It was recently confirmed by British Athletics who had been selected to represent Team GB for the marathon events in the Tokyo Olympics and the news was of big interest to Derbyshire.
Two of the names selected were Derby’s Ben Connor and Derbyshire Institute of Sport’s Jess Piasecki. For Stockport-born Piasecki, it was a moment to savour following a highly unorthodox past twelve months and a period of anxiety as to what the best approach would be to ensure qualification for the Tokyo Games when competitive races were at such a premium.
2019 was a breakthrough year for Piasecki which culminated in winning the Florence Marathon. A similar time in 2020’s London Marathon would have virtually guaranteed her place at the Tokyo Games but, of course, 2020 brought challenges that nobody could have foreseen and the world of sport came to a grinding halt.
Jess, who is 30 and now based in Derbyshire, spoke to me recently about everything that has happened with her career since we last had a chat ten months ago when everything was totally up in the air. Despite very little actual competitive racing, it’s been a busy period of time with a large focus on training hoping that the times she’d recorded in 2019 would still be considered good enough to gain a spot on the plane to Tokyo. I asked Jess first how she actually found out that she’d secured a marathon spot for the Tokyo Olympics and how much of a relief it must have been:
“For athletics, you normally get a call and then the paperwork comes afterwards. It’s similar to how I’ve been picked for World and European Cross Country championships. So you’ll get a phone call from the team manager and then my certificate comes the next day. And that’s how it happened! I knew the selection process was happening around this time, so I was obviously hoping to hear from them very soon. I was at work at the time in a meeting when I did receive the call. Luckily, where I work knew that I was expecting a call very soon but I had no idea whether it would be good news or bad news but it turned out to be great news. I rang my husband straight away and then my coach who were delighted. Then I received my certificate the very next day, which was lovely and something I will cherish for a long, long time.”
Jess went into detail as to why she’s stayed so low-key despite the fact road races have begun to return as we have adapted more to the pandemic over time and following the roll-out of vaccinations around the globe:
“It’s all been focused on training. After I won Florence, we were preparing for the London Marathon in 2020 which was going to act as the qualifying trial for who gets in at the Olympics. But, of course, Covid happened and everything turned upside down. With all the uncertainty, my coach and I made a decision to solely focus on training just gone because we didn’t want to keep planning for different things and then the race just doesn’t take place. Road races, in general, have been more difficult to plan in the past twelve months compared to track running. We’re more limited with road running because of bigger numbers of competitors. So I haven’t really competed, I’ve been focused solely on training. It’s given me the opportunity to work on things that I might not have had the time to before the pandemic. Things like little kinks, that we’ve now been able to sort out. Hopefully, this extra year will have benefitted me with the intensive amounts of training I’ve done. I’m just excited now to put it all into fruition and head out to Tokyo. It’s just nice to have something a bit more cemented ahead of us in comparison to the last 18 months or so. I’m sure everyone’s absolutely relishing the gradual easing of restrictions that’s coming.”
At the time of writing, it’s yet another particularly chilly day considering we’re now in spring. It’s snowed in many areas of the UK sporadically this week and Jess herself has commented on social media only a couple of hours ago how freezing her ‘warm weather’ training has been. Getting training right is absolutely crucial considering the Tokyo Games are now only three months away. The weather we’re experiencing right now is a far cry from the extremely humid conditions expected for July in Japan. A number of athletes would consider going abroad for training at this moment in time, specifically to get used to the hot weather that is expected to play a big role in the upcoming Olympics. For Jess though, keeping low-key is the approach she’s going for heading into the Games. As well as being an athlete, Jess works as a lecturer at Nottingham Trent University in the field of exercise physiology where she also conducts research. Her experience in this field and the access she has plays a big role as to why she feels like she doesn’t need to go abroad to prepare for very different weather conditions:
“We need to put together a heat acclimatisation strategy. That’s what my coach and I will be doing over the next few weeks. I’m lucky enough to work with some colleagues who have done a lot of heat acclimatisation research so I’m lucky enough to have that on my doorstep. To be honest, I’m not really too sure about training camps. I’m more inclined to just stay at home. I know where I like to run. I’ve got access to everything I need. I know I can put in place the heat work that I’ll need using the labs that I have access to. So I think I’m more inclined to stay with my home comforts and train at home. Sometimes, if you go abroad in advance of a competition, you’re taken out of your environment and I wouldn’t be able to have things like having my husband with me. So I think I’ll just be staying low-key, get my head down and keep training in the Peak District. There might be a holding camp closer to the Games where everybody has to go but the dates and the logistics of that has not been finalised yet. But yeah, everything will be based at home for me really. That’s what I like though; I like keeping things simple and I just tend to train on my own and crack on. I’m looking forward to doing some more specific kind of stuff now that we’re heading towards a specific race with championship-style racing and that’s the sort of stuff I thrive off.”
I also asked Jess if the pandemic has played a huge role in her research and work with exercise physiology:
“It’s certainly influenced our ability to do research! We’ve not been able to do as much over the past 12 months. I did actually do a research project, where I did a survey on menstrual cycles and how the stresses of Covid has affected symptoms that women experience, so that was interesting. It hasn’t necessarily changed the way we go about research though. It hasn’t changed our goals as such. I’m quite interested in aging physiology and, as part of that, we want to try and encourage people to continue exercising. With Covid, the access to that over the past few months has been affected with things like gyms being closed. So we’ve looked at how more can be done from home. So that’s an extra thought process that you now have to consider in your proposals and your research studies. You have to make this more adaptable to all kinds of environments now. It now prepares us more for the future.”
For Piasecki, the Olympics has always been a love affair and the instigator for wanting her very own defining moment as an athlete:
“I remember watching all of the Games. Because they’re always usually around August, I would always tend to be on holiday with my family when a Games was on. We would always time what we were doing around watching something from the Olympics on TV. I just love watching all of the sports. I really enjoy watching the swimming. I certainly remember watching Rebecca Adlington for sure. I definitely remember watching Kelly Holmes. That was very inspiring. I remember watching Paula Radcliffe. I’m just a big fan of all of it and just wanted to be on that big stage. I wanted some of that for myself. I guess there was no-one specifically that got me into running. I was always very sporty from a young age. I distinctly remember watching all of the Games and as time has gone on, since the start of my career, you get to know people who end up competing in it and you just think it looks so good, I’m so happy for them and I want that for myself. So being in the Olympics is always something that I’ve aspired to achieve. So to have actually done it…I still don’t think it’s really sunk in and I’m not sure if it ever will. I really want to achieve a lot while I’m out there and I don’t just want to be there for the team. I do want to be there and really compete and get really stuck in. It’s really exciting.”
Before our interview drew to a close, I was intrigued to find out what Jess would consider to be a successful Olympics for her. I found Team GB hockey star’s Hollie Pearne-Webb’s recent comments on how this would be the most unpredictable Olympic Games for every sport involved really interesting. For Jess, it looks to be a case of keeping her feet firmly on the ground and focusing on intense training and a positive mind frame regarding tactics to ensure the best possible performance for her:
“I really need to sit down with my coach formally and go through the A, B and C plan going into the Games. I think, for me, I would like to go away having run a very positive race and been competitive. The difference between these kinds of races and, say, the Florence Marathon or the London Marathon, is that you have no pacemakers for the Olympics marathon. It’s everybody for themselves. There’s also the conditions as well to contend with. You’re going to have to run really smart. I think we saw that in Doha in the summer of 2019. Callum Hawkins finished fourth in that race and was in around tenth place at the halfway point. He just picked off the competitors who were dropping off because it was just so hot. So, for me, if I run positively and smartly and progress through the field, then I would be very happy with that and come away from it ready for more. I would be very content with that.”
With such an open Olympic Games now well in sight, it’s hard to make a firm prediction as to how well Jess will do come July. There’s no question though that with such close attention to detail, a memorable run from Jess Piasecki could well be on the cards and is definitely an athlete to keep an eye on for the most unique Olympic Games that will undoubtedly have ever taken place.