Thomas Keen takes track success in his stride at Cambridge & Coleridge Athletic Club
"He’s not surprised me because he’s got a very good racing brain. Right from day one, we’ve always known he can race and pull it out of the bag.
“We’ve always known he’s got it, I’m not surprised.”
Without even knowing the identity of the athlete, the above description just outlines the regard in which their talent is held.
It is the description of Thomas Keen by his coach Mark Vile, and comes off the back of an extremely good second run outdoors on the track this summer.
Invited to compete for the Great Britain under-20s team at the Loughborough Invitational, 17-year-old Keen took almost five seconds off his 1,500m personal best, lowering the standard from 3min 48.67sec to 3.43.97.
“I would like to knock a couple more seconds off my 1,500m, hopefully down to 3min 40sec – ambitious, but it’s doable,” says Keen, who comes across as relaxed but very focused in equal measure.
Maybe that is part of the magic formula that has seen the Cambridge & Coleridge Athletic Club member burst onto the national stage in the past two years.
The significance of the time at Loughborough was that it was inside the qualifying standard for the European Under-20 Championships in Sweden this summer – one of the main aims of the season.
Next target is to confirm his place in the team at the national championships, and that would set him on course to replicate the medal-winning exploits of 2018 – when he won gold in the 3,000m at the European Under-18 Championships.
There has been a lot of success in a short period of time for Keen.
Just as any youngster, he enjoyed several sports in his early teens, playing tennis to a decent level before time demands took over.
“It came to the decision, do I go with tennis or athletics? I guess I chose the right one,” he says with a smile.
“The appeal was, I was good at athletics. I would enter races and win them off little or no training and quickly made some good friends. It’s just a nice atmosphere to be around.”
The training group with Vile at C&C is one of the most respected in the region, if not the country, but Keen was not always at the top of the pile.
He has had to work hard for the results.
“I went through a bit of a rough patch and one season I got about half a second PB – it just seemed like everything was going southward,” he says.
“It was just down to growing. It took my muscles a while to catch up with me.
“That next season I had a really good season with big seconds off my PB in 1,500m and 3,000m.
“I was able to build on that.”
The breakthrough came two years ago, while in Year 10 at Linton Village College.
The seconds fell off his personal best and then, at the Alexander Stadium in Birmingham, he won the 3,000m at the ESAA English Schools’ Championships.
“That was really big,” says Keen, “and then I won nationals that year as well, won the schools international competition, had the quickest time at the end of the year and it hasn’t really slowed down since then.
“Last season was really good, I won the European Championships in the 3,000m, came second in the national 1,500m – developing both of those has been really good.”
When Keen took victory in Hungary last summer, he spoke of trusting in his training as he delivered a tactical masterclass to counter the injection of pace from two Turkish opponents.
He produced a sub-60 second final lap to take the gold, and so you can understand what Vile means when he says his young protege has a very good racing brain.
“As I go around the track, I try to stay relaxed for as long as possible and try not to think of it as being a quick race,” Keen explains.
“I try to think of it as being a long race, I’ve got loads of time so I try not to rush anything.
“Even though, in reality, it’s quite a short event.
“I do think quite a lot beforehand. Mark and I will have a little chat just to see what he thinks would be a good idea. But I feel once you’re on the track, that all goes out of the window.
“Unless you’re having the perfect race, you can’t really rely on tactics, you just make it up as you go along.
“I like a quick pace from the start and 600m out I will go for a big kick and hope that breaks everyone. People know that’s my tactic. There’s no secrets as such as everyone knows what each other is going to do, it’s just who is able to pull it off best on the day.
“The element of surprise is long gone.”
The tactics and speed involved in a 1,500m race is part of the appeal for Keen, who is making the early transition to the distance as the 3K is a junior discipline.
With athletes from juniors to internationals in the training group, he could not be in a better place to learn.
“The group is great,” says Keen. “Mark is so amazing and so enjoyable to train with, he has had the experience of being a top athlete as well.
“So many of my friends are here so we’re able to train together and make it fun as well, taking it seriously but having a good laugh between reps and warm-ups.”
That enjoyment will no doubt come to the fore again on June 22 and 23 when Keen will be bidding to book his European ticket at the England Under-20 Championships.
Training group revel in success of fellow athletes, says coach
Thomas Keen’s success is proving to be a perfect example to other athletes in the training group at Cambridge & Coleridge AC.
A five-second personal best at the Loughborough International in May showed his ability, especially coming off the back of a four-week injury lay-off.
It has not been instant success for the 17-year-old though.
“It’s good for the group because when Tom joined the group, he wasn’t the best runner,” said coach Mark Vile, pictured above. “There was a two-year spell where he couldn’t even get in our A team, but he kept coming, he just wouldn’t give up.
“He kept training, he was at the back, but slowly he worked his way through the group and then got to the front.
“What that has shown the rest of the group is that they can do it. We’ve got other runners that are right at the top of the rankings, and that is partly down to the success that Tom and others have had, like Kieran (Wood).”
Keen, who turns 18 next week, is at the bottom of his age group, but is ranked No 2 in the country, and the only person quicker than him – Joshua Lay – is a year-and-a-half older.
“He’s making really good progress,” said Vile. “The thing we like about it is that we’ve held him back so he’s not been pushed too much yet.
“He’s still got plenty of miles in the tank. We believe that a lot of his rivals are already working at maximum whereas Tom isn’t.
“He is only doing 40 miles a week which, if you’re a runner, you know that’s not a lot. We’ve still got more to add so as the years go on, I think he’s just going to carry on improving.”