We look at the transformation of a runner who went from 10th in the Olympic final to world 1500m gold medallist
Jake Wightman was not his usual self. Normally one of the most positive people you could ever come across in athletics, the 28-year-old – who will always, without fail, go out of his way to find out how you are before taking any questions – didn’t quite have his customary spark … and it wasn’t entirely because of the violent Scottish weather.
Speaking to him last November outside a soggy, windswept gazebo as another band of horizontal rain went through its final warm-up, he had just come 14th over the 4km route at the Scottish Short Course Cross Country Championships.
He was the first to admit his limitations as a cross country runner. “The muddier it is, the worse I get and I just didn’t feel comfortable at all,” he said.
So why put himself through it? That Wightman was at Lanark Racecourse at all, just as winter was really starting to bare its teeth, said a great deal about him. He had decided to step
out of his comfort zone and eat some humble pie with the longer-term aim of being able to dine at athletics’ top table.
At that point, he had been back in full training for a month following a season which had hurt him deeply, both physically and mentally. Coming 10th in the Olympic 1500m final in Tokyo certainly hadn’t been the height of his ambition and he was beginning to wonder just how much longer he could keep making the sacrifices needed to be one of the elite. He was trying to rouse himself once more.
“Tokyo was tough to come back from,” he said, the curling of his lip betraying his levels of frustration. “I’m still really gutted when I think about it because it wasn’t even as if it was a case of something going wrong on the day, it was more that I wasn’t in the shape I needed to be to run my third race [following the heats and the semis] quickly. I’m never going to be a cross country runner but hopefully in a couple of months’ time I’ll be seeing the benefits.”
His wish was granted. Following discussions with his father and coach Geoff, Jake raced over more distances and events to which he was less accustomed, all with the target of building his strength for the big occasion.
The first evidence of the plan working came indoors over 3000m. At the beginning of January he had run 7:50.97 in Sheffield. One month later, he was clocking a PB of 7:37.81 in Staten Island. He would be back on more familiar territory with two 800m outings in May, before June started with a bang. Victory over 1500m at the Rabat Diamond League was followed by a Scottish record of 3:50.30 at the Dream Mile in Oslo. That brought him third place in a race won by Jakob Ingebrigtsen … but he wanted more.
“I believe that’s the Scottish record, which is good, but I had hoped to get sub 3:50,” said the European and Commonwealth bronze medallist in the immediate aftermath of the race. He who would later admit that that defeat to Ingebrigtsen illustrated just how much work he still had to do.
Jake re-emerged in Manchester a few days later to produce a convincing – and impressive – 1500m victory as he won the first senior British title of his career, hitting the front with 200m to go and leaving the rest of the quality field trailing in his wake. Sound familiar?
That win delivered him to the World Championships in Eugene, the occasion around which all of that graft and effort had revolved. A number of people thought he had the chance of a medal. Few thought it would be gold.
Of all the British athletes, it was the performances and high confidence levels of Josh Kerr which had attracted the most attention. Jake was more than happy with being able to qualify “as discreetly as possible” and fly under the radar. He knew he was peaking at the right time.
“He had come into this as British champion, he’d had a really good training camp and a lot of people were saying to us ‘oh, you’ll get a medal, you’ll get a medal’,” says Geoff.
“Now that would have been nice but our discussion centred around: ‘How many times will you line up in a global final with this kind of fitness, strength and speed? You’ve got to take a risk’.”
Jake did just that, making sure he covered all of the early moves. His dream scenario would be to find himself on the shoulder of the leader with 200m to go. Olympic champion Ingebrigtsen, running a race which was far more reactive than proactive, was at the head of affairs approaching the final bend but the Briton was right there and not quite able to believe how good he felt with 200m remaining. This was his chance and he went for it.
“We talked about the tactics,” says Geoff. “The only chink in the armour of Jakob is his 800m leg speed. If it was an 800m race, with his 1:46 PB, he wouldn’t be the quickest in the field. So the only chance you’ve got, and he doesn’t allow it to go slow in the last 200m, is to pounce in the last 30 seconds. Getting by him is not easy and he runs that tactic of holding the inside curve like [Matthew] Centrowitz did in Rio and Mo Farah did in his career. That was the tactic but Jakob had wheels and that was nerve-racking.”
As Jake put it, however, “the stars aligned” and with in-stadium commentator Geoff managing to keep his head and call the race while all about him were losing theirs, a new world champion was crowned. The nice guy finished first.
One person in the crowd who knew Jake had won it as soon as he made his move was Laura Turner-Alleyne. The former Olympic sprinter has been part of the wider team assembled by Geoff and has worked with Jake since just after the 2017 World Championships. She could see a whole lot of hard work paying off right in front of her eyes.
“The brief, initially, was ‘Jake needs a better kick’,” she says of how she first got involved. “At that time that was the way the middle distance championships were going – it was always sit in with a slow pace and then they would kick to finish, so they [the Wightmans] wanted someone to help with that side of things.
“I think what it evolved into is just a general focus on running mechanics. I did a lot of work on posture and basic running mechanics.
“[The team] have implemented a speed session [to the training schedule] once a week and then I’ve also managed to get another session of sprint drills in during the week because I just felt that [was needed] in order for them to get the benefit of all these things.
“Jake’s mechanics on the home straight [is still the focus] but I’m hoping that it has bled into his running in general, as well.”
With that obvious early winter emphasis being placed on strength building, was it difficult to marry that process up with maintaining – or even boosting – his finishing speed?
“It was definitely a different balance this year,” says Turner-Alleyne. “The speed sessions were still there through the winter but we probably took a hit a little bit in terms of their quality.
“We were always working on the same sprinting mechanics that we’ve worked on for the last four years, though, and you could see once they started moving from indoors to outdoors that his legs were starting to turn over again. He got that speed back pretty quickly once he started racing.”
Some athletes might have opted not to work so hard on the “optional extras” or to delve into the kind of detail which Wightman did. Turner-Alleyne, however, has never found him to be anything but a thoroughly willing pupil.
“He’s brilliant. We often have lots of laughs during training, especially when we first started doing all the drills,” she says. “I think it was quite a lot for a middle distance athlete to take on. He’d done drills before but there were new drills that I was bringing in, and some of those challenged his co-ordination so I think it was pretty frustrating at times.
“I still like to frustrate him every now and again, but he’s picked it up really, really well and he looks like a sprinter now.
“Jake can feel it and he and Geoff can watch videos and they know what they’re looking for now. It’s been a good learning curve, I think.”
To the average observer, the fruits of all that labour might be hard to discern. What has Turner-Alleyne been able to change?
“The main thing that I saw when I started working with him, especially in the home straight when he was under pressure and getting tired, [was that] everything would go out behind him,” she says. “He would lose his posture, his legs would kick out behind him and he was arching his back.
“That was why the kick wasn’t very good, because mechanically it wasn’t very efficient. Now he looks like a sprinter when he’s doing a session with me. If he gets the race right and he’s able to run the way he did in the final in Eugene it looks brilliant.
“As the years have gone by he’s lapsed into that [old] way of running less and less. I don’t think I’ve seen it this year. He’s certainly getting better at it himself and it’s [a case of] thinking about it before we get there. So he now knows that he’s got to get these things set up on the bend rather than just thinking about it on home straight and I think now he’s working out how to best use it. We are starting to see it come to fruition.”
Much of the credit for that plan all coming together must go to Geoff, who has assembled a formidable team around his son. He makes light of his role: “It is like an F1 team really and I’m just this Captain Mainwaring figure who’s just shouting in the background.”
However, Turner-Alleyne insists there is much more to it than “the captain” is letting on.
“Geoff is amazing and leaves no stone unturned,” she says. “He has put together a brilliant team and everyone’s on top of their own bit with Geoff co-ordinating everything. Jake’s bought into everything that he does with all the different people he works with and they are brilliant people to work with.”
She adds: “As soon as Jake came on to the straight in the lead, I knew he was going to win. I saw how he came off the bend and I was like ‘well, that’s it then. No-one’s going to catch him now’.”
Rather than outside a gazebo, my next encounter with Jake would be in the bowels of Hayward Field. There was a significantly lengthier wait this time as he made his way through the mixed zone and the raft of media interviews which greeted his victory. The spark was unmistakenably back and he was flanked by the two people who got him started in the sport in the first place – father Geoff and his mother Susan, both of whom were international marathon runners.
It was Susan, in fact, who first coached Jake up to the age of 16, and he looked directly at her when I asked what that little boy taking his first steps of athletics would make of all of this.
“I hope that the little me would be very proud,” he said. “I was a tiny prawn, a weed of a kid who wasn’t amazing when I was really young. I’ve just built through and had that belief that I could do something in the sport. What that something was, I’d never been entirely sure, but for that something to be a world champion is unbelievable.
READ MORE: Jake Wightman’s career in numbers
“I don’t love going for a run, this sport to me is all about competition and how well you do. I feel like I’ve missed a lot of my younger years where I could have done a completely different thing with my life – going out loads or doing a different job. I feel like I’ve sacrificed a lot. Sometimes it gets to me, especially after Tokyo, and you think ‘how many more years am I going to do this for and still get the same enjoyment?’
“The lows in the sport are pretty bad but with moments like this you realise all of the sacrifices have been worth it.”
Jake Wightman’s major championships record
2013 European Junior 1500m 1st 3:44.14
2014 Commonwealth Games 1500m 8th heat 3:43.87
2016 European Championships 1500m 7th 3:47.68
2017 European Team Championships 1500m 2nd 3:53.72
2017 World Championships 1500m 7th semi final 3:41.79
2018 Commonwealth Games 800m 4th 1:45.82
2018 European Championships 1500m 3rd 3:38.25
2019 World Championships 1500m 3:31.87
2021 European Team Championships 800m 1st 1:45.71
2021 Olympic 1500m 10th 3:35.09 (1st semi 3:33.48)
2022 World Championships 1500m 1st 3:29.23
» This article first appeared in the August issue of AW magazine. To subscribe, CLICK HERE