Ballarat keeps pace with running champions

AMONG Australia’s elite running fraternity there is plenty of intrigue in a small band of runners that call Ballarat home each summer.

The results they are piecing together on national and international stages make rivals take note.

VIDEO: Hear from the runners themselves. Producer: Lachlan Bence

Ballarat Project started simply enough: hometown Olympian Collis Birmingham and fellow Nic Bideau-trained athlete Ryan Gregson needed a strong training group last year in the Australian summer.

Birmingham had always returned home to Ballarat each year as a training base and had already been bringing international athletes from the United Kingdom and Europe to work in Ballarat after Christmas.

Ballarat had everything Birmingham and Gregson wanted – a couple of big forests with tough trails, Lake Wendouree for shorter sessions, a strong group of world-experienced local runners, and a bustling city that was neither too big nor too remote.

They called in rising distance star Brett Robinson to join them, along with women’s national 800m finalist Selma Kajan, and they are now in their second year based in Ballarat.

Birmingham said there was no elite program like this in Australia.

“We’re starting to build a little momentum,” Birmingham said.

“Some Australian athletes are asking about it and train with us a bit sometimes. Others are thinking about it.

“Ballarat could – I already believe it is – be considered the home of distance running.”

Gregson, who has held the Australian 1500m record since 2010, made the move from Wollongong where his long training runs were accompanied by his parents cycling alongside.

Bideau sat him down after the London Olympics and urged him to take his race to the next level.

Gregson, 23, added the Australian 1500m indoor record to his name in February in New York.

“Collis is the best in Australia, so I knew going with him that I was going to get better,” Gregson said.

Robinson, from Canberra, was initially pegged for a two-week visit to Ballarat last year to help Gregson settle in.

Before he arrived, Robinson decided he was going to stay. He soon became a Eureka Athletics Club member.

“I talked to both of them about my running and that’s when they said it would be great for my running and if I wanted to be good that’s what I had to do,” Robinson said.

“I listened and it’s worked so far.”

Robinson, 22, reached the final of the men’s 5000m in this year’s IAAF world championships in Moscow.

The core Project members live together and are usually based together in the United States and London for the northern hemisphere season. They often document their long runs with a video camera to showcase their perspective while running the spectacular rugged mountain terrain of California or the rolling hills of Ireland.

Not always in the same competition, or sometimes even the same continent, each athlete will branch off to focus on their distance, but they always return together for long, solid training sessions.

In Australia, they work closely with Ballarat’s world marathon runner Nathan Hartigan.

After Christmas they will all make an annual pilgrimage to Falls Creek for a month of remote altitude training before returning to town.

By February, they will be joined by two Swedes, British Olympic 1500m runner Ross Murray and three Irish athletes, including one female – all using Ballarat as a training base to launch their new seasons. 

The camp-like atmosphere is a big drawcard for all athletes, and injects fresh perspective into the core Ballarat group. But even now, before their arrival, Birmingham said the small tight-knit group based at his house really pushed each other to get the best out of each other.

“We train a lot together and separately but it’s good for the simple things when we’re all living together,” Birmingham said.

“When you’re not feeling motivated, you’ve got people in the house that you have to answer to.

“It’s raised the bar for us.”

Birmingham, the former Australian 10,000-metre record-holder, capped off a mixed year of competition last week by claiming the Australian 10,000m crown, his third, in the Zatopek:10.

The title and clear qualifying time sealed his spot in next year’s Commonwealth Games for the distance in what will be the seventh straight year Birmingham has pulled on Australian colours for a major international athletics meet.

Kajan, the only female in the Ballarat Project and a Sydney native, hoped the Irishwoman who would arrive in February would help step up her training regime.

An 800m specialist, Kajan’s training is the most different to the rest of the Project, as is her pace on longer runs.

“It’s not too bad (being the only girl). I’m used to all the boys, being away with them all the time all over Europe,” Kajan said.

“It does get a little bit lonely out there, so any girls out there who are interested in joining Ballarat Project, don’t hesitate to show interest.” 

Ballarat Project is far from a closed group.

Australian marathon legend Steve Moneghetti often joins long runs – and still keeps up the pace.

Birmingham said that even though Moneghetti’s specialty is marathons, he is a wealth of experience and advice. It is not lost on Gregson and Robinson that Moneghetti was, in peak competition, one of the world’s best.

International-experienced triathlete Jamie Huggett sometimes trains with the Project to strengthen his running, and developing athletes, trained by Birmingham’s long-time mentor Rod Griffin, also work in some sessions.

“The best thing for a guy like Jack Davies and a few of Rod Griffin’s group that we train with is that it bridges a little bit of the gap between junior and senior competition,” Birmingham said.

Ballarat, where Birmingham grew up, is where he did all the hard work to break into the Australian scene.

Birmingham is keen to find more ways for Ballarat Project to have community involvement, and he will continue to promote and share the city as the place to be for all runners.

Gregson, Robinson and Kajan say each time they line up in competition they will be proudly representing their home towns.

But they are proud products of Ballarat. It is where important turning points in their careers all started.

melanie.whelan@fairfaxmedia.com.au

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