Dan Eckersley represented the Isle of Wight at the recent Island Games, running in both the 3000m steeplechase and the 5000m. In this exclusive guest blog for KUDOS, Dan recounts his experiences at this unique sporting event, both on and off the track.
The Island Games is a biennial, week-long, multi-sport competition for small island communities, mostly around the British Isles, but with teams from continental Europe and further afield too. The 2017 edition was held on the Swedish island of Gotland, centred around the historic Visby, with its medieval wall bounding quaint cobbled streets making a spectacular backdrop for the sport on show. The Games has in the past been labelled, simplistically and inevitably, as the ‘small island Olympics’, but the truth is it has an atmosphere and vibe all of its own.
Unlike its more famous distant cousin, with its dedicated athletes’ village, the Island Games pitches up and pretty much takes over the area, as the athletes (some 3000 of them) stay locally in hotels, lodges and campsites. They can then be seen frequenting the bars and restaurants in the evening (while drinking only waters, of course); when the Island Games is in town, you can’t move without seeing scores of people decked out in team kit. It’s truly and firmly embedded in the community for a week. The opening ceremony was a perfect example of this, as the parade of athletes snaked its way right through the town; a riot of colour collectively accepting the high-fives and well-wishes of the locals. It was a wonderful occasion, the first opportunity for the different athletes and islands to come together during the week. As for the athletes themselves, the level of competition varies from the world elite right down to club amateur, with all the mutual support and camaraderie that that entails adding to the Games’ unique buzz.
On the track
I was selected for the Isle of Wight team to compete in athletics at 3000m steeplechase and 5000m. At the last Games, Jersey 2015, I was focusing on sprints – 400m Hurdles specifically – and treated the steeplechase as a bonus event (well, they both had things to jump over, how different could they be?). I was 6th in the hurdles, but 5th in the steeplechase, so immediately decided to spend the next two years making the less-than-obvious transition from hurdler to distance runner. In Gotland, the steeplechase was early on in the week, and was now my main event. I knew most of my competition and reckoned I was the favourite, but despite this (or perhaps because of) I couldn’t help feel nervous in the build-up to the race. What didn’t help was the evening start time, meaning I had the whole day to sit around the hotel quietly, trying to fight off the growing nerves. It’s not something I often get; I understood from this that this was a competition that clearly meant a lot to me, and that the added team element (and the sense of responsibility it brought) in a somewhat individual sport was preying on my mind.
It’s one thing to which I’m sure many athletes (in whatever sport and at whatever level) will attest – competing is sometimes the easier bit, but waiting to go is the hard part. And so it was that, when the gun went off to start my race, suddenly I felt in control. I slotted into second place immediately, knowing that the pace that was set by the leader was one I felt comfortable with. About a third of the way into the race I moved ahead, keeping that same pace, but now I was pulling away. And that, pretty much, was that. The gap continued to grow, along with the cheers from my Isle of Wight teammates – both in athletics and from the other sports who had come along to watch, an experience unusual to me.
The Island Games elicits a unique camaraderie
One of the special things about the Island Games is the way in which it truly brings island communities together. This is seen both in the inter-island rivalry and friendships formed from one games to the next, but also that different sports teams from the same island all support one another. During my time at the Games I got to see fellow Isle of Wight athletes in triathlon, cycling and football, and caught up with many of the other sports’ progress in the hotel or around the town. I genuinely managed to lose my voice by one evening, such was the vociferous support I gave during the day for new-found friends, reciprocating that given for me during my races. This is what sets the Games apart from any other competition I do, and it’s why I’ll keep coming back for as long as I am able.
Back to that steeplechase, where I left you for a moment. The last few laps were all about keeping concentration, as even with a growing lead, five immovable wooden barriers to clear every 400m focuses the mind somewhat. Fortunately I cleared them smoothly, and was able to relax and even enjoy the last lap as the support, frankly, went bonkers. Crossing the finish line, the overwhelming feeling was one of relief, as I’d been thinking about that race since the last Games, and all that nervous energy I’d built up just dissipated. The medal ceremony that evening was a delight, as I never imagined I’d hear ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ played in my honour, but celebrations were ultimately muted in preparation for the 5000m two days later.
Two years of training distilled into 15 painful seconds
While I’d trained with steeplechase in mind, and had mixed the two disparate skills of endurance sport and hurdling well enough, in the weeks leading up to the Games I found I’d developed in the former to be able to challenge for medals on the flat, too. I had my gold in the bag; anything else now would be a bonus. As a result, those nerves and thoughts I had before were not there for the 5000m, and I was able to relax into the race, sat at the back of a group of ten early on. My strategy was to pick off the runners as they dropped off the pace, and that worked out as the pack reduced to four, with me in that dreaded fourth place as the lead three ripped the race up inside the last mile. I stuck to my pace, and clawed my way into third, and coming into the last lap I’d caught the second-placed runner who had dropped off the lead pace. I stayed on his shoulder until the home straight and then unleashed one final sprint effort – two years of hard training distilled into just 15 painful seconds more. I made it over the line, with silver that meant just as much as the gold did.
Racing over, it was time to enjoy what remained of the week; the sport, the gorgeous locale and, naturally, the closing party. After such a fantastic week all round, I’ll be back for more in Gibraltar. Roll on the next two years.
We’d like to thank Dan for his time and to wish him all the best for the future, especially in Gibraltar in two years’ time. Dan can be found on Twitter @dan_eck.
KUDOS PASSIONATELY SUPPORTS THE ISLAND GAMES
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KUDOS SPORTS – A LEADING SUPPLIER OF CUSTOM SPORTS KIT
KUDOS is proud to supply kit to a range of sports clubs across the country, including the Isle of Wight Island Games team – made-to-order teamwear and custom kit that is built for performance and worn with pride.