Every 1500m race involves strategy. But what do you do when the strategy you’ve always relied on becomes nigh-on redundant?
In the 1500m final of the Olympic Games Rio 2016, the entire field was bunched together as the thirteen runners raced three-quarters of the distance at a pace the commentator described as “a stroll”.
The strategy of the race was designed precisely for a final lap shoot-out, a show of bravado to answer the question of who had the strongest kick.
In the end, the USA’s Matthew Centrowitz crossed the finish line to win gold in 3:50.00. It was the slowest winning time in an Olympic final since 1932.
However, the World Championships in Doha in 2019 marked a turning point in the way these types of athletics showpieces would pan out.
Gone was the cat-and-mouse game of holding back until the latest possible moment, as Timothy Cheruiyot set off at an audacious pace from the first lap before going on to obliterate the field in 3:29.26.
The Kenyan's time that day was more than 20 seconds faster than the Rio 2016 gold-winning mark.
But more than that, it marked a sea change in the approach the world’s top athletes would take to the 1500m distance, backed up by the Tokyo 2020 final where Norway’s Jakob Ingebrigtsen won in a blistering Olympic record 3:28.32.
Great Britain’s Jake Wightman, who finished 10th in that Tokyo 2020 medal race, knew something in his own approach would have to change if he was to keep up.
A revolution was taking place in his sport and he could either adapt or bow to it.
“My main strength has been over 800m as well as 1500, and probably between 2012 and 2016 that was perfect,” Wightman explained in an exclusive interview with Olympics.com prior to the 1500m competition at last month's World Athletics Championships in Oregon.
“They were slow races that were probably won in a quick last lap, which is exactly how I’d love them to be. But the era has changed.
“We’ve had Tim Cheruiyot who won in Doha and then Jakob Ingebrigtsen obviously won it last year. They just time trial it hard from the front, so you don’t really get the chance to show you’ve got that speed.”
Rising with the tide
After the disappointment of Tokyo, Wightman went straight back to the drawing board. He knew that his over-reliance on his last-lap speed needed to be balanced with stamina training that would see him reach the final in better shape to battle for the victory.
Along with his coach and father, Geoff, Wightman devised a plan to focus more on longer distances, as opposed to just the 800 and 1500m training he had been used to.
“The best thing now is to be as good a 5k runner as I am at 800m, which involves a lot of training that I don't like," he explained.
"It meant racing some 3ks indoors, which were probably grimmer than any race I've done before. So I wasn't a fan of them at all. But I'm hoping that means I can get through the rounds a little bit stronger and then have to run quicker each round and then run your quickest in the final race.”
There were glimpses of the new strategy working for Wightman in this season’s 1500m Diamond League race in Rabat. In a race in which he may have faded in the past, the Scottish athlete stuck to with the front group before surging to the lead over the past 200m to take the victory.
But for the World Athletics Championships final in Eugene, Wightman would need bravery as much as strategy to have any chance of winning.
Before the day of the race, his dad Geoff, who was also the stadium announcer during the final, set out exactly what his son would need to do to have any chance of winning a race that also included Cheruiyot and Ingebrigtsen, the leaders of the 1500m revolution.
“I said, you could hang back at fourth, fifth, sixth and get a bronze - that’s likely,” remembered Wightman senior after the final in Oregon.
“But take a risk like you did in Tokyo. Go with the break and it might come off this time.”
Armed with a new energy that had eluded him at the Olympics, Wightman stuck to the plan. He took the lead with 200m to go and surged for the finish line in 3:29.23, winning one of the most memorable races of the Championships to take gold ahead of a stunned Ingebrigtsen who was helpless to respond.
“Hopefully the rewards will be seen in these [World] Championships and the Commonwealths, because I’ve worked pretty hard in getting that aspect of my racing better,” Wightman told Olympics.com days before he raced to glory in Oregon, having not envisioned what lay just days ahead of him at the Worlds.
After the race, he pointed to the changes he has made as the key to his victory in a race where all the stars aligned for him. "All I wanted to do was stay in contention as long as possible to be able to use my speed and to be strong enough to be able to do that and to actually use the only card I had against Jakob, which is a fast 800m...
"I've tried to change so many things this past year... the stuff that I knew was wrong from last year, to give myself a shot at being competitive in a race like that. So for that to have come off and for so many people to have worked so hard to get me to this point, is something I feel proud of."
Part one is done – the new World champion, with one dream fulfilled and a gold medal hanging around his neck. Part two didn't quite work out in terms of claiming the title for Scotland at the Commonwealth Games 2022 in the men’s 1500m final on Saturday 6 August, instead claiming bronze behind Australia's Oliver Hoare and Cheruiyot, respectively.
But the world can expect even more from the athlete who faced a revolution in his sport and showed he is more than capable of being a leader of the next phase of 1500m history.