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European U-23 800m final the target for talented Offaly runner

Living in the moment but fast improving Killeigh man setting his sights high

European U-23 800m final the target for talented Offaly runner

Mark Milner

MARK Milner will have the biggest outing of his young life when he competes in the European U-23 Track and Field Championships in Tallinn, Estonia this week.

The 20 year old Killeigh man will take part in the 800 metres and he has his sights set on the final. The 800 metre heats take place in the morning session on Friday, July 9 and the final will provide one of the glamour events as the championships wind towards their conclusion on Sunday evening – it is at 5.30pm.

Reaching these finals is a very important step in Mark Milner's athletics' development. He had to break the B qualifying standard of 1.49.00 twice to ensure selection and he did this under intense pressure, running a personal best in Belfast and then speeding under 1.49 a few days later in Italy – he ran 1.49.30 in Belfast and 1.48.45 in Italy a couple of weeks later. Those performances augur well for Milner's future career – the ability to run fast times when the pressure is on is an absolute necessity for any athlete hoping to thrive in the sport.

Coached by a very highly regarded Kilbeggan man, Joe Ryan, Milner is on an athletics scholarship at University College Dublin, where he is glad to receive help and guidance from their head of athletics, Offaly man James Nolan. The Screggan man competed in two Olympic Games in 2000 and 2004 in the 1,500 metres and was an excellent 800 metre before turning his attention to the longer distance. Nolan's best for the 800 metres was 1.46.05 and these are steps that Milner is hoping to follow in.

He has had his share of injury problems, he has endured his share of frustration and self doubt and he is very much aware that an athletics career can end in the blink of an eye. He is focused on the current moment and being the best he can be but Milner is also very ambitious and has his sights set high. He wants to run in the Olympics, he wants to run fast times and he will give it absolutely everything he has as he bids to fulfill his immense potential.

Mark English set a new Irish record of 1.44.71 to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics recently, breaking the 26 year old mark set by David Matthews. The qualifying standard was 1.45.20 and that is the territory Milner has to get into if he is to go to the Olympics. That, however, is all down the road and his times are not in that class yet. He is young and won't be in his peak for another few years – his aim is to shave a second each year and in four years time, the Olympics will loom onto his radar, everything going well.

Tallinn will be his second experience of action at a major international competition. He went to the European U-20s two years ago where he was disappointed not to make the final and set his sights on the U-23s this year.

Like all sports people, the past year plus was tough on him. The 2020 season effectively fell by the wayside because of Covid and even this year, securing races to meet the qualifying standards was not simple – he was grateful to sports agent David Flynn for getting his entry to the crucial meeting in Italy.

He was delighted to break 1.49, having ran 1.49 “high” in the indoors two years ago while it didn't happen last year, even though his training was going well. “As you get faster into the 1.40s, it does become tougher to PB in every race,” he smiled. He spoke about the pressure of having to achieve qualifying times with the gun to his head. Italy was his last chance to make the plane to Tallinn. “Everything was perfect there on the night. It was lovely weather, I was feeling really good. The track was good and the race was good. I could see from the race before us that the pace maker had gone out properly and I knew the opportunity was there. I just had to go after it. There is no real thinking in an 800. A 5k and as you get up in the distances, there is more tactics and splits etc. The best 800 races you run, just have to go after it. You are running those times in training the whole time, you know how it feels and you just have to go after it. Go out, go hard and hold on for dear life.”

He knows it is different in championships when races can be more tactical and a slow first lap could be followed by a blistering second lap.

Milner has now developed into one of Offaly's brightest athletics prospects. He comes from GAA territory in Killeigh and he played football, hurling, rugby and soccer when he was young. He began to concentrate on rugby and football in National School and running only came into his focus when he ran in a national schools' cross country in Tullamore Harriers. Juvenile coach in Tullamore Harriers, Damian Lawlor spotted his potential immediately, lured him into the sport and the athlete is grateful to him for his guidance, support and encouragement.

He was still playing rugby but his “gut” told him that his future was in running. He was a very young 11 year old when making that choice as the field games went by the wayside. Normally people would be in their mid teens when making a choice but Milner feels that starting at such a young age has helped, particularly when it comes to pre-race nerves.

He comes from a family background steeped in athletics and it is not a surprise that he should head down the same path. His father's family, the Milner's are natives of Walsh Island – they bucked the trend in the then heartland of Offaly football by concentrating on athletics in the 1970s and '80s. His uncle Charlie Milner was a brilliant 800 metre runner, he went on scholarship to America and held the Tullamore Harriers; 800 metre of 1.50.01 for years – Mark was thrilled to break that a couple of years ago.

His father Seamus was an excellent 400 metre athlete, running 49 seconds for that and other uncles, William, Colm and Dermot were also very good runners. Before that, his grandfather Seamus was a legendary cyclist – he had passed away before Mark was born.

In Tullamore Harriers, Damian Lawlor quickly guided Milner towards the 800 metres as he realised he had a potent mix of fast speed and the good endurance needed for 800 metres. He initially struggled with the longer endurance runs and while he was fast, he was not quick enough to really prosper in the 100m and 200m sprints. “It all really equated towards a good 800 metre runner,” he reflected.

Now a spiralling 6 feet 4, he raced in the 600 metres when young and finished fourth in a number of nationals. His sole ambition at that stage was a national medal but when the distance moved up to 800 metres at U-14 level, he won a national indoor medal and now has a big collection of them. He won the All-Ireland schools junior boys 800 metres when in second year in Colaiste Choilm in Tullamore, breaking the record in the process. The All-Ireland schools is always a real guide of an athletes' potential, though injury meant that Milner didn't get to win again in the older age groups. He wiped the record out that day – it was 2 minutes and he did 1.57.

He has had plenty of injuries with stress fractures particularly troublesome. He has tended to get injured after the indoor season and amazingly, this is his first injury free season since second year in school. He has had achilles problems as well, though he atttibutes some of these to growing pains and his height.

Breaking two minutes at such a young age – he did it in England for the first time – gave him the confidence that he had a future in the sport.

As he progressed, it became clear that he would get an athletics scholarship and Milner opted to stay at home rather than follow the well trodden route to America – a number of his Tullamore Harriers' colleagues have gone to the USA, including James Dunne and Aaron Mangan. Milner was tempted and sat entry exams there but again he went with his “gut”. He said: “I didn't feel I needed to go to America. I was very content with my coach Joe Ryan. He was doing unbelievable work with our group. Obviously some athletes feel the need to go there and that is their choice but I felt I had a good enough group at home and coach.”

Another factor was the potential of early burnout in America where coaches are very much focused on colleges glory and sometimes that can be put before an athlete's long term good. In America, scholarship athletes tend to be told where to run and he didn't want that, especially with his injuries. “I feel staying at home was the best option for me.” He stays in Dublin with Cork man Darragh McElhinney, who is going to Tallinn for the 5,000 metres. McElhinney is going out with Tullamore runner, Danielle Donegan and him and Milner have developed a really good friendship. They do plenty of training together, even though their chosen disciplines are very different – they do a lot of easy runs, longer tempo sessions and gym work together. While he is expected to compete in some events for UCD, he has a large degree of choice and his coach Joe Ryan dictates his schedule. “It is easier to plan your own goals and it is tailored more towards me than it would be in America.”

He has a tough training schedule as he has transitioned from low mileage to over 50 miles a week during the Winter, with a bit less during the season when he does more specific speed work. His schedule includes a Sunday long run of 12 miles at a comfortable 7 minute mile pace, sessions from sprints to mile reps. During season, shorter reps at 800 metre pace gets him into race shape and he generally trains six days a week with a few doubles thrown in some days – these could be two runs a day or a session and gym work, etc.

Having just missed the final in the European U-20s, he wants to be running on the Sunday in Tallinn. “I am going there after a much better build up. I know it is U-23 so it is a big step up but my aim is to get to the final. Anything can happen but I am going out there with the bit in my teeth from two years ago. I really want to get to the final. I will take each round as it comes and to get to the final would be huge.”

The Olympics are his long term target. “I am putting in a lot of effort now and if that is not on the back of my mind, I don't know why I would be putting in all this effort. To call yourself an Olympian is the main thing.”

How do you get from where you are now to running Olympics qualifying times? “It is a huge jump really but I feel I am in the shape to go 1.47 this year and you have to take each step at a time. My idea is a second every year. If you can keep that progression going, keep my training going, get stronger and more consistent, I don't see why not. Especially when I am training with guys like John Fitzsimons and Cian Phillips who have already ran 1.46 this year. I am matching them in training most of the time really. I think it is just a matter of keeping the head down, training with those boys and I think it will come if I just stay consistent.”

As he moves into senior competition, the European and World Championships will also come onto his target list. Down the road, he could go the 1,500 metres – James Nolan and others have followed this progression as they lose a bid of speed when they move into the late 20s but their endurance improves.

Is that on your radar? “To be honest I am not thinking that far ahead at the moment. Athlete profiling is a thing where you have to look at where you are. I think at the moment I am a pure 800 metre runner. That is how I feel in training and doing different paces. There is only a certain amount of time that you will get faster for 800 and as you get older, you will lose some of that speed, that twitch or whatever and you move up. You will get stronger but not faster and it is a logical thing to move to the 1,500 but at the moment, I am not thinking that far ahead.”

And Mark English has shown that there are no set rules as he has set the Irish record at 28 years of age.

He does mile reps but would not break 4 minutes at the moment. He ran one 1,500 metres last year as a “rust buster” when he did 3.52 in the indoors but that would not get him inside a 4 minute mile. “I didn't really know how to run it. I stepped off the track thinking I could have given a bit more there. It is a lot different in terms of dispersion of energy throughout the race.” He believes his 800 metre time would equate to between 4 minutes and 4.06/.07.

At the moment, his only focus is 800 metres. “You have to take each day as it comes. That is the beauty of starting young, you learn lessons through injuries and stuff. I have made mistakes before in training. If there was something on my plan and my body wasn't feeling up to it, I would have still went out and did it. Just to tick the box. I have learned since that is not the most intelligent way to go and you will suffer the consequences of making rash decisions and not listening to your body. If you have a run to do and your legs are not feeling it, it is always the best decision to back off the run and take the rest. You will miss a day as opposed to six weeks if you over do it. I have learnt that lesson over the years. Obviously you need your mileage and volume but you have to look at it in the holistic sense.”

Milner is optimistic about the future and he is content in himself. “I am happy in the sport now. In the last few years, it has been a bit tough. I wouldn't say I was considering dropping out but at times, I felt the juice wasn't worth the squueze really. I would see other athletes doing stuff and know I could be just as good or nearly as good and up there with them but I physically wasn't able to because of my injuries. It is stuff but you need to keep your head down and keep going. I am happy now and things are going well. You have to have your own focus. No one will pull you out of bed in the morning to go on a run. When you are in an individual sport, no one will do it but you. I know what needs to be done and if you don't do it, it won't happen. Do you want to succeed and if you do, you have to work. It is as simple as that.”

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