Jack Rayner sports an exceptional 1970s-style moustache.
But when the Australian long-distance runner utters the word “unorthodox”, he’s not talking about his upper-lip work of art.
The 26-year-old, set to compete in the men’s 5000m at the Commonwealth Games on Saturday night (AEST), is pointing to his backflip on the marathon.
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Before making the jump to the marathon, the vast majority of runners spend many years competing on the track and in the shortest road events.
Rayner has broken the mould, scaling down from the marathon due to a plagued injury run and promising performances over the shorter distances.
The Victorian posted 2:11:06 in the 2019 London marathon at the age of only 23.
But he’s withdrawn from two of the four marathons he’s started and injured himself during another.
He carried a stress reaction into last year’s Tokyo Olympics marathon and had a day to forget, pulling out early in the run.
Two sizzling hit-outs on the track this year added to the lure of attacking the shorter distances: a 27:15.35 in San Juan Capistrano that clinched the national 10,000m record, and a 13:06.00 over 5000m in Oslo that gave him the third-fastest time by an Australian in history.
“I’m trying to break the cycle of being injured in a marathon block,” Rayner told Wide World of Sports.
“My coach (Nic Bideau) always knew I was decent on the track, but he never really pushed me to it because I was doing well on the roads — the shorter stuff on the roads, like 10km up to half-marathon.
“Then when this season rolled around he saw I was really fit so he threw me in a 10,000m in March, and then I ended up running the Australian record there. He was like, ‘I’m going to see how well you go in the shorter stuff’, so he threw me in a 5000m and then we pretty much just went from there.
“While I’m running well on the track it doesn’t make much sense to do (a marathon) super soon.”
While Rayner was punching out 180-200km per week when training for the marathon, he’s now ticking through 110-140km.
He now also takes one full day off running a week — “the biggest change” he’s made this year.
Considering he’s suffered a stress fracture in his sacrum, a stress reaction in his femur and a stress reaction in his hip in the last three years, it’s hard to argue against the recent changes he’s made as an athlete.
He struggled badly in his sole event at July’s World Athletics Championships in Eugene, finishing 19th in the 10,000m in 28:16.
But on the cusp of the 5000m at his debut Commonwealth Games, he’s single-minded about what he wants to achieve before giving the marathon another shake.
“I had a pretty disappointing world champs, to be honest. I just went into it a little bit tired,” Rayner said.
“I would like to be competitive on the track. For things like world champs — making the final in that and being competitive. In the 10,000m, as well — it’s a really tough event, but I’d love to finish much higher up (than I did at the world champs). In the top 10 in the 10,000m and trying to make the final in the 5000m would be amazing.
“I’ve only run one really good 5000m, to be honest, so I’ve barely had a proper go at it just yet.
“Breaking that 13-minute barrier (in the 5000m) would be high up on the list, as well as running a sub-27-minute 10,000m. (They’re) two things that I would love to tick off in my career.
“I don’t know what I’ll be doing at the next Olympics (in Paris in 2024), whether that be track or marathon. (It’s) something I haven’t really fully made up my mind about yet.”
Craig Mottram, who unleashed a 12:55.76 in a 5000m in London in 2004, is the only Australian to have cracked the 13-minute barrier.
Stewart McSweyn, one of Rayner’s Melbourne Track Club teammates, is Australia’s second-quickest over 5000m in history, having registered a 13:05.23 in Belgium in 2018.
As Rayner waits for the gun to fire in the Commonwealth Games 5000m, he’ll be standing beside three sub-13-minute runners: Kenya’s Nicholas Kipkorir Kimeli and Jacob Krop, and Jacob Kiplimo of Uganda.
Kiplimo broke free from the shadow of champion compatriot Joshua Cheptegei as he stormed to victory in the Commonwealth Games 10,000m this week.
Rayner’s brilliant rivals will make it tough for him to score a medal in Birmingham.
But until he returns his focus to the marathon, taking on the best in the world in the shorter events is the moustachioed star’s beat.
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