Charging through the mud, pushing through the pain and in the heat of the battle, Rory Leonard found himself having the time of his life.
When he made the trip to Liverpool for a seemingly routine British Athletics Cross Challenge race, Rory was merely one of the also-rans of the under-17 age group, always looking on at his “idols” at the front while he slugged it out with the rest of the chasing pack.
But as the gun went off and the race went on longer and longer, something remarkable unfolded. The relative unknown, who had finished 50th in the Inter Counties the previous season, suddenly found himself up at the front. And he was loving every second of it.
“It was the best feeling in the world,” says Rory, “my dad had said before the race ‘it doesn’t matter how tired you get, go with the leaders and hang on for as long as you can’, so I did that and then one by one people were dropping off who I never thought I’d be beating at all, so it was great.”
Despite leading for much of the race, a misjudged final kick meant that the Morpeth Harrier would eventually have to settle for second place, but considering where he had come from, it was beyond what anyone ever have expected him to achieve. “There was a bit of confusion at the end of the race,” says Rory, “I don’t think a lot of the guys even knew who I was. But I don’t blame them because I’d never been up there challenging them before so there was a was a lot of shock and people were very surprised.”
However, there was one person who may not have been as surprised as everyone else was, which was Rory’s father and coach Tony. A former British international runner, Tony saw that his son’s training was not getting the most out of his potential and began to start giving his son small bits of guidance before officially stepping in as his main coach in 2017.
While Rory may not have thought much of it at the time, his father certainly held huge, albeit quiet ambitions for his son that season. “I feel like he knew I would improve a lot,” says Rory, “he didn’t tell me at the time because I think he didn’t want to put any pressure on me, so it was just a case of ‘let’s see what happens with it’, but I think deep down he knew.
“He’s had so many different coaches himself when he was out in America or when he was back here training so he’s seen it all in terms of different coaching styles and ways of training which makes him very well rounded and in a good position to coach me.”
Aside from his father, Rory also has close contact with another former athlete in. his own mother Sharon. Like her son, she was a highly competitive cross country runner, finishing as a runner up at English Schools and going on a scholarship to America. Despite not having as big a role in Rory’s running as his father does, Sharon is regularly on hand to provide some guidance of her own.
“My mum’s a deputy head-teacher,” says Rory, “so even though she could still definitely coach me, she’s often really busy. But I do find that if there’s something I don’t agree with or that I’m not sure about then she’s still there to give me advice because she’s just got great knowledge and ability to help me with that.”
This was certainly invaluable for Rory in a year that, despite being his very best, has still had its fair share of ups and downs. A victory at the Northern Championships and a great run at the Antrim Cross Challenge was counter-balanced by disappointment at the National Championships where he fell over and became concussed, while a snowy and hilly English Schools also proved slightly too tough to handle.
However the 17-year-old’s finest moment of all came on one of the biggest stages, as a trip to Loughborough in March saw him pick up an emphatic victory at the Inter Counties Cross Country Championships. “I can’t even describe how that felt,” says Rory, “it was one of those races where I was coming back from the nationals just desperate to race and get a bit of payback for it. I knew before we started that it was anyone’s race, but yeah there’s no better feeling than winning the Inter Counties.
“I remember when we hit the field just before the finish I put a big burst in and then was just going to see what I had left. So me and Tom Keen broke away and I’ve had some good battles with him but when I broke away he just didn’t go with it.
“So the gap just kept opening and opening and I was a bit confused more than anything about what was going on. Then it kept getting bigger and when we got to 200m I realised I’d won so I was just milking it. As I was finishing I kept seeing more and more people that I knew from back when I’d just started running so it was really emotional during that last 200m and just an amazing way to finish.”
Certainly last season was one that the Inter Counties champion will never forget. However, with the new cross country season now upon him, the former under-17 runner now faces possibly his biggest test yet as he takes the step up to under-20s to once again try and mix with the very best.
It seems like a daunting task, however Rory’s family coaching set up and highly successful track season that saw him represent Great Britain juniors is definitely a confidence booster.
“I’m really looking forward to it,” says Rory, “it’s the first time that I’ve entered cross country on the back of a strong track season. I think English Schools also gave me a good understanding of how I can race against these guys, so it’s just a chance to test myself really.”
Much has changed since the start of last season when Rory’s highest highest aim was merely to finish in the top 15 of national races. But now with the wind very much in his sails, the winning feeling may not be too far away as he returns for more cross country mayhem.