Track & Field

The Big Interview: Belgian supermiler Pieter-Jan Hannes

First off, what did it feel like to smash the Belgian mile record?

Great obviously! Although in Oslo the feeling of breaking the National Record might have been slightly in the shadow of being third in the Dream Mile behind the all-time number four and five over 1500m. It’s a shame though beause you can only take a NR once. I hope to get on that podium at a Diamond League again some time.

Record breaker: Hannes clocked 3:51.84 in the Oslo dream mile for a new Belgian record

Record breaker: Hannes clocked 3:51.84 in the Oslo dream mile for a new Belgian record

What’s been the key this year to mastering the mile distance?

Consistency I think. On training, in competition and in life in general. Training for example, if I had to do 400s last year I’d have done them in 55.0, 58.4, 56.9, … whereas this year it’s more like 56.7, 56.8, 56.7, … . And even when I’d do that session in exactly the same average time, I’d be happier with the consistent one.

In competition I think running the different laps of the mile more consistent might not only have been the key to running faster than last year. I think it’s the key to running the mile faster than I did in Oslo. 3.51 is solid, but even now my third lap was only 59 dead. That’s too slow compared to the average lap time in a 3:51 mile. I should try and grind the third lap to run fast times more often I think.

And in life: I’ve been able to be very consistent on a day-to-day basis. And although I’m a very chaotic person, I feel like that daily consistency is a good thing. It just gives more rest. And that’s always a good thing. Actually I haven’t trained more this year than last year. Normally we try to add 10% of training every year. This year we didn’t. Not even 1%. We did add 10% more rest. Seems to work out just fine so far.

How did you get started in running?

My dad’s always been a runner himself. So I just joined the athletics club he was in. I’ve tried other sports though. But all my friends were in athletics so I just came back there for them basically. And at my home town club it was always good fun. We trained properly though, but even then as a kid I just sucked big time. Even in distance. But it was good fun, so I stayed. When getting older I went there more and more. And I guess if you do something a lot, at some point you’ll get good at it.

Who do you train with and what’s your training set-up like?

I train and live in Leuven – the city where most US runners go to during summer. My coach has a coaching job there in a project of the Flemish athletics federation, so he joins me most times during training. Besides that, I train with basically everybody who can stand me for over an hour (which is rare). The biggest problem I have, when it comes to training partners, is that I always end up being the douchebag directing the pace which makes it harder to train together. I like it though if somebody joins my session, but I’ll never change mine to somebody else’s. Then I’ll rather do it on my own and join the others during warm-down. Mustn’t sound like it, but there are a few rare cases who can stand me long enough to train together with me. F.e. my physio is a damn good runner himself. He’s working to hard as physio to do any really good times on competitions, but if he’d be a pro runner, I reckon we’d all be fucked. Quite handy for the long runs though. Most other guys in my group are 800m runners. And believe me they ‘ll kick my ass all day any day if they get the chance. But I think that’s a good thing.

Training set-up

Training set-up

My training set-up is very calm actually. I don’t do any insane mileage or sick workouts. It’s just all good quality, but none of it really trashing. I won’t jog either though. Besides the first kilometre of every run just to warm-up, I try to make every K count. But just so it doesn’t kill me either. I’ll keep that for races. In general we tend to focus on endurance a lot. The down side of that is that it’s been making me slower. So we’ve been focusing on speed workouts and strength sessions the last year also. So on an average week I’ll do 12-14 sessions of which 10-12 are running.

What has been the most challenging moment in your career?

Hannes won the European U23 XC in Serbia in 2013 but he had many personal challenges up until that Image: PhotoRun

Hannes won the European U23 XC in Serbia in 2013 but he had many personal challenges up until that Image: PhotoRun

I’ve been facing hard moments of all kinds the past few years. In 20th as junior I lost my granddad during the qualification race for the euro XC champs. He past away after a heart attack due to the emotions of me qualifying for a real championship for the first time. To get it together and run the Euro XC two weeks later was the hardest challenge I think. It asked a hell lot of resilience for a 17-year-old. Then in 2011 I got mono nucleotid and in 2012 I broke my foot (stress fracture of the os naviculare). So that sucked. It all turned out just fine in 2013. 2014, especially Zurich, was a big slap in the face that made me realize senior level isn’t like U23 AT ALL.

Did you ever feel like packing running in?

I’ve never felt like packing in running but it made me take hard decisions. For example when I went to college. During high school I ran with my friends in my hometown club. But to become better in running, that really wasn’t the place to be – barely any forests to run in for example. I had a choice: go to Leuven, take a chance on becoming a pro runner some day or stay in Antwerp with all my friends. For most top athletes the choice seems obvious, but since I actually didn’t really have any perspective on becoming an international runner at all, it wasn’t so obvious back then. I’d have kept running anyhow though. But I took the chance, went to Leuven and must have been the loneliest creature on this planet for months. But it worked out just fine. And no worries, I made like three friends in Leuven too in the end. Not bad huh!

Funniest moment in athletics?

On training so many, but in races undoubtedly past winter in Prague when in the call room right before the 3000m final (Henkrik) Ingebrigtsen asked (Ali) Kaya if he was the pacemaker.

Who’s the funniest person you know in athletics? My coach. Ask anybody.

Who inspires you?

Hannes' hero: Nick Willis is the man to look up to on all fronts

Hannes’ hero: Nick Willis is the man to look up to on all fronts

Of the current generation, Nick Willis. Tries to go sub 3:30 and sub 3:50 for years. Then when he says he’s going take it a bit more chilled because of his family rocks both and the 1500 and the mile to go sub 3:50 and 3:30 in the same year. Plus he’s super kind.

How can athletics in Belgium improve?

I actually think there’s a lot of potential in Belgium. Don’t know why so little of us make it to a proper level really. I sucked big time as a kid. I was like number 54 in the Belgian champs at the age of 10-12. And even 10 year-old girls ran faster then I did over 1000m. Where the hell did they all go? Is it the overload of beer, fries, chocolate and waffles? Is it the obsession with cycling, football and tennis? I don’t know. But there definitely should be more top athletes in a country that has so many good meets and where every village has a track.

What is your view on drugs in the sport at the moment?

I might be naive, but I think it’s better then it has been before. At least when it comes to the hard stuff. And that’s the logic result of better ways of drug testing, but I also think the grey area is getting too big. There is really no point in banning everybody on the hard stuff like steroids and EPO but still allow TUE’s for everything. I’m sure I can beat 10 medical tests so I’d be allowed to use a dozen of TUE’S. But I really couldn’t get the same pleasure of my performances as I do right now knowing it could possibly be due to the right cocktail of (grey area) drugs.

I just like to think it all doesn’t help anyway. A Belgian journalist stated after the Russian doping situation last year that there’s probably never been a doping system of that scale before in Russia, yet they get less medals in championships than ever before. Concluding drugs probably doesn’t even help as good as everybody thinks. And I’d like to agree just because it’s a comforting idea as a clean athlete. Although it probably is naive. Oh, and we need a no needle policy. Urgently.

The IAAF presidential campaign is in full swing. What three changes would you make if you were IAAF president?

There’s one that pops up right now, and that’s the annual calendar of the Diamond League and World Challenge which should be flexible in my opinion. I agree traditions are of importance, but there really is no point organizing a Diamond League in Shanghai in May, while everybody will be in China in August for the Worlds in Beijing. A more flexible agenda would be so much better for the athletes, and therefore for athletics in general I think.

Belgium has their own version of Steve Prefontaine but who’s better… Ivo Van Damme or Pre?

Better than Pre: With two Olympic medals Hannes sees Van Damme as superior to Prefontaine

Better than Pre: With two Olympic medals Hannes sees Van Damme as superior to Prefontaine

Ivo. No doubt. He had the same rebellion spirit, ran faster times and did get two medals all at the age of 22. I’m not saying Pre wasn’t a legend. Ivo just is an even bigger one.

Are you related in any way to the Borlées even by 6 degrees of separation?

Isn’t everybody in Belgium a little?

Who would win in a fight, Kevin or Jonathan Borlée?

If I could separate the two of them, I’d know…

Who rocks the headband better… you or Evan Jager? (Paddy Robb)

Evan Jager. Image courtesy of Photorun

Evan Jager. Image courtesy of Photorun

Evan Jager. It doesn’t even suit me. It’s just the only way for Belgians to recognise me since I’m competing marketing wise with the pretty Thiam, Adonis Van Alphen and Borlée twins. Plus it’s practical.

What’s the most embarrassing thing that has ever happened to you in running?

Oh yeah, this time I had to use my socks to wipe my ass before the world challenge at Rabat because there was no toilet paper. Although finishing 50m after the pack in the heats of the Moscow worlds was embarrassing too.

Best product you’ve ever gotten off your sponsor?

The Nike mamba 3. I know it’s a steeple spike. I know I don’t do steeple. But it just is the best thing ever made. So I’ve used it for the 3000m indoors as well as for the 1500m outdoors now.

Favourite running shoe of all-time?

Best running shoe: Hannes has been wearing the structure triax since the 13 model

Best running shoe: Hannes has been wearing the structure triax since the 13 model

The Nike structure. I’ve been running in them since the structure 13. I liked it back then and it has been improving ever since. I basically do everything slower than 22K/h on them. You’ve got to respect the speed limit of a shoe you see. Just like with a car.

Typical training week?

Run and Hurdles
Run and gym and speed Run
Run and gym
Run and speed

Full stride: Hannes in training

Full stride: Hannes in training

Best session ever?

There is only one session I could try to do: 3x2x600. At the speed I was doing, it was meant to fail. But I made it to 5. I like it so much because the day I manage to do it, I’ll know sub 3:30 is possible.

Do you have a beer mile pb? If not, will you ever run one and take on Denners…

Hannes has no plans on taking on Denners in the beer mile in the short-term

Hannes has no plans on taking on Denners in the beer mile in the short-term

For now, running and drinking beer are strictly separated. But I will definitely ever do one.

Phil Healy and Kelly Proper battling it out over 100m
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Feidhlim Kelly

Feidhlim Kelly

Con Houlihan once told me that tomorrow is now. In taking on this venture I’ve started to try and put his words into action.

I worked for Con from 2007 till his passing in 2012 taking down his copy and a whole lot more. I have a Con Houlihan section which will go in to more depth on that.

I’m a long-time contributor to the Irish Runner magazine and am also working for the Irish Examiner.

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