Physicality, visualisation and tactics: Jessica Hull's blueprint for 1500 meter glory

Running a race is simple, right? You set up in the blocks and once the starter's gun rings out you run as fast as you're able until you cross the finish line, pose in front of the timing board, and collect your medal.

Easy. Don't know why everyone doesn't do it.

Well, no.

As the ground to cover extends and one enters the middle- and long-distance events, racing at the highest levels goes far beyond just a physical battle; metamorphosising into an intricate mix of tangible and mental contests.

In his book Winning Running, Peter Coe -- the father and coach of legendary runner Seb Coe -- wrote of the importance of tactics and strategy in races; the need for runners to not only have trust in their own abilities, but to also know what was happening around them and have a depth of experience to fall back on.

Not only are these competitors looking to push themselves to the limits of their physical capabilities, they're also seeking to execute their own pacing strategy and engage in a series of thrusts and parries with their competitors. A breakaway timed at the right moment can serve to break the will of the trailing pack, or that of its instigator if their foes are able to mercilessly reel them back in.

Thus, for athletes such as Jessica Hull, who represent Australia in the 1500 meter event at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, when it comes time to races there's often simply no scope to worry about silly things such as anxiety.

"Once the starting gun goes you don't even feel the nerves anymore," Hull told ESPN. "You're just out there and you're running and executing your race plan.

"The thing I've definitely learned in some of the bigger races that I've run is that the person who can keep their composure and keep their head out there -- that doesn't react to some crazy move or if there's someone pushing in the pack -- and stays the most composed is usually the person that comes through at the end.

"When the gun goes, you don't want to be thinking too much. You want to have done all the thinking beforehand and just know exactly what you need to do to get yourself through.

"When I get nervous things tend to speed up, so just being able to have that habit of going back to breathing and slowing things down -- whether it's in the call room ahead of a round or if I get too excited too soon ahead of a heat -- I can go back to practice and unwind; acknowledge that I'm excited but that I don't need to be too overly excited just yet.

"I'm pretty good with [visualisation] with all of my races. I like to have a plan in my head and have run through it a few times before I even get to the start line. I think a pretty similar structure can be implemented in Tokyo.

"I'll fill in the blanks of the people in my visualisations as the rounds come out - because they'll come out about 24 hours beforehand. I'll know who is in my heat and then I'll be able to fill in the blanks in that visualisation and have a clearer picture.

"Beforehand, it's about reminding myself that I don't need to do anything different to what I've done in the past to get me here."

Hull's mindset is a remarkably mature one for a first-time Olympan, speaking to 16 years of experience that the Illawaren has on the track.

Growing up in Wollongong, she started running school cross-country as an eight-year-old and soon moved into the Australian sporting institution that is Little Athletics. Under the guidance of father Simon, himself a former national level middle-distance runner, she soon developed into a fixture on the junior athletic scene.

In 2015, she accepted a scholarship to run at the prestigious University of Oregon; a school so renowned for its track and field program that its hometown of Eugene has earned the moniker "Tracktown". Hull fondly recalls how the Ducks' elite facilities, coaching expertise and commitment to excellence provided the perfect environment for her growth as an athlete, as well as the friends and teammates that pushed her to improve.

However, the near daily user of Headspace explained to ESPN that while its physical foundation may have been long established, the development of the cerebral aspect of her approach has been a relatively recent addition -- one which has coincided with her emergence as one of Australia's premier middle-distance runners.

"It's been a work in progress since I started running," she said. "I started running when I was a kid and I definitely didn't do those practices then!

"It's things that have come in over the years. I've been professional for two years now with my coach [Pete Julian] and I'm just starting to really nail everything that he's asked of me in workouts. It's definitely taken two years to figure out what works for me.

"I've had some good results along the way as we piece things together but it's been a two-plus year process to make sure I'm ready for the Games."

A multiple-time All American with the Ducks, Hull became a surprise NCAA champion in the 1500m in 2018 and, three weeks after graduating into the professional ranks, qualified for Tokyo when she recorded the fourth fastest 1500m in Australian history when she ran 4:02.62.

This accomplishment augured the start of a progression from a somewhat fringe member of Australia's athletic team to a key component -- highlighted by a blistering month and a half long stretch in the second half of 2020.

Despite COVID-19 restrictions hampering her training, Benita Willis' 18-year-old 5000m national record was felled at a Diamond League meet in Monaco in August -- Hull taking nearly four seconds off it with a 14.43.80 time. The next month, she secured the Australian record in her pet 1500m event by running a 4:00.42 in Berlin and broke the 3000m record by running an 8.36.03 in Doha.

Three outdoor Australian records in six weeks secured, she was the first Australian woman to ever hold the treble of 1500, 3000 and 5000m national records at the same time.

Tokyo 2020 teammate Linden Hall would subsequently break her 1500m accomplishment when she ran an astounding 3.59.67 race at the Box Hill Classic in April of this year, but Hull still holds the 3000 and 5000m marks heading to Tokyo.

But though she secured qualification for both the 1500 and 5000m meters, a scheduling conflict will mean that Hull will only run in the former event in the coming days -- a combination of experience, confidence, and tactical flexibility leading to her and Julian opting for the shorter distance.

The either/or dilemma was a disappointment, but the more narrow focus has given the Nike athlete a greater scope to zero in on her opponents -- an impressive amount of study, lived experience and mentorship aiding her in her quest to visualise and strategise.

"I like watching a lot of race videos and learning the patterns of the way people race," she said. "I lean on Pete, my dad and my own mind to kind of figure out 'this is how this person races, this is their typical pattern'. Figure out if they're the person that moves and I've got to go with them or if maybe they're not someone that we need to cover because the pack will pull them back.

"Knowing the people I'm coming up against really well, almost as much as I know my own racing style, is really important.

"I think the top women in the world, there's plenty of research opportunities with them - they race a lot and I've raced them a few times myself.

"I've been able to kind of predict the pattern of a few races but I haven't been strong enough yet to go with it, even though I kind of knew what was coming. It's always kind of nice when you do look at a race and you think that this is what's going to happen and then it does actually unfold -- it gives you confidence that you are reading what's happening pretty well.

"I like to also look at historical patterns in Olympic prelims, how they typically unfold. It's a bit different right now because female middle-distance, especially, has exploded, so the times that typically make semifinals and finals probably aren't as relevant.

"But the kind of the separation in races is probably going to be quite similar. If there are usually four or five women that breakaway in the heat and that's a clear run to the finish, that could probably translate this time around it just might be four or five seconds quicker because the sport kind of has gone to that next level."

After finalising her preparations at an altitude camp in Utah -- which effectively allowed her to train as she slept thanks to the 2500m above sea level accommodation -- Hull will begin her Tokyo 2020 campaign in the heats of the women's 1500m on Monday, with the semifinals set to follow on Wednesday and the final on Friday.