It was a testing time yesterday for Helen Clitheroe. "I've been in Manchester doing an exam," the Commonwealth Games bronze medallist said. "I'm doing the qualifications for fitness instructing. I need to find some way to earn a bit of extra income. I'm not on Lottery funding now but I'm still trying to train full-time. I'm trying to make a living from racing, which is not easy, but I'm surviving at the moment."
In a former existence, Clitheroe worked as a lifeguard. At 36, in her 13th year on the international track and field scene, she could be described as one of the great survivors in the Great Britain team. Off the track she might be treading a bit of water, having been cut from Lottery funding at the end of last year, but on the track things are going along swimmingly for the Preston Harrier.
The Clitheroe kid (if she can be described as such, being of official veteran age now) goes into the Aviva World Trials and UK Championships at Sheffield this weekend as one of the in-form British athletes thus far in the indoor season. Two weeks ago she won the 3,000m at the Aviva International in Glasgow, then triumphed in a 1500m race in Dusseldorf and last weekend she finished fourth in the 1500m in the Sparkassen Cup meeting in Stuttgart, clocking 4 minutes 10.08 seconds. Ranked fourth in Europe and eighth in the world, she starts a strong favourite for the 1500m final tomorrow, on day two of the trials for next month's World Indoor Championships in Doha.
Lisa Dobriskey, a 1500m silver medallist at the outdoor World Championships in Berlin last August, having suffered a recurrence of the back trouble that wiped out her 2009 indoor season, Clitheroe's run of form has come as a timely boost for the female metric-miling fraternity in Britain. It has also come off the back of a link up with Jenny Meadows, the 5ft 1in "pocket rocket" from Wigan who blasted to a brilliant bronze medal in the women's 800m final in Berlin, behind someone of whom you might just have heard – the South African Caster Semenya – and Janeth Jepkosgei, of Kenya.
Clitheroe, who was knocked out in the heats of the 3,000m steeplechase at the World Championships, has been training with Meadows this winter under the direction of the 800m runner's husband and coach, Trevor Painter. "Things seem to be working well," Clitheroe said. "I'm helping Jenny with the longer stuff and I'm trying to maintain not-too-big a gap behind her in the shorter efforts. What Jenny achieved in Berlin was absolutely brilliant and well deserved. It does inspire me because I know how hard she trains. It gives you the inspiration that if you train hard like that then sometimes it does work out."
After three years of hard work at the 3,000m steeplechase, taking the British record down to 9min 29.14sec, Clitheroe is toying with the idea of revisiting the 1500m in outdoor competition. She won her Commonwealth bronze medal in that event, behind Kelly Holmes and Hayley Tullett in Manchester in 2002. She will be 38 by the time the home Olympics of 2012 come around but knows, if she carries on until then, she will need to meet the tough standards being set by Charles van Commenee, the head coach of UK Athletics.
"I knew I had to make the top eight in Berlin to be considered for Lottery funding," Clitheroe reflected. "It's like any job: you have to perform to what's expected of you. I didn't perform as well as they wanted me to, or as well as I wanted to. It was something that I accepted. It was fair enough."