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Heat experience essential to Malcolm’s Olympic marathon quest
Olympics-bound marathon runner Malcolm Hicks says the sweltering temperatures faced at the 2019 World Championships in Doha have prepared him well for Japan (Photo: Alisha Lovrich)
Malcolm Hicks has left no-stone-unturned in his quest to beat the heat at the Olympic Games marathon in Sapporo – a plan which has been over two years in the making.
It was at a pair of Athletics NZ pre-camps in Cyprus prior to the 2019 World Championships in Doha that the 33-year-old Aucklander put in the foundation of his work, which will enable him to best cope with likely oppressive heat and sweat-inducing humidity he will face in Japan.
Undergoing extensive testing in Cyprus, he has since further refined his approach and is optimistic that when he takes to the start line in Sapporo in August, he will be great shape to combat whatever the weather will throw at him.
“I feel much better prepared for Sapporo because of the Doha experience,” says London-based Malcolm. “What I learned in the Cyprus camps and the Doha race has given me a massive amount of confidence in my preparation this time around.
“The postponed Olympics has bought me an extra 12 months of understanding. Yes, there is a lot of science behind the decisions you make there, but so much of what you do is trial and error and finding out what works for you when performing in the heat. The extra time has been hugely beneficial.”
It was in the lead up to the 2019 Doha World Championships that Athletics NZ – who also had more than half-an-eye on the similar conditions likely to face endurance athletes at the Tokyo Olympic Games – set up the training camps in the Mediterranean island of Cyprus.
There with the support of HPSNZ physiologist Matt Mildenhall and HPSNZ nutritionist Glenn Kearney, Malcolm and other athletes scheduled to compete in Doha underwent detailed testing for dehydration metrics, core temperature, skin temperature and fluid loss measurements.
Athletes were then asked to monitor recovery and adaptation processes in the heat and whether it was having a negative toll on training.
“It was a real information gathering process,” recalls Malcolm. “But each athlete also got to experience what it felt like to struggle in the heat and the cumulative fatigue that comes with the first three to five days of trying to acclimatise to a hot environment.”
At the Doha World Championships and competing in temperatures of 29C, Malcolm finished a respectable 27th in 2:17:45.
From around 30km he started to suffer cramps in his hands which later spread to his legs. For the final 12km he had to carefully manage his pace to make it to the finish line, but it was once again a good learning experience for how he responded to hugely demanding conditions.
A lot has happened in the past 21 months or so for Malcolm, but the detailed and meticulous planning has remained.
Malcolm’s marathon career took a huge step forward in his next race over the classic distance in Seville in February 2020.
Carving more than three-and-a-half minutes from his PB he ran 2:10:04 – which elevated him to number four on the all-time New Zealand rankings for the marathon and below the entry standard for the Olympic Games.
“It was a performance which looked impressive on paper, but it was on track with what we were expecting,” adds Malcolm, who is coached by Auckland-based Paul Hamblyn.
However, one month later and with the onset of the global pandemic, the UK-based athlete was plunged into lockdown.
Without access to medical services and physio support during the first lockdown it was little surprise his body gave way and he picked up a pubic-overload injury, spending much of the second half of 2020 and the early part of this year rehabbing.
A second lockdown has since followed in the UK but this time, crucially, he has had access to regular physio. This has kept the injury issues at bay.
Meanwhile, he has also moved out of Central London to the south west of the city and the running haven of Teddington, where he has been able to access quality training partners and the glorious Bushy Park, where he completes much of his training.
“I wouldn’t say I’ve enjoyed lockdown but from a training point of view it hasn’t been the worst environment,” he explains.
“I’ve been able to access pretty much all the facilities I need and apart from work and training, there has been very few distractions.”
Since returning from the pubic-overload injury, Malcolm and his coach have also adopted a lower mileage approach to manage body stress.
Regular bouts of cross training on the bike have replaced some of the previously scheduled runs – a sensible approach which the former national road race, 3000m and 5000m champion believes has paid dividends.
“Every week I’m still able to complete my key marathon session, which is 35-36km of running, plus my long run of 39-40km on a Sunday. Sessions which have gone really well.”
In the final few months of Olympic preparation, he has moved to mainland Europe. He spent a seven-week period high altitude training in St Moritz – with the support of his wife – before embarking on two weeks of heat acclimatisation training in North East Spain.
Better able to make sense of some of the testing underwent in Cyprus, he has looked to apply some of his learnings in Spain.
Running in the late morning and in temperatures of between 32-35C and high humidity during his first week in Spain (the temperature was slightly cooler in week two), has proved hugely beneficial for replicating the potential conditions he could face in Sapporo.
“It was great to have the heatwave during my first week in Spain,” explains Malcolm. “To make it tougher I added a few layers of clothing during my runs to increase the sweat rate when temperatures were lower.”
Malcolm has also been working on trialling some new products to tweak his fuelling regime for Sapporo.
“It is difficult because you are never going to replicate what you will experience 30-35km into a marathon effort in the same conditions as at the Olympics. You will save that effort for race day. But we are trialling some new products and new fuelling regimes to feel as comfortable as possible when running in the heat and suffering big sweat losses.”
Since moving back to St Moritz in Switzerland for training, Malcolm has driven over the border to Italy to squeeze in a few more hot training runs to aid his acclimatisation.
Next week he will fly to Saga in Japan for the Athletics NZ pre-camp – where he will receive further support from coaches, team management and physiologist Matt Mildenhall and make any final tweaks to his approach to best cope with the conditions in Sapporo.
When he arrives in Sapporo he will operate out of a “very strict bubble” which will be challenging. Spending up to a week in a hotel room with very limited movement – except for daily training – will be demanding and Malcolm plans to continue working some reduced hours to help occupy his mind in Japan.
So what does Malcolm hope to achieve on race day on August 8?
“A top 20 place is the goal,” he says. “The race has definitely opened up by the likely conditions we will face. It is not like a marathon on a cool day on a fast course. In Sapporo, it is definitely going to come down to who handles the conditions best and who is best prepared for those conditions.”