Only those with a catalogue of athletics knowledge would connect this mud lark with the 17-year-old who came 4th at the National on Parliament Hill as a junior eight years earlier.
Sam Stabler announced his return home in style.
A podium at one of the most prestigious events on the domestic calendar wasn’t always written in the stars for the Leicestershire man.
When the 25-year-old headed to Lamar University, Texas in 2011 for an undergraduate degree in Chemical Engineering, he was just about managing to hold his body together.
But under the guidance of Darren Gauson, Sam underwent a full rehab programme. His running style was completely changed by training on an under-water treadmill and a new routine was established.
Despite the Texan heat and the rigour of the collegiate system, the significance of his move across the Pond isn’t lost on Sam.
‘Going to university in the States probably saved my running,’ says Sam. ‘I’d had so many injuries before going that it was nice to finally have some consistency.’
It wasn’t long before the performances followed.
2015 was the year when the stars started to align. Sam clocked 7:53 for 3,000m indoors at the end of January – and backed that up with an impressive 13:30 and win over 5,000m at the Stanford Invitational in May.
But the transformation from decent club runner to 13:30 5k man is never as simple as the narrative sounds. The challenge of converting a few anomalous, yet outstanding, performances into a series of consistently high-level results remained a hard task.
Returning home in the summer of 2016, Sam’s struggle for consistency continued – a situation hardly aided by his varied work pattern.
Sam works two days a week in the research and development department at Singleton Birch, a quarry near Hull. The two-hour commute from his home in Leicestershire means he has to stay overnight in an Airbnb.
‘The rest of the week I rotate between an engineering firm, coaching in schools and chip timing at races,’ says Sam. ‘Every week of work is different.’
This varied work pattern coupled with an IT band injury picked up while driving to his friend’s wedding in Denmark made for a stop-start return to life in the UK. Throw in an operation on his eye last December too and the end of the year couldn’t come quickly enough.
‘I was very pleased with the National XC as I had been expecting to struggle to get into the top-10!’ says Sam.
In fact, his plan had been to use the National XC and Inter-Counties a couple of weeks later to try and get fit.
For the Owls man to have placed 3rd and 4th respectively, despite a disrupted build-up, is a clear indicator of how far the 25-year-old has come since leaving for the States in 2011.
A period of relative consistency among Rob Denmark’s stable in Loughborough since and it’s clear Sam is edging closer to personal best shape.
‘There was more to gain by training so we decided to leave races for a bit and get some miles in,’ says Sam. ‘I’m really happy with how the last 6-7 months of training have gone.’
Three track races along the line this year, Sam is close to the times he was running in 2015. A tentative 3,000m opener at the start of May on a Wednesday night Watford Open prepped him well for his first 5,000m of the year in Belgium, a 13:38 effort behind Alex Yee.
Add to that a gutsy 13:59 and win at the British Milers’ Club Gold Standard meet in Watford two weeks ago – a race that featured a number of those he’ll likely face this weekend – means Sam Stabler won’t be going in quite so under the radar this time around.
‘I’ve been running times in training that I’ve never been close to before,’ smiles Sam.
‘I’m hoping that now that I have had a bit of taper off the back of the Watford race, I’ll be able to give a good account of my fitness on Saturday.’
Words by Hannah Viner
Image from Mark Hookway