, but McEntee credits his parents and his coach for the chance to continue chasing the dream he believes is possible this year: a world 5000m final in London.
“I’m a full-time athlete and I don’t work, much as I’d love to get that extra bit of income, but my parents are really supportive,” he says. “Along with that, Nic has given me a great opportunity, so I’m just grabbing it by the horns and seeing how far I can get.”