When Steve Magness took a call from the then Athletics Ireland High Performance Director, Kevin Ankrom, in 2016, he was unsure yet curious.
Ankrom was simply looking for a little guidance for an athlete.
His query to Magness, based in Houston, Texas, was simple:
‘We’ve got an 800m runner who has changed coaches and isn’t sure what to do now. Can you give him some guidance?’
Magness, in a short phone call with Ankrom, agreed to ‘look over some things’.
Three years later, Magness is still acting as coach to that 800m runner – Mark English, who last week won a bronze medal at the European Indoor Championships.
English, who now has won three European medals, himself noted in the build-up to the Championships how his link-up with Magness, some 5,000 miles away on the other side of the Atlantic, was ‘unique’.
Crucially, though, it’s working.
“It may not be the most conventional or ideal set-up, but Mark is a unique athlete, remember that,” Magness told Donegal Daily/Donegal Sport Hub this week.
“He is very intelligent and deliberate on what he does. He takes a very scientific approach to his training, which is why we work together well.
“He has a really good head on his shoulders when it comes to his training. My job is different to a traditional coach.
“We’re almost partners in that I made sure he stays on track and offer guidance. We go back-and-forth and he has a say, too, in how his career and progression his going.”
Magness came to prominence at the Oregon Project, under Alberto Salazar, but blew the whistle on dubious practices regarding banned substances.
His beliefs and those of English are very much in tandem.
The two have met face-to-face just once – prior to the 2017 World Championships in London.
By then, though, English was beset by injury troubles.
Last year, after the European Championships, Magness and English needed some answers – and got them via a biomechanical assessment in Manchester.
When English crossed the line last Sunday, behind Álvaro de Arriba from Spain and Britain’s Jamie Webb, at the Emirates Arena in Glasgow, Mangess – who watched ‘freaking out’ on his laptop in Texas – could see the results of a sometimes-arduous process.
“He has been through a lot,” Magness said.
“He had some tough injuries that were difficult to figure out. It is testament to Mark’s tenacity to push through, the due diligence and work he showed to get his body, not only back to normal, but to be able to compete.
“We just didn’t give up. I was calling researchers, biomechanics people, even reaching out to people on Twitter. We knew after the European Championships that he wasn’t up to par.
“We needed to figure him out, so we got him into a lab and that provided us with a roadmap. His injuries were very strange and unconventional, but there is always an answer if you want to find it.”
There has been a perception of English that he wasn’t willing to put in the hard yards, but the suggestion is refuted utterly by Magness.
“Mark is a different athlete,” he said.
“Rather than do work for work sake, Mark will work really hard if it has a purpose and if it helps him to improve. When it came to the injuries,
“Mark did everything possible to get back on track. His work ethic has never been in question.
“You can tell that by how well he has done in study as well as his athletics.”
Magness is acutely aware of English’s academic commitments, too, as the 25-year-old nears completion of medical studies at UCD.
Magness said: “He has taken on a very difficult challenge in managing the academic workload with his training.
“Does that impact on him athletically? Maybe a little bit, but you want athletes to grow as people, too, and he’s done a great job of fulfilling all of the goals in his life. He does a great job of managing his stress and recovering.
“He’s not a conventional athlete who can go after a hard session, sit on the couch and recover for several hours.”
English records his training sessions, which he sends to Magness to analyse. At the weekends, the pair catch up over the phone or via Skype.
Magness has fine-tuned the preparation with English to minute detail.
“We’re always evolving,” Magness said.
“Mark is an athlete who has incredibly good speed and power for a middle distance athlete.
“This year, we took a measure of ‘okay, how are we going to maintain that and increase the endurance a little?’.
“We have focussed on more quality work, not necessarily volume. For example, he will do, say, 70 minutes of a long run, but will have emphasis on having quality aerobic work. It’s making sure we get the most bang for our buck.”
Magness described the 800m as ‘brutal, maybe the toughest race of all on the track’ and English almost became a victim of its pitfalls last Saturday. In his semi-final, English was impeded by British runner Guy Learmonth.
Briefly, his dreams looked dashed until a successful appeal was made, and English added to the list for the final.
Before the final, which contained seven runners as opposed to the usual six, Magness and English had a quick call. English had to start sharing lane 3 with Andreas Bube from Denmark and tactics would prove crucial.
“His tactic was a gamble,” Magness said.
“We were hoping that he’d developed enough strength and endurance to hold on. Having not done that this year, it was a gamble. He did it and it’s a credit to him for fighting through and maintaining it.
“After what happened in the semi, he had to be more aggressive. I was like: ‘You’re going to have to do something different to sitting back like normal’.”
English blossomed when he made his initial burst into senior athletics, winning a European bronze medal in 2014 and a European Indoor silver in 2015. He holds the Irish Indoor 800m record of 1:46.82, but the record he craves is the outdoor best, held by David Matthews, whose 1:44.82 English is within two-hundredths of a second of.
“The times will come,” Magness said. Right now, it was about executing the races and getting Mark back to enjoying racing and competing.
“When you have a record in your face, it’s easy to press to try and get it, but it’s right then it can backfire. He has the talent, the work ethic and the drive to run much faster than the record.”
Later this year, English will hope to go under starter’s orders at the World Championships in Doha and Tokyo, for the 2020 Olympic Games, will soon come in to view.
“We keep the focus in what we’re doing in the moment…realising the difference in what the goal is now versus getting caught up in what’s happening next year,” Magness said.
“It’s my job to keep the long-term focus and Mark’s job to execute the what is now.”