Honiton resident Darren Thomas is an athlete who is very much ‘at the top of his sport’, after being ranked as fifth in the world in his age group.
The 47-year-old, who has lived in Honiton for the last 19 years and competes on a regular basis locally with Exeter Harriers, specialises in the triple jump and the long jump. In the latest published rankings, he finds himself fifth in the Masters world ranking, having been crowned South of England and British champion in M45-50 age group since the turn of the year.
We caught up with Darren to find out about his athletics career to date and first up, we asked him how he got into athletics.
He said: “I grew up in Hertfordshire and always loved athletics in terms of school sport, particularly the Triple Jump and the long jump and went on to win several mid Herts and county medals and broke the senior boys’ Mid-Herts triple jump record in my last month at school.
I competed until I was 21, winning the Under-20 South of England Champs indoors and out and representing the South of England in Inter Area competitions.”
He continued: “However, in 1992 I rolled my ankle quite badly on landing in the pit and there was no ice available so it swelled up quite badly causing soft tissue damage.
I competed for a year after that, but it was always painful so I retired.”
So what is the link to Exeter Harriers?
Darren says: “My eldest son competed for Exeter Harriers for a few years and back in 2016 I was watching him compete and realised the Master athletes were also competing for their clubs in the South West competition and they were taking it pretty seriously and earning points for their respective clubs, so I thought I might go down to do some training for the first time in 24 years
“However, whilst training in March 2017 I pulled my Achilles tendon and had to rest that all of that season so my first attempt at competing again was the indoor season in February 2018.”
We then asked Darren if he had a target in terms of achievement when he joined the Exeter Harriers.
He replied saying: “My plan was, and still is to ease myself back in to the sport gently and try and increase the training year by year as my body gets used to it again and I understand the rest periods needed and how often I can compete.
The idea was to hopefully improve season after season.
Master athletics is grouped into five-year age groups so I am currently in the M45-50 age group.
During 2018 I competed purely in the South West, mainly at Exeter Arena and managed to finish the outdoor season ranked fourth indoors and fourth outdoors for my main event- triple jump and seventh indoor and 14th outdoor for the long jump in the UK rankings.
There were a few visits to Exeter physio along the way to keep me going!
I put a bit more effort into Winter training during the Winter of 2018/19 and competed in London in the South of England Indoor Champs, winning gold in triple jump and silver in long jump and although I competed with an injury for most of the outdoor season, I managed to win silver in the outdoor UK Masters champs in Birmingham and finished the season as UK number one in triple jump and number eight in the long jump. I was also ranked 12th in the world outdoor rankings in triple jump and ninth in Europe.
Next, we moved onto this year’s action which of course has now come to a halt as a result of the ongoing Coronavirus crisis.”
Darren says: “To increase my strength I joined a gym in Exeter in November and that has helped me to develop my strength with weight training both machine and free weights, but also at the Pure Gym there is a functional area to use for bounding and box jumps to increase spring and twitch muscles, required for sprinting and jumping.”
“I competed twice in March in the 2020 indoor season, I won the South of England gold medal in triple jump and bronze in long jump at Lee Valley Indoor athletics track in North London and then returned there once more a couple of weeks later to win the UK Masters Indoor Champs in triple jump, where there were 650 athletes competing over two days.
“The new indoor personal best ranks me as number one in the UK, fourth in Europe and fifth in the world ranking.
“I had hoped to compete internationally for the first time in March in the European Masters Champs in Braga, Portugal but unfortunately it was postponed until January 2021 because of the Covid-19 situation.”
Next up, we asked Darren about his training regime and specifically as to how his training has had to change during the ‘lockdown’ conditions we are all living under.
He replies saying: “I still don’t train half as much as some of my fellow Masters’ athletes.
“Normally I’d train once per week at the track and once per week for a couple of hours at the gym.
“Then in the Summer months, there is usually a competition on once a fortnight over a weekend.
“I have lost a stone in weight since starting back into athletics but understand I need rest time as training with a group of teenagers in Exeter at both sprinting and jumping can be pretty hard work, but very enjoyable.
“The current lockdown has meant getting the exercise bike and stepper out of the shed, using my dumbbell weights and doing lots of circuit sessions online.
“There is a very good national jumps coach who has a weekly article in the national magazine Athletics Weekly who posts exercises specifically for sprinting/jumping which are good. Also, HIT sessions are great.”
We asked next about whether he follows a specific diet – he responds saying: “No, I don’t follow any strict diet, but I do try not to eat massive portions and I try and burn off calories where I can.”
Darren then spoke of the great camaraderie he finds amongst fellow Masters’ athletes. He says: “The friendship and camaraderie between the Masters’ community is fantastic and athletes of all age groups are really supportive of each other.
“I have made friends via Facebook and have been meeting them face to face from all age groups from 35 up to 60 and they all take care of themselves and have a healthy rivalry.
“My direct rivals in my age group are spread from Nottingham, Berkshire across to Kent and we all watch the National ranking websites like a hawk during the season as all UK events are updated within about two days and then the rankings are updated. Along with the World Masters Rankings site ran from California.”
Next, we asked Darren what happens next for him in terms of the current lockdown restrictions being lifted and life returning to some form of normality in terms of his sport. He says: “When the current lockdown ends, I guess it will very much depend on just how much of the season is left. The main one for me would be the UK Masters outdoor championships which are scheduled for August, but it’s all very much ‘wait and see’ for now.”
We next asked him about what targets he still has with regards to the sport. He says: “I am always target focussed and have two main targets in mind. To improve by 30cms in my outdoor triple jump before I turn 50 to get in the UK All Time ranking list, which will be a huge achievement and also to set a new South West Indoor record for my age group, which I only have to improve by 20cms next season.
“I am also really looking forward to representing GBR in an international competition.
“With the postponed European indoor in Portugal in Jan-21 and the European outdoor championships in Finland in the summer of 2021, attending one, or indeed both, is very much a ‘target’.”
Last, but certainly not least, we asked Darren how long he feels he can continue to compete and he says: “Well, I am not sure how many years the knees can take triple jump, but I hope for quite some time yet.
“In a couple of years there is a new age group and then the aiming at records and new medals start all over again!”