Patrick Tiernan capped off his collegiate career with an upset victory at the NCAA Cross Country Championships last November. Now the Aussie is headed to Kampala for the IAAF World Cross Country Champs. He tells us why he can’t wait to get his teeth – er spikes – stuck into some Ugandan cross country terrain. 

It’s the first time you’ll be repping the green and gold in a cross country race. Are you nervous? 

I’ve never been to Africa, so it’s my first experience. It’s pretty exciting! I like the concept that you get to go to a place you’d normally never really be going to for anything else I guess. But I’m excited to learn a bit about the culture and see what they’ve got on offer.

And of course you’re not just racing for yourself, but also for team points. What’s the aim going into Kampala?

I think we can surprise a few people. I would say – I don’t know what the other guys are thinking – but I would definitely compete for a top six, top five spot [with the team], if we had our day. It’s an exciting, younger team for us – a lot of guys who are doing pretty well at the moment.

I think individual goals for us are a little… not quite there for the moment. We’ll try to find ourselves amongst the group and then see how it all turns out.

Do you like the team aspect, or are you more of an individual runner?

It’s great! That’s one thing I really loved about my college experience – you feel like you’re part of a team in a pretty individual sport. So to be able to do that again in a national vest is something pretty cool.

Not a lot of people get to experience that aspect in our sport and it’s definitely a different feeling going into a race knowing that you are running for five other guys. It’s a little extra incentive, especially when you’re going in with the reality of not winning or being further off in the distance individually. 

Your collegiate career came to a pretty sweet end, you were only the second men’s NCAA XC winner in Wildcats history. How did you get the timing right?

I think the mistake I made in 2015 was that going into the race, I sort of tried just racing Ed [Cheserek], thinking he’d kinda be the only guy in the race.

Going into this year I knew I could win it. I didn’t know I was going to, but I knew I had all the tools to do it. I think just the reality that there’s more than one guy in the race with you – and as it turned out, it wasn’t even him that I was racing over that last 1k – I was glad I had that mindset, ‘cause you have to adjust to a different athlete.

And to be honest, that all came from my experience in Rio [he finished 13th in 13:28.48 in his 5000m heat]. I was going into it with, let’s say, not a very positive mentality. I was thinking that I’d just scrape into the final as a best-case scenario, rather than trying to win the race that I was in at the time. And so I took a lot from that and applied that to my cross season and that was the end result, which was great.

Some athletes see XC almost as a form of punishment. You love it. How come?

It’s just different. Back home [in Toowoomba, Queensland] I really liked it because I was better at it than I was at track. When you’re a kid that’s always gonna play a big factor into whether you like something more so than the other. 

Once I started to get a little older I realised that it’s not just that; you’re out in the open and then there’s opportunities to go back into the woods. You might come out ahead, you might come out 30-40 metres back – it’s all something different and exciting. You’re also not going the same way round and round a 400m track. You never really zone out, there’s always something new coming up. That’s why I love it. 

Patrick Tiernan competes in the 5000m at the Rio Olympics (Getty Images)

 Tiernan and Brett Robinson are both on the strong Aussie team for Kampala

How much does the course play into it?

I usually like to jog over the course the day before, just to see where the hills are. That’s another thing I like about cross country, that you really gotta plan out your race, not just in regards to the competition, who you’re gonna race, but how you’re gonna feel at a certain point.

You’re gonna be looking out if it’s rained the day before, what areas are going to be more damp, what areas have a hill coming up, what areas might have a few pot holes and stuff like that, loose footing. 

It becomes more of an analytical game, rather than just going out there and just thinking about running. I like that concept.

What do you think is your strongest quality?

I was always pretty good at the hills. I guess we did a lot of hill training when I was a younger kid. My coach back home would get us to do hill reps on a Friday and so that was always where I would make my moves back home.

But more recently I think I’ve been in a lot of races where I’ve been able to go to the front and control the tempo, gradually picking up the pace leading into the last kilometre or so of a race has been my strength over the last six to twelve months.

That’s why I’m pretty excited about this race coming up because it’s not going to be a race where I’ll be controlling the pace, so it’ll be exciting to race guys who are at that next level and see how I respond to that – to their moves and their tactics. But yea, I think I’m pretty good up the hills, so I can only hope for some hills to appear on that course in Kampala 😬 

For everything you need to know about the Kampala course, entry lists and more, head this way.