Athletics: Exit Kelly, enter the lady from nowhere

Karen Harewood took up the sport only two years ago - now she's an 800m star in the making
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The Independent Online

The appointment of the retired Olympic 800m and 1500m champion has coincided with the emergence as a British middle-distance star in the making of Karen Harewood, who started racing on the track in the summer of 2004, aged 28. Now 30, the former policewoman and local-government official stands third in the world indoor rankings for 800m.

Running for an England team in Budapest nine days ago, she won against international opposition in 2min 00.53sec, a performance that ranks her third on the UK all-time indoor list - behind Holmes (1:59.21) and Jo Fenn (1:59.50), and ahead of such luminaries as Kirsty Wade and Diane Modahl, both Commonwealth champions at 800m.

It was little wonder that the talk at trackside at the Norwich Union International in Glasgow the next day was of just where the 30-year-old new girl had come from. "She's a former sprinter who's returned to running after having her children," one leading official told the press. It was news to Harewood, who was shocked and amused in equal measure to discover she had become "a mother".

For the record, she has never had any children, and the pregnant pause in her life as a track runner stretched all the way from her success in the district 80m race as an 11-year-old primary- school pupil in Birmingham to the night she turned up at Corby Athletics Club as a 28-year-old novice.

"It was immediately apparent that Karen's a talented runner," Charlie O'Connell, her coach at the Northamptonshire club, recalled. "She started training two or three times a week and the following summer, in 2004, she came out on the track and ran 2min 03sec for 800m. Last year she had a full winter's training and improved to 2:02. This winter she's worked extremely hard, and what she did in Budapest wasn't a surprise to me. It's the cumulative effect of the training she's put in."

What Harewood did in Budapest was no surprise to herself either - and no fluke. Two days later she won an 800m race in Bratislava in 2:01.44. Her next target is the Norwich Union AAA Indoor Championships in Sheffield next Saturday and Sunday - and, beyond that, with qualification for the Commonwealth Games already missed, the World Indoor Championships in Moscow next month.

"The time I ran in Budapest was something I was working towards from last year," Harewood reflected, "so I'm pleased to have done it, but not surprised. The next thing is to make sure I can maintain that sort of form. I want to go to the AAA Indoors and perform well. Anything beyond that would be a bonus. If I did get to the World Indoor Championships, a personal best there would be my aim."

In pursuit of her aims as a rapid late-developer, Harewood has given up her job in the housing department at Corby Council to concentrate on her running. Despite her age as a thirtysome-thing, her ultimate target is the Olympics on home soil in 2012. "I'll be 36 or 37 then, depending when they fall," she pondered. "But I take heart from the fact that Sandra Glover took a medal in the 400m hurdles at the World Championships last year at the age of 37. At that age, I won't have had the stresses on my body that athletes would normally have. And I feel like a very young 30 now. I still feel about 19."

In competitive running terms, the softly spoken, quietly deter-mined Harewood is very much in the youthful stage. Before she turned up at her local athletics club in the autumn of 2003, as a fit gym member keen to see what she could do as an athlete, she did do some road running when she worked as an au pair for a diplomat in Washington.

With a best time of 46 minutes for 10km, though, she could hardly be described as anything more than a fun-runner. It might have been different, had her days as a primary-school sprinter not been curtailed when she reached county-level competition and was asked to race at weekends. The daughter of a Seventh Day Adventist pastor, she was not allowed to run on Saturdays.

Daniel Caines, the former world indoor 400m champion, also happens to hail from a family of Seventh Day Adventists from Birmingham. His mother, Blondel Thompson, missed several championships as a sprint-hurdler because of her refusal to compete on Saturdays. "I do know Daniel, but not through religion," Harewood said. "He's actually my sister's other half."

Which made it a good weekend for the family last week, with Caines making a victorious return after injury in Glasgow on Saturday. Both will be favourites in Sheffield next weekend, when Harewood returns to the city where she showed a hint of things to come at the end of last summer. She finished third in the 800m race at the Don Valley Stadium which proved to be Kelly Holmes' last stand as a runner, beating the retiring, injury-stricken Dame by four places.

"No, I can't count that as a victory against Kelly Holmes," the new middle-distance star insisted, laughing at the thought. "She was hopping all the way round."