When I speak to Michael Roeger on Monday evening (26 April), he’s just arrived in picturesque Torquay, a town at the eastern end of the Great Ocean Road.
He’s spent almost one-third of the 36 hours since racing the Athletics Australia Tokyo Qualification marathon cooped-up inside a car, travelling along freeways.
On Sunday, post-race, he drove from western Sydney to Canberra, where he enjoyed a well-deserved celebration with his squad. Then on Monday, it was onwards to Victoria’s Surf Coast.
He’s knackered, he tells me, but on the whole, he’s feeling “pretty good”. And he should be.
A perfect record over 42.2 km
Roeger — affectionately known as Roegs by teammates, and across the Australian running community — has a perfect score. Four marathons, four consecutive T46 world records in the distance.
This latest one: an impressive 2:18:53 — 40 seconds faster than his previous mark, set in Houston in January 2020 (Read our coverage of that world record attempt).
Despite enduring some late-stage “tremors and a little bit of cramping in his hamstrings” in the Athletics Australia race — which prevented him from kicking-down like he hoped to in the final 7km (from 3:16s to low 3 minute pace) — he was able to run his steadiest, most evenly split marathon yet.
“The first half was really good. We went through in 69 minutes, which was right on target. Then I just had to hang tough in that last half,” he tells me.
He’s mildly upset, and certainly frustrated, by the cramping. It’s a problem that’s hindered him late in every marathon he’s run. But he’s looking at the positives.
“I didn’t fade — I think my slowest K was 3:23, and I’ve blown out more than that in my previous marathons.”
Michael Roeger’s Marathon Score Card
- Melbourne, October 2018, 2:23:31
- London, April 2019, 2:22:51
- Houston, January 2020, 2:19:33
- Sydney, April 2021, 2:18:53
The best is yet to come
It’s undoubtedly a great result.
But when looking at it through the lens of sheer potential, it’s well-off what Roeger — a 14 minute 5K runner and 64 minute half marathoner — is capable of achieving when he finally gets it right, so to speak.
And he knows it: “This race is definitely a step in the right direction,” the 32-year-old says. “If I can keep doing that, improving, one day I’ll be able to run-on strong in a marathon.
“I’ve only done four. I’ve got to be patient, and consistent. Keep the years off, and get a quick one overseas somewhere.”
Jaryd Clifford goes from pacer to racer
Michael Roeger wasn’t running solo on Sunday. He had a little help from his friends. Coach Philo Saunders and teammate Jaryd Clifford were running alongside him in the early stages as pacers. Clifford — a star 1500 metre runner, who owns the T12 Paralympic world record in the distance — was only meant to run 20km, at most. For the past six months, he’s been training like a miler, not a marathoner, and racing almost every week.
But when he was still feeling okay at 20 km, Clifford kept running. And when Roeger started to get some cramping around the 28km mark, his 21-year-old teammate carried-on by his side. Eventually, Clifford finished the marathon, just 15 seconds back of Roeger. It was a remarkable, jaw-dropping performance. A 2:19:08 debut run, and a world record in his T12 Paralympic classification.
“I’m still in a bit of shock from what Jaryd did on Sunday. I know how tough sub-2:20 is. It took me until my third marathon to do that, and a lot of work. He’s very talented, very gifted, but he’s just gutsy — he’s a gutsy athlete, and to see what he did yesterday; I don’t know how he did it.”
Roeger says he’s enjoyed training with Clifford, who relocated to Canberra full-time at the beginning of the coronavirus, and is excited to see his continued improvement and success on the world stage: “I can’t wait to see what he’s going to do in Tokyo, and beyond, because, you know, he’s going to be far better than I’ve ever been… I wouldn’t want to be anywhere near Jaryd with 400 metres to go on the track in Tokyo. So, good luck to his competitors.”
Coming back from a “devastating” injury
On paper, Roeger’s marathon track-record looks good. But a personal best in this latest race was far from a foregone conclusion.
In mid-2020, following a marathon time trial, Roeger, suffered a serious and “devastating” injury — a pair of stress fractures in his pelvis.
The recovery period was prolonged and “mentally tough”. From October to December 2020, he was only running 3 to 4 days a week, slowly regaining some strength and fitness.
By January of this year, he had managed to ramp his mileage up to 100km per week. But the injury meant he wouldn’t be able to have a typical marathon build.
Adjusting training, lowering mileage
“We had to change a few things with training after the stress fractures,” Roeger says
His coach, Philo Saunders, mandated a day-off each week for the duration of the block. This meant Roeger was only hitting around 150 km per week, at peak mileage, compared to averaging around 175 km in the past.
“I’m the guy who likes to see big mileage, and I don’t like to see a dog-day in my training,” he says. “So that change definitely took some getting used to.
“But I needed to shift my focus, because the big goal is Tokyo and I don’t want to get a recurring injury.”
Finding form and 5k world record
Roeger was always planning on targeting an April marathon, and in January, learned about the race being put on by Athletics Australia. He decided to make this his focus, but his expectations were still unformed.
“If you told me I’d be in shape to run 2:18 back then, I would have said, ‘You’re kidding’.”
As the year progressed, however, he got more and more confidence back.
“I ran a 5k [T46] world record in 14:00.25 a month ago [in Sydney], and I was having some really good sessions.”
By the start of April, he was feeling marathon ready.
Focus was on having a positive experience
But the overarching goal, he tells RunCreature, was not a blistering fast, potential-fulfilling-time, but rather, a “positive experience” in the lead-up to Tokyo.
“One day, I can probably run 2:15 or 2:16, but Philo didn’t want me to bite off more than I could chew with this race. The goal here was to have a positive experience — get a new PB, a new world record, tick some boxes. And we did that.”
Roeger accomplished what he set out to at the Athletics Australia marathon. And he’s doing what every marathon runner aspires to: he’s improving with each race.
He’s learning, making intelligent adjustments, and consistently lowering his times. And now, he’s got a singular focus: capturing his first Paralympic gold medal at the Tokyo Games in September.
Chasing gold at the Paralympics
Roeger is one of Australia’s most decorated Paralympians (not to mention one of the strongest half and full marathon runners in the country at present, regardless of ability).
He’s a multi-time medallist at major international competitions, and the owner of multiple Paralympic world records, including in the 5000 metre and the marathon.
But so far in his illustrious career, gold on the biggest stage — the Paralympic Games — has eluded him. He desperately wants that to change. And believes it will.
“I know my form that I’ve got now will get me that gold medal [in the marathon]. I just have to run a smart race in the Tokyo heat.”
Preparing for a Tokyo start line
As an athlete, Roeger has to take the approach that the games will go ahead. And he’s desperately hopeful they will.
“If they get cancelled, waiting another 3 years to get the monkey off my back in Paris will be very hard to swallow.”
“Right now, all I can do is put my head down and just hope the games go ahead.”
Roeger says he is planning on running the 10km race at the Launceston Running Festival in June, and then wants to target a sub-64-minute half marathon at the Gold Coast in early July.
But he says is still managing some soreness in his lower abdomen, a symptom of the osteitis pubis and stress fractures he endured last year.
The main focus is on “getting to the start line [in Tokyo], and not doing anything too risky in these next four months.”
Putting faith in coach Philo
In the lead-up to Tokyo, Roeger will do what he’s done before every major race, for nearly a decade; he’ll listen to his coach.
“I trust him with my life,” Roeger says of Saunders. “And whatever he tells me to do, I’m going to do.”
“He takes us under his wing, and he inspires us everyday. The time, the dedication, the love, the support. Everything he puts into us is just phenomenal.”
Roeger wants more than anything to win gold in Tokyo; and he knows his coach is just as invested in that goal, and in all of his successes. And that keeps him motivated.
“I actually saw a photo of him on the drive today, after the race, me and Jaryd are hugging, and Philo’s in the background wiping a tear away.
“To see how much it means to him, as well as us, it’s pretty special.”