Tactical Changes Paid Off For Jake Wightman

World 1500 champ Jake Wightman confirmed his speed by winning the Brussels DL 800 in a PR 1:43.65. (JEFF COHEN)

DAYS AFTER SCORING AN UPSET in the World Championships 1500, Jake Wightman was back at his home in the London suburb of Teddington, watching some of the meet on TV. Afterwards, he went out for a run and by the time he got home all signs of his triumph in Eugene were gone.

“My girlfriend hid everything from Worlds,” he says of Irish middle-distance runner Georgie Hartigan, who he’s dated for the past 7 years. “My medal was gone, the cards and champagne were gone. She said to me — and I agreed with it — ‘Otherwise you won’t be focused.’”

And while it was a challenge to recalibrate after the high of his sensational gold-medal performance at Hayward Field, the 28-year-old Scot was able to back up that performance with a strong summer of racing.

He then took bronze in the Commonwealth Games 1500 (where a determined Olli Hoare of Australia, spurred on by failure to make the WC final, scored a decisive win) and silver in the European Championships 800, behind World Indoor champ Mariano García of Spain.

“It seemed good in theory, on paper, a chance to make each one better,” Wightman says of the unprecedented season where British athletes had three major championships on offer. “But when the first one is the biggest one it’s tough to then come back from that, to be on such a high and then bounce back and want to race again.”

That race in Eugene was a master class in tactics and confidence. Wightman maintained position near the front for the first three laps, keenly aware that Olympic champion Jakob Ingebrigtsen was determined to set an audacious pace. As they entered the final curve, Wightman accelerated into the lead and left the crowd — and his Norwegian rival — astonished as he powered home 1st in a PR 3:29.23, off a 54.84 final lap. He became the first Brit to take the 1500 crown since Steve Cram at the inaugural Worlds back in ’83.

“Steve Vernon, our head of endurance [at British Athletics], was the last person I spoke to before the race and he asked me what I was going to do. I said, ‘If I’m there at the bell still, I’ll make the move with 200 to go,’ but I saw the chances of that happening so slim,” Wightman admits. “I relaxed as much as I could and I just made sure I didn’t waste energy when it was unnecessary. [I knew that] if I was within a few bodies of the lead at every single point then I was always close enough to respond when stuff really got going, which is what happened.”

Coming off the disappointment of the Tokyo Olympics, where he finished 10th in a race in which Ingebrigtsen also set an aggressive pace, Wightman knew he had to make some changes. Since ’17, championship 1500s have no longer been sit-and-kick affairs.

“I’ve always said that I’m in the wrong era for the way that I run,” says Wightman, who had gotten used to relying on his 800 speed in the closing stages of races. “If I was racing 10 years ago, every race would be like how I’d like it to be, which is slow with a fast last lap.”

So, he realized, if you can’t beat the likes of Ingebrigtsen and defending world champ Timothy Cheruiyot of Kenya at their own game, he had to join them. “The race won’t change because I want that, so I have to therefore change to how the races have become, because Jakob is so strong,” he says. “His best interest is to make the race fast, and there’s nothing we can do about that, apart from trying to be able to run at that pace as well.”

Over the winter he raised his weekly mileage to highs of more than 80 per week (up from just around 70 in previous seasons) with an increased focus on tempo runs. “The stuff I changed over winter was so that I could get through the rounds better, which is what I did,” he says. “I tried to conserve as much energy because I knew that by that third day you’re going to need to run a PB or close to it to have a chance to win it.”

It also helped get him through a marathon season. In addition to his Commonwealth and European medals, he also scored Diamond League wins (and PRs) in the Monaco 1000 (2:13.88, No. 9 all-time) and the Brussels 800 (1:43.65).

He capped his campaign with his third 5th Avenue Mile title in NYC. It was all part of a carefully crafted season that his father/coach, Geoff Wightman, put together. “The way he planned it out it looked unattainable at the start,” Jake says. “I couldn’t have asked for it to have gone better.”

Dad was already looking to the ’23 season when Wightman was warming down after his 3rd-place finish in the DL Final in Zurich. He promptly pushed that talk aside, but after a holiday in Greece and a few weeks rest, training will resume. With his defending champion Wild Card, the pressure is off on qualifying for Budapest.

“In Britain it’s so hard to make teams now because there’s probably like four or five world class guys,” he says. “So to be able to skip Trials, which is the worst weekend of the year, is something I’m really looking forward to.”

Instead, he’ll look to make the British squad in the 800, and then consider a double at Worlds. The timetable is somewhat conducive, with the 800 heats the day before the 1500 final. “If I feel like my 800 is good enough to challenge for medals there then I would go,” he says. “But I hate to go and just be knocked out in the rounds. I need to know that I’m running well enough in the 800 to potentially sacrifice a little bit in the 15.”

Whatever he chooses, he knows he now has a target on his back — and the pressure is now amplified. “The first time I was announced [as world champion] was at Commonwealths, and my worry was that if I didn’t win everything from then it was going to take some shine off it,” he admits. “But everything I’ve done since then has been a bonus on top of that… And the next couple of years are pretty exciting because I hope I can try to replicate similar to what I’ve done.”

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