Athletics: The 15-year-old schoolgirl who aims to be better than Radcliffe

Emily Pidgeon takes her GCSEs this summer - and takes on the world this weekend. Mike Rowbottom reports
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Somewhere in the milling throng of runners in this weekend's junior race at the World Cross Country Championships in St-Etienne will be a wiry 15-year-old British girl with flushed cheeks, long limbs and huge ambition.

For two years, Emily Pidgeon has been the talk of the British long- distance scene as she has performed with startling aplomb against opponents far older than herself. Had the authorities not tightened up their age rules last year, she might have taken her place in the international maelstrom even earlier. As it is, this weekend marks a crucial point of departure in the career of the Cheltenham schoolgirl who has recently been recognised by the athlete to whose level of achievements she aspires, Paula Radcliffe, whose international successes began with victory in the same event as a junior in 1992.

The world marathon record holder named Pidgeon as her first Athlete of the Month this year in a scheme she has set up herself. That meant £1,000 worth of training grant for the young prodigy - but more important to her were the words Radcliffe wrote in announcing the award: "She definitely has a lot of talent, but is also prepared to work hard and be patient. She isn't just looking to be the best in Britain, she and her coach, David Farrow, have their goal set at being the best she can be."

Like Radcliffe, Pidgeon is the bright and articulate product of a supportive middle-class family. Although the school at which she will do her GCSEs this summer, Cheltenham College, is not the world famous Ladies' College, it clearly regards itself as being no less posh - and Pidgeon's excitable delivery has more than a touch of jolly hockey sticks about it.

She may be a nice girl, but that has not stopped her being a ruthless winner in the last couple of seasons. In November 2003, she produced what Farrow described as "her big 'here I am' moment" in winning the European Cross Country trials against a field of established internationals four or five years older than herself. Just over 1,000 metres from the line, she tracked down the 18-year-old holder of the European junior title, Charlotte Dale, who subsequently dropped out.

Earlier that year, Pidgeon became the youngest distance athlete ever to have represented Britain in a senior international when she ran a 3,000 metres race in Italy, but soon afterwards the International Association of Athletics Federations ruled that athletes in junior internationals had to be 16 or over in the same year to be eligible.

Farrow, who coaches a highly talented group of youngsters which also includes the 400m hurdler voted junior athlete of the year in 2004, Richard Davenport, had chosen not to enter Pidgeon for the European Cross after her first trials win. But the new ruling meant she entered the 2004 junior trials as defending champion - thinking that she could not compete in the following month's championships.

She won again, anyway, but was subsequently disqualified as winner in the Under-20 category - again because of the IAAF age ruling - and her cheque of £100 was awarded to the girl who came second. Nice.

"It was all a bit frustrating, as they had accepted my entry in the first place," Pidgeon said before departing this week. "But this weekend is going to be a big breakthrough for me and I'm very excited about it."

The only problem Pidgeon appears to have as she looks forward to tomorrow's run over 6,152 metres is one of unrealistic expectations.

Last weekend, having become the first athlete to win four successive English Schools' cross-country titles, Pidgeon was waved off to her French rendezvous with the cheery and well-meaning words: "All the best - hope you win!"

She laughed at the recollection. "I thought, well, yes ... maybe in four years' time..." she said.

"David has told me for the last five years that the African runners were dominant, and I have to see how close I can get to the back of their group. I'm hoping to get something like 30th this weekend."

Farrow, who gained his coaching badge in 1983, recalls spotting Pidgeon while watching cross-country races at his son's junior school in Cheltenham.

"She didn't win the races at first, but I remember watching this girl being indefatigable in defeat," he recalled. "She was a skinny little thing, always plugging away in the same position. She looked like a collection of oddly angled sticks - a collection of arms and legs, all held together by this big heart.

"A lot of people have talent, but not many of them have the necessary resilience. This is a tough old sport."

Toughness has also been required to endure the training regime at the group's home base in Gloucester. The track has no floodlights, which means that throughout the winter running has to take place in an eerie darkness broken only by the beam of car headlights as one of the group's parents takes turns to act as temporary illumination, taking care to cut the engine every time the group runs past them. This expedient is not always effective. Sometimes the wind takes the exhaust fumes over the track anyway.

"Training conditions for us are very much the same as the would have been in the 1940s or 1950s," Farrow said. "It's all a bit Alf Tupperish. But I'm sure many of the African runners are training with less."

Once again, the wider vision becomes apparent.

"No disrespect to Paula," Farrow continued, "but when she won her world junior title in 1992 there was less depth of talent in her event than there is now and Emily will be doing well to get into the top 10 by her last year as a junior. That's not being over-cautious. My view is that she's only doing what she does to stay in touch with the bigger picture.

"This weekend is Emily's chance to start running with the best in the world, and to get bumped around a bit. This will be a watershed in her career."

Where will the next section lead to? Well, let's put it this way. Pidgeon has lofty ambitions. And she's homing in on them.

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