By Owen Morgan
Jake Heyward blazed a trail for Welsh athletes returning to track action in the early hours of Sunday morning.
As athletics takes its first tentative steps back to normality following the coronavirus shutdown, the Cardiff middle distance star took part in a high-profile and innovative event in the United States.
Heyward was making his competitive debut for the world famous Oregon Track Club Elite, despite having made the move to the United States late last year.
The combination of a long-term Achilles injury and lockdown meant the former Cardiff Athletics man hadn’t competed since the Diamond League Anniversary Games in London last July.
But the Wales and GB international looked in fine fettle despite running in an unfamiliar format during the Return of the Dual event.
The unique remote athletics competition pitted the Oregon Track Club Elite against the Atlanta Track Club Elite despite the two teams being 2,700 miles apart.
The competition, broadcast live via YouTube and Facebook, took place on two separate tracks – one at the Landmark Christian School in Fairburn, Georgia, and the other at the Hamlin Middle School in Springfield, Oregon.
Athletes at each venue had to run by feel, not knowing how fast their opponents were running more than 2,500 miles away.
Oregon Track Club Elite beat Atlanta Track Club over a five-event virtual dual meet https://t.co/XQpBQLBSl4
— FloTrack (@FloTrack) June 21, 2020
Each team entered six athletes in a total of five events: men’s and women’s 600m and 1200m races (one athlete per team), plus a mixed-gender 2 x 2 x 400m relay (two athletes per team) where Hayward was paired with his Oregon team mate Sabrina Southerland.
Wins in the 600m and 1200m races were worth one point each, while the relay victory was worth three points. Both teams donated to, and were raising money for, local charities.
Heyward’s Oregon team got off to a good start in the first event, the men’s 600m. Nijel Amos, the 2012 Olympic 800m silver medallist from Botswana, won in a time of 1:17.2.
By the time the Welsh Athletics junior endurance athlete of the year took to the track, his team were well ahead overall, but he produced an excellent performance to ensure he and Sutherland secured the all important three points for the relay win.
Running the first 400m leg, Heyward opened up a lead which he handed over to Sutherland.
That was fun! We hope you all enjoyed it as much as we did.
6-1 was the final score which gave us the win, but today was more about a great competitive opportunity with @ATLtrackclub. More importantly the charitable cause, where you can still donate at https://t.co/UvUSIwIM3P
— Oregon TC Elite (@OregonTCElite) June 21, 2020
The advantage was maintained by the time Sutherland handed the baton back to the Welshman and he was able to ensure his teammate was still in front by the time he transferred back to her for the final and victorious leg.
Speaking afterwards, Heyward, the former European Youth and Junior 1500m champion, said he was more worried about his unfamiliar double 400m relay role, than making his debut for Oregon.
Heyward revealed he was given some last minute advice by Oregon coach Mark Rowland.
“Mark just said to me, whatever you do just don’t drop that baton. I was more worried about dropping the baton than actually running,” said Heyward.
“It was tough because when you are running around the track it’s literally just you out there and I am more of a racer so I prefer competing against people.
“But obviously in the back of your mind, knowing that someone is chasing you, you’ve just got to give it everything and see what happens.”
Food for Lane County, an organisation in Oregon dedicated to reducing hunger by engaging the community to create access to food, and Atlanta Mission, a community organisation to end homelessness, will split the proceeds of the meet which was won 6-1 by Oregon.