The 2003 Zatopek men’s 10,000 metres showcased a race between Australia’s best track distance runner and Australia’s best marathoner but, if you were to believe the lead-up talk, neither of them much fancied their chances.
Craig Mottram, already a star at distances from 1500 to 5000 metres, was stressing his lack of track distance credentials.
“I like a challenge,” Mottram said pre-race, “and there are quite a few athletes in the field who have run much faster than I ever have for 10,000, so I thought it would be interesting to see what it would be like t keep up with them for as long as possible.”
He did allow that running against “more experienced guys . . . can work to my advantage as well.”
That, of course, and the fact he had already won a Zatopek 10,000 two years earlier in 2001 and had come back from an injury lay-off to achieve an Olympic qualifying standard for 5000 metres, run the fastest-ever lap of Melbourne’s Tan track and win road races in Noosa, Burnie and Melbourne (the latter two at 10km).
Troop, the defending champion and the man who had broken Ron Clarke’s national record at 5000 metres a couple of years earlier, was talking up his marathon ambitions for the Athens Olympics.
“Whether I win the race, or come in fifth, I really want to have a good Zatopek,” he said, online “(but) if it doesn't happen, it doesn't change too much of where I'm going though, because the marathon is a different event again, and this isn't Athens after all.”
Perhaps ‘Troopy’ gave more away when he remarked: “I have a rivalry with everyone and I always thrive on competitive races as well and what better way than having two Aussies go head to head.”
Indeed, the race came at a time when the feelings between Mottram and Troop ran deeper than just competitive tension, adding a piquant touch to a match-up between the top two Australians.
Maybe, though, both were right to downplay their ambitions for the 2003 Zatopek because, come the night, the star was Haley McGregor who won the women’s Zatopek with what was then the second-fastest performance ever in the big race, and remains the fourth-fastest.
McGregor’s was a solo run through the second half of the race after being paced through the first 5000 by Eloise Wellings. After slowing initially from the 15:55 half-way pace, she surged home to such effect that she ran 31 minutes 43.14 seconds, almost two seconds under the Olympic qualifying standard.
“I don’t know how to describe it, but I was close to tears of joy tonight,” an elated McGregor said. “That last 100 metres really kills, but you forget about that as soon as you cross the line.”
McGregor lapped the field with Manchester 2002 Commonwealth Games marathon silver medallist Krishna Stanton finishing second in 33:19.20. Her performance made her an almost certain selection to join Benita Willis in running the 10,000 metres at the following year’s Olympic Games.
“It’s a dream, it will hit home some time soon. The prospect of going is awesome,” McGregor said.
The big match-up in the men’s race was a bit of a fizzer. Troop led through the first part of the race before Mottram moved away with a sub-64 second lap from the 5000 mark. He ran the next lap as fast to open up a winning advantage. His winning time was 27:50.55, just over a second outside the Olympic qualifying standard, but he was aiming at the 5000 anyway.
“I had a rough patch from 6000 to 9000 metres,” Mottram said, a rather significant “patch” usually.
“It was hard. I would have loved to run sub-27:30. Then I had the other goal of the A-standard, but I just missed that, too.”
Still, the run continued the build-up in momentum for Mottram after he had missed the world championships in Paris earlier in the year as he recovered from a prolonged bout of ilio-tibial band syndrome.
The momentum continued all the way to Athens as Mottram set three national records for 5000 metres in Europe, culminating in his 12:55.76 finishing centimetres behind Haile Gebrselassie in London, before finishing eighth in the Olympic final.
Mottram’s 27:50.55 remains the most recent occasion on which an Australian has broken 28 minutes in the Zatopek, David McNeill with his 28:03.02 win in 2008 coming closest.
Troop finished second in 28:13.96 with Steve Moneghetti, running his 19th Zatopek at the age of 42, third in 28:42.93.