A year ago Ryan Gregson
became the subject of intense chatter in cyberspace of athletics when he set an Australian junior record of 3:37.24 at the Sydney Track Classic. It was a mark that he approached, but didn't surpass, until he stepped on the track again at the same meet tonight.
Showing tactical wisdom beyond his years - he does not turn 20 until April - Gregson sat in third place behind the pacemaker with splits at the finishing line of 41.92s, 1:41.24 (59.32) and 2:41.69 (60.45) before the pace quickened over the final lap. Judging his run to the finishing line perfectly by sitting on the shoulder of Australian 10000m record holder Collis Birmingham until the final straight, Gregson covered the final lap in a classy 53.73 seconds to record a new personal best of 3:35.42.
Gregson admitted that he had grown a lot as an athlete in the past year, especially through a European summer which opened his eyes to the harsh realities of top class miling.
"My fastest time before this was a year ago. I raced a lot of 1500m's in between that in the past year, but it is so hard to find the perfect race where the pace is perfect and you've got people around you," Gregson said.
"Some of these races last year in Europe they were winning in 3:30 and that was way too far out of my level and I was way out the back and wasn't competitive.
"It might take a year to improve my time again but its about being consistent, running consistently fast times, and the breakthrough will come."
As if evidence of his own prophesy, the stars aligned tonight for such a breakthrough with a virtual home crowd (Gregson lives an hour south of Sydney in Wollongong) spurring him on into the top ten on the Australian all-time list - ninth in fact, ahead of 1960 Olympic gold medallist Herb Elliott (3:35.6).
"It was just one of those dream nights. Sydney always seems to put it on, perfect summer nights," said Gregson.
The performance was a meet record, surpassing the 3:35.74 run by 2000 Olympic gold medallist Noah Ngeny
"If I had gone at the bell I probably would have been a bit tired with 200m to go and Collis might have had a chance to come back because he is so strong. Because he is such a good runner I wanted to go as late as possible so that he wouldn't have a chance to respond."
"Collis is coming from the 5km end and I'm coming from the 800m end, so that's the advantage of having that bit of extra speed, but if you boosted it up to the 3km he would beat me by 100m, so that's the difference."
Despite being slightly unsure of his travel plans before the race - for the first time Gregson came down from the altitude of his Falls Creek training base only a day before the race - he was confident in his training preparation.
"I was actually a bit worried. Some people call it altitude sickness - they are used to having no air up there and then have too much air down here and their lungs can't adjust. But then again, Falls Creek is only 1600m, so who knows if that is even high enough to work," he said.
"I don't know the science really behind it but I thought that it take about a week for the altitude to work. Apparently, if anything it affects you if you race the day after because of the shock with the different air because the lungs take a while to adjust.
"I don't know that the altitude would have made me run much faster - it will probably make me run faster next week."
Perhaps more so than the questionable altitude effect, Gregson's faith laid in the work that he was doing at the winter ski resort come summer distance running retreat.
"In the last two weeks I haven't done any shorter stuff," he said.
"The shortest rep I did was 1km. 1km reps, threshold runs and hills for the past couple of weeks, but for the previous three weeks before that I did one session a week at race pace like this and was knocking some 200's out in 23 seconds and things like that just to get some speed there.
"People think that you need all of the short stuff to run quick but I think that if you're strong. I must be naturally pretty quick, so I mainly need to work on the longer end."
Gregson's next race will be in Melbourne on Thursday over 800m, where he will face the fourth fastest athlete in history at the distance, David Rudisha. Rudisha warmed up for that race with a creditable third place in the 400m tonight, clocking 45.50 seconds.
"He can run 45 (seconds for 400m) so he is going to go through in, say, 50 (seconds). But my 400m PB is not much quicker than 50... I ran 1:47.06 up in the Hunter where I negatively split," Gregson said.
"If you're going to run a fast 800m the first lap is usually a couple of seconds faster than the first, so if I can go somewhere around 51-high to 52 and run a 53 second last lap that should put me around 1:46."