FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (07-Mar) -- Sitting in the lobby of his hotel about 20 miles north of here in Bentonville, Chris O'Hare is the picture of composure. Sitting in an overstuffed chair wearing loose-fitting shorts, a "Tulsa" T-shirt, and Nike trainers (untied), he rises to greet a reporter with a relaxed smile and a firm handshake. Any tension about defending his NCAA Indoor Championships mile title here beginning tomorrow at the University of Arkansas isn't evident, but he projects a sense of purpose.
"My goal is the same as everyone else's goal, which is to come here and take the win away," said the 22 year-old Scotsman from Edinburgh in an exclusive interview with Race Results Weekly. "That's really the main goal, all season, every race. This one, obviously, has the added pressure of being national championships, and then you've got the added pressure of being the record holder and what not. But you know? Pressure's a great thing."
O'Hare was a surprise winner in last year's meet held at moderately high altitude in Nampa, Idaho, winning in a pedestrian 4:01.66 in a close sprint finish over Rich Peters of Boston University --another Briton-- and Miles Batty of BYU, then the NCAA indoor mile record holder. But a year later it is O'Hare who is the fastest-ever NCAA man over the one mile distance (indoors) with his sparkling 3:52.98 fourth place finish at the Millrose Games last month in New York.
"It's a lot more different going into a race with a target on your back," he intoned. He continued about last year's race: "If it had been 1610 meters I might not have won."
But O'Hare isn't getting ahead of himself. Like the great Bernard Lagat, he approaches racing with equal parts preparation and calculation.
"Take it one step at at time," said O'Hare. "Football, or soccer, managers always hit the nail on the head pretty sweetly for us. They always say we're not worried about this game until we're through with this game. You've got to have the same attitude for prelims and finals as well. You can't be thinking too much about the final because you might not be there."
O'Hare now brings all of the tools of the miler's trade to the track: solid endurance, sustained speed, a great finish, and perhaps most importantly racing savvy. His success, he said, stems partially from taking a less stressful approach to training than he did last season. He said his obsession with every facet of his training left him drained by the end of the outdoor season where he finished a disappointing 12th --and last-- in the NCAA Outdoor Championships 1500m.
"Actually, I have taken a more relaxed attitude towards running," said O'Hare, who also holds the Scottish indoor record for the mile. "Last year I was very, kind of, uptight and trying to make sure I did everything right: you've got to do this, you've got to be in bed by this time, you've got to eat this, drink that, make sure your workouts are within this time, that time. I've not worried about it so much this year. By the time I got to outdoors last year I was just worn out."
Now, O'Hare said, he doesn't fret if he doesn't exactly hit a time in a workout or gets to bed 30 minutes late. "I'm just more comfortable about the whole training environment," he said.
Although he had no intention of running in last weekend's European Indoor Championships, it's hard not to imagine how O'Hare would have fared in a final which went in 3:37.17 to French steeplechaser Mahiedine Mekhissi-Benabbad (O'Hare called him "a superb athlete"). O'Hare said that while the NCAA title would not mean as much back home, it's nonetheless a very high level championships.
"It is kind of difficult because... sometimes people are like, yeah that's good, and they have no idea. The NCAA mile, it's incredible. It's incredible. I mean, it helps that I got the Scottish record as well, so people are like, wow, that is really fast."
O'Hare plans to redshirt (skip) the outdoor season so he can qualify for the IAAF World Championships in Moscow in August. Under coaches Steve and Taylor Gulley at the University of Tulsa, he plans to run 1500m races at the Payton Jordan Cardinal Invitational at Stanford in April, then the USATF High Performance Meet at Occidental College in May to hit the 3:35.00 IAAF "A" standard for the meet. Then, he'll come back to Tulsa for cross country in the fall, skip NCAA indoors --although he could run at the IAAF World Indoor Championships if selected-- then finish his NCAA career outdoors. He said he's proud to run for Tulsa.
"It's been the best decision I've ever made," O'Hare said of choosing Tulsa. "I have no doubt that I wouldn't be where I'm at right now if I had gone elsewhere. The whole system: Coach Gulley's fantastic, and I love Tulsa. It's a great city, a great little town."
PHOTO: Chris O'Hare before defending his NCAA Indoor Championships title at the mile (photo by David Monti for Race Results Weekly)