TONBRIDGE Athletic Club has established an outstanding reputation for cross country running, and this weekend one of its most precocious talents, Chris Olley, represents Team GB for the first time.
The 21-year-old is making his debut for the seniors at one of the most prestigious dates in the athletics calendar, the 8km Great Edinburgh International Cross Country, which will be shown live on the BBC.
“It’s my first senior test, my first opportunity at this level. I’m quite confident,” says Chris (pictured right). “I’m proud, absolutely, and it’s a big honour.”
He is running hot ahead of the biggest event of his career. Last month he was on top form with Britain’s Under-23s at the European Championships in Slovakia.
But he is having to juggle the demands of training with taking exams in his final year at Imperial College, London. He is in his fourth year studying physics, and compared with his peers he has an unusual way of getting to lectures in the capital.
He runs four miles into campus and then eight or nine more on the way home. “I’m fitting my running in around my studies,” says Chris. “I tend to commute by running. It’s definitely not a typical thing to do.”
Chris’s family live in Sevenoaks, but his earliest interest in running came abroad. His father is a diplomat and his first posting was to Finland. “It was just a bit of fun with my dad,” he says. “The running was preparation for playing ice hockey.”
Chris started playing with pucks in Helsinki at the age of eight. The weekly training sessions of up to three hours were intense for such young athletes. “It’s very good for fitness, a very good aerobic sport,” he says.
He began running seriously aged 15 when he joined the Tonbridge club. He returns to race there at the weekends, and in November the club won its first senior national cross-country relay title with him at the front.
They also won the National Cross Country title in March and the National Six-Stage Road Relay Championships in October. It has become the club’s speciality and signature.
He admires the set-up presided over by his coach Mark Hookway because the age groups have grown up with each other and stay together.
He says: “Mark has been pushing people to keep going and perform at senior level. That’s the emphasis. We are very good in the juniors and age groups. The other runners are your friends through all the age groups and that keeps you together when often people start to drop out.
“Tonbridge is a very good community. It’s quite unique, with people competing at all levels and strong teams from the Under-13s upwards.”
Mark was full of praise for Chris, saying: “He is one of the best and most consistent young -distance runners in the UK and is showing signs now of making an impact beyond national level.
“He has developed from a position of being back in the pack at 16, by training very patiently and consistently over the past five years. At just 21 years old he still has time to improve further.”
And incidentally, although Chris has never done the Tonbridge parkrun, readers might like to know that his best time in the 5k event is something to aspire to: 15 minutes, three seconds.
The Great Edinburgh International Cross Country will be shown live on BBC1 at 1.15pm on Saturday (January 13).