Neil Gourley eyes Jakob Ingebrigtsen showdown after miraculous injury comeback

Neil Gourley competes in the men’s 1,500m in Rome this week (Getty Images)
Neil Gourley competes in the men’s 1,500m in Rome this week (Getty Images)

A shrug of the shoulders and a grin spread across Neil Gourley’s face. The agony and anguish of an uncertain year were wiped away after a staggering run of three minutes and 47 seconds to finish fourth in the men’s mile at the Eugene Diamond League.

While world champion Josh Kerr soaked up the adulation from the Hayward Field crowd, continuing his ominous form after beating out his nemesis Jakob Ingebrigtsen for the win, his compatriot, just two seconds behind, savoured an unlikely personal best.

The surprise performance confirmed Gourley’s return to elite competition after an arduous and sometimes dark few months.

From his first bone injury of his career, osteitis pubis, after last year’s World Championships, to a sacral stress reaction in February, which can mean months of rehabilitation before returning to intense training. Gourley adopted the bike to salvage his hopes of competing at the Olympics, putting in up to 20 hours per week of cross-training, with advice from Team GB teammate and European silver medallist Georgia Bell.

“I was limited in Budapest with intense groin and adductor pain,” Gourley tells The Independent ahead of this week’s European Championships in Rome. “I was barely able to get myself into bed. I was sharing a room with Josh [Kerr] and he was laughing at me trying to get under the covers each night because my hip and groin were so sore.

“I took a couple of months off, September and October, and I cycled outside a lot. It was challenging and I changed some bits about how I was running mechanically. In January I felt great, but about a week before Millrose Games in New York [11 February] I had a bit of glute pain. A few days later I went for a run and it felt even stronger. I got into a car to drive down to Phoenix. I got out after a few hours and couldn’t walk anymore. I was crawling between rooms and limping around.”

If the physical pain was bad, Gourley was crushed by the reality of not competing in front of family and friends back home at the European Indoor Championships in Glasgow. Yet there was still time to recover before Paris.

Neil Gourley after winning silver at last year’s European Athletics Indoor Championships (Getty Images for European Athlet)
Neil Gourley after winning silver at last year’s European Athletics Indoor Championships (Getty Images for European Athlet)

“I didn’t want to maintain my fitness but get aerobically stronger than ever before. I was doing a lot of volume on the bike, the elliptical, and the pool too. But all the intensity was on the bike, mostly on Zwift. I was way more motivated when racing. I hopped into two races every hard day. You can cycle more at intense levels than running, it doesn’t beat your body up as much.

“I’d go longer at the weekends, too, three to four-hour rides. The injury was far from ideal, but maybe it was a blessing in disguise. It was a tremendously challenging time. If World Indoors had not been in Glasgow I would not have been nearly as devastated.”

Dropped by his sponsor after the Tokyo Olympics, Gourley found a new home with Under Armour in 2022. The 29-year-old now feels mentally more resilient than ever, with the recent assistance of a sports psychologist.

“Misha [Botting from Sportscotland Institute of Sport] made me realise I was training and living with one set date on the calendar. It felt like everything was a blur and all I cared about was one date. But he made me realise that I had to treat every day separately, winning each day to add up to returning to a high level again. I started living and training with more intent. It was all about how I can be better than yesterday.”

Gourley now hopes to follow in the footsteps of compatriots Wightman and Kerr, who became world champions over the last two years by outkicking Ingebrigtsen. Their friendship, he maintains, has helped elevate them to new heights.

“We are close, we’ve been racing each other for a long time, especially Jake, we came up in the age groups together,” Gourley adds, recalling hours spent together playing Mario Kart at major championships.

Neil Gourley, Jake Wightman and Josh Kerr came up together racing in Scotland (Getty Images)
Neil Gourley, Jake Wightman and Josh Kerr came up together racing in Scotland (Getty Images)

“Josh is a bit younger, and raced my brother quite a bit. My brother used to make fun of me for the fact that he would beat him and sometimes I’d lose to him. It’s unusual, though, in other countries, when you have the same people fighting for the same spots, there’s tension. But there’s not with us. It makes these championships more fun. The hours leading up to races, socialising away from the track, it’s special to have these guys around.”

Before a shot at an Olympic medal or even the British trials on 29-30 June, Gourley hopes to sharpen up at the European Championships with teammate Adam Fogg. Defending champion Ingebrigtsen – who cruised to a third straight European gold in the 5,000m on Saturday evening – is the man to beat from an elite field, with Gourley hoping to safely negotiate Monday morning’s heats before Wednesday night’s final.

“I’ve had their presence, the level is so high,” he concludes. “It has forced us to operate at a different standard. It drives us to new standards. We’re getting the most out of each other, Jake and Josh have global titles, which I don’t have yet, but that’s the ground I’m trying to make up this year and there’s belief I can do that, especially coming off the race I just had in Oregon. There’s the belief I can be at that level.”

Watch the European Athletics Championships via the BBC’s red button and the BBC Sport website