Sexton enjoying life in the fast lane

Story by Paul Fitzpatrick

Friday, 22nd March, 2019 9:59am

Sexton enjoying life in the fast lane

Paul Sexton in training. Photo: Adrian Donohoe

Paul Fitzpatrick

It takes a certain kind of obsession to push yourself in training to the point of throwing up, to tog out and go to the gym or the track seven days a week when your college buddies might be partying or enjoying a lie-in. But to enjoy life in the fast lane, something has to be sacrificed. Sprinting, to coin a phrase, ain't easy.
Paul Sexton is 22 but speaks with a maturity that belies his age. A member of Annalee AC, Sexton recently picked up a national U23 60m indoor hurdles gold medal but he wants more. In fact, he wants it all and he's willing to do what it takes to get there.
“There's something every day. The only down time is the week before a race when it's just speed work, touching up what you have done,” the Cavan Town man told The Anglo-Celt.
“The winter was loads of nights getting sick down at the track, pushing hard in the gym, trying to get better, but it's speedwork now, just sharpening up what you have already done.”
Sexton, we should explain, is not a 60m specialist. His chosen path is the 400m hurdles, an event known as 'the man-killer'.
Having picked up bronze in 2017 and silver last year, he “felt it coming”, he says, this time around. But the race itself wasn't easy; nothing worth having is.
“In general there are heats and and a final but it was a straight final this year, so a showdown, basically, between everyone who was there. 
“I crossed the line in a dead heat with an athlete from Sligo. It was probably the most bizarre race I've ever been involved in. The first three hurdles were brilliant. Hurdle four I hit hard and I think I gave my coach and parents on the sidelines a heart attack, I thought I was going down.
“But I stayed composed and got home for a joint gold medal. It came to thousandths of a second, they couldn't separate us. It was the first time there was a joint gold in a national championship as far as I know.
“Normally hundredths would be used to separate athletes or tenths but it came down to thousandths.”
The margins could not have been finer. Indoor competition is not Sexton's forte usually but a gold medal there sets him up for the 400m outdoor events later in the year, where his focus really lies.
“For me, the 60m hurdles is more of a warm-up event because I'm competing against guys who have these high performance tracks and loads of indoor facilities but unfortunately for us, we just have the gravel track in Breffni.
“A lot of the time it can be a bit of a write-off but I maybe over-performed this year in terms of what we have [in facilities].
“A lot of the time, the way the races are run is very different. For a 400m race outdoors, it's one lap of the track. Indoors, there is a breaking point and you have to get to the break quickly. Everybody can cut in from other lanes and race around in lanes one or two so it's kind of a dog-eat-dog event.
“We saw Thomas Barr crashing out of the national seniors a few weeks ago, he was pushed from behind coming to that break point. It's a contact sport indoors really, that's the difference.”
That's not to say that indoor racing is an after-thought; rather, it's just so hard to prepare for it when your training takes place outside and the vagaries of the Irish climate become a factor.
“For a lot of people it's not [a lesser event] but due to what we have in Cavan, we sometimes write it off to an extent.
“For myself, I'm kind of working off when it's not raining or there's gale force winds or when there are no cars on the track in Breffni, that's when we can do some hurdling.
“A lot of the competitors have indoor facilities where they can train regardless. With college Monday to Friday [Sexton is studying business in GMIT] and working a couple of days at the weekend, I just kind of do what I can for the indoor season but mostly focus on the outdoors.
“To an extent I over-performed for what we expected but the outdoor season will start now with the Irish Universities Championship in Athlone in a months' time.
“The national U23s then will be mid-July. I'm coming off the back of a bad run last year, it was my first time doing the 400m hurdles. I came fourth so we will look to improve on that this year and get on the podium.”

Stay composed
Hurdling in general is not for the faint-hearted.
“With us hurdlers, there's a bit of a screw loose somewhere really. It's still a straight sprint, it's max effort and max pace but you have to have courage. You need to be brave. The hurdles are 3ft 6.
“You're attacking them at full pace so you need flexibility, you need power, you just need to be able to stay composed in a pressurised environment.
“The lanes are quite tight, there are clashes of elbows. It's a mix of a gymnastics event and a sprint event really, getting the legs up over those and having the speed to maintain it between the hurdles.
“They call the 400m hurdles the man-killer. The hurdle height goes down to 3ft but because you are going round a circular track, they are actually angled differently. You will have some straight on, some on an angle on a bend.
“It's really enjoyable, it's such a mix between aerobic distance work, anaerobic sprint work, you've got your gym work, you've got hurdles and technique training, you've got lots of drills. It's non-stop really, the 400m hurdles.”
Sexton and clubmates Roland Surlis and John Nulty took their chance at the National Seniors last summer, the biggest event in the country. In the call room beforehand, he sat across from Olympian Thomas Barr (“an absolute gentleman”) and took it all in. This was big.
“It was last July, live on RTE,” he says.
“I think the pressure got to the whole lot of us. We were walking out at 5.55pm, on the track at 6pm, racing at 6.03, it was as professional as it gets in this country.
“That's the big one for us, it's the biggest event in Ireland. Hopefully we can make a bit of an impact on the national scene this year.”
Growing up, Sexton combined athletics with Gaelic football. He is the holder of three Ulster Colleges medals with St Pat's, lining out in defence, and captained the Cavan Gaels minor team but around his Leaving Cert year, he had a choice to make. Athletics won out.
“In terms of what I can go on and achieve, that probably made the difference. Going to college, I sort of said that in terms of a scholarship and what I had achieved in athletics, I should probably pursue that as much as I can.
“Around Leaving Cert year I said I would go all athletics and that was the turning point probably for me.
“In the juveniles and secondary school, I competed for Ireland three times. Those internationals were an eye-opener really. It definitely helps on the national scene, it helps the nerves when you're lining up against some of the best seniors in the country to know you have experience against some of the best international juveniles.”
Sexton knows his peak is some way off. At the moment, he is climbing the ranks, learning his trade, giving it everything he has and seeing where it takes him.
“With 400m hurdles, you'll pick up experience with every race. I learned a lot from the national seniors about staying composed, the TV cameras are there when you're going down to the blocks and you're racing the likes of Jason Harvey and Paul Byrne... You learn so much from every race right up to the age of 32, 33.”
Just 12 months have passed since he switched over to the 400m and devoted himself to that discipline. His times have been dropping, he says, drastically. The question now is just how far he can go.
“What's my goal? I want everything in terms of Europeans, Worlds, Olympics down the line. Thankfully for me I have been dedicated enough to it where I think the only limiting factor is myself. I think I can push on, this year coming I will be finished college. 
“It will be the first time ever that I can devote time solely on athletics. With a bit of a support system behind me it could be interesting to see what I can achieve maybe on an international stage down the line.”
A man in a hurry, in every sense.

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