• Curtis Anderson

Top middle distance runner from Wales joins OTC Elite

EUGENE, Ore. - When Jake Heyward showed up at the Payton Jordan Invitational at Stanford last spring, the 20-year-old middle distance runner was unable to compete due to an inflamed Achilles tendon.

Instead, the talented young Welshman, who was considering a change in his training environment, took advantage of the opportunity to connect with Oregon Track Club Elite coach Mark Rowland.

Heyward had been advised of Rowland's expertise by his former coaches at the prestigious Cardiff Athletic Club in Wales, including James Thie, a former athlete under Rowland. Within minutes of meeting the OTC Elite coach, he knew he had potentially found the right fit.

"At Stanford, I knew I was looking for something different," Heyward said. "It's a big move from the UK to Oregon, and I wanted to get to know (Mark) better ... we watched a race together, and one of the things that really stood out to me was when he said something about one of the athletes running, his technique, and what time he thought he would run. Six laps later, it was that exact time. This guy knows his stuff."

It didn't hurt, of course, that Rowland was British, a bronze medalist from the 1988 Seoul Olympics, and a highly successful coach of athletes ranging from the 800 meters to the marathon. He's also known for making sure his athletes get to the starting line in good health.

That was a key factor in Heyward's ultimate decision to join OTC Elite as he makes the transition from an acclaimed junior athlete to the professional ranks heading into an Olympic year.

"Mark has coached a massive range of people who have gone on to big things," Heyward said. "I think he's well-suited for me ... at the moment, I'm not the most robust athlete. I've got a lot of work to do before I can get to the training that I want to do. I believe Mark is clever enough to get me there."

Although his 2019 season was cut short by the Achilles injury, Heyward has already made his mark overseas as one of Europe's top young middle distance runners.

Consider this resume:

  • He won 1,500m titles at both the 2016 European Youth Championships and 2017 European Junior Championships.

  • In 2018, he smashed a 50-year-old British indoor junior record in the 3,000m with a time of 8:00.93. The old mark of 8:01.4 was set by Scotland's Ian Stewart in 1968.

  • He placed fourth in the 1,500m at the 2018 IAAF World Junior Championships in Finland.

  • He set his 1500m personal best of 3:36.90 at the 2018 Diamond League meeting in London, nearly breaking a 40-year-old British junior record.

  • He established his mile PR of 3:54.78 at last year's Müller Anniversary Games in London.

After arriving in Eugene in mid-October, Heyward is proceeding with caution as he prepares for the upcoming season. There will likely be few if any indoor meets, and he is looking forward to training at altitude in Flagstaff, Ariz., this spring.

The most important meet on his schedule is the 2020 British Athletics Championships, June 20-21, in Manchester, England. The meet serves as the official British Trials for the Tokyo Olympics.

"There's no point taking risks or rushing things this time of year," Heyward said. "The goal is to get to the starting line at the British Trials healthy. That's the only race that matters to me."

So far, it has been a seamless transition for Heyward.

He said Eugene has more than "lived up to the hype" as a community that cares about running, and he couldn't be happier with his OTC Elite teammates and support staff.

"I've never seen so many people out running," he said. "In terms of training, I always like to elevate my game. It's good to have people push you in workouts and make it fun at the same time."

Story: Curtis Anderson

Photos: Jake Willard, Itai Epstein