Owen Smith discusses the upcoming World Relays and his Glasgow health scare

  • Kobe Tong

The springtime sun of Japan will cut quite the contrast to Cardiff for Great Britain’s Owen Smith.

Forged into one of the country’s leading 400-metre athletes on those winter nights in the Welsh capital, Smith has been selected for the IAAF World Relays in Yokohama. The news came just a few weeks after an eventful indoor season, which saw a herculean run at the British Indoors and a worrying health scare in Glasgow.

However, speaking exclusively to GiveMeSport, Smith is fully focused on the challenge of the outdoors and making a flying start in the Land of the Rising Sun. With qualification for the 2019 World Championships on the line, the British team has called upon its rich resources of 400m athletes in which Smith plays such a pivotal role.

“It’s in Japan, so it’s the furthest afield I will have gone with athletics for a competition,” Smith explained. “From that sense, I’m really looking forward to sampling a new country and a new culture but when it comes down to it, we’ve got a job to do and that’s qualification for Doha. We need to perform to make sure that’s doable for the mixed relay as well as the men’s relay.”

Speak to almost every 400m athlete and the mere mention of the relay will bring excitement to their voice. The same can be said of Smith, who has always thrived on the strategic element to an event that – similarly to the indoor iteration – is liable to moments of carnage. 

The build-up to Yokohama

“I really love it from the tactical point of view,” the Brit remarked. “As silly as it sounds, it doesn’t hurt as much as a normal 400m because you’re so focused on what you’re doing – in comparison to a race where you know nobody is going to trip you up, you’re in your lane and that’s that. 

“If I could choose, I would probably go second leg because I enjoy the element of the break and that’s when things start to get messy – when you’ve really got to have your wits about you. For me, it’s just about making sure I get the baton round but I’ll run whatever leg they need me to run.”

Spacial awareness is key, to say the very least. It’s perhaps something of a disservice that greater attention isn’t paid to the changeovers in the 4x400m relay as opposed to its shorter, one-lapped cousin. However, Smith knows better than most people that switching the baton can be a chaotic transition, having broken his hand during a competition last season.

On 4x400m relay changeovers

The sprinter recalled: “We ran out in Bern last year and I ended up with a broken hand. I had an Italian who slammed his brakes on, so me and the Swiss guy ended up in the back of him, so I ended up with two broken fingers, a broken knuckle and some stitches. It’s that spacial awareness again, sometimes you’re taken to a point where you can’t find your way out of it.

“You, as the incoming runner, have got to make sure the outgoing runner has the smoothest getaway possible. When we’re practicing, we’ll keep pushing and barging each other around to try to make difficult changeovers, so when you are out on the track, you’re not really phased by it.”

Naturally, Smith will be hoping for something of a smoother exchange in Yokohama and that’s certainly to be expected in such a thrilling British team. The Cardiff-based runner is joined by Cameron Chalmers, Dwayne Cowan, Alex Haydock-Wilson, Jamal Rhoden-Stevens, Rabah Yousif and who else but Martyn Rooney?

Wisdom from Martyn Rooney

A bona fide legend in British athletics, Rooney has served as a major inspiration to Smith and has nothing but praise for the Olympic medalist. “In my first couple of years and throughout my whole career really, he was always the top guy,” he explained over the phone. “I was fortunate enough to actually run a relay leg against him at Loughborough in my first senior international.

“I think I was 16 at the time and when I say ‘running against him,’ I think the Welsh team were around 200 metres behind! But this last 12 months, being involved in selections and coming on to the European circuit, I’ve got to know him really well and he is genuinely one of the nicest guys in athletics. He is always willing to pass on his wisdom to the younger guys and support you.

“I passed the baton to him after I broke my hand and the first thing he did after finishing the race, was give the baton over to the official, check that I was alright and took me for medical attention.”

Medical scare in Glasgow

It’s becoming clear that competition experience and advice from athletes like Rooney is really benefitting Smith and there were plenty of positives to draw from his indoor season. Perhaps the only concern was the note on which it ended, with the Welshman suffering from exhaustion after a swashbuckling display at the European Indoors.

Thankfully, any medical issues have been ruled out, but the experience remained a worrying one and Smith described the surreal moment he passed out. “I don’t remember much of it. I completely blacked out trackside. It almost felt like I was in a bubble, it was really weird. It was like being underwater, you could hear everything but it wasn’t coming through fully.

“I was with the medical team, the British Athletics doctor and the arena doctor for a good 45 minutes to an hour. The doctor saw me again on the Saturday morning, my temperate was still really high and I was suffering from really bad headaches. He then saw me on the Sunday and said: ‘I can’t risk you. If you pass out mid-rep, it could be a lot more serious.’

“I understand the decision. I wasn’t too thrilled at the time, but sometimes you’ve got to listen to your body and the medical advice.” Fortunately for the Welshman, Yokohama will give him the belated opportunity to pick up the baton again and – after positive heart scans and blood tests – Smith can feel confident that no issues will arise post-Glasgow.

Focus on the outdoor season

By the time World Relays and the indoor season are in his rearview mirror, the 25-year-old will be diverting his attention to the individual race, so often a breeding ground for overthinking. Whereas the relay and 200m track allow more freedom of movement, being isolated in your lane during the outdoor season brings its own mental challenges.

It’s approaching three years since Smith posted his personal best in the 400m and he believes tackling the race with enjoyment is the key to dipping below 46 seconds. “I had a really bad year in 2017 and really struggled with over-thinking,” Smith reflected with a sigh. “The enjoyment had gone and it was almost like athletics had consumed my whole life.

“You go into a bit of a spiral – you don’t run well, you wonder why you’re not running well, then you run worse and you get back into overthinking again. Whereas last season, I didn’t overthink anything and I went into every race just going: ‘I want to have fun, I just need to run well’ and my results improved massively.”

That philosophy of positivity has certainly bled into 2019, too, where Smith will be hoping to run with the same freedom that benefitted his individual race last season. Making the trip to Japan will only serve to boost one of the most exciting rises in British sprinting – kickstarting a season that could take him from Cardiff to Doha.

There’s something about British athletics that seems to ensure a constant conveyor belt of 400m talent, so making any relay squad is an achievement in itself. However, if running off enjoyment, revelling in relay tactics and a little Rooney wisdom isn’t a recipe for success, we don’t know what is.

Do you think the British team will medal in Yokohama? Have your say in the comments section below.

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