Zatopek Legacy – Patrick Tiernan

Patrick Tiernan’s rise to distance running royalty has been meteoric over the last 2 years, but the Toowoomba native has been busy building an impressive athletic resume since the grand old age of 11.

Winning the Australian Cross Country Championships in 2005, the humble Victoria Park Race Course played host to a number of future Australian representatives, with a Victorian Under 20 team winning a national title with a perfect score, made possible by the likes of Toby Rayner, Liam Adams, David McNeill, Brenton Rowe and Steve Kelly – all of whom wore a green and gold singlet at a junior or senior representative level.

Tiernan quietly reminded the distance running community of his potential as a 17 year old, running 30:34 in a 10 kilometre road race on the Gold Coast, a subtle sign of things to come, as Tiernan won 2012 Australian Under 20 titles in the 1500m (3:50.67) and 5000m (14:40.59) events before departing for the famed Villanova University distance program.

It was in Villanova, Pennsylvania that the Queenslander’s prominence would rocket to international notice, a combination of results throughout the 2013-14 season indicated Tiernan was racing with maturity well beyond his years. A debut appearance at the NCAA National Cross Country Championships saw the youngster finish 9th in a field of over 200 athletes, with conditions requiring the start line to be moved due to inclement weather.

Building on a promising cross country season, Tiernan qualified for the NCAA Indoor and Outdoor Championships, finishing 7th and 6th respectively – this was a pattern that would become all too familiar in the coming years.

Tiernan departed Villanova with personal bests of 3:45.43 (1500m), 7:48.55 (3000m) and 13:25.78 (5000m) and an NCAA Cross Country title, having competed at the 2016 Rio Olympics whilst still a college student.

Tiernan’s development post-collegiately has been similarly rapid, with appearances at the IAAF World Championships in both the 5,000m (11th) and 10,000m (22nd), displaying a proficiency over the longer distances causing statisticians nationwide to hone their editing skills.

A 13th place finish at the IAAF World Cross Country Championship was an exhibition in patience amongst unbridled chaos, on a 2km looped course, Tiernan progressed throughout the race from 35th through 2km, to 26th, 23rd, to 19th with a lap remaining, ultimately finishing as the first non-African athlete in 13th, one position behind Leonard Komon (15km WR holder) and 3 places ahead of World and Olympic marathon champion Stephen Kiprotich.

Ranked 3rd, 3rd and 4th respectively across 3000m, 5000m and 10,000m on all-time Australian lists, boasting personal bests of 7:37.76, 13:13.44 and 27:29.81, the 23-year old is now an established regular on the Diamond League circuit. The defending Zatopek:10 champion following a brutal series of accelerations over the final 12 laps of the 2016 race, Tiernan will enter the 2017 event quietly confident in his preparation, with an eye on a home-state Commonwealth Games berth.

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA – 08 DECEMBER 2016: Patrick Tiernan wins the Zatopek 10 Australian 10,000m race during the Zatopek 10 Australian 10,000m Championships on December 8, 2016 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Michael Dodge/Getty Images)

When did you first hear about the Zatopek race?

The first Zatopek race I remember hearing about was 2008, when Dave McNeill sprinted away from Bobby Curtis and Michael Shelley. I saw the result in an R4YL magazine, and recognized Shelley’s name after seeing him at a lot of road races in Queensland. From then on, I would always look at the results of the race the day after it was run, and said to myself that I’d run it one day. The first time I actually went to the meet was last year when I competed in the main event.

Why did you first run the Zatopek 10,000m event?

The timing was perfect for me; I’d just come off of the NCAA cross country season, and had no more eligibility for Villanova. It was also the first step for me in qualifying for the World Championships, so it just made sense to come back and run it. I think last year was also the first time I physically felt ready to run a 10km on the track, which was very important to me.

What does Zatopek mean as an event to you?

It’s a very high priority meet for me for a number of reasons. First off, it’s a race on Australian soil, which have been very rare for me over the last 5 years. Coming back to Australia and getting to race in front of a number of familiar faces was a big deal for me, and something that I’ll always look forward to. Secondly, most of Australia’s great distance runners have won this race at some point in their career, and to have the chance to put my name up with their’s is an awesome feeling. Finally, there are very few track races around the world where the fans are able to come out onto the track. It makes for a great atmosphere, and hopefully we can get a few more people out this year to make it even more exciting.

LONDON, ENGLAND – 12 AUGUST 2017: Patrick Tiernan of Australia, Mohamed Farah of Great Britain and Paul Kipkemoi Chelimo of the United States compete in the Men’s 5000 Metres final during day nine of the 16th IAAF World Athletics Championships London 2017 at The London Stadium on August 12, 2017 in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)

Did you initially understand who Emil Zatopek was?

Not at all. It was either my high school coach, Tom Bradbury, or my Dad that first told me about him. At first I didn’t think much of what he did, but after realizing how hard it is to compete at the top level, I gained an incredible amount of respect for the man. To do what he did is something that would seem impossible to most.

What changed most during your training build-up to your first Zatopek 10?

I wouldn’t say that my training was changed for the Zatopek race, but rather for my last NCAA cross country race. Regardless, what I did in the lead up to that obviously paid off for me when it came to the Zatopek 10. In the lead-up to the race, I was doing a lot of fartlek sessions, with some quicker 1km reps thrown in either at the end or in the middle of each session. The purpose of this was to be able to adjust and recover if the pace quickened at random points throughout the race. I had also increased the amount of strength and conditioning work I was doing, which I think really helps in the latter stages of the race.

LONDON, ENGLAND – 12 AUGUST 2017: Patrick Tiernan of Australia leads during the Men’s 5000 Metres final during day nine of the 16th IAAF World Athletics Championships London 2017 at The London Stadium on August 12, 2017 in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)

How has the Zatopek 10 effected your career to date?

It was my first race as a professional, and really set a good tempo for the remainder of my season. It is a tough race to win, and I think that it helped me realize how much physical and mental strength is required to compete at the top level.

What does the race signify to you in the world of junior Australian athletics?

I never personally ran the 3,000m at the Zatopek meet. I was supposed to race in 2012 I think, but I was just beginning the process of going to Villanova University, so I had to pass up the opportunity unfortunately. Since the 2008 meeting where Dave won the 10,000m, I did keep close tabs on the junior race results. I remember seeing guys like Ryan Gregson, James Nipperess, Brett Robinson, and Jordy Williamsz win the event, and I really wanted to give it a crack. However, things just didn’t line up unfortunately. However, all of those guys went on to have great careers, and are still running at a very high level, so I think it just shows how significant the race is as far as identifying the next generation of Australian distance runners.

How did the U20 race effect your career progression at the time?

Obviously it didn’t have a direct effect for me, but seeing other guys around my age competing at the front of a race like that was always great motivation for me. Even when I first moved to the US, I would look at the result of that year’s race, and say to myself that when I eventually came back that I wanted to be able to compete and win a race like that, so it was always a source of motivation for me.


MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA – 08 DECEMBER 2016: Patrick Tiernan poses with the trophy after winning the Zatopek 10 Australian 10,000m race during the Zatopek 10 Australian 10,000m Championships on December 8, 2016 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Michael Dodge/Getty Images)

Background and interview courtesy of Sean Whipp