Basingstoke runner emulates Peter Elliott’s World Champs podium achievement despite having undergone surgery for a heart defect three years ago
Until Budapest 2023 the last British man to make the podium in the 800m at the World Championships was Peter Elliott in 1987 when he won silver behind Billy Konchellah of Kenya. Since that sultry night in Rome there have been 36 years of pain, but on Saturday (Aug 26) the stars aligned as Ben Pattison enjoyed the race of his life to win bronze.
Like Elliott, Pattison is a red-head too. “There’s something in it,” he grinned, speaking moments after his race with a Union flag around his shoulders. “Matt Hudson-Smith was nicknaming all the people in this GB team and he called me “Fireball”. I like to think that’s how I am. If I get to the last straight and anyone gets in my way, I try to go through them.”
In Budapest, Pattison did it in style too. In a cagey race he found himself leading briefly after 200m and he was placed nicely in second close behind Emmanuel Wanyonyi of Kenya at the bell in a slow 52.68. Staying on the kerb, at 600m he found himself getting swallowed up a little and a little boxed and he fell back to sixth. But he rallied to fourth around the final bend and then powered down the home straight to move into third in 1:44.83 behind runner-up Wanyonyi (1:44.53) and the winner Marco Arop of Canada (1:44.24).
Amazingly, Pattison’s success came just three years after having surgery for a heart problem. Despite already having competed in athletics for a number of years, he was found to have Wolff-Parkinson-White, a condition where the heart beats abnormally fast, which required an operation.
“I went to the doctors when I was about 10 years old as I could feel something was wrong, but tests didn’t show anything as it was happening too randomly,” he explains. “So a few years later I got a heart rate monitor to go to altitude training and I was doing a track session and it was showing 246 beats per minute. I thought ‘220 minus your age!? That doesn’t work out’, so I just thought the heart rate monitor was broken!
“But I saw a doctor (who identified the problem) and they asked me ‘do you have to run?’ I told them ‘yes, it’s my career’. So they told me I had to (temporarily) stop all exercise, which was weird to me as I’d survived 18 years of my life working hard. I then had to have three or four months of not being able to do anything. I was only allowed to go for walks, which was a very tough time.
“It was Covid time too but I had a lot of friends around me. We were on PS4 (PlayStation) and we were smashing out (Call of Duty) Warzone cos there was nothing to do at that time. During the operation I was conscious and I was on morphine and all sorts. None of my family were allowed in due to Covid. I was only 18 and it was pretty surreal. We’ve had some tough things to get through but we’ve worked through them slowly.”
Pattison’s story is reminiscent of Andy Baddeley, who had surgery on a heart issue and went on to win the Dream Mile in Oslo and was Britain’s leading 1500m runner for a spell at the turn of the millennium.
For eagle-eyed readers of AW it will come as little surprise that one of the current generation of 800m runners has finally broken the World Champs medal drought in the men’s event. At the 2019 European Under-20 Championships, Pattison finished runner-up as GB team-mates Ollie Dustin and Finley Mclear were dubbed ‘baby Spitfires’ in AW after sweeping the medals.
The nickname was a reference to the famous description of Seb Coe, Tom McKean and Steve Cram resembling ‘Spitfires from out of the sky’ as they finished one-two-three at the 1986 European Championships. But could these ‘baby Spitfires’ graduate to a senior podium?
“I always thought down the line it would happen but not this soon,” said Pattison. “It’s absolutely crazy to me. I’ve always been the guy who’s there or thereabouts and not the top guy.”
The ‘top guy’ through the age groups has invariably been Max Burgin, although he missed that particular European U20 Champs where Britain enjoyed a medal sweep. Pattison finished a close runner-up to Burgin, for example, in the 800m at the English Schools in 2016 and the pair have been good friends more or less ever since. Burgin had a nightmare semi-final in Budapest as he finished last, but he is rooming with Pattison in Budapest and stayed out in Hungary to watch the final.
“Max has been so supportive,” said Pattison. “We have shared rooms since the Euro Youths in Gyor (in 2018). We’re very close. Each year we get closer and closer. He went to watch the Man United game today and saw me before I raced tonight and gave me the smile and a hug.”
As well as Burgin, Pattison’s girlfriend, the 800m runner Molly Hudson, flew out on the spur of the moment to watch and has spent this week sleeping on the sofa at Pattison’s parents’ accommodation. “I’ve seen her in the crowd and she’s in tears,” he said, adding that he also saw his mum was at the start of the home straight crying with emotion.
Pattison began athletics as a middle-distance runner but then spent a spell as a sprinter. It proved a stroke of genius. “My dad had the idea to move down to 400m for two years to get the natural speed as it’s not easy to develop it when you’re older and also to protect the body from the mileage that middle-distance runners do,” explains Pattison, who is coached by Dave Ragan. “I was a very good sprinter and people didn’t believe me when I said I was going to move back up in distance. The 400m races hurt but the training for 800m is a lot harder in my view.”
At 400m he won titles at events like the English Schools and UK School Games. But when he moved back to 800m in 2019, he improved his PB from 1:54.52 to 1:46.71 in one season, which warranted a feature in AW at the time (pictured below).
Given his sprints background, in more recent years Pattison has worked moreso on his stamina. This often involves eating humble pie by finishing low down in cross-country races in the winter. “Chris and Sonia (McGeorge, the former middle-distance internationals who help with his training at Loughborough) see me plodding around at the back and they smile because they know I’m a good track athlete. Sometimes athletes ask them when they’re going to get on the track and they tell them ‘well, Ben’s here and he’s the track guy’.”
But he adds: “This winter I didn’t do any running until January due to injury. The winter work is what gets me good, so after missing a lot of that I was wondering at the start of this year whether I’d race at all this season, let alone reach a World Championships.”
Even a few weeks before Budapest, Pattison did not have the qualifying time and had to achieve it in a last-chance race at the London Diamond League, which he did when finishing a close runner-up in a PB of 1:44.02 behind Burgin. “London was make or break,” he says. “Fellow 800m runner Reece Sharman-Newell told me he’d never seen me not do it under pressure and when he said that it flipped a switch for me. In the stadium that day it may as well have been an empty stadium as it was just me against the time.”
He added: “After last winter’s injury this has been my worst year ever preparation wise so the fact I’ve come away with this is mind blowing and I cannot wait until next year… Olympic year.”
Already Pattison is looking forward to going one or two places better in Paris in 2025. “I’ve graduated from Loughborough now but I’m going to stay there as it has everything I need to train and prepare properly. I’m going to be living with Tom Mortimer (3:39 1500m man) so he will get me fit with more mileage.
“Hopefully I can get an injury-free winter this time.”
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